It's impossible to win big in the NBA without great guard play. Regardless of the rest of the roster, team success oftentimes boils down to the backcourts. In an age dominated by perimeter play like never before in which there's an unprecedented premium on ball handlers, shooters and playmakers, it's the guards which can make or break a team's fortunes.
For the better part of a decade, Golden State's duo of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have been the gold standard for backourts. Under a steady barrage of "he just did what?" long balls, the Splash Brothers etched their names in the record books as arguably the best backcourt in NBA history while powering the Warriors to five straight NBA Finals and leaving the rest of the league to play catch up.
With Thompson sidelined indefinitely with a torn ACL, there's an opening for another duo to claim the unofficial title of best backourt in the NBA. Can Stephen Curry and his new backcourt mate D'Angelo Russell hold off the reunited pairing of James Harden and Russell Westbrook? Does Mike Conley's arrival in Utah next to Donovan Mitchell foreshadow a shifting balance of power out west? Can Kyle Lowry's steady hand keep the defending champions competitive in the East?
Using FiveThirtyEight.com's individual CARMELO ratings as our barometer for success , we summed the 2019-20 wins above replacement projections for every starting backcourt in an effort to rank all 30 of them.
30. Cavaliers - Collin Sexton and Darius Garland
Projected wins above replacement: -3.4
The hope in Cleveland is that Sexton and Garland ultimately develop into a high-octane 1-2 punch that can hang with any duo in the league. While some thought it strange that the Cavaliers would take the 6'2" Garland fifth overall one year after selecting the 6'2" Sexton with the eighth overall pick, the Cavaliers are of the belief that they can co-exist and thrive as a two-pronged point of attack.
After rough sledding early, Sexton found his rhythym down the stretch of rookie season, averaging 23.1 points per game on nearly 50-40-90 shooting over his final 17 games. Garland meanwhile flew up draft boards as seemingly every scout fell in love with his potential as a Damian Lillard-type of bucket getter off the bounce despite playing just four full games at Vanderbilt.
With a combined age of just 39 years old, this is the youngest backcourt in a league notoriously hard on young guards. It's all about the long-term view in Cleveland and will require extraoirdinary patience from new head coach John Beilein, a veteran coach that had older backcourts during his decades of experience in the college ranks.
29. Knicks - Dennis Smith Jr. and RJ Barrett
Projected wins above replacement: -0.1
After failing to land any major superstar free agents this summer, the Knicks are essentially handing the keys to rookie RJ Barrett from Day 1. The third overall pick is a natural scorer and a reasonable bet to lead all rookies in scoring this season after he averaged 22.6 points per game during his one year at Duke. Although he struggled in summer league, Barrett figures to have a long leash and the ultimate green light on a Knicks team that needs scoring.
Speaking of green lights, Dennis Smith Jr. certainly isn't shy and has been open about welcoming the challenge of starring in New York City. While there are some questions about his ability to create for others, there's no denying Smith's incredible athleticism and explosiveness that could make him a fan favourite in Madison Square Garden.
28. Grizzlies - Ja Morant and Dillon Brooks
Projected wins above replacement : 1.0
If you're looking for a prime challenger to Zion Williamson for Rookie of the Year, look no further than the high-flying Ja Morant. The second pick in the draft averaged 24.5 points and 10.0 assists per game last season at Murray State, the latter of which led the nation. He's going to have the ball in his hands a ton and will have plenty of big statistical nights.
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After a strong rookie season in which he played in all 82 games for Memphis including 74 starts, Dillon Brooks took a step back last season as knee and toe injuries limited him to just 18 games. In order to stick long-term as a viable backcourt mate to Morant, Brooks will likely need to improve as a shooter as he shot just 40.2 percent from the field last season. Less than 30 percent of his total attempts came off catch-and-shoots, a figure likely to rise as Morant assumes a lion's share of touches.
27. Timberwolves - Jeff Teague and Josh Okogie
Projected wins above replacement: 1.5
Although Teague's best days may be behind him, he's still a solid veteran coming off a season in which he averaged a career-high 8.2 assists per game. With both Derrick Rose and Tyus Jones no longer on the team, the 31-year-old should have plenty of opportunities to put up decent numbers in the final year of his contract that will pay up $19 million in 2019-20.
