It’s no secret that shooting guard is the most shallow position in the National Basketball Association. While the point, or the 1-spot, is exploding with talent, the off-ball guard position seems to have vanished. That is, unless Kevin Durant counts as a 7-foot-tall SG, which is how Seattle tried to use him in his rookie season. Just saying.
But that doesn’t feel right, either in identification or in deference to Thabo Sefolosha, who’s been the 2 for the Thunder since he arrived at OKC in 2008. Michael Jordan obviously tops any list of shooting guards that he’s allowed into, and that makes for a boring list. So no KD and no MJ. While the NBA has many memorable 2-guards with names like Drexler, Miller, Gervin, Sharmin, and Johnson (Dennis), the modern era has seen precious few step into those sneakers, ready to take up the mantle.
There are, however, some promising SGs that look poised to make waves in the future. Indiana’s Lance Stephenson might be the most fun to watch, teammate Paul George (he played the 2 when Danny Granger was on the team) might be the best, and Washington’s Bradley Beal is probably going to be the best shooter of the bunch. Eric Gordon could be in that conversation if he was healthy, as could Kevin Martin. None of those guys have made it yet, though.
Read on to see our take on the eight best 2-guards who have filled the void left by Jordan.
Update: This list now includes Dwyane Wade as a bonus. We made a mistake in leaving Wade out, as he clearly deserves a spot here. We want to thank our readers for pointing it out and helping us make this list more complete!
8. Brandon Roy
Brandon Roy stands as one of the best/worst what-ifs to live in the shooting guard position after Jordan. Drafted in 2006 with the sixth overall pick by the Minnesota Timberwolves, Roy was traded to the Portland Trail Blazers for the rights to Randy Foye. Rookie of the Year in 2007 and a three-time NBA All-Star by the time he was 25, Roy had his career cut short by degenerative knees and retired from the game in 2011. A comeback with the Wolves in 2013 was unsuccessful, and he did not find a team for the 2013-2014 NBA season.
So why is he on this list? It’s because he was a tremendous talent, even through his injuries. He had 85 games with 25 points or more, averaged a 19-4-4 in his four seasons with the Blazers (no mean feat in Nate McMillan’s slower-than-sludge offensive system), was the new face of a troubled franchise (go search Portland Jail Blazers sometime), and could score from anywhere at any time.
Unfortunately for us, Roy’s knees never cooperated. After stringing together back-to-back 70-plus game seasons, Roy would only play in 115 games from 2010-2013, the result of four knee surgeries and zero cartilage left in either. Luckily for us, NBA games were made for Memorex, and the NBA put together a career top 10 for Roy a few years back.
7. Vince Carter
Vinsanity: Arguably the best dunker of all time. Arguably one of the most “wasted talents” of all time. Carter, the hyper-athletic shooting guard drafted by the Toronto Raptors after playing second fiddle to Antawn Jamison at UNC (not a joke) was often referred to as half man, half amazing.
He was so amazing to watch that most people have forgotten just how good he was. They’re even apt to forget that he’s still playing, providing bench minutes for the Dallas Mavericks and quietly redefining his game to be a role player. But that’s not the most important bit. Carter is one of only 12 NBA players to score at least 22,800 points, grab 5,500 rebounds, and dish more than 1,100 assists. The only ones who aren’t in the Hall of Fame? Kobe Bryant, Carter, and Paul Pierce. Pierce and Bryant are undoubtedly bound for Springfield, but Carter remains divisive. Never mind his eight All-Star appearances or his two All-NBA nods or his Rookie of the Year awards. People don’t dig him because Carter “didn’t win.”
Of course, out of the 1,121 games that Carter played in the NBA, he’s won 590. Mathematically speaking, that makes him a career winner, if just barely, with 52 percent of his total games in the W column. But that’s not what people really mean. They mean that he “didn’t leave it all on the court” or “didn’t give 110 percent” or some other tired platitude you hear parroted by overblown analysts to draw attention like so many stooped-shoulder carnival barkers. Carter was awesome. Here he is at his best:
6. James Harden
Unlike Vince Carter, James Harden has no nicknames. Also unlike Carter (not to mention the rest of this list), Harden has a beard worthy of the World Beard and Moustache Competition. Originally coming to the league’s attention as the Oklahoma City Thunder’s version of George Harrison — or whatever overshadowed third wheel fits your radio station of choice — Harden became known for his superior ball-handling skills, his finesse in the pick and roll, and his facial hair, handily picking up Sixth Man of the Year for his role on the Thunder in 2012.
