Unpopular opinion alert: Arron Afflalo, Klay Thompson and Monta Ellis are the third, fourth, and fifth best shooting guards in the NBA. If we leave Kobe Bryant out of the equation because (pauses) well because of this (unwarranted shot at Kobe and the Lakers … check) the list of top shooting guards past Dwyane Wade and James Harden is actually pretty thin.
The position that once boasted some of the top players in basketball a mere decade ago (after Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett, of course) is now chalk full of non-ball dominant, passive scoring threats who are best known for their ability to defend and shoot the 3 ball. Do not get me wrong, I love 3D wings. The last few seasons have proven having those types of players is essential to real success as an NBA team (see: Danny Green, Thabo Sefolosha, Kawhi Leonard and Shane Battier); and I actually think the shift from ball dominant, high volume shooting guards to off guards who are fitting, role player type pieces has actually been good for NBA offense. But it has been interesting, to say the least, to see the position shift to where it is now.
It is to the point where we probably have to reevaluate how we evaluate the position. The fact that Klay Thompson cannot create a shot for himself is not necessarily a pressing issue (I hope my boss didn’t read that) when you consider the Warriors really only need him to spread the floor, be decent around the rim and play top tier defense — all things he does very well, as we will touch on later. And the fact that James Harden and Kobe Bryant literally play no defense for long stretches of play is probably more detrimental for their teams’ overall success than we let on when we talk about their entire impact. The point is basketball is an evolving sport and at the NBA level, things are moving forward with extreme pace. That being said, let’s look at some of the top shooting guards in basketball, through that evolving lens:
First Step — “I used to be jealous of Arron Afflalo”
Fans of the Warriors, Nuggets and Sixers who pay great attention to the little details of the game can attest to how good Andre Iguodala is at closing out to jump shooters. It may seem like a little thing, but in a league where the top defenses typically require help from weak side wings to shore up the paint — especially against the pick and roll — the ability to flash into a help position and quickly recover to an open shooter is essential in putting together a top defense. Iguodala sticks out because he is not only fairly proficient at executing in this regard, he is quite clearly the best player in basketball when it comes helping out his bigs around the rim, and then getting out to his man to prevent a clean look while still preventing a lane to the rim. I could write a whole article detailing of just how Iggy closes out but I’ll digress and say the only player that is really in the same atmosphere is Kawhi Leonard.
But there are a couple of other players besides those two that do a really good job of closing out against shooters and Arron Afflalo is definitely among them. While watching last Monday’s slog of a game between the Orlando Magic and the Memphis Grizzlies, the most entertaining aspect of the game was actually watching Afflalo execute so well defensively and do a good job of running his man off the 3-point line with out giving up defensive position. Here is an example:
There are a few things to take from this. First, Afflalo is smart enough to realize he can stray pretty far away from Tayshaun Prince without worrying about him being a deep threat. Also, once he does close out to Prince, he comes out far enough to contest the shot, but does not close out too far to allow a driving lane for Prince — this, again, works because Prince is not a huge threat from 3. He adjusts the way he closes out against a better shooter later in the fourth quarter:
Here Afflalo supports the pick and roll defense by briefly covering the roll man, Jon Leuer, and then closes out hard to contest a potential shot from Mike Miller. Miller is obviously more of a deep threat than Prince and Afflalo adjusts accordingly, closing out harder to run Miller off of the line since Miller is not as much of a threat attacking the rim (as evidenced by the drive). Afflalo is so adept at executing this type of attack, he occasionally can shut down the attack before it happens, like in this play:
Afflalo, again, briefly shows on the roll man, Kosta Koufos, and is so quick to recover back out to Prince that Jerryd Bayless cannot even make the release pass. So Afflalo essentially breaks up Memphis’s entire offense by taking away the release pass and disallowing the flow of the Grizzly offense.
On top of Afflalo’s great defense, though, the reason he has taken his game to a top five level has been his ability to score the basketball. Afflalo has a 59 percent true shooting percentage so far this season, which ranks 17th among the 114 players who are playing at least 20 minutes per game, have usage rate of at least 20 percent and have played at least 12 games heading into last night’s action. So, Afflalo has been one of the league’s 20 most efficient scorers so far this season and has been one by generally being lights out shooting the basketball this season.
That is Afflalo has been extremely efficient shooting the ball outside of eight feet this season, both from the mid-range and beyond the arc. Between eight and 16 feet Afflalo has shown quite an efficient post game so far this season (which is good because Jacque Vaughn loves mid-post isos). He is shooting just better than 60 percent from the left side between 8 and 16 feet and just better than 50 percent from the right side, consistently knocking down his turnaround jumpers over both shoulders and from both sides of the floor. His pull up jumper from little farther out has been great as well, as he has been above average on these shots everywhere but the right elbow.
