This is the final installment in our “Best Of All-Time” series, after having already covered Centers, Power Forwards, Small Forwards, and Point Guards. Shooting guards are being ranked last for a good reason: they're an incredibly difficult group to evaluate.
Most fans and media overvalue shooting guards tremendously because they often are a team's leading scorer. Unfortunately, this completely disregards what it actually takes for a team to win a game, and these rankings are all about which players could best improve a team's odds of winning. Having one guys score a lot of points sounds good, but if that same player's FG% and eFG% are poor (or even average), then what value did they add to a club that can achieve an average eFG% simply by passing and sharing the ball more? If a high-usage SG with average or lower shooting efficiency also isn't a particularly efficient passer or creator (few SG's are), then it's really hard to justify how they're helping their team's offense by being so ball-dominant.
Not only that, the perception of how good a SG is is often based on highlights. Scoring in a way that is difficult may require a lot of skill, but repeatedly trying to do so does not add value to a team trying to win. Shooting fadeaways or while barreling down the lane out of control or while double teamed looks great if it goes in, but it hurts the shooting percentages in the long-run, and ultimately hurts a club (and often hurts teammates' confidence and desire to work to get open). Also, high-scoring SG's usually aren't defending at a level that is truly affecting another team's offense. Centers and power forward can do a lot to help their team's defense, great defensive PG's can screw up the opponent's execution, and determined SF's usually have enough size or speed to guard multiple positions. SG's can only have a real impact on that side of the ball if they are a true shut-down guard, but almost none of these guys are (those are usually specialists like Tony Allen or Andre Iguodala); most of the supposed greats aren't even versatile enough defenders to guard anything other than SG's and slow SF's.
So again, evaluating and ranking the shooting guards was very hard. All the big names are usually huge scorers, but their efficiencies are all over the place, most of them were only so-so passers, very few made a real difference defensively, and many were huge ego-maniacs who didn't exactly help team chemistry. It's only after considering all of this that one has a shot at determining the impact these SG's had on their club's W-L records. Suffice to say, this is the weakest group historically.
I. Elite Tier
West and MJ are the only two SG's who were superstar team leaders, did many things very well, and did them at a really high efficiency. They both improved how their teammates played (West through exceptional leadership and passing, Jordan through exceptional confidence), and this lead to 15 Finals appearances between the pair.
1. Jerry West
2. Michael Jordan
Allow me to explain by comparing their major attributes.
Attributes, West = Jordan:
fantastic scorers, very efficient
exceptional defensive players, one-on-one and for steals
extraordinary clutch and playoff performances were the norm
both were very good rebounders for guards
both were the best and most aggressive drivers to the hoop in their era
contagiously ultra competitive, limitless drive
Attributes, West > Jordan:
West's passing was so good he was an elite PG for the last 1/3 of his career (MJ was good)
West was a far superior outside shooter, would have been great 3-pt shooter
West didn't berate his teammates into submission (could mesh with more teams)
Attributes, Jordan > West:
Jordan was more athletic
Jordan's teams won more titles (but he had more support and much worse opposition)
II. Efficient Tier
These guys not only put up impressive numbers, but you don't have to wonder how much their over-shooting, ego, and stat-chasing affected their teams. They may not have been the most dominant leaders, but they certainly weren't a detriment to team chemistry that required a great surrounding cast to overcome.
