By Ben Golliver
The NBA's crop of shooting guards is, frankly, pretty dry. Only three of this season's 25 All-Stars are full-time two-guards and just one of them, the 23-year-old James Harden, is under 30. The shooting guard's very identity -- the "shooting" part -- has been co-opted by other positions. Just four two-guards are among the NBA's top-20 scorers; Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James, all forwards, have regularly dominated that category over the last five seasons.
What gives? There are a number of possible explanations for this relative softness. The rise of ball-dominant point guards has de-emphasized the importance of the other guard spot, or at least narrowed its role. The ongoing strategic shift of scoring guards to a specialty reserve role has removed some of the glamour and deflated some of the volume. The league's increased focus on efficiency hits this position harder than others, given the shooting guard's old-school job description of scoring in isolation first and doing everything else second. There's always the "natural cycle of positions" possibility. Injuries to Brandon Roy, Eric Gordon, Lou Williams and others have thinned the field. The general tendency to overlook and underrate defense-first specialists such as Tony Allen also can't be ignored. Surely you have other theories to add to these.
That context acknowledged, dry doesn't mean barren. There's still plenty of talent here, and the position's elite players just so happen to be playing some of their best basketball in recent memory. Without further ado, here's my rundown of the NBA's top 10 shooting guards, a list that values a player's production as well as his team's performance this season. (All stats and records are through March 21.) In case you missed it, I counted down the top 10 point guards earlier this month.
Stats: 19.4 PPG, 5.8 APG, 3.9 RPG, 2.0 SPG, 3.0 TO, 41.8 FG%, 26.4 3P%, 16.2 PER, 37.9 MPG
"Monta Ellis has it all" except: traditional size, reliable three-point range, disciplined shot selection, the ability to consistently change games with his defense and a résumé with more than one playoff-series victory. That long and substantial list of deficiencies creates the chasm between how good Ellis thinks he is -- in the "same category" as Dwyane Wade -- and the reality that he's closer to league average than to the Heat guard.
Part of Ellis' problem is timing. If the 27-year-old gunslinger had peaked, say, eight or nine years ago, he might have catapulted to true fame. In today's efficiency-obsessed NBA, the freewheeling Ellis feels like a bit of an anachronism. Yes, he's no longer chucking 22 shots per game, as he did with Golden State in 2009-10, but he's still missing more than 10 shots and nearly three three-pointers every game. The league in general has caught on to Ellis' type, one reason why the Warriors opted to dump him (and his $11 million salary) for Andrew Bogut and his injury-risk baggage. It's the same reason the Warriors haven't looked back -- even as Bogut has seen more time on the trainer's table than on the court -- and the same reason we will all likely snicker if and when Ellis opts out this summer and commands another big-dollar, multiyear contract from a general manager looking to make a misguided splash.
Ellis, an explosive scorer who can always create a shot and plays the set-up role fairly well, isn't reluctant in big moments, or ever. He often displays a maestro's touch around the hoop and gets to the free-throw line consistently. His stint in Milwaukee hasn't been a disaster, as the Bucks are heading comfortably for the playoffs, and he's done his best to make it work in a misfit tandem with point guard Brandon Jennings. A midseason trade for J.J. Redick doesn't bode well for Ellis' future in Milwaukee; he should be a clear third in the team's pecking order behind Jennings and Redick, and it seems unlikely the Bucks will pay all three.
9. Kevin Martin, Thunder
Stats: 14.3 PPG, 1.4 APG, 2.3 RPG, 1.0 SPG, 1.3 TO, 44.8 FG%, 42.2 3P%, 16.2 PER, 28.2 MPG
Martin, a full-time starter the previous six seasons and a former No. 1 scoring option, is playing the role of James Harden body double for the Thunder, who are seeking a return trip to the NBA Finals. Martin, 30, is in a contract year and yet he embraced a move to Oklahoma City's bench behind Thabo Sefolosha, even if it has meant his lowest scoring output since 2006 and fewest minutes since he was a part-time starter in 2005-06, his second season. He's filled the role nicely, shooting a career-high 42.2 percent from three-point range despite an unorthodox release on his jumper that everyone has been hoping he would grow out of for the better part of the last decade. The role downgrade has helped Martin be a part of the best team, by far, of his career. (He has appeared in the playoffs only once, with the 2005-06 Kings, who lost in the first round.)