The more interesting piece might be Okogie, the 20th pick in last year's draft that showed tremendous potential as a wing stopper as a rookie. He's got a long ways to go offensively, but armed with a 7'0" wingspan and incredible leaping ability, Okogie has all the physical tools to evolve into an all-defence candidate in years to come. It's not crazy to suggest that Okogie, not Andrew Wiggins, should be Minnesota's primary perimeter building block.
26. Magic - D.J. Augustin and Evan Fournier
Projected wins above replacement : 1.6
On the surface, it's admittedly hard to get excited about Orlando's backcourt. On a team all-in on investing in a frontcourt be it through expensive extensions (Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon) or high draft picks (Mo Bamba, Jonathan Isaac, Chuma Okeke), Augustin and Fournier forge ahead into their fourth season together as teammates.
Augustin is more than serviceable and still capable of big nights. Just ask the Toronto Raptors who prior to marching to the NBA title, lost in their playoff opener in a game that Augustin, not Kawhi Leonard, was the best player on the floor.
Fournier meanwhile provides a little bit of everything and has the size and playmaking to fill a number of roles depending on personnel.
Not factored into this ranking is the ultimate wild card: Markelle Fultz. Acquired last season from the 76ers for Jonathon Simmons, the former No. 1 overall pick represents a reclamation project of the highest order and a player with the potential to drastically change the fortunes in Orlando.
25. Pistons - Reggie Jackson and Luke Kennard
Projected wins above replacement: 1.8
There's not much playmaking as Detroit's starting backcourt ranked 29th in the NBA in assists last season, dead last among all playoff teams and ahead of only the Cavaliers.
Reggie Jackson started all 82 games last season and is likely to start again ahead of Derrick Rose who the team signed as a free agent this offseason. He may not be the most efficient player, but Jackson can fill it up and carry an offence for extended stretches.
Kennard once again hovered around 40.0 percent from beyond the arc and has shown promise as a shooting specialist through two seasons. The lefty also showed some improvement on the ball in Year 2 when looking to drive both as a scorer and playmaker.
24. Lakers - Rajon Rondo and Danny Green
Projected wins above replacement: 2.4
FiveThirtyEight's model isn't high on Rondo's prospects for next season as it has him pegged as a below replacement level contributor. He did manage to average 8.0 assists per game last season and does have experience playing well next to Anthony Davis as the two of them played one season together in New Orleans. It remains to be seen what type of role Rondo will have on the Lakers, who have flirted with the idea of playing LeBron James at point guard to help ease the glut in the frontcourt.
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Danny Green is coming off a championship season with the Toronto Raptors and will bring much-needed shooting and perimeter defence to a Lakers roster sorely lacking in both. Green is a plus-minus darling who ranked fourth overall last season behind only Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo. He won't get near the fanfare that James, Davis or even Kyle Kuzma will surely receive, but make no mistake that if the Lakers are going to contend, Green will play a prominent role.
23. Hawks - Trae Young and Kevin Huerter
Projected wins above replacement: 3.2
There's a chance that by the end of the season, we'll look back and wonder how on earth 22 other backcourts ranked ahead of this one entering the season.
There are reasons for skepticism, namely at the defensive end of the floor where Trae Young was quite literally the worst player in the entire league as a rookie according to ESPN's Defensive Real Plus-Minus. Huerter wasn't far behind, ranking outside the top 50 in his own position. For this young backcourt to exceed expectations, they'll need to be more than merely traffic cones on defence.
If they can be merely serviceable on that end, the Young-Huerter duo has the chance to be special.
Young is already draining 28-footers off the dribble like he's Stephen Curry while Huerter is a knock-down shooter that also started making strides off the bounce towards the latter part of his rookie campaign. Hawks GM Travis Schlenk drafted Young and Huerter with the hopes of forming an East Coast version of the Splash Brothers. Should that come to fruition, Young and Huerter will soar up these rankings.
