The NBA’s top 10 point guards
By Ben Golliver
February was a very, very good month for the NBA’s deep crop of point guards.
Chris Paul won the All-Star Game MVP award; Tony Parker worked his way into the MVP conversation; up-and-comers Kyrie Irving and Jrue Holiday made their first All-Star Game appearances; Stephen Curry scored an NBA-season-high 54 points at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday; and Damian Lillard continued his stranglehold on the Rookie of the Year race. It’s hard to ask for more than that, especially when two of the league’s premier point men — Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo — have been sidelined with injuries.
But how do the best of the best floor generals stack up against each other? Here’s my rundown of the NBA’s top 10 point guards. (All stats and records are through March 1.)
10. Ty Lawson, Nuggets
Stats: 16.5 PPG, 7.1 APG, 2.8 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 2.7 TO, 44.7 FG%, 35.4 3P%, 17.2 PER, 35.2 MPG
The 5-foot-11 Lawson’s short, wide build, top-shelf first step, elite end-to-end quickness and brash confidence with the ball make him one of the league’s most difficult players to defend one-on-one. He leads a high-octane Nuggets attack that ranks No. 6 in points scored per possession and No. 2 in pace. He generally appears to be stuck in fast forward, rarely wasting an opportunity to push the tempo in transition or attack his man from the perimeter. His lack of size can be exploited on defense, but his quick hands and ability to transform any turnover into an easy basket at the other end help compensate.
Lawson, 25, lacks the refinement and postseason success of some of the more established names on this list. Still, he merits inclusion because he plays lots of minutes and uses lots of possessions for a team that has consistently won more than 60 percent of its games since he arrived as a 2009 first-round pick. His slow start this season became a distant memory after he posted averages of 23.3 points and 8.4 assists in February; any snap-take concerns about his four-year, $48 million deal should now be assuaged.
9. Jrue Holiday, Sixers
Stats: 19.1 PPG, 8.6 APG, 4.2 RPG, 1.5 SPG, 3.9 TO, 45.6 FG%, 35.7 3P%, 18.2 PER, 38.4 MPG
Holiday’s emergence as a franchise-type point guard has been the only thing standing between the Sixers and a totally lost season. The 22-year-old in his fourth season has produced a career year across the board, showing real value on both ends of the floor and building off a solid 2012 postseason.
Offensively, the 6-foot-4 Holiday possesses sufficient size, quickness and ball-handling ability to get into the paint, and he’s shot a career-best 45.6 percent despite a drastic uptick in his attempts and mediocre finishing abilities at the rim. Defensively, he’s committed and focused and has good feet, allowing him to pester ball-handlers and disrupt offenses.
Holiday deserved his first All-Star nod, and his four-year, $41 million contract extension is looking like a bargain before it even kicks in next season. Paul has praised Holiday’s poise and athleticism, which counts as a ringing endorsement, and he’s significantly younger than 2009 draft classmates Lawson and Curry and therefore offers more long-term upside. He’s improved his ability to get to the free-throw line, which he will have to continue to build on, and he’s talked about the need to reduce his league-high turnover average. But the perception of his development will likely be influenced more by the talent around him than by his own incremental improvements. Hopefully Philadelphia finds some help for him sooner than later, because he arrived as the real deal in 2012-13.
8. Deron Williams, Nets
Stats: 17.4 PPG, 7.6 APG, 3.2 RPG, 1.0 SPG, 3.0 TO, 41.8 FG%, 36.6 3P%, 18.2 PER, 36.8 MPG
There was a time, not too long ago, when it would have been nearly impossible to keep Williams out of this list’s top five. “Williams or Paul?” was once a somewhat legitimate topic of discussion. Then again, there were times this season when it seemed like Williams didn’t belong on it at all, and he was left off the All-Star team in what would have qualified as a shocker last summer, given his status as the No. 1 free agent. His shooting struggles, nagging ankle and wrist injuries, the Nets’ somewhat ugly early-season coaching change, the second round of “coach killer” accusations of his career and questions about his conditioning didn’t do his reputation any favors.
Still, Brooklyn is battling for home-court advantage in the East, his scoring numbers and shooting percentages have picked up in the New Year, and he’s managed to avoid gigantic controversy during the P.J. Carlesimo era. Is the three-time All-Star the same dominant point guard that he’s been for much of a career? Not really. Was much more expected of him after he received a five-year contract worth nearly $100 million and a new upgraded cast of teammates that cost even more than that? Absolutely. Is it disheartening that he’s not playing the best basketball of his career at 28? For sure. But are you really ready to write him off as an elite point guard? I’m not, at least not yet.
