Saturday, July 20, 2024

Ranking NBA’s top 20 guards: Stephen Curry vs. Luka Doncic for No. 1 on list, Kyrie Irving misses top 15

We always talk about ring culture in the NBA. But what about wing culture? The emphasis on 3-and-D, versatile forwards dominates essentially every basketball team-building conversation. And those guys are great, we’re not denying that. But ultimately it’s hard to make it work without a dynamic guard to run the show.

The days of the John Stockton “game manager” type of guard are long gone. In 2023, the best lead guards are as athletic as the wings, can shoot from the logo and finish around — and sometimes over — the biggest bigs in the league. Just take a look at recent NBA champions: Steph CurryJrue Holiday, Jamal MurrayKyrie Irving. It’s nearly impossible to win a title without an All-Star level guard.

So today, we pay homage to arguably the most important position in the NBA. As part of our rollout of the NBA’s Top 100 Players we tasked our CBS Sports NBA staff with ranking the top 20 guards heading into the 2022-23 season, taking into account projected improvement and decline.

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Bane put the NBA on notice in his third season by notching career highs in points (21.5), rebounds (5.0), and assists (4.4) per game. He was one of the league’s best perimeter shooters, knocking down his triples at a 40.8 percent clip. Bane is more than a catch-and-shoot player. He demonstrated his ability to take defenders off the dribble and play make. With Ja Morant suspended for the first 25 games of the 2023-24 season, Bane will get a chance to showcase even more of his skillset with the Grizzlies’ best scorer out of the picture. — Tyree

Ball’s health issues were one of the many problems that plagued the Hornets last season. When he was healthy, he reached new highs in points (23.3) and assists (8.4) per game in his third NBA season, but only managed to suit up for 36 games. Ball undoubtedly has the talent to live up to the max extension he signed, but he’s yet to play meaningful playoff basketball as his team’s leader. He lacks discipline on the defensive end but makes up for his shortcomings by scoring, rebounding, and playmaking at such a high level. Ball simply has to stay on the court and contribute more to winning. — Tyree

Beal has dropped off in both production and availability since his lone All-NBA season in 2020-21, but he’s still a lethal creator who put up 23 points per game on 51/37/84 splits last season. Part of Beal’s ranking on this list is the projection that both his level of investment and shot quality will dramatically improve alongside Kevin Durant and Devin Booker in Phoenix. On his new team, he will presumably be asked to do more playmaking as well, an area where he’s shown promise throughout his career. Beal shot 46% on what the NBA deems “wide open” 3-pointers last season, and he should get a lot more of those looks as a member of the league’s latest superteam. — Ward-Henninger

Garland got off to a slow start last season and fell short of making a second straight All-Star game last season following the arrival of Donovan Mitchell in Cleveland. However, he continued to showcase elite playmaking and efficient shotmaking while sharing the backcourt with a high-volume shooter. He nearly matched his 2021-22 scoring average with 21.6 points per game and shot a career-high 41.2% from beyond the arc. Whether he has enough room to grow with the Cavs’ current personnel remains to be seen. Evan Mobley is looking to get more involved on offense and the Cavs added some much-needed wing scoring over the offseason. — Tyree

There isn’t a player on this list who can handle the basketball like Irving can. He’s often mentioned among the best at that particular skill in NBA history, and for good reason. He has a resume that should make him a Hall of Famer when he decides to call it quits, but his on-court capabilities have often been overshadowed by what he says and does off the court. He forced a trade from the Brooklyn Nets last season, and after landing with the Dallas Mavericks, he signed a long-term contract this summer that should keep him tied to Doncic for the foreseeable future. On paper, Irving and Luka Doncic should be one of the most potent offensive duos in the game, but it remains to be seen if Irving can actually remain available over the course of an 82-game season without his own words and actions getting in the way. — Wimbish

As you’ll see, the list is full of big-time scorers who dominate their offenses with pick-and-rolls and isolation buckets, but still have the vision to set up teammates. The usual names are at the top — or bottom as far as the list goes — but you’ll also find we’re highlighting some up-and-comers who are ready to Who knows where Harden is going to start, or end, this season, but whatever franchise is “lucky” enough to have him will be getting a 20-point scorer and last season’s assist leader. Harden isn’t the player he once was, but you’re still talking about a guy who scored 40-plus points in two separate conference semifinal games last season. Unfortunately, he’s also the guy who scored 21 combined points on 26% shooting in Games 6 and 7 as the Sixers were unable to close out a 3-2 series lead against Boston. — Botkin