3. Sam Jones
efficient scorer (45-47% FG in a league that was 42-44%)
great long-range shooter who would have been good behind the 3-pt line
extraordinarily clutch at the highest level on the biggest stages
very good athleticism, quickness, driving
peak is short due to 4 years college, 2 years military, 4 years backing up Sharman
although he was C's top scorer and clutch shooter, was reluctantly “the man”
4. Hal Greer
above-average scoring efficiency
had a great jump shot, would have benefited from 3-pt line
very diverse game with good rebound-assist combos
plenty of curiously low playoff shooting percentages
very good, but rarely dominant
5. Clyde Drexler
very good rebounder for a guard
very good passing and overall passing efficiency for a SG
good inside-outside scoring capabilities
carried ho-hum supporting cast to great heights for 3 straight yrs in a stacked NBA
was significantly worse in the clutch and in most playoffs
almost never took over at a crucial moment when his team needed it
fell apart for 2 years after Jordan decided to destroy him in '92
6. Joe Dumars
outstanding defender at both guard positions (MJ said he was the best)
very good shooter
excellent passing SG
great teammate, attitude
could get it done in big moments
was not a face-of-franchise alpha dog – was only a good complimentary player
Detroit bottomed out when he finally overtook Isiah as their best player
7. Ray Allen
great outside shooter, even when tightly defended
very good in clutch/playoffs
great leader and complimentary player into mid-30's
an outside shooter can't carry a team
needed to be next to other talent (at least a good big) to win
III. Questionable Value Tier
These are the guys with big reputations, but they all were inefficient ball hogs, did not connect with teammates in a particularly positive way, and/or there's enough evidence to make one wonder how much value they added to a team's W-L records. I probably wouldn't want any of them on my team for an extended period of time, so they are not ranked (that's why there's no # in front of their names).
drove teammates and coaches crazy
bad in the clutch and in the most important games
horrible teammate (didn't care about winning, practice, etc.)
was a major off-the-court distraction
terrible shooting percentages
way too many turnovers
drove coaches crazy
alienated and brutalized teammates
was a major off-the-court distraction
was true leader who raised teammates' confidence for only 2-3 years
continually overdribbles and takes unnecessarily bad shots
severely overrated defender, especially last 5-6 years
shooting and passing efficiencies almost always worse than rest of team
no stats support clutch reputation (most show the opposite)
very aloof with teammates, they get complacent knowing he won't involve them
can't get along with or mesh with good teammates, can't win without them
team rose/fell with front court, Phil, super high payroll, supporting cast, Fish, refs
Lakers consistently play better without him (including 5-2 last year)
very bad rebounder and passer
his scoring numbers weren't that good (career 18 ppg, top-10 scorer once)
far less playoff success than his 5-7 most overplayed clips make you think
a 3-pt shooter can't carry a team
never dominant or transcendent in any way
Past The Top-7
Admittedly odd looking top-7, but everyone else that's "supposed" to be there simply costs your club way too much in terms of efficiency or chemistry. Some of the guys with the most talent misused it (Kobe, Gervin, Maravich), while some with less talent had their heads on a lot straighter and were supreme complimentary players (Greer, Dumars). Ultimately the rankings are based on the following criteria: If I had to add one of these SG's to my team for 10 full seasons next to one decent-to-good center (let's say Patrick Ewing) and a supporting cast that as a group was perfectly average with an average coach and front office, plus our playoff draws as a sum were not particularly lucky or unlucky in terms of opposing styles of play, who would I take to give my team the best chance of contending for titles for that decade?
Looking for more players after the top-7 (or even to place as high as 4 or 5), I might look to Gervin or Iverson who in their primes carried some terrible casts to many postseasons but who will ultimately infuriate teammates and coaches and rip the club apart...so probably not. I could go with another oldie in Bill Sharman, who had all the skills you'd ever want in a SG, but it was the 50's so the athleticism/height carry-over is a little questionable. Some guys just didn't play at a high level long enough to be taken seriously as an all-time great (Earl Monroe, Pete Maravich, David Thompson, Sidney Moncrief, Paul Westphal). Dwyane Wade's career is still developing and he's been too injury-prone for me to jump on him as an obvious pick in the top-10, but when all is said and done he should certainly be in this top grouping.
A lot of guys look OK on paper but aren't going to help carry a contender as one of its top-2 players without the other guy being a super-duper star (Gail Goodrich, Manu Ginobili, Dave Bing, Mitch Richmond, Lou Hudson, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter). Kobe needs an endless list of perfect-situation advantages for his team to succeed, and Reggie needs a lot of teammates to play well for his very occasional big moment games (seriously, find me more than 10 in his 18-year career) to lead a team out of the first round.
Like I said at the top, the SG group is very weak historically. Fans tend to overvalue this position's worth to a club because they score points and look cool while doing it. There's a lot more to consider than YouTube clips when evaluating a player's influence, which ultimately makes a lot of the most revered shooting guards a liability, or at the least less valuable than a good big man, a heady point guard, or a versatile small forward.