The Sixth Man Award candidate has delivered almost exactly as advertised. When he's on the court, his floor-stretching and foul-drawing abilities improve Oklahoma City's offensive efficiency by more than six points per 100 possessions, an excellent figure. His reputation as a minus defender who can be exploited hasn't changed despite being surrounded by better personnel; the Thunder are nearly five points per 100 possessions worse defensively when he's in the game.
The 2013 playoffs will be a huge test for Martin, who needs to decide whether he's willing to give the Thunder a discount so that he can remain with a title contender or seek greater riches by shifting back to being a lead scorer elsewhere. Few teams are as fun to watch as the Thunder when Martin has his shot going, as defenses are left with only bad options in countering what amounts to a machine. Fans of crazy-good offense should be rooting for him to stick around.
8. J.J. Redick, Bucks
Stats: 14.8 PPG, 4.1 APG, 2.2 RPG, 1.9 TO, 45.3 FG%, 38.3 3P%, 16.1 PER, 30.7 MPG
The theme of Redick's career has been progress. Pigeonholed as a one-dimensional shooter out of Duke, Redick has developed on both sides of the ball to the point where he became one of the most desired commodities at this year's trade deadline. Less than one month into his Milwaukee stint, rumors are already surfacing that the Bucks are interested in locking him up long term.
Why such high demand? Well, he's become a threat from basically everywhere on the court. Redick ranks above average in eight of the 13 shooting zones tracked by NBA.com, including areas at the rim, in the mid-range and beyond the arc. As recently as 2010-11, he was above average in just four total, with his strengths being uniformly perimeter-oriented. Always active off the ball, Redick has taken 138 attempts in the restricted area this season, already a career high, in large part because he has good timing and instincts as a cutter.
Shooting is just part of the story. He's vastly improved his footwork on defense over the last few years. He's averaging a career high in assists this season, and he's done well to keep his assist-to-turnover ratio in check despite taking on extra responsibilities on a bad Magic team earlier this season. A driven competitor who has publicly noted his own maturity since he entered the league, Redick isn't going to produce above-the-rim highlights and, at 28, he might be closing in on his ceiling as a player. That's OK, though, as he's emerged as a known, attractive quantity: He plays hard, smart, complete, efficient basketball on the court and cause zero drama off the court.
7. Jamal Crawford, Clippers
Stats: 16.9 PPG, 2.5 APG, 1.7 RPG, 1.1 SPG, 2.0 TO, 44.0 FG%, 38.0 3P%, 16.9 PER, 29.6 MPG
Crawford wouldn't have made this list last season, as he struggled with his shot, his role and his team's offensive style in Portland. The Trail Blazers' disastrous season looked like it might be the beginning of a career slide for Crawford, 33, largely because his three-point shot, a major weapon in his arsenal, had deserted him. He shot a career-low 30.8 percent from long range and 38.4 percent overall.
The all-fun-and-games Clippers represented an ideal fit for Crawford, who hasn't needed to worry about distributing first in a deliberate offense or stress over turnovers. Instead, he's been unleashed to his full SportsCenter Top 10 capacity; a week hasn't passed this season without his dazzling handle, creative open-court playmaking and splashy jumper packing the highlight reels and piling up the YouTube views. His unmatched ability to execute four-point plays over the years helps serve as a reminder of a strength that is put to use on a more regular basis: his free-throw shooting (he is converting 86.4 percent this season after making a league-best 92.7 percent last season).
Crawford is an excellent scorer in isolation and late in games. He is shooting 51.5 percent in the clutch -- defined as the last five minutes of a game when the scoring margin is within five points -- and it's a sure bet that he will have his hands on the ball a lot during crucial possessions in the postseason. He treats the ball like a yo-yo, making it perform tricks few other players can match. His three-point shot is back in full effect this season, thanks in no small part to the Clippers' bevy of offensive weapons that help create better looks than he was seeing in Portland. L.A.'s aggressive, turnover-forcing bench unit affords Crawford -- never known as an individual defensive stalwart -- the opportunity to gamble for steals and plenty of cover in case he comes up empty.