22. Hornets - Terry Rozier and Nicolas Batum
Projected wins above replacement: 3.7
There might not be a player with a brighter green light in 2019-20 than Terry Rozier, who takes over as Kemba Walker's replacement in Charlotte. The Hornets roster is devoid of shot creators which will lead to plenty of voluminous nights for Rozier who is never shy. Free from Boston's crowded backcourt, Rozier finally has a full-time starting gig and is a good bet to put up numbers similar to the 2018 postseason in which he averaged 16.5 points and 5.7 assists per game in 19 starts.
The 30-year-old Batum struggled last season as he averaged just 9.3 points per game, the fewest since his rookie season. An adept playmaker in his prime, Batum's assist numbers also plummeted last season to their lowest in seven years. On the hook for over $25 million, Batum likely isn't going anywhere and should get ample opportunities for a bounceback season with both Walker and Jeremy Lamb no longer in town.
21. Bulls - Tomas Satoransky and Zach LaVine
Projected wins above replacement: 3.9
Not listed here is rookie point guard Coby White, the seventh overall pick in the draft who could very well be starting by season's end. Not unlike Garland, White has tremendous potential as a scoring point guard, but also has decent size with a 6'5" frame.
The starting gig will likely be held down to start the year by trusty vet Tomas Satoransky who signed as a free agent after three seasons with the Wizards. Another big guard at 6'7", Satoransky has the ability to slide between guard spots and will likely be a favourite of hard-nosed Bulls coach Jim Boylen.
FiveThirtyEight's model actually pegs Satoranksy for more added value than Zach LaVine who erupted last season to the tune of 23.7 points per game. While there's a notion that LaVine is a largely inefficient gunner, he shot a respectable 46.7 percent from the field last season and when taking into account his ability to get to the line, finished with a better true-shooting percentage than Kemba Walker, Donovan Mitchell, DeMar DeRozan and CJ McCollum, to name a few.
If LaVine proves the shooting was no fluke while also cutting down on turnovers, he could drastically outperform his FiveThirtyEight projection .
20. Bucks - Eric Bledsoe and Wesley Matthews
Projected wins above replacement: 4.4
There's perhaps no team with higher stakes riding on a shaky backcourt than the Bucks.
Not only did they lose Malcolm Brogdon in free agency, there's still a lingering sour taste of Eric Bledsoe's second straight disappearing act in the postseason, this one on the heels of a four-year, $70 million extension offered after a strong regular season. No matter how good Bledsoe plays and no matter how many regular season wins the Bucks rack up, they'll still be moving forward with a major question mark once the postseason arrives.
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Sliding into the off-guard slot to replace Brogdon is Wesley Matthews. Though he can still hit open shots, Matthews will be 33 by the time the season starts and is no longer the lockdown defender he was in his prime. There's a lot riding on Matthews filling a major role and like Bledsoe, he also has his fair share of postseason warts.
19. Spurs - Dejounte Murray and Derrick White
Projected wins above replacement: 5.5
There's probably not a backcourt with more variance than the one in San Antonio.
Dejounte Murray is back after missing all of last season with a torn ACL and will look to once again establish his reputation as a defensive ace. Prior to his injury, Murray became the youngest All-Defence selection in NBA history and seemed primed for a breakout on the other end.
Derrick White proved opportunistic in Murray's absence, rising from out of the rotation and into a starring role by the end of the season, culminating in a 36-point game against the Nuggets in the playoffs. He'll also have the benefit of spending the entire summer alongside Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich as a surprise member of Team USA after earning his way onto the team with a strong showing in Team USA training camp.
18. Kings - De'Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield
Projected wins above replacement: 6.3
Any list of potential first-time All-Stars should include De'Aaron Fox who is tracking towards stardom ahead of his third season. Arguably the fastest end-to-end player in the league with the ball in his hands, Fox developed into a capable 3-point shooter last season while essentially doubling the rate at which he got to the free throw line. He's a threat to average 20 points, 10 assists and two steals per game, something that doesn't happen very often .
If it weren't for Fox, you could make the case that Hield should be the one knocking on the doorstep of an All-Star invite. He averaged over 20 points per game last season while hitting 42.7 percent from beyond the arc and also led the NBA in fastbreak points , making him the perfect running mate for the lightning-quick Fox.
