Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal believes he and point guard John Wall comprise the best backcourt in the league. “Just in terms of what we’re capable of doing, the confidence that we have in that. At the same time we got to prove it,” Beal explained.
While statements like this mean little in the preseason, this is not an outrageous claim. Beal and Wall made considerable strides last season, helping the Wizards boost their win total by 15 from the year before and win a playoff series for the first time in nearly a decade. Beal is quickly developing into one of the top shooters in the league, Wall evolved from “explosive athlete” to imposing All-Star floor general and their developmental curves suggest further improvement in the years to come.
But is Beal overvaluing where he and Wall stand among their backcourt peers? One can appreciate the 21-year-old’s confidence while also acknowledging that he’s probably wrong. We know at least one player from another team thinks that’s the case. Speaking rather boldly on behalf of himself and Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving on Tuesday, shooting guard Dion Waiters described Beal’s assertion as “nonsense.”
It’s always tough to settle subjective player debates – where context, among other factors, can present complications – but here are five duos that I'd put ahead of Beal and Wall, in no particular order. I stuck strictly to two-man combinations.
There’s on obvious retort to Harden’s claim this summer that he’s the league’s best all-around player. Harden has a ways to go before he becomes even a serviceable cog in a respectable defense. He's earned his reputation as an aimless turnstile in recent years. It’s a testament to Harden’s scoring prowess – he averaged 25.4 points per game and posted the highest PER of any shooting guard last season – that despite his defensive shortcomings he wields the capability to influence the outcome of games to a degree few others can. Harden can create off the bounce, knock down long range shots and may be unrivaled in his ability to draw contact, albeit in often unsightly manners. Whereas Beverley’s offense barely registers in a discussion of the league’s best backcourts, his hard-nosed defense helps the Rockets’ accommodate Harden’s uneven style. Together, Harden and Beverley form a sound two-way pairing with potential for growth if Harden is genuinely committed to improving his defense.
The Raptors signed Lowry to a four-year, $48 million contract extension this summer after he posted career highs in in points (17.9) and assists (7.4). Lowry’s breakout campaign helped dispel his long-held reputation as a cantankerous presence with flaws in his game. Earlier this week, Raptors coach Dwayne Casey said Lowry was “our hub, he's the engine for our team. He's the guy who stirs the mix.” DeRozan, meanwhile, made the cut for Team USA’s 12-man roster for the FIBA World Cup after growing into the go-to scorer (22.7 PPG) Toronto needed to fuel its run to 48 wins and the No. 3 seed in the East. Lowry and DeRozan’s heightened profiles are part and parcel with the optimism surrounding the Raptors entering this season, and as such their performance will go a long way towards determining whether Toronto can compete in a potentially more rugged East. Any further ascent up the conference pecking order – as well as any prospect for a playoff run that lasts longer than last year’s disappointing first-round exit – will depend heavily on whether Casey can coax an even higher level of performance from this pairing.
The Warriors resisted the temptation to land Kevin Love this summer at the expense of breaking up Curry and Thompson. Swinging a deal for Love would have instantly nudged the Warriors into the conference championship conversation, but one can rationalize why Golden State elected to keep its core intact. Curry is one of the top scorers in the league and probably its best shooter, given his accuracy (42.4 percent last season) and volume of attempts (7.9 per game), but he has clear defensive limitations due to his size. Those can be covered up by Thompson, whose length and versatility helped the Warriors finish last season as one of only three teams to yield less than than an average of one point per possession. Of course, Thompson is a capable offensive threat in his own right, but it’s what he and Curry offer in tandem – the fact that Thompson can help offset Curry’s weaknesses – that bolsters their case in this debate. For a statistical reference point, consider that Curry and Thompson posted the highest net rating (+ 11.0) of any qualifying two-guard combination last season.
The Clippers’ league-best offense (109.4 points per 100 possessions) was even more lethal (113.1) with Redick on the court last season. While injuries limited him to just 35 games, Redick’s ability to free up space for big men Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan with his three-point shooting brought even more balance to the Clippers’ attack. Paul also missed significant time because of a shoulder issue, which only serves to highlight the “woulda coulda shoulda” feeling lingering from a season that brought a franchise-record 57 wins and a second-round playoff exit. When Paul and Redick are healthy, the rationale behind their place in this conversation is simple. Even throwing a merely serviceable guard next to Paul – the league’s best point guard by pretty much any subjective or objective evaluation – would likely draw strong consideration. Paul’s critical mishaps in the postseason obscure what was one of the best campaigns of his career, in which he averaged over 19 points and 10 assists, posted a PER of 26 and ranked behind only LeBron James in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus metric. Assuming Paul and Redick can avoid missing extended stretches, their combined efforts coupled with continued improvement from the Clippers’ frontcourt could again give them the league’s top offense.
At one point this summer, it looked like the days of Bledsoe-Dragic running amok in Phoenix were over. That would have been unfortunate, considering the duo drove the Suns’ remarkable turnaround last season from prospective bottom-feeder to playoff contender. Phoenix fell short of reaching the postseason, but Dragic and Bledsoe’s contributions did not go unnoticed. The former raised his PER nearly four points from a year ago, came relatively close to doubling his Win Shares total and increased his scoring average from 14.7 to 20.3. While his defense didn’t earn high marks, Dragic’s creative influence was the engine behind the Suns finishing eighth in offensive efficiency. Bledsoe’s growth was just as stark, even though his season was cut short by his second meniscus surgery in three years. More intriguing still is Bledsoe’s prospect for future development. His athleticism borders on freakish, his defense remains a strong point and last season he began to reign in the recklessness that once characterized his offensive game.