Last week's Power Rankings dove into the details on the 22 starting centres that will show up in Orlando.
This time we're turning our attention to the backcourt as guard play will be at an all-time premium down in the bubble. It's tough - and, perhaps, impossible - to win it all without great guard play, and this year will be no exception.
For the sake of simplicity, I'm only including starters while also recognizing that positions are not ironclad. There is sometimes little to no difference between who technically starts at shooting guard versus small forward. Teams also juggle starters given matchups so although I've listed out individual players, I fully acknowledge that it's an imperfect exercise.
And so... let's get to it!
Tier IV - I have some concerns
22. Orlando Magic: Markelle Fultz, Evan Fournier
21. San Antonio Spurs: Dejounte Murray, Bryn Forbes
20. Los Angeles Lakers: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green
19. Miami Heat: Kendrick Nunn, Duncan Robinson
I have to admit, on first glance I put the Lakers dead last. But push comes to shove, there's enough "been there, done that" big game experience that warrants a small bump even if there's next to no off the bounce magic happening.
Would the Lakers really take Markelle Fultz and Evan Fournier or Dejounte Murray and Bryn Forbes ahead of their own backcourt?
There isn't much depth and Avery Bradley's decision to opt out puts even more of an onus on a relatively shallow pool of backcourt options. It's far from a given that Kentavious Caldwell-Pope starts alongside Danny Green in the wake of Bradley's decision and it could easily fluctuate game-to-game with Alex Caruso and Rajon Rondo also in the mix. The Lakers don't really ask their guards to do much playmaking given the supersized on-ball role played by LeBron James that leaves Lakers guards with two jobs: defend and hit open shots. Green has a storied history of showing up in big spots but it remains to be seen if the Lakers have another viable option in the backcourt. It's an unusually large and glaring weakness for a team considered by many to be the favourite to win the whole thing.
MORE: Guide to who is and isn't playing in Orlando
The Heat's young backcourt is worth monitoring with higher stakes and increased scrutiny come playoff time. Nunn's surprising emergence - he'll likely make All-Rookie First Team and could finish third in Rookie of the Year voting - remains one of the year's best stories and Robinson has made more catch-and-shoot 3s than any player in the NBA while pulling off his best Klay Thompson impersonation. How they respond (along with Tyler Herro, who should be back healthy and ready to contribute) will play into whether Miami can seriously threaten Milwaukee in the East.
Tier III - Dangerous, yet flawed
18. Memphis Grizzlies: Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks
17. Milwaukee Bucks: Eric Bledsoe, Wesley Matthews
16. Brooklyn Nets: Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert
15. Denver Nuggets: Jamal Murray, Gary Harris
14. Washington Wizards: Shabazz Napier, Bradley Beal
All five of these backcourts have enough upside to hang with any of the ones listed ahead of them even if there are obvious flaws.
For Morant and Brooks, it's all about experience. For all of Morant's excitement and mojo, he's still a rookie point guard in a conference loaded with upper crust playmakers at his position that have all been there before.
For Bledsoe and Matthews, there are some past playoff demons to get past. Bledsoe in particular struggled so much to the point where he became borderline unplayable for long stretches in last year's playoffs. George Hill provides insurance but Malcolm Brogdon's departure puts even more of the onus on Bledsoe to translate his regular season play to the playoffs.
Dinwiddie and LeVert were among the most difficult to peg. Filling in for Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, they've had very good seasons and have put up big numbers while playing more significant roles than they likely would under ideal circumstances. The Nets have also tempered expectations, which places a ceiling on just how much is ultimately at stake.
Denver's backcourt might be the biggest wildcard of all. How Murray and Harris play will determine just how dangerous the Nuggets fare as a contender. Murray has at times struggled with consistency and as I wrote about earlier this month, there are objective questions about his ceiling which feel magnified on a Denver team sorely in need of more firepower alongside Nikola Jokic.
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Beal might be the second-best shooting guard in the league when he's engaged on both ends. Though he's in the midst of one of the quietest 30 PPG seasons you'll ever come across, Beal has essentially operated as a traffic cone on the other end of the floor. Still, his prolific scoring ability and takeover potential warrants placement ahead of the others in this tier.
Tier II - Certifiable gamers
13. Phoenix Suns: Ricky Rubio, Devin Booker
12. New Orleans Pelicans: Lonzo Ball, Jrue Holiday
11. Sacramento Kings: De'Aaron Fox, Bogdan Bogdanovic
10. Indiana Pacers: Malcolm Brogdon, Victor Oladipo
9. Utah Jazz: Mike Conley, Donovan Mitchell
8. Toronto Raptors: Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet
7. Philadelphia 76ers: Ben Simmons, Josh Richardson
6. LA Clippers: Patrick Beverley, Paul George
5. Oklahoma City Thunder: Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
By far the biggest tier and one that perfectly illustrates the depth of guard play in the NBA. Each of these backcourts features either high octane bucket getters or no-nonsense stoppers... and sometimes both.