Harden’s game can be tough to watch at times. As a player who’s been in the top 10 for foul shots since 2012, Harden gets to the line — a lot. So often that it’s a drag, because foul shots cause the game to stop and slow down to a crawl. Like this paragraph. Even worse, Harden’s almost automatic from the line (career 84 percent), so there isn’t even the “will he miss” drama. Per ESPN, Harden is fourth in the league with nine free throws attempted per game.
But, of course, Harden’s comfortably 1A or 1B on an NBA title contender, and he’s young enough to have another eight to 10 years of superstar-level play ahead of him. Projecting is a dangerous thing (I’d say Roy projected to be about five slots higher on this list had we made it in 2011), but Harden’s probably top three in 2014, and he might make it to post-Jordan top three if he stays on this trajectory.
5. Manu Ginobili
See that picture? Manu Ginobili has been in the game so long he used to have hair. Like Jordan circa ’85, an old picture of Manu — the best Argentine baller ever — is disconcerting. It appears, it shocks, and it awes. Not dissimilar to his presence on this list, maybe.
When people look for an earlier prototype to Harden’s game, they often land on Ginobili. Like Harden, Ginobili is left handed and has a way of driving to the hoop that almost guarantees a foul call. Ginobili’s a much better passer than Harden. Actually, Ginobili might be the best passing 2-guard in the game, and he’s a much better player than is often supposed. After getting his minutes playing with Argentine and Italian basketball clubs, Ginobili was taken with the 57th pick in the 1999 NBA draft. On his way to becoming the best stash pick the NBA has ever seen, Ginobili stayed in Italy until 2002. Still not convinced? Here’s his resume:
- Two-time NBA All-Star
- Sixth Man of the Year (2008)
- Four-time NBA Champion
- Two-time All-NBA
- Two-time Italian League MVP
- Three-time Italian League All-Star
- FIBA champion
- Euroleague champion
- Three-time Olympic medalist
No summers off for Ginobili, the hardest working 2-guard in the business.
4. Ray Allen
Ray Allen will be remembered for three-and-a-half things. He’ll go down in history as the greatest 3-point shooter the league has ever seen, being an essential part of the Boston Celtics’ Big Three, hitting the clutch three-ball in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals, and for playing the lead role in one of the best basketball movies ever, He Got Game. That’s the half.
What gets lost in that discussion is just how good Allen was before he became known for only shooting 3s. Back in his days with the Milwaukee Bucks and the Seattle SuperSonics, Allen played more like current Golden State Warrior Steph Curry. Only Allen was more durable, missing fewer than 20 games in his first seven seasons. He was also arguably more athletic, though not quite on Curry’s level as a ball-handler. Curry is a great reference point because, of all the players in the NBA, he seems to have the best shot at passing Allen’s 3-point record, and they both suffered ankle injuries early in their career.
With his obsessive devotion to off-season fitness (Googling “Ray Allen fitness” will net you somewhere around 30 million results), Allen has been able to refine his game into the ultimate role player for the Miami Heat, a team that plays a system designed to get its non-essential wings (Allen, Norris Cole, Mario Chalmers, Rashard Lewis) wide-open 3 pointers. It would be remiss to ignore his considerable career before this phase, though. He won’t be a first-ballot Hall of Famer if all he did was sink 3s.
3. Tracy McGrady
Tracy McGrady is underrated. His heavily lidded eyes, his style of play — the dude made basketball look so easy that no player in the modern era has been accused of phoning it in. Don’t buy it? Consider this: McGrady became the focal point of a 2011 MIT Sloan Analytics panel featuring polarizing pop-scientist Malcolm Gladwell and his 10,000-hour rule.
McGrady, as you probably guessed, was held up as a guy who didn’t spend as much time in the gym as he should have. (We’re talking about practice?) His former coach with the Houston Rockets, Jeff Van Gundy, went on record saying that McGrady might have put in a tenth of the time that Gladwell’s rule required, while Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, king among bean-counting sports fans, suggested that McGrady’s natural ability proved to impede his ultimate contributions to his teams by hindering his development.