If there was any doubt that Brunson was deserving of his contract with the Knicks, all of that melted away with his performance last season. The stocky guard not only proved he could handle more responsibility and a bigger role, but that he should be the lead guard on a playoff team. But it’s not just the crafty play, mid-range prowess and high IQ that has Brunson in the top 30 on our rankings. He proved to be the exact type of leader the Knicks needed at point guard. When he was on the floor, New York outscored opponents by 6.8 points per 100 possessions, which ranks in the 92nd percentile in the league. He took pressure off players like Julius Randle and RJ Barrett, becoming the central playmaker on offense and setting guys up for easy looks. He’s a low-mistake guard, with a turnover percentage of 8.7%, and he’s just as dangerous scoring off the bounce as he is without the ball in his hands. — Wimbish

With Khris Middleton sidelined for long stretches of last season, the Bucks asked Holiday to pick up the slack on the offensive end, and he did just that, averaging 19.3 points and 7.4 assists – his highest numbers since 2019 and 2014, respectively – while also playing his usual elite defense on the perimeter. He was rewarded with his first All-Star appearance since 2013 and the third All-Defensive First-Team selection of his career. Long one of the league’s most underrated players, Holiday is now properly respected. It is worth noting, though, that his shooting percentages took a precipitous drop in the playoffs (47.9% to 40.0%) for the third consecutive season. That’s something to consider regarding the Bucks’ title chances, especially if Middleton can’t get back to his pre-injury self. — Maloney

One player averaged at least 20 points and 10 assists per game on 40% 3-point shooting last year: Haliburton. He’s already an All-Star and will likely be a perennial All-NBA candidate every healthy season moving forward. He’s that good. Before Haliburton went down in mid-January with an injury, he had the Pacers as a top-six seed. I have a feeling this is a guy who will forever struggle to get the actual amount of superstar respect he deserves — think Jalen Brunson type — but we’ll look up at the end of his career and find that his teams were always consistent winners and the players around him will have had some of the best years of their careers. — Botkin

It wasn’t especially surprising to hear Bruce Brown call the Timberwolves the hardest opponent Denver faced en route to their first championship. He had to spend most of that series guarding Anthony Edwards, who averaged 35 points in the final four games of that series, all decided by single digits. Edwards carried that momentum into a stellar run for Team USA, one of the NBA’s great star-creation vehicles. Athletically gifted, increasingly reliable from deep, steadily improving as a playmaker and even committed to playing hard-nosed defense, Edwards was built in a lab to be a flawless NBA shooting guard. With a new max contract to his name, this will be the season Edwards ascends to the upper echelon of NBA stardom. — Quinn

After a honeymoon run to the 2021 Eastern Conference finals, the losing player bug, fairly or not, is starting to bite Young. He continues to put up gaudy stats for Hawks teams that have, in spite of legitimately talented rosters, fallen into play-in irrelevancy the past two years. Young has a case as the best passer in the league. He can create offense in his sleep. He is, and long has been, an overrated shooter, but his threat level and range is that of a marksman. If Young ever commits to moving without the ball, and just becomes a passable defender, he will be among the game’s elite players. Right now, he’s short of that level. — Botkin

Fox has been trending upward for years now and established himself as one of the league’s premier closers last season. He led all players in clutch points (194) en route to the Kings‘ first playoff berth since 2006. Fox’s playmaking has dropped off since partnering with Domantas Sabonis, but he shot a career-high 51.2% from the field in 2022-23. Fox could continue to climb the ranks of the NBA’s most dynamic lead guards with another successful campaign. — Tyree

You could argue that perhaps Murray should be higher on this list given his postseason performance that helped the Nuggets to a championship. His 522 points in the playoffs last season is the most scored in a single postseason by a player who has never been named an All-Star. He also combined with Nikola Jokic to become the first pair of teammates to total 1,000 points in a single postseason. While Jokic is at the heart of everything Denver does on offense, Murray is a dangerous No. 2 option who is capable of lighting you up for 40 points on any given night. — Wimbish