Stats: 16.4 PPG, 3.6 APG, 3.1 RPG, 1.8 TO, 42.5 FG%, 37.9 3P%, 14.1 PER, 37.3 MPG
Injuries have significantly lowered expectations for Amar'e Soudemire, leaving Johnson in the unenviable position of being the best player in the NBA known more for the size of his contract than for the quality of his play. The deal is indeed truly gruesome: $19.8 million this season, $21.5 million next season, $23.2 million the season after that and $24.9 million in 2015-16, all fully guaranteed. All this for a 31-year-old who is scoring less and shooting worse than he has in a decade. Danny Ferry traded Johnson roughly one week after accepting the job as Hawks GM. That move said more than 1,000 "worst contracts in the NBA" lists possibly could.
But just because Johnson's game isn't worth his astronomical wages doesn't make it worthless. He is blessed with good size, strength, ball-handling skills and shot-creation ability. A smooth jumper has made him an above-average three-point shooter for the bulk of his career. He's distinguished himself as a major late-game threat this season (see the video above), hitting multiple game-winners and other huge shots in the final minute of close games. Johnson's game lacks major holes, and his no-nonsense, no-drama personality has helped him earn six All-Star selections. The 31-year-old certainly could get to the free-throw line and finish at the rim more frequently, but those ships have probably sailed.
The Nets look trapped in a "good but not great" window for the foreseeable future. That will eventually catch up with Johnson because of the size of the target on his back. No one in Brooklyn should be complaining vociferously this season, though, as the Nets are headed for the playoffs for the first time since 2007 and owner Mikhail Prokhorov is perfectly willing to write the checks.
Stats: 12.4 PPG, 4.7 APG, 3.4 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 2.2 TO, 43.3 FG%, 35.6 3P%, 20.3 PER, 23.6 MPG
Ginobili, nearing the end at 35, plays nearly five fewer minutes than everyone else on this list and 15 fewer minutes than a few of the bigger names here. But what Ginobili lacks in quantity, he makes up for in quality. His herky-jerky off-the-dribble attacking and heady playmaking remain constant even as injuries and age try to catch up to him. The two-time All-Star and former Sixth Man Award winner possesses the fourth-best PER among two-guards and continues to epitomize just how game-changing a top-shelf ball-handling playmaker can be in a reserve role. Even a full decade into his career with San Antonio, he still impresses with his ability to zip a pass crosscourt, stop on a dime for a pull-up jumper and slash to the basket.
If the Argentine wants to keep playing after his contract expires this offseason, there is no better situation than San Antonio. Coach Gregg Popovich understands the value of managing minutes, the offensive system tends to bring out the best in everyone and the Spurs will continue to stack up victories as long as Tony Parker and Tim Duncan keep thriving. With any luck, the NBA world will be treated to a few more postseason runs from Ginobili.
4. Andre Iguodala, Nuggets
Stats: 12.8 PPG, 5.0 APG, 5.3 RPG, 1.7 SPG, 2.5 TO, 44.5 FG%, 31.0 3P%, 15.0 PER, 34.3 MPG
Iguodala gets criticized for his offense, but his defense is beyond reproach. The 2012 Olympic gold medalist is arguably the league's best perimeter defender. He has great instincts, footwork and hands and the perfect combination of strength, quickness, leaping ability and intelligence to go head-to-head against the best scorers. The Nuggets have improved from 19th in defensive efficiency last season to 12th this season after acquiring Iguodala from Philadelphia. Though Iguodala isn't solely responsible for that jump, Denver is nearly five points per 100 possessions better defensively with him on the floor compared to when he sits.
On the other end, he has been asked to do less since being the No. 1 guy in Philadelphia. Whereas he once took more than 15 shots per game with the Sixers, he now attempts 10.9 with the Nuggets. There's still plenty of fat to trim from his shot selection, starting with his unreliable three-point jumper (30.9 percent on 3.6 attempts per game). His free-throw shooting has become pathetic (58.3 percent), steadily dropping from passable over the last four seasons. He really only excels around the rim and he can get there a number of ways, using his athleticism and leaping ability to overwhelm weak defenders or by finishing in transition.
Iguodala can opt out of his contract this summer. If he does pass on the $16.2 million he's guaranteed for next season, a lucrative multiyear payday will surely await him. At 29, he's in his prime earning years and he's demonstrated the impact he can have on a talented roster.
