Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant are the best two shooting guards in NBA history. Ben Leibowitz uses statistical analysis to point out the third-best at the position.
Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant are unquestionably the top two shooting guards in NBA history. Some fans may choose to argue the No. 1 spot between those legends until they’re blue in the face…but “His Airness” and the “Black Mamba” represent the 1-2 punch topping the position’s all-time power rankings regardless.
So who, then, is the third-best shooting guard in league history?
That’s an inquiry even some of the game’s current best are asking (such as eight-time All-Star Dwight Howard):
After Mj and Kobe who's the third best SG.— Dwight Howard (@DwightHoward) August 31, 2015
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In order to first peg players as shooting guards to narrow down an answer, we referred to Basketball Reference. Whichever position a player was listed at most in the seasons he played determined his standing. So for those thinking Celtics great John Havlicek is in the conversation, he was listed more frequently as a small forward. Thinking Jerry “The Logo” West has this debate on lock? Well, he’s most often listed as a point guard, so he doesn’t make the cut.
So with the aid of some PointAfter visualizations, we’ll attempt to quantify which talented two-guard deserves to check in at No. 3 in history.
As far as pure volume scoring is concerned, Kobe and MJ again clearly separate themselves in a tier of their own. That being said, there are some intriguing takeaways to glean from the top 10 shooting guard scoring leaders.
It’s unlikely that fans or NBA historians would tab Reggie Miller or Ray Allen as the third-best shooting guard of all-time, but their status as three-point sharpshooters rocketed them up the all-time scoring list. In fact, those two comfortably lead the all-time ranking in three-pointers made.
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Their accomplishments certainly deserve recognition, but Allen and Miller fit better in a discussion of the best pure shooters in league history as opposed to a debate about the third-best shooting guard. That may paint the duo into a corner, since they’ve actually become underrated in other aspects of the game. However, a more “elite” player is the only viable answer to slide in behind Bryant and Jordan in the history books—so we’ll look now to George Gervin.
The San Antonio Spurs legend checks in at No. 3 all-time on the league’s scoring list among shooting guards, but that’s only if you include his ABA years. Without them, he falls to No. 9—a less impressive, yet still highly respectable spot. Compared to Miller and Allen, he was a vastly different scorer.
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A career 27.1% three-point shooter, Gervin only attempted 451 threes in his entire pro career—for a point of comparison, Stephen Curry launched 646 threes last season alone. Instead, “Iceman” used his lanky frame and smooth strides to get to the paint and score on high-percentage looks.
For my money, Gervin boasts the most beautiful finger roll of all-time. In addition to his silky touch at the rim on those shots, he mixed in nifty reverse lay-ins, arching floaters and smart little flip shots. Spending four seasons in the ABA hurts his standing in history because of that league’s stigma of being less fundamentally sound (read: less defense). But when it comes to scoring guards, Gervin has to be in the conversation as one of the best.
In the unique stat department, 19 players in basketball history have averaged more than 19 field goal attempts per game in their careers. Only two sport a field goal percentage above 50%: Gervin and Wilt Chamberlain.
Awards, Accolades and Defense
Of course, even for shooting guards—a position that alludes to scoring in its very name—merely putting the ball in the basket with consistency isn’t the end-all. To truly find a player worthy of the No. 3 spot, we need to turn over every stone. Included in that process is each player’s career accolades.
Making an appearance on an All-NBA team means that said player was recognized as a top-five (First Team), top 10 (Second Team) or top 15 (Third Team) talent in the league that season. Frankly, that should carry more weight than All-Star berths—where players only compete within their conference for recognition, and the combo of snubs and fan voting come into play.
Once again, Kobe and Michael reign supreme. And while Gervin builds his case with yet another No. 3 spot, Dwyane Wade enters the fray despite not being among the top volume scorers on an all-time scale. Where D-Wade gains an edge on Gervin and A.I. (both four-time scoring champions), as well as Clyde Drexler (a tremendous talent who was overshadowed by Jordan throughout his career) is in two categories: defense and rings.
Sam Jones takes a commanding lead in the category of most titles with enough rings to fill each hand. But while he was a fearless clutch scorer and perfect complementary piece to Boston’s numerous championship squads, he made just five All-Star teams in a much shallower league and was overshadowed on his own roster by Havlicek and Bill Russell.
Wade, meanwhile, won three championships—once as his team’s alpha dog and twice more after adjusting his play style to accommodate LeBron James (no small accomplishment). He’s climbed the mountaintop three times, something only three other big-name shooting guards can say.
Shifting to the less glamorous aspect, the lifelong member of the Miami Heat is the only two-guard we’ve discussed thus far to make an All-Defensive squad. He’s been named to the All-Defensive Second Team three times. His career defensive win shares (38.5) and defensive box plus-minus (1.2) are better than Gervin (28.6, -1.4) and Iverson (38.1, -1.0). Drexler beats him out with more seasons in the books, but “The Glide” was never recognized to an All-Defensive team and has two fewer rings by comparison.
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At this point, it seems as though the winds are shifting in Wade’s favor. Gervin’s offensive chops are outstanding, but his poor defensive acumen coupled with no title—Ice never even reached the NBA Finals—diminishes his standing in an all-around debate. Nonetheless, his numbers were absurd at his peak.
In 1979–80, the 6'7" swingman averaged a whopping 33.1 points per game (on 52.8% shooting from the field) to accompany 5.2 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.4 steals, and 1.0 blocks per game. Those figures were video-game-esque long before that term was even coined.
Iverson, who hasn’t been discussed as extensively, had a similarly gargantuan peak in his own right. The man often referred to as the “pound-for-pound best” player ever took home MVP honors in 2001 after averaging 31.1 points (42% shooting from the field, 32% from long range), 4.6 assists, 3.8 rebounds, 2.5 steals, and 0.3 blocks per contest. He led the league in points and steals, but that arguably wasn’t even his best season ever. He kept the scoring output up while improving his distribution efforts in the years after winning MVP (but note that Basketball Reference listed him as a point guard at that time).
In the end it all comes back to Wade. By the numbers, his 2008–09 season—30.2 points (on 49.1% shooting from the field), 7.5 assists, 5.0 rebounds, 2.2 steals, 1.3 blocks—rivals even the best seasons turned in by other elite shooting guards. And yet, there’s somehow an even stronger argument for the Marquette product: playoff performance.
Wade has been consistently brilliant in the postseason atmosphere, but his NBA Finals performance back in 2006 is worth highlighting.
After Miami fell into a 0–2 series deficit against Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks, Wade flipped a switch. In four consecutive wins to close out the series and win his first title, Wade averaged 39.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2.5 steals, and 1.0 blocks while converting 50.5% of his shots.
At his peak (and on the highest stage), Wade was a cold-blooded assassin. Add that to his collection of championships, defensive prowess and All-NBA appearances, and it’s tough to deviate from him as the No. 3 best shooting guard ever. He still has time to add to an already sterling résumé—one that was even held back by nagging knee injuries.
Gervin, Drexler, Iverson, and others are in the running, but Wade has a strong case to be pegged directly behind Jordan and Bryant.
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