In his first season with the Cavaliers, Mitchell had arguably the best year of his career, averaging personal highs in points (28.3 per game) and efficiency with 48/38/86 shooting splits. He was also amongst the best pick-and-roll ball handlers in the league, generating 1.13 points per possession, which ranked second to only Stephen Curry in the league (min. five possessions a game). His finishing rate around the rim (68%) puts him in the 82nd percentile, which is also the highest of his career, indicating that he had little trouble adjusting to the new atmosphere in Cleveland. The postseason was a disappointment for Mitchell and the Cavs, but with another full season to build chemistry, it wouldn’t be crazy to see him put up even better numbers than last year. — Wimbish

Morant is among the most electrifying players to watch in the league, and while his efficiency took a step back last season, his impact was still crucial to Memphis’ success. He gets to the rim practically at will, ranking in the 93rd percentile among guards by using his quick first step and freakish athleticism to get by even the best defender. He’s an absolute terror in transition, something that happens often with the Grizzlies ranking third in transition frequency. But it’s not just his on-ball presence that makes him a headache to guard. If you’re not careful, you might just be the next person to get posterized by Morant as he’s cutting toward the rim to catch a lob pass. The All-Star guard will miss the first 25 games of the season due to a league suspension, but when he returns, he’s sure to make an immediate impact on a Grizzlies team with championship aspirations. — Wimbish

Gilgeous-Alexander is the most prolific driver in the league, but he’s not the head-down, bowling-ball type. He gets downhill because he keeps defenders off-balance — they know he’s comfortable going left or right, and they’re worried about his pull-up, his stepback and his spin move. He gets to the line because opposing teams can’t keep him out of the paint and he has impeccable footwork when he gets there. The Thunder once had a slithery guard with similar offensive strengths, but traded him before he made his first All-Star or All-NBA team. Gilgeous-Alexander, who earned both honors last season, isn’t going anywhere. And in the same year that he bumped his scoring average up to 31.4 per game, he became a more committed individual defender. — Herbert

So much for the whole “small point guards over 30” narrative. Lillard bounced back from an injury-plagued 2021-22 season to put up a career-high 32.2 points per game last year. He also became the only player in league history not named Steph Curry to shoot at least 37% on 11 or more 3-point attempts per game. While certainly considered a shoot-first point guard, Lillard used his gravity and drive-and-kick skills to average over seven assists per game for the fourth consecutive season. He was nearly a one-man offense for Portland, as the Blazers’ efficiency jumped from 105.9 points per 100 possessions to an elite 119.5 when he was on the floor. — Ward-Henninger

For the past decade of NBA history, the league’s two best mid-range marksmen were Chris Paul and Kevin Durant. Perhaps not coincidentally, one is a former teammate of Devin Booker’s and the other is his current co-star. Whether he picked up some of their picks by osmosis or not, Booker will soon claim their mid-range crown. Among the 20 players to attempt the most mid-range jumpers per game last season, only Durant topped Booker’s 49.4% shooting mark, and then Booker took it to the next level in the postseason by hitting nearly 55% of his attempts. Booker’s growth as a playmaker and defender will be critical as the Suns adjust to their new three-headed scoring monster, but make no mistake: Booker is here because when he needs to create a good look late in a game, there’s pretty much nothing you can do to stop him. — Quinn

At just 24 years old, Doncic already has as many first-team All-NBA selections as Stephen Curry, Chris Paul and recent Hall of Fame inductee Dirk Nowitzki. And while the Mavericks missed the playoffs altogether last season, it wasn’t due to a lack of effort from Doncic. Amidst roster turnover, the Slovenian guard once again carried the weight of Dallas’ offense on his shoulders, averaging a career-high in points (32.4) and shooting the ball at a 49.6% clip, also the best of his career. With offseason improvements geared towards supplying Doncic with more help, we should get an even more efficient version of the All-Star guard who hopefully won’t be asked to do it all again. — Wimbish

You can still make a case that Curry is the best player in the league. I won’t try to do it. Nikola Jokic has earned the mantle and deserves to not have it debated after what should’ve been a third straight MVP and an NBA title. But Curry remains at the height of his powers, and if you’re sleeping on the Warriors, go take a look at the net rating of their starters last year. Best in the league. Not close. That remains disproportionately due to Curry’s individual shooting prowess and dizzying off-ball movement. — Botkin

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