That might be true, but it’s totally missing the point. As highlighted by Bill Simmons, roused from autopilot by McGrady’s retirement announcement on ESPN’s “First Take” in 2013, McGrady spent his entire peak from 2001-2008 with these guys as his starting teammates during the playoffs: “Darrell Armstrong (three years), Bo Outlaw, Andrew DeClercq (two years), Mike Miller (two years), Pat Garrity (two years), Horace Grant (36 at the time), Monty Williams, Jacque Vaughn, Gordan Giricek, Drew Gooden, Yao Ming (two years), David Wesley, Bob Sura, Ryan Bowen, Scott Padgett, Shane Battier (two years), Rafer Alston (two years), Chuck Hayes, Luis Scola, Dikembe Mutombo (somewhere between age 40 and 52 at the time), and Bobby Jackson.”
The big knock on McGrady was that he couldn’t stay healthy and that he couldn’t win a playoff game. Given that list of teammates and the gamble that is athletes avoiding injury, I posit that neither of those things lower him on this list.
2. Allen Iverson
The best scoring machine in the post-Jordan NBA. The only player besides LeBron James to single-handedly carry his team to an NBA Finals appearance, willing his team to a win over the Kobe-and-Shaq Lakers in 2001 that would be the latter’s only loss of the entire post-season. At 6-foot-tall with shoes on, he was one of the scariest players with a ball in his hand to grace the hardwood. Iverson was, and is, a flashpoint for arguments about basketball, culture, and whatever else you want it to be about, really. Allen Iverson was controversy.
Rules of thumb are dangerous, but it’s safe to assume that you’re warping a sport’s landscape when the league changes the rules because of what you do. We saw it with Shaq and the restricted area, we saw it with the Pistons-Spurs final in 2004 that was so unwatchable the league ditched hand checking as fast as possible, and we saw it with AI and his crossover. As Iverson told the New York Times in 2011, “I just remember being able to do it all of the time, and then once it got that effective, it started getting called a lot.” Never mind that every single point guard in the NBA carries the ball every time as they initiate a half-court offense (watch a game and count how often this happens) — Iverson’s handles were so good that they had to slow him down. Not that it helped, really.
His individual achievements are impressive: 10-time All-Star, Rookie of the Year, 2001 MVP, seven-time All-NBA, four-time scoring champion, top four in career minutes per game (41.1), two-time steals leader, and top 50 career assists per game. Didn’t see that one coming, did you? Iverson was in his prime. His team achievements are not. Like T-Mac, Iverson never had a real second banana to help him overcome the best teams during his prime, unless you count Carmelo Anthony during AI’s short tenure with Denver.
1. Kobe Bryant
The case against Kobe Bryant? He definitely wasn’t the best player for his first three NBA championships. He might not have been the best player for his last two, depending on how you feel about Pau Gasol’s contributions to those Lakers teams. He’s a monomaniacal jerk. He had that whole thing in Colorado happen.
If you’ll notice, the argument against Bryant as a basketball player doesn’t have a whole lot of strength. Is he morally suspect? Maybe. Did he take the wrong lessons from Jordan when it comes to motivating teammates through hostility? Maybe — if you trust Phil Jackson.
He’s a 16-time All-Star with five rings and 31,000 points. He’s got the second highest score in an NBA game ever, with 81 points against the Raptors. He has more All-NBA awards than you have fingers or toes. He’s top five for career shot attempts and trips to the free-throw line. It’s not an exciting choice, but Kobe Bryant is definitely the best shooting guard since Michael Jordan.
Still to come: Dwyane Wade
Bonus: Dwyane Wade
Dwayne Wade is a certain inclusion that we missed out on the first time.
The best Jordan since Jordan belongs not to Kobe Bryant but to Dwyane Wade, the biggest beneficiary of “The Decision” besides Micky Arison. Wade, formerly Flash and now just D-Wade on the rare gamedays that he actually shows up, was the only shooting guard on this list to ever make it all the way to the Finals as the team’s best player — he had Shaq, but that wasn’t the same Shaq that carried Kobe to the Lakers’ three-peat. Wade, undersized at 6-foot-3, was originally seen by Heat general manager Pat Riley as a possible point guard when he was taken fifth overall in a 2003 draft that is one of the three best in NBA history.
Nowadays, Wade’s best play comes in spurts and, yes, flashes. After years of hurling himself into the stands and at the rim, Dwyane’s just as apt to miss a game as he is to go for 40. That remains the single biggest weakness that the Heat have as the team goes for its own three-peat — the health of a onetime superstar in Wade. With more than 17,000 career points, 4,000 assists, and 3,500 rebounds, Wade’s numbers aren’t quite as impressive as some of the other guys on this list, but his championship resume is far superior.