17. Wizards - Ish Smith and Bradley Beal
Projected wins above replacement: 6.4
According to FiveThirtyEight's model, all of those projected wins above replacement come via Beal as Smith projects right at replacement level. Beal made a leap towards legitimate superstardom last season in Washington as he poured in a career-high 25.6 points per game while also posting career highs in assists, rebounds, steals and blocks. Amidst all of the drama in D.C., Beal remained a rock as he started all 82 games and led the NBA in minutes. He's an absolute stud.
With John Wall out, Smith figures to get the starting nod at point guard though Scott Brooks could, in theory, opt for Isaiah Thomas. Smith spent the last three seasons in Detroit where he primarily came off the bench as Reggie Jackson's back-up. In 35 games as a starter in 2017-18 (he came off the bench in all 82 games last season), Smith averaged 12.1 points and 4.7 assists per game.
16. Suns - Ricky Rubio and Devin Booker
Projected wins above replacement: 6.7
After playing largely out of position, Devin Booker will get to slide back to his natural shooting guard spot opposite of Ricky Rubio who brings a much-needed veteran presence to a young team mired in losing. Over the last four seasons, the Suns have the worst record in the NBA and have been at least 20 games under .500 at the All-Star break in each of those seasons.
Booker is a gifted scorer that made significant strides last season though still has not shown it can translate to wins. On talent alone, it's hard to find many two-guards more capable of delivering the goods than Booker who last season was one of just three players to average at least 26 points and 6 assists per game. The others? LeBron James and James Harden.
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Rubio may be incredibly limited as a shooter, but he's an excellent pick and roll playmaker that in addition to making life easier for Booker, should be able to get the most out of Deandre Ayton. Rubio once transformed Nikola Pekovic into 17.5-PPG scorer. Spoiler: Ayton is not Pekovic. Rubio's shortcomings as a starter mean more in the margins on a playoff team and less on developing teams in the midst of a rebuild. He should help raise the floor for a Phoenix team that's been trampled on in recent memory.
T-14. Nuggets - Jamal Murray and Gary Harris
Projected wins above replacement: 6.9
After a strong regular season in Year 3, Jamal Murray took his game to another level in the postseason as he emerged as a legitimate second star and scoring threat, helping lead the Nuggets to the brink of the Conference Finals. He parlayed that impressive showing into a max contract extension this summer and is now an unquestioned foundational piece moving forward in Denver. Along with the likes of Devin Booker, Donovan Mitchell, De'Aaron Fox and Luka Doncic, Murray is among the up-and-comers in the Western Conference that could make a run at the All-Star team this season.
MORE: How Jamal Murray can become an All-Star in 2019-20
Harris, meanwhile, is looking to bounce back from somewhat of a disappointing season as injuries prevented him from taking the next step many assumed was coming in 2018-19. He remains a vitally important piece moving forward as a strong two-way player, even if his offensive game took a step backwards last season. It wasn't that long ago that some thought Harris, not Murray, would ultimately be Denver's No. 2 moving forward. Even if he's been passed in the pecking order, there's no doubt Harris will play a major role for a team with title aspirations in 2020.
T-14. Raptors - Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell
Projected wins above replacement: 6.9
This admittedly feels overly optimistic for a backcourt that will be under more pressure to produce following the departures of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. It's impossible to overstate the importance that Green played in solidifying Toronto's backcourt last season alongside Kyle Lowry.
The five-time All-Star averaged a career-high 8.7 assists last season even though his scoring and shooting plummeted to levels harkening back to days prior to becoming an All-Star point guard. With Leonard out, it's reasonable to expect more scoring from Lowry whose 14.2 points per game were his fewest since the 2012-13 season.
Sliding in for Green will likely be Norman Powell, though there's the chance that Finals hero Fred VanVleet could start alongside Lowry in a small backcourt. Powell isn't in the same category of Green as a defender, though he does have the potential to hit more on the offensive end. For someone who has never topped 20 minutes a game in four seasons, Powell is presumably about to take on a much larger role than he's done to this point in his career.
13. Nets - Kyrie Irving and Caris LeVert
Projected wins above replacement: 7.1
No team made more noise this offseason than the Nets, who landed both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant in free agency. While Durant is expected to miss the entire season as he recovers from a ruptured Achilles, Irving gets the opportunity to star for a solid Nets team that finished with the 6-seed last season.