3. James Harden, Rockets
Stats: 26.3 PPG, 5.9 APG, 4.8 RPG, 1.9 SPG, 3.7 TO, 44.9 FG%, 37.4 3P%, 23.8 PER, 38.5 MPG
No pressure, James Harden, but the future of the shooting-guard position is riding on your shoulders. The youngest name on this list by five years, the 2012 Sixth Man Award winner is in the midst of a sensational season that earned him his first All-Star selection. The Rockets immediately gave him a maximum contract after obtaining him on the eve of the regular season from the Thunder, who couldn't agree on a price with Harden for his rookie extension. Harden has proved he's worth every penny to Houston, posting the eighth-best PER in the NBA.
The dynamic offensive player can do it all: get to the basket, get to the free-throw line, create shots, hit tough shots, read the defense, finish above the rim and become so hot that there's no stopping him. The NBA's No. 5 scorer leads the league with 10.2 free-throw attempts per game, living at the line through relentless prodding and crafty, Ginobili-esque dribble moves.
Harden's breakout season has put the Rockets in position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2009. His presence figures to set them up as a perennial postseason team for the next half-decade, assuming GM Daryl Morey can find a quality piece or two during free agency this summer.
2. Dwyane Wade, Heat
Stats: 21.5 PPG, 5.0 APG, 5.0 RPG, 1.8 SPG, 2.7 TO, 52.1 FG%, 25.4 3P%, 24.6 PER, 34.7 MPG
Wade's lasting legacy just might be that he's modern basketball's greatest recruiter, the only person who can look John Calipari in the eye knowing that he's got the pitchman upper hand. After all, who else can say they locked up LeBron James in his prime? The Decision changed everything for James, Wade and the rest of the NBA, and the results have been as seismic as predicted.
Miami's 2012 title, historic winning streak this season and high probability of repeating in June have captured the imagination, while Wade's role in the production has become a supporting one. Wade's scoring average has dropped for the fifth straight year and he's taken fewer shots than at any point since his rookie season. The "Whose team is this?" debate is long in the past, with James conquering and reconquering the basketball world over the last 18 months.
Wade, 31, is fitting into his reduced role better than ever, shooting a career-high 52.1 percent and posting the best PER among two-guards. Much has been made of the transformation of James' shot selection, with a new emphasis on high-efficiency looks, and the same could be said for Wade, who takes more than half of his shots in the basket area and rarely tries three-pointers. It goes without saying that both are excellent developments because he's significantly more effective as a finisher at the rim than as a deep shooter.
The Heat coasted a bit to start the season, but they've turned it up on both ends over the last two months. Wade's on-ball pressure defense and instant ability to turn defense into offense (for himself or James) are too much for most opponents to handle. The nine-time All-Star and future Hall of Famer will look to add a third championship ring to his collection in June. If he can stay healthy, Wade is poised to ride shotgun to title contention for the foreseeable future -- as long as no one steps in to make James a sweeter pitch.
1. Kobe Bryant, Lakers
Stats: 27.1 PPG, 5.8 APG, 5.4 RPG, 1.3 SPG, 3.7 TO, 46.8 FG%, 33.9 3P%, 23.2 PER, 37.9 MPG
At 34 and with more than 44,000 minutes logged, Bryant is one misplaced Dahntay Jones foot away from having played every game this season while averaging 37.9 minutes and carrying most of the offensive load for a Lakers team that's been fighting to tread water for most of the way. Bryant leads two-guards in scoring and ranks third in PER, and he's shooting his highest percentage since 2001-02.
No one in the league relishes the late-game pressure like Bryant, who is fourth in the NBA with 120 points in the clutch. The Lakers rank eighth in points per possession despite having Dwight Howard play at less than 100 percent and absorbing injuries to Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and a litany of role players. Bryant has been the rock: The Lakers score 107 points per 100 possessions when he's in the game and just 99.8 when he's not. Bryant's best defensive days are behind him, and, as always, he still prefers to do it himself offensively a lot. But the biggest complaint you can lodge about him this season is that he so regularly references the possibility of retirement. What's the hurry? If the 15-time All-Star, five-time champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist so desired, he could surely find a way to extend his illustrious career for a while (three more years? five more?), as long as he'd be willing to accept gradually reduced minutes and shots. It's just a touch sad to hear someone who stands as the best at his profession -- as Bryant does when it comes to two-guards -- repeatedly talking about what comes next. Who, besides his opponents and their fans, really wants to see this end?