Shooting Guards Aren’t Worth the Money

The Kevin Love trade talks (or at least the rumor mill) fired up again last week with reports of mutual interest in completing a deal between Golden State and Minnesota. While Love’s inevitable trade is certainly worth discussing, the more interesting piece of the rumors was the Warriors’ apparent willingness to consider including Klay Thompson. The reported package is centered around David Lee and the newly-available Thompson.

Thompson has been a big part of the 3-launching squads the Warriors have fielded over the last three years. The Splash Brothers backcourt of Thompson and Stephen Curry are a formidable duo thanks to their prowess from deep – neither has shot below 40% on 3s in their career, and their trigger happy approach lies at the heart of Golden State’s identity. The Warriors offense has increasingly consisted of complex ways to get one of the two room to let fly.

In spite of his reliance on high-efficiency threes, Thompson has yet to record a PER above the league average during any season of his career. His defense holds potential – he definitely has the size and athleticism to be a stout wing defender – but thus far in his career it’s been the shooting that’s been his calling card, and a rating system that emphasizes that strength still doesn’t think he’s been better than half of the league over three seasons.

That’s not a huge deal in a vacuum. Thompson will have plenty of time to improve his game, and the finer points of how to use his size and skill on both ends of the floor will come to him in time. He should end up as a strong starter in the league, and he has acquitted himself quite nicely as a starter on a team with big aspirations and other players commanding the ball.

The real issues arise when you look at him in the context of other shooting guards. As the last generation of All-Star 2s fades (Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Manu Ginobili, and Joe Johnson are all on the downslope of their careers) there isn’t a lot of quality or depth left at the position. The old guys are still around in some form or fashion, and James Harden is an offensive maestro, but then you’re left with guys like DeMar DeRozan (who had a nice year and may still have a leap left at age 24), Thompson, and Bradley Beal.

After that the dropoff is noticeable. You’ve got your one-dimensional scorers in Kevin Martin and Monta Ellis. There are the defensive specialists: Danny Green and Thabo Sefolosha. Then there are the rest. Arron Afflalo makes nearly $8 million per year. Gerald Henderson makes $6 million.

The defense-first group is the most cost-effective, with both Green and Sefolosha making below $4 million last season, but other positions – notably power forward and point guard – offer more talent at lower prices. Several teams are forgoing the shooting guard position entirely; the Phoenix Suns started Eric Bledsoe with Goran Dragic for most of the season and were about as successful as a team can be without actually making the playoffs.

That’s your shooting guard market, and that’s how a guy like Thompson, who hasn’t shown the ability to be anything close to a franchise player, has his name showing up with the words “max contract” in the same sentence. Ultimately he’ll probably command a few million dollars less than the max. Relative to all NBA players this seems a bit absurd, but comparing him to the current set of shooting guards it doesn’t seem like too bad of a deal.

So should teams shell out for a solid player at a weak position?

Consider the point guard market. Kyle Lowry and Dragic both had excellent seasons, and each made well below $10 million. They were the offensive leaders of their teams while also playing respectable defense. You’ve also got Kyrie Irving, John Wall, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Bledsoe, Ricky Rubio, Ty Lawson, Curry, Damian Lillard, and Mike Conley (to name a few) who are all playing great basketball. The number of effective point guards is almost overwhelming. Unlike with shooting guard, GMs can feel safe in negotiations with middle-tier point guards knowing that there will be another one available if they can’t agree on a price. That drives down salaries and makes a solid point guard cost a whole lot less than an equivalent shooting guard.

Plenty of teams can get away with playing two point guards for long stretches (think Reggie Jackson with Westbrook). There are other options. Even if a team is looking to have a traditional shooting guard, why not just pick up a defensive specialist, or draft a handful of specialists in the 2nd round? What opposing shooting guards are there to be afraid of?

The shooting guard battle may have decided one playoff series this season as Wes Matthews played Harden very tough and provided enough of a gap for Portland to pull away from Houston in Round 1. Aside from that, there have been fewer and fewer instances of shooting guards deciding anything meaningful. A team with a strong two-way player on the wing can get away with a specialist in the other spot as long as they aren’t a turnstile on defense or completely incompetent offensively.

Smart teams look for market inefficiencies to gain a competitive advantage. After the stars have picked their landing spots and the draft picks have fallen where they may it’s one of the last ways for a top team to gain an edge on the other contenders. For years shooting was undervalued – that was exploited by good teams to gain that extra bit of space without having to overpay.

The shooting guard situation is the opposite, and teams would be wise to avoid spending big money on all but the best of the shooting guard crop – those who can be considered elite even when they are compared to players at other positions. It may seem easy to grab a good-but-not-great two and try to fill in the point guard spot with a cheaper talent, but at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter which position your best players play, just that they are better than other players (and of course fit together within a larger team concept).

A backcourt of Thompson and Rubio won’t be as effective as one of Curry and Kevin Martin. Curry is easily the best player of the group, which is enough to make that a better pairing – it’s as simple as that. That’s why top teams may begin (and may have already begun) shying away from overpriced shooting guards in favor of point guards and forwards who come at a lower price. With a finite amount available to spend, getting maximum talent for your investments is critical. That’s how the smart teams have been viewing the market for years.

2 thoughts on “Shooting Guards Aren’t Worth the Money

  1. Anonymous says:

    Excellent piece….came across this on Basketball Reference as I was putting my own blog piece together about the decline of NBA shooting guards. This used to be the premier position in the league & now its almost like a running back in the NFL; you can get by with an average one if you’re stronger in other places on your roster. One trend that I’m seeing in my research is that today’s 2s rarely start from the beginning of their career. Harden, Afflalo, Green & Lance Stephenson definitely fit this description. Going back to the 80s & 90s, there are NBA icons at the 2 spot. That’s definitely not the case anymore.

    • Shawn says:

      Thanks! I hadn’t considered your point about a lot of the better 2s not starting right away – I’m curious now how shooting guard stacks up to other positions.

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