7. Stephen Curry, Warriors
Stats: 22.0 PPG, 6.5 APG, 4.0 RPG, 1.7 SPG, 3.0 TO, 44.3 FG%, 45.5 3P%, 20.6 PER, 37.9 MPG
His fabulous shooting display against the Knicks this week helped his name recognition, to be sure, but Curry has sprinted up the list of best point guards this season now that he’s finally been able to stay healthy. Without constant ankle sprains to slow him down, he is scoring at a career-high rate in his first full season playing without former backcourt mate Monta Ellis. He’s doing so in large part because of his marksmanship from deep, and his nearly 46 percent shooting on more than seven three-point attempts per game is almost incomprehensible.
His launching 17 shots per game with a beautiful, smooth shooting stroke will lead many to conclude that he’s not a “true” point guard. In fact, Gary Payton told reporters at a Hall of Fame event in Houston over All-Star Weekend that he saw Curry as more of a “scoring point guard” rather than a set-up guy. Curry might be ready to pop at a moment’s notice, but his pick-and-roll reads and overall handle are excellent. He and All-Star power forward David Lee have emerged as a lethal combination, and the Warriors rank No. 9 in offensive efficiency and No. 1 in three-point percentage, numbers aided by Curry’s drive-and-kick ability.
Defense is clearly his bugaboo. Though he’s proved that he can create and get off his shot despite his slight frame, he can be bullied and exploited on the other end. He’s not yet 25, and the Warriors are looking smart for taking a calculated risk in extending his contract last October, as they surely saved themselves millions of dollars by locking him in for $44 million over four years.
Unless absolute disaster strikes down the stretch, Curry will get his first crack at the postseason this year. He’ll need to experience some success there — and maintain his streak of good health — to have a chance to move up in future versions of this list.
6. Rajon Rondo, Celtics
Stats: 13.7 PPG, 11.1 APG, 5.6 RPG, 1.8 SPG, 3.9 TO, 48.4 FG%, 24.0 3P%, 18.3 PER, 37.4 MPG
It’s an unwritten rule on the Internet that you must use the word “enigma” to describe Rondo, so I’ll get it out of the way early. He’s an enigma. Look no further than Lee Jenkins’ recent story on him in Sports Illustrated — in which the 27-year-old explains why he feels the need to dominate children at Connect Four — to immerse yourself in his weirdness. We’re past the point of expecting Rondo to bend to our collective desires, which include developing a reliable jump shot, being more selfish in looking to score in certain situations, and adopting a friendlier approach to referees who draw his ire.
Before his season-ending knee injury, Rondo was leading the NBA in assists per game for the second straight season and he’s usually among the league leaders in steals, due to his quick hands and willingness to gamble when he’s off the ball. Blessed with great vision and a preternatural feel for timing, spacing and opponent tendencies, Rondo is an artist when it comes to plays with a high degree of difficulty.
His habit of rising to the moment in big games and playing well on national television is well established and was never made clearer than in the 2012 Eastern Conference finals when he outdueled LeBron James at times and put up a whopping 44 points in Game 2. Rondo, unlike all but one other point guard on this list, owns a championship ring, but he will return from his injury with the aging Celtics facing a transition period (or having already undergone one). He will also face a simple question: Is he the right type of player to lead a rebuilding/reloading effort or does his skill set require greatness — or at the very least proven veterans — around him?
5. Kyrie Irving, Cavaliers
Stats: 23.3 PPG, 5.6 APG, 3.6 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 3.2 TO, 46.8 FG%, 42.0 3P%, 22.7 PER, 35.2 MPG
The breakout star of All-Star Weekend, Irving is blowing away the concept of a “ceiling” for a player’s potential. Would you bet against him as a future Hall of Famer? Only 20 and in his second season, he’s positioned himself perfectly to take the “best all-around point guard” reins from Paul as he ages, and he’s a pretty good candidate to step into the Clipper’s shoes as the starting point guard for future USA Basketball teams, too.
