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You can space the floor, and you can scheme. You can preach unselfishness and hone shot selection to optimize the expected value of each attempt.
But unless you’ve got a creator in your offense, it won’t matter.
Creators originate points. They break down the defense with individual skill and either get their own looks or create chances for teammates. The very best players of this sort can actually facilitate scoring opportunities for others even when they don’t have the ball—by drawing attention away from other threats.
Forget the classic “creator” label. We’re not interested in old-school, pass-first point guards who aren’t serious about scoring. Those players are still valuable, but the absolute best point producers generate offense in several different ways.
Nowadays, creation isn’t confined to just points, anyway. Offense can come from anywhere.
These players are the best offense producers—via the pass, shot or mere presence on the floor—you’ll see at their respective positions in 2018-19.
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Not a conventional point guard by old-timey standards, Stephen Curry remains the most dangerous offensive weapon in basketball.
When he has the ball, a defender must be within a finger’s breadth, lest Curry fling off a back-breaking 30-footer. Sometimes, the opponent’s proximity doesn’t even matter; Curry can create enough space to fire with a simple feint or shoulder shimmy.
He didn’t shoot a ton of them, but it’s telling that Curry hit 41.7 percent of his threes last year when a defender was in “very tight” coverage, which means within two feet.
Nobody forces schematic changes that subvert normal defensive paradigms like Curry. It wasn’t so long ago that the territory three steps beyond the arc was a barren wasteland. Now, it’s real estate that must be defended when Curry’s around. His ability to inspire panic, to plunge rotating defenses into chaos, only intensifies when he’s darting around without the rock.
Lose track of him, or relax for a split second after he gives the ball up, and it’s curtains. Usually, because he disappears and re-materializes behind the arc without a defender nearby.
It’s a no-win situation in which defenses are hosed if Curry has the ball…and doubly hosed if he doesn’t.
Just look at what Curry’s gravity creates for others. With him on the floor in 2017-18, the Golden State Warriors scored 120.4 points per 100 possessions. When he sat, that figure was just 106.1, right in line with the Portland Trail Blazers’ overall figure, which ranked 16th in the league.
You get the idea. Golden State’s offense, frequently butting up against historical greatness over the last several years, is pedestrian when Curry is on the bench.
Nobody at the point creates like Curry.
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We’re cherry-picking with positional designations a bit, but only in the interest of getting James Harden onto this list.
In 2016-17, Basketball Reference’s positional breakdown had Harden playing 98 percent of his minutes at the 1. Last year, that figure dipped to just 19 percent, which helps justify slotting him in as a shooting guard. Oddly, though, Cleaning the Glass logged Harden as having played about 1,300 more possessions at the 1 than the 2 in 2017-18. So it’s not an exact science.
Certainly, Harden’s size is that of a shooting guard. And for most of his pre-Mike D’Antoni career, that’s where he played. It feels fair to call him a hybrid guard now, especially since Houston starts Chris Paul at the point.
Having already burned too many calories justifying Harden’s position, it’s a good thing we don’t have to work very hard to make his case as the best creator at shooting guard.
There’s no better one-on-one weapon in the league, as Harden led all players with 720 isolation plays last season. In addition to dominating in volume (LeBron James placed second with only 529 isolation plays), Harden also crushed the field in efficiency, averaging 1.22 points per iso attempt.
What’s more, Harden became the first player in history to average at least 10 three-point and free-throw attempts per game. He also tossed out 8.8 assists per game.
Partly because Harden is such a slick passer, and partly because Houston’s offense is designed to create deep looks, Harden’s assists frequently produced three-point shots, making his facilitation even more valuable. Only five players set up more than Harden’s average of 3.4 made triples per game last year.
Harden also led the league in assists that produced dunks in 2017-18, with an average of 2.38 per game.
So in addition to averaging a league-high 30.4 points per game, Harden also averaged a total of 5.78 assists that produced either made threes or made dunks.
If you need a high-percentage look, Harden will get a three or layup himself or, failing that, create one for a teammate. It’s efficient offense on steroids. The Houston Rockets will be a top-three offense as long as Harden is healthy and in his prime.
That’s bad news for defenses in 2018-19.