While he still managed to snag a spot on the All-NBA Second Team, Irving's final season with the Celtics will likely be most remembered for the seemingly endless roller coaster of drama and tension culminating in a lacklustre postseason elimination at the hands of the Bucks. He served up a series of duds on his way out, shooting just 30.1 percent including 18.5 percent from the 3-point line. In Brooklyn, Irving has the opportunity for a fresh start after a puzzling two-year stint in Boston.
With Durant out, help for Irving in his debut season will come mostly from Caris LeVert who just inked a three-year extension that will keep him in the fold through the 2022-23 season. In the early part of last season, LeVert earned some All-Star buzz before a severe leg injury derailed what looked to be a breakout season. In addition to a healthy LeVert, the Nets also have Spencer Dinwiddie in the wings, widely regarded as one of the NBA's best third guards and capable of playing either backcourt spot.
12. Pacers - Victor Oladipo and Malcolm Brogdon
Projected wins above replacement: 7.4
FiveThirtyEight's projections account for injuries, meaning Oladipo's projected wins above replacement are lower taking into consideration his delayed return from a ruptured quadriceps sustained in January of last season. Given his reliance on elite athleticism at both ends, Oladipo remains one of the NBA's biggest mysteries as nobody really knows what to expect once he returns to the lineup, likely no sooner than December.
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Holding down the fort will be Brogdon whom the Pacers wrestled away from Milwaukee with a four-year, $85 million dollar offer sheet. While he might now wow anyone with truly eye-popping numbers, Brogdon's coming off one of the most efficient 50-40-90 seasons in NBA history and at times in the playoffs looked like Milwaukee's second-best player.
If Oladipo returns to his pre-injury level, this backcourt has the potential to rank as one of the five best in the league and could pose a serious threat to some guard-challenged contenders in the East.
11. Heat - Goran Dragic and Jimmy Butler
Projected wins above replacement: 8.5
Jimmy Butler finally has his own team.
After two seasons trying to fit in first alongside Karl-Anthony Towns in Minnesota and then Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons in Philadelphia, Butler is the unquestioned No. 1 option in Miami. One of the NBA's most prolific fourth-quarter scorers last season , Butler should get to shoulder a heavier load more consistently in Miami and will likely once again return to being a 23-24 a night scorer as he was with the Chicago Bulls.
Goran Dragic nearly got dealt this summer, but remains on the team and is a good fit next to Butler. Not only is he a capable floor spacer off the ball, Dragic is a crafty playmaker and one of the league's best at creating off drives. The fit isn't much different than when he first arrived in Miami and played next to Dwyane Wade in the first post-LeBron season.
10. Thunder - Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
Projected wins above replacement: 9.1
OKC gets a complete overhaul in the backcourt following trades of Russell Westbrook and Paul George.
Following the two-year chemistry experiment alongside James Harden in Houston, Chris Paul is back in a situation in which he'll likely have the ball in his hands far more. Although he'll certainly be tasked with mentoring Shai Gilgeous-Alexander who becomes the most pivotal long-term building block in Oklahoma City, there's reason for optimism that Paul can turn in an eye-opening season free from the worries of stepping on Harden's toes.
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Gilgeous-Alexander gets the rare opportunity to learn from a future Hall of Famer at his position while also expanding his off-ball skills. It's hard to imagine OKC opting to bring one of them off the bench given their respective statuses, which means more time at the off-guard spot for SGA, who has an immensely bright future as a towering 6'6" lead guard.
9. Jazz - Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell
Projected wins above replacement: 10.0
This feels low.
In my estimation, there is simply no way that Utah's new backcourt will be "only" the ninth-best this season. FiveThirtyEight's projections for Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley feel conservatively tempered and could potentially be placing more emphasis on Mitchell's inefficiency and Conley's age.
Coming off a summer spent with Team USA, Mitchell is poised to take yet another step in his third season after averaging nearly 24 points per game last season. While there are some concerns about his propensity for hoisting questionable shots, many of those fears should be assuaged with the arrival of Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic, two supremely talented shot creators far more capable than anyone flanking Mitchell on the perimeter last season.
As for Conley, it's hard to imagine a more perfect fit than in Utah which not only has a gifted backcourt mate in place to take the pressure off of, but a strong defensive identity and system not too dissimilar from some of the Memphis teams of years past.