There's also plenty of wiggle room.
Take for instance the Pacers duo of Brogdon and Oladipo, both of whom have playoff chops that exceed what they've been able to exhibit so far this season. For long stretches in last year's postseason, Brogdon - not Khris Middleton or Eric Bledsoe - was Milwaukee's second-best player. And while questions linger about whether Oladipo can return to the All-NBA performer he once was prior to a devastating quad injury, we're only two years from watching him go toe-to-toe with LeBron James for seven games.
The gulf between Rubio on the Suns and Napier on the Wizards is also why Phoenix claims a spot in this tier, but not Washington. Booker and Beal operate in similar fashion, with Rubio enough to bump the Suns up into the next tier.
Floors and ceiling come into play here as well.
In the case of the Raptors, you know what you're getting at this point in Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet, who bring it on both ends and will never cower from any situation. Juxtapose that with the Sixers' duo of Simmons and Richardson, which like their entire team remains an enigma especially on the offensive end. Simmons in particular vacillates between invisible and utterly dominant, making it almost impossible to place them with any real confidence. Toronto's backcourt feels safer while Philadelphia's backcourt has perhaps a higher ceiling.
Two others worth singling out: Utah and Oklahoma City.
Save for a brief stretch in February, Conley has struggled to find the same type of borderline All-Star impact he had with the Memphis Grizzlies and has yet to develop strong chemistry with Mitchell. But the Jazz didn't bring in Conley to make Mitchell's life easier in the regular season, they brought him in to help shoulder the burden come playoff time. Both have the potential to break into this next tier if everything breaks right but for now, they're in the middle of Tier II.
Speaking of next tiers, I originally placed CP3 and SGA into Tier I. And yet... that's reserved for the duos which are unquestionably elite. But availability remains fundamental to reliability and in the case of Paul, we just don't know if he'll hold up given his checkered history of sustaining postseason injuries. If healthy - a big if - OKC's duo would qualify as unquestionably elite. But for now and likely for the foreseeable future, it remains a question.
Tier I - Unquestionably elite
4. Dallas Mavericks: Luka Doncic, Seth Curry
3. Boston Celtics: Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown
2. Portland Trail Blazers: Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum
1. Houston Rockets: Russell Westbrook, James Harden
It's perhaps perfectly on brand with the year 2020 to be talking about the league's best backcourts for a postseason push and it somehow NOT include Golden State's duo of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. But that's where we're at!
Doncic has vaulted into top-five player conversations faster than anyone could have reasonably expected and stirs the drink for what's currently the most efficient offence in NBA history. But while Dallas's ranking here hinges mostly on the super sophomore, the other Curry is no slouch himself as he's actually the owner of the best career 3-point percentage among all active players. Are there defensive concerns? Yes. But the Mavs backcourt is in great hands.
Due to the emergence of Jayson Tatum, both members of Boston's starting backcourt get to proceed without the pressure of being a primary scorer or playmaker. Both Walker and Brown are capable of taking over a game and yet now are both fulfilling roles more in line with their strengths. The 6'0" Walker no longer faces the uphill battle of hunting for shots as an undersized number one option while Brown can hone in defensively and pick his spots as a timely cutter and spot-up threat.
There's a case to be made that Lillard and McCollum should sit in the top spot. On raw talent alone, it's hard to bet against Harden and Westbrook although Portland's duo has enough game to match anyone. The injury to Avery Bradley puts Portland in a dangerously unique spot as a potential eight seed as Lillard and McCollum could face off against a Lakers team devoid of any real perimeter stoppers. It's not often that an eighth seed would hold such a large advantage against the top seed and yet that's exactly what could play out in an interesting first round tussle.
Nobody has more on the line than Harden and Westbrook, who can forever quiet the noise and silence the critics with a standout performance in Orlando. The biggest fear with Houston's all-in approach to small ball was whether or not it could hold up. The three-month break in action should quell those concerns and give their superstar backcourt ample time to gear up for an extended run. Although the Rockets currently sit in sixth, you get the sense that they head to Disney World with far more pressure and far loftier expectations than one typically sees with a six seed.
For better or worse, the Rockets' fate will be determined almost entirely by their backcourt widely billed by many as the best in the business.
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.