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Nobody can get his own shot like Kevin Durant, a 7’0″ wing with a guard’s handle and a high release. Skilled, slithery and dangerous from just about anywhere inside half court (just ask the Cavs how important it is to pick up KD when he’s got a live dribble beyond the arc), Durant is deadly whether playing within an offensive set or freelancing.
Those treys he buried to crush Cleveland weren’t part of a play. They weren’t designed. They were the result of an exceptionally gifted offensive force deciding it was time to call “game.”
The proud owner of four scoring titles, Durant is a player whose bucket-getting prowess needs no further illustration. What’s made him so much more dangerous in recent seasons is an improved passing eye. And playing in an offense defined by unselfishness and player movement; good luck getting any of that when you’re sharing time with Russell Westbrook.
Durant’s assist percentage was 25.5 percent last season, just a hair below the 26.7 percent he posted during 2013-14, when he won MVP. That 2017-18 rate ranked second to Nicolas Batum among small forwards, and at the risk of setting off the understatement alarm, Batum’s not quite on KD’s level as an individual scorer.
The only player in the league to average at least 26 points and five assists on 64 percent true shooting last year, Durant heads into 2018-19 poised to create more offense than any other small forward. The only thing that might slow him down is a liberal resting strategy as Golden State tries to conserve energy for a fifth consecutive Finals run.
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A lot goes into how often a scorer is set up by his teammates, but it feels fair to say James had to work harder than most to create his points last year.
And while everyone appreciates James’ talents as a passer, which they should in light of his career-best 9.1 assists per game, maybe there’s not enough attention paid to his individual scoring brilliance.
Remember: Though Harden is at the top of the isolation class, James is no slouch. He ranked in the 71st percentile in isolation efficiency and amassed 6.1 iso points per game—second only to Harden in 2017-18. Considering the underwhelming help around him in Cleveland, James probably deserves a medal for producing that many points out of nothing when opponents were so keyed in on stopping him.
With the Lakers, it seems reasonable to believe James will enjoy easier scoring opportunities—particularly if he plays more at center. There’s not a conventional big alive who can stay with him on the perimeter, and since James already manipulates like-sized opponents as if they were marionettes, we should expect him to toy with opposing centers even more cruelly. Help will have to come constantly, from all angles.
So although the Lakers are a bit shorter on shooting than last year’s Cavs, if James is operating against more favorable matchups, there’s no telling how open his teammates will be.
A born setup artist who can also get his own shots with the best of them, James remains a fearsome creator for himself and others.
*Truncated, alternative explanation for picking James here: Um, it’s LeBron James.
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Oddly, Nikola Jokic, a center, comes closer to meeting the conventional definition of a creator than anyone else on our list.
His unselfishness and obvious delight in setting up others brands Jokic as a classic point guard…who happens to play the 5.
Anecdotally, you’ve got the one-handed redirects and no-look dimes that seem to find teammates at the precise moment they shake loose from a defender. You can see the other Nuggets just itching to ditch their man and cut backdoor because they know Jokic will find them. You can practically sense the excitement of someone like Jamal Murray zipping off a down screen to take a handoff from his facilitating center because he knows it’ll generate a good look.
If passing is contagious, Jokic is the Nuggets’ patient zero.
Oh, right! Stats!
Fortunately, we don’t have to rely on the eye test (glorious as it is) to make Jokic’s prime-creator case. We’ve also got 2017-18’s 29.6 assist percentage, which ranked highest among centers and 18th in the entire league. If you really want to simplify things, just look at Jokic’s 6.1 assists per game from last year. Wilt Chamberlain is the only center in history to top that average in a season.
“It’s kind of like when I was fortunate enough to coach a guy like LeBron, Chris Paul, Steph Curry—you recognize greatness,” Nuggets head coach Mike Malone told Harrison Wind of BSN Denver last February, following a game in which Jokic had a triple-double with 1:54 left in the second quarter. “We feel that we have the most dynamic, best facilitator, best young playmaker in the NBA.”
Malone didn’t offer a positional qualifier on purpose. Jokic is that good a passer.
Oh, and those 18.5 points per game last year weren’t bad either.
Heading into his fourth season, Jokic will be surrounded by young, improving talent. If you thought his 6.1 assists per game were impressive, wait until he gets up over eight in 2018-19 while leading a Nuggets offense that should easily rank among the league’s top five.