It's been just a month since we ranked the top players by position, and since we're still biding our time until teams report to training camp, it's still the season for projections and rankings. At this point of the offseason, we have a pretty good idea of what the main components of each team's rotation are going to be once the new season tips off. To be sure, there will be tweaks from preseason developments, plus an unpleasant injury or two, but by and large we can turn our attention to figuring out how the revamped teams are going to fit together.
With that in mind, let's look at some unit rankings, beginning today with backcourts across the NBA. We'll do the frontcourts later this week.
An important note: The list is based on 2013-14 projected WARP as forecast by ATH, my system for generating performance based on trait matching, athletic indicators and aging curves. At the bottom line, WARP is primarily a function of the quality and quantity of a player's production, so these rankings take into account not just how well ATH thinks a player will play but how often.
The combined unit WARP is based on the projections for each team's probable starting guards, plus its top reserve. So again, this is looking ahead, not at last season.
1. Houston Rockets | Combined WARP: 22.6
James Harden, Patrick Beverley, Jeremy Lin
Surprised? Well, remember that elite players in the NBA generate such a disproportionate amount of a team's production that unit rankings will invariably be dominated by star performers. So it is with the Rockets, who landed a big man as the jewel of the current offseason yet still project to have the league's most valuable backcourt. The rating is of course driven by MVP candidate Harden, now entering his age-24 season, and it's somewhat speculative given the optimism about Beverley despite his short track record.
One of Houston's key questions entering the season is whether Beverley or Lin fits better as Harden's primary partner. In the playoffs this past spring, Lin and Harden played together for 70.2 minutes, per Basketball-Reference.com, during which Houston was outscored by 28.7 points per 100 possessions. However, Harden teamed with Beverley for 172.4 minutes and the Rockets outscored opposing Oklahoma City by seven points per 100 possessions. We'll see whether those results hold up in preseason play and affect Kevin McHale's formulation of his new rotation.
2. San Antonio Spurs | Combined WARP: 21.9
Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Danny Green
An oldie but a goodie! ATH is forecasting a bit of a decline for Parker, which led to a lot of consternation about my point guard rankings last month. Parker isn't projected to drop off a cliff or anything; the system just doesn't see him repeating his MVP-caliber season. However, even if that happens, the Spurs' backcourt has more than enough production and chemistry to remain one of the NBA's top units. San Antonio also has fine depth beyond this trio in Cory Joseph, Marco Belinelli, Nando de Colo and Patty Mills.
3. Miami Heat | Combined WARP: 21.3
Dwyane Wade, Mario Chalmers, Ray Allen
Although Wade is reaching a tenuous age for shooting guards, particularly one with his long history of rough-and-tumble play, ATH doesn't see his per-possession performance becoming an issue this season. I am projecting Wade to play fewer minutes as Miami seeks to avoid wearing him down before the playoffs and risking a repeat of last spring's up-and-down postseason performance. Otherwise, Miami might rank even higher. Chalmers, with his ability to shoot the open 3, defend opposing point guards and hawk the ball in Miami's pressure-based system, is a perfect complement not just for Wade but for LeBron James. Allen has long been the perfect complement for just about anybody.
4. Los Angeles Clippers | Combined WARP: 19.8
Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford
The Clippers might have climbed a spot if newcomer Jared Dudley were coded as a guard, but L.A.'s depth chart construction suggests he'll be playing more 3 than 2. The Clippers' ranking is driven by Paul's 15.7 WARP. Redick is a perfect complement off the ball, and Crawford is one of the league's top sixth men. This dynamic combination doesn't even include summer acquisition Darren Collison, who borders on overqualified when it comes to being a backup.
5. Los Angeles Lakers | Combined WARP: 17.0
Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Jodie Meeks
Even with a conservative games-played projection, Bryant is forecast to again lead the Lakers in WARP, with Pau Gasol and Nash trailing close behind. Meeks is a plus role player who nevertheless couldn't nudge Steve Blake out of the Lakers' rotation when the latter was healthy. The Lakers have other plus guards in Blake and Jordan Farmar, but before fans out west get too excited, I urge you to wait until you see the frontcourt rankings later this week.