But most importantly, Afflalo has shown a consistently great three point stroke so far this season. He is shooting 41.5 percent from three and while his three point stroke from either wing has been average at best, he has been lights out from the top of the key — where he shoots 45.83 percent. He has also been on fire from the left corner — shooting 54.55 percent — and an average, but perfectly acceptable 42.86 percent from the right corner. Overall he has been a dead eye shooting the three ball this year and in general has been a terror offensively. That offense combined with his top notch ability to defend at the wing makes him one of the most dynamic wing threats in basketball.
In The Lane: “Monta Ellis Have It All”
Monta Ellis’ resurgence as an elite NBA off guard took most people by surprise, but for those who have kept a close eye on Monta’s game, his great play this year was somewhat expected. Ellis’ game relies so much on his ability to create at the rim — for himself and his teammates — and playing with Dallas has provided the proper floor spacing to cater to Monta’s strengths — as opposed to being on the court with Luc Mbah a Moute. As a result Monta has been one of the NBA’s best players when it comes to attacking the rim so far this season. Monta ranks second in drives per game — with 10.5, barely behind Ty Lawson‘s 10.9 — and is shooting a respectable 48.8 percent on those drives. In watching Ellis play, you can see how dangerous his first step is, and it is close to impossible to keep Monta out of the lane. When he gets there, also, while Monta is not the best in the league at finishing, he is fairly accurate scoring it off of drives considering he is undersized for his position.
Probably more important than his own efficiency scoring it on the drive, though, is how efficient Dallas is scoring it when Ellis drives to the rim. Ellis himself leads the league in points off of drives with eight per game, but Dallas as whole is scoring 12.9 points per game on Ellis drives to the rim — again, second to Ty Lawson and the Nuggets (13.4). Think about that in context. On Monta’s 10.5 drives per game Dallas is scoring 12.9 points, meaning they are scoring roughly 1.23 points per Monta Ellis drive. That is wildly efficient offense and Dallas in general is a much more effective offensive team when Monta is attacking the rim, both as a scorer and as a distributor.
That shows when watching the Mavericks, as well, as this team becomes horribly difficult to guard when Monta is playing the pick and roll. When able to get into the lane off of a screen — typically one of the pick and fade variety set by Dirk Nowitzki — Monta is met with a plethora of options depending on how the defense bends. He has the ability to finish at the rim if the defense allows too much space, and if there is adequate help, Monta typically has no problem finding the open shooter in the corner or finding a surprisingly open Dirk at the top of the key. Monta has also, always been really good at finding big men around the rim off of his drives, even at his worst points in the NBA. If the help defense chooses not to drop down and defend the paint, Monta is equally as good at finding a cutting DeJuan Blair, Samuel Dalembert, or recently, Brandan Wright, for an easy two. Dallas has become so good in these types of set ups that Monta-Dirk pick and fades are becoming nearly unguardable, even by the leagues top defenses.
Monta has accentuated his great play attacking the basket with a decent shooting stroke as well. His pull up jump shot has been very consistent from both elbows so far this season and while he is still a below average 3-point threat, he has at least been a threat with a decent touch from both corners. He has also shown a really good in between game from the right side, where he has an arsenal of tricky floaters, flicks, and pull ups he constantly can knock down inside of 16 feet. He is never going to be the most efficient scorer in basketball, but he has been fairly efficient so far this season and Dallas has been superb offensively in large part due to Monta’s contribution.
The Finish: More Than Just A Shooter
Klay Thompson is one of the league’s better defenders. It is not something that is widely acknowledged, and Thompson’s M.O. as a 3-point shooter may lead some to believe that he is below average on the other end of the court. But Thompson blossomed into one of the better perimeter defenders in basketball under Mike Malone over the last two seasons and he has continued to be great on that end of the court this year. He will probably never get the respect a Danny Green or Arron Afflalo gets in that regard, especially since he is now the third best defender on his team, but Thompson is one of the few wing defenders I can trust to guard the opposing team’s best scorer night in and night out.
When you combine that defense with his lights out shooting and the added versatility he is beginning to show this season, it is not hard to see why Klay Thompson is one of the best shooting guards in basketball so early in his career. His three point shooting ability is essentially a given at this point as Klay is shooting 43.6 percent from 3, while shooting an very good 47.37 percent from the left corner and a ridiculous 50 percent from the right corner. He has been just as good shooting the ball from the mid-range as well, but the thing that stands out the most this season, is his new found ability to finish at the rim. He is not taking a lot of shots at the rim — only around 2.5 per game — but he is shooting a highly efficient 64.9 percent on those shots. It will never be his strong suit but his competency around the rim, his lights out shooting, and his top notch defense have turned Klay Thompson into one of the best 3D threats the NBA has to offer.
Two words: Damian Lillard
Next Week: “And Ten,” a look at some of the top moments from the NBA season so far