Given their abilities on both ends of the floor, this could very well end up being the best backcourt in the NBA by the end of the season.
8. Celtics - Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown
Projected wins above replacement: 10.3
Kemba Walker arrives in Boston on the heels of the best season of his career and after eight seasons in Charlotte. While it's reasonable to expect a downtick in volume as he now shares touches with the likes of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward, Walker's more than capable of diversifying his game in ways he did not in Charlotte. There's the potential for Walker to flourish much in the same way that Isaiah Thomas did in 2016-17 when he finished in the top-5 in MVP voting.
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Brown somewhat stagnated in his third season amidst all of the internal turmoil in Boston. A summer spent alongside Walker, Tatum and Marcus Smart with Team USA should get him off to a running start for his fourth season as Brown enters the final year of his rookie contract. A big season could result in a big contract next summer when Brown becomes a restricted free agent.
7. Mavericks - Delon Wright and Luka Doncic
Projected wins above replacement: 10.5
Luka Doncic turned plenty of heads as a rookie, consistently playing beyond his years and showing a knack for taking over games late. He plays under control and directs the game like a seasoned veteran on the backend of a career instead of a 20-year-old still scratching the surface. After averaging 21.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game last season, it's difficult to place a ceiling on Doncic in Year 2 especially with help on the way in the form of a supposedly healthy Kristaps Porzingis.
If the Mavericks placing seventh on this list feels high it's likely because Delon Wright continues to fly under the radar as an impact starting-calibre guard. At 6'5", he has elite size and combined with Doncic gives Dallas a super-sized backcourt. Though he's not a knock-down shooter which you'd ideally want next to a passer like Doncic, Wright is more than capable of carrying the load as the Mavericks saw first-hand in April when Wright erupted for 26 points and 14 assists while playing for Memphis.
T-5. Clippers - Patrick Beverley and Paul George
Projected wins above replacement: 11.7
With Kawhi Leonard on the wing and Lou Williams coming off the bench, the Clippers don't have your typical starting backcourt when it comes to divvying out responsibilities.
Beverley's primary responsibilities remain hounding other team's point guards and knocking down open shots, both of which he's more than adept at fulfilling. Given there won't be too many touches to go around with Leonard, George and Williams around, Beverley isn't tasked with the playmaking burden typically imposed on starting point guards.
George, meanwhile, is coming off the best season of his career in which he finished second in the NBA in scoring and third in MVP voting. He's already proven more than capable of thriving next to ball-dominant stars and on nights that Leonard sits due to load management, will certainly get his opportunities to shine as a No. 1 option.
The biggest question moving forward for George remains his health following shoulder injuries that stymied the back half of his 2018-19 campaign.
T-5. Pelicans - Lonzo Ball and Jrue Holiday
Projected wins above replacement: 11.7
The assumption here is that the Pelicans opt to start Lonzo Ball next to Jrue Holiday instead of JJ Redick. For what it's worth, the gap in expected performance between Ball and Redick in the eyes of FiveThirtyEight would be enough to change this ranking from tied for fifth all the way down to 10th.
That's mostly in part because their model loves the potential for Ball in New Orleans as it pegs the 22-year-old as a future All-Star . There's no denying that Ball's shot is a glaring weakness and something he'll need to improve if he's to warrant that level of optimism. But there's also no denying that he's already one of the NBA's truly elite passers and also has the potential to become an all-league defender. With Holiday, Redick, Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson, there are lots of mouths to feed in New Orleans and it's hard to think of many point guards more suited to spread the wealth than the pass-happy Ball.
Holiday is in the rare spot where he's coming off the best season of his career in the thick of his prime and yet could be immensely overlooked due to the buzz surrounding Williamson. An anonymous poll of NBA players conducted by the Athletic back in April revealed Holiday to be the most underrated player in the league according to his peers while new team president David Griffin floated Holiday as a darkhorse MVP candidate in the mould of Steve Nash in Phoenix.
4. 76ers - Ben Simmons and Josh Richardson
Projected wins above replacement: 12.1
There's nothing more peak NBA offseason than workout videos on Instagram. And if the workout videos on Instagram are any indication, Ben Simmons could be walking into this season with something new in his arsenal: a jump shot.