6. Indiana Pacers | Combined WARP: 15.5
Paul George, George Hill, C.J. Watson
Indiana's ranking is dependent upon Danny Granger reclaiming the bulk of the minutes at 3, thus pushing George to the backcourt. George is a standout wherever he plays; Hill isn't spectacular, but he's consistent and fits well with Indiana's style and culture; Watson is an upgrade off the bench after last season's disappointing combined output from D.J. Augustin and Gerald Green. Notable by his absence is last season's starting 2, Lance Stephenson. As high as the Pacers are on Stephenson, at this point his playing time has been based more on fit than production, an arrangement that won't hold up if Granger is healthy and/or Stephenson doesn't improve.
7. Denver Nuggets | Combined WARP: 15.4
Ty Lawson, Nate Robinson, Evan Fournier
The Nuggets' solid backcourt outlook has me nervous. I'm confident that Lawson (7.9 WARP) will remain one of Denver's top players and in the upper half of NBA point guards. Although I like Fournier from a statistical and a scouting perspective, he has to win the job at 2 from veteran Randy Foye. If that doesn't happen, it'll be a sign that things aren't going well in Denver. Robinson has performed efficiently in each of the past two seasons with Golden State and Chicago. He'll be battling Andre Miller for the role of off-the-bench spark plug under new coach Brian Shaw. That's another case to be monitored: Will Shaw opt for the potential of production over the safety net suggested by the "proven veteran"?
8. Dallas Mavericks | Combined WARP: 14.7
Jose Calderon, Monta Ellis, Devin Harris
Dallas' all-new backcourt has a solid collective track record, if not a spot-free one with the addition of Ellis. We'll see how these players fit together as a tandem and in Rick Carlisle's system, but at least the baseline of production is there.
9. Minnesota Timberwolves | Combined WARP: 14.3
Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, Jose Barea
A year removed from his knee injury, if Rubio takes a big developmental step, he'll vault Minnesota's backcourt into the top five and the Timberwolves into the playoffs. If Martin shoots the deep ball well, he'll fit with Rubio, and Barea remains an ideal bench igniter. Alexey Shved and Corey Brewer also figure to be positive contributors to this group.
10. Portland Trail Blazers | Combined WARP: 14.3
Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Mo Williams
Don't forget about rookie C.J. McCollum, who helps give Portland's backcourt group a whole lot of upside. Lillard is forecast to regress just a little, if only because he'd be hard-pressed to lead the league in minutes once again, especially given the depth around him in the backcourt. The one concern about this group's fit is whether the proven combo guard skills of Williams are redundant to the potential combo guard skills of McCollum, thus limiting the first-year playing time of the latter.
• The No. 11 Oklahoma City Thunder have a star in Russell Westbrook, a defensive specialist in Thabo Sefolosha and a bunch of question marks.
• The No. 12 Golden State Warriors have a bona fide star in Stephen Curry, but with Jarrett Jack gone, the Warriors need Klay Thompson to round out his game. Andre Iguodala figures to be a 3 in the Warriors' rotation.
• No backcourt has longer individual track records than the Brooklyn Nets' (No. 13) Deron Williams, Jason Terry and Joe Johnson, but the latter two are reaching the wrong end of the aging timeline.
• Look out for the Washington Wizards (No. 14) if Glen Rice Jr. develops into an efficient complement to go with John Wall and Bradley Beal.
• No, we didn't forget about the No. 21 Chicago Bulls. First, we have to be conservative with Derrick Rose's playing time projection. Second, although Jimmy Butler is developing into an elite role player, there is only below-replacement production forecast after that from aging Kirk Hinrich and Mike James, as well as raw perimeter players Marquis Teague and Tony Snell