For the 6'10" Simmons, the complete lack of an outside jumper hasn't stopped his development into a walking triple-double and matchup nightmare that made his first All-Star team last season. But the Aussie has bigger fish to fry than All-Star berths and quasi-contention and if he's going to lead the 76ers to the brink of legitimate title contention, he'll need to pose a threat in the halfcourt outside of 15 feet. He has yet to make a 3-pointer in his career and last season shot just 3-28 on shots 15 feet and out.
That's not going to cut it.
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Playing next to Simmons is Josh Richardson, the prize piece Philly snagged in a sign-and-trade for Jimmy Butler. Richardson's a nice two-way player, but won't be able to bail out Simmons down the stretch of tight games in the way that Butler did in last year's playoffs.
Simmons and Richardson have the potential to be a rugged tandem with more size than any other backcourt in the league.
3. Trail Blazers - Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum
Projected wins above replacement: 12.2
Both members of Portland's star backcourt agreed to long-term extensions in the offseason following a trip to the Western Conference Finals.
Nobody is doubting their abilities after a postseason in which they took turns in sending foes packing. Damian Lillard dusted off the Oklahoma City Thunder with a buzzer-beating dagger to clinch the 1st Round while CJ McCollum went off for 37 points in Game 7 of the Conference Semifinals to send the Nuggets home.
Even though the Blazers were swept in the next round by the Golden State Warriors, they led by double digits in three of the four games and actually spent more time with the lead in that series than the Warriors did. A couple of breaks in those games and its not far-fetched to think that Portland could have broken through to the NBA Finals. And from there... who knows?
Lillard and McCollum are running it back for the foreseeable future, eager to prove that trip to the Conference Finals isn't the ceiling for a franchise celebrating it's 50th anniversary this season.
2. Warriors - Stephen Curry and D'Angelo Russell
Projected wins above replacement: 12.9
It's going to be weird watching Stephen Curry launch triples without the other Splash Brother on the floor as Klay Thompson recovers from a torn ACL suffered in the NBA Finals. While the Warriors await Thompson's return, Curry has the potential to launch an MVP campaign as he'll shoulder potentially the largest offensive burden of his career given Kevin Durant's departure for the Brooklyn Nets. Oddsmakers agree with the thought of Curry contending for a third MVP as he currently has the second-best odds to win it behind only reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
MORE: How D'Angelo Russell can thrive with the Warriors
Filling Thompson's role will be D'Angelo Russell, the 23-year-old combo guard coming off a breakout season in which he made his first All-Star team with the Nets. Acquired from Brooklyn in a sign-and-trade for Durant, Russell operates with the ball in his hands far more than Thompson as he ranked second in the NBA last season in pick-and-rolls behind only Kemba Walker. That's obviously a much different skill set than catch-and-shoot master Thompson and Russell's arrival likely means a significant adjustment for Curry who knows a thing or two about adjusting his game to make room for a new All-Star running mate.
1. Rockets - James Harden and Russell Westbrook
Projected wins above replacement: 23.9
This should be fun.
There are two players in NBA history that have finished a season with a usage percentage of over 40.0 and now they share a backcourt.
If you thought the idea of pairing Harden and Chris Paul would require adjustment, just wait until this science experiment unfolds in real time.
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On paper, Harden and Westbrook are light years ahead of any other backcourt. Say what you want about fit or defence or diminishing returns or Westbrook's decline, there's never been a backcourt in NBA history with two MVPs let alone ones near or close to their prime.
FiveThirtyEight projects them with nearly twice as many wins above replacement as any other backcourt duo in the league. On sheer individual talent alone, Harden and Westbrook blow everyone else out of the water.
There is of course far more to winning in the NBA than sheer individual talent. 1 + 2 does not always equal 3 in a league that takes no prisoners and exposes teams for any issues with fit. The puzzle pieces have to fit and despite their otherworldly talent, there are legitimate reasons to think that it's impossible for Harden and Westbrook to thrive if taking turns in a Harden or Westbrook ecosystem.
All questions aside, make no mistake... for the first time in what feels like forever, there's another duo atop the list of best backcourts in the NBA.
The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the NBA or its clubs.