Irving’s game starts with his handle and jumper, which are both among the league’s best. He’s also maxed out on the poise scale and developed a reputation as a big late-game player with a handful of game-winners. He’s good with both hands and he can finish from practically any angle. There’s work to be done defensively, but he can make opposing point guards pay for sloppiness, thanks to his quick hands and comfort in transition.
Why slot him above Rondo, who has a longer track record of winning and more postseason success? It’s a tough call. Irving’s case hinges on two reasons. First, he lacks any obvious holes, like Rondo’s reluctance to shoot from distance and get to the free-throw line. Second, the team-wide impact of his overall game is monstrous. Irving has carried a cast of relative no-names to a league-average offensive efficiency this season, while Rondo’s Celtics have generally ranked 20th or worse. Assuming the Cavaliers can assemble even a decent roster around him, Irving will be the centerpiece of one of the NBA’s elite offenses in no time (and for years to come). It’s quite possible he spends a half-decade atop this list once he hits his prime.
4. Derrick Rose, Bulls
2011-12 Stats: 21.8 PPG, 7.9 APG, 3.4 RPG, 0.9 SPG, 3.1 TO, 43.5 FG%, 31.2 3P%, 23.1 PER, 35.3 MPG
Rose, a legitimate candidate for No. 1 honors in recent years, must drop because of his season-long absence after an ACL injury. But how far down this list can he go before it gets to be insulting? The fourth spot feels like a good basement for the only player besides three-time winner LeBron James to claim the MVP award in the previous four seasons.
His list of accomplishment is lengthy: 2011 MVP, three-time All-Star, 2009 Rookie of the Year and leader of an Eastern Conference finalist in 2011. His individual production has been inseparable from his team’s success: The Bulls have won an eye-popping 78.3 percent of their games over the last two years when Rose has suited up.
The biggest unknown is how Rose’s knee injury will affect his game. Rose has pursued a deliberate approach to his rehabilitation. It’s still not known for certain whether he will return this season, though all reports indicate that he is expected to make a full recovery. Rose, an explosive attacker who carves up defenses off the dribble, has never been known for his shooting range. The questions that face any player recovering from an ACL injury will shadow him until he proves he can operate at or near his previous standard.
Can he still turn the corner effortlessly against virtually anyone in the game? Does he trust his legs during his powerful jump stops in traffic? Will he display the same lift in the basket area, or will he need to compensate in other ways? Will he be able to stay with his man when he needs to move laterally? Still just 24 and with a contract that runs through 2016-17, Rose has plenty of time to provide the answers to those questions.
3. Russell Westbrook, Thunder
Stats: 23.3 PPG, 7.8 APG, 5.2 RPG, 1.9 SPG, 3.6 TO, 43.4 FG%, 34.5 3P%, 23.7 PER, 35.6 MPG
Westbrook, one of the NBA’s most polarizing players, offers plenty of meat to feed the critics. He’s prone to horrible shooting nights, questionable decisions, more than his fair share of turnovers and the occasional emotional outburst, and his ego boasts impeccable health. Look at it this way: If a player with that many faults is still viewed as “polarizing” rather than “awful,” he must be doing something right.
Indeed, Westbrook’s strengths far outweigh his limitations. The 6-3 Westbrook is the most fearless and most athletically imposing player at his position, capable of jumping over you, blowing by you, dribbling around you and dunking on you. He’s improved his discipline on defense and can turn defense into offense as well as anyone on this list. He’s an excellent rebounder for his position and puts relentless pressure on his defensive matchup, getting to the free-throw line seven times per game, an excellent number. For all the heat he takes for his inefficient shooting and me-first scoring tendencies, the Thunder own the West’s No. 2 record and the NBA’s No. 2 offense, even with his usage rate at a team-high 32.4 percent.
At 24, he’s already a three-time All-Star with one trip to the Finals. His play might not always be perfect, but it gets the job done.
2. Tony Parker, Spurs
Stats: 21.1 PPG, 7.6 APG, 3.1 RPG, 0.9 SPG, 3.1 TO, 53.3 FG%, 37.9 3P%, 24.6 PER, 33.0 MPG
Parker is worth mentioning in the MVP conversation, if only because voters are allowed five names on their ballots and submitting “LeBron, LeBron, LeBron, LeBron, LeBron” is generally frowned upon. His credentials are sterling: The Spurs have the NBA’s best record and the No. 4 offense and No. 3 defense. Parker trails only Paul in PER among point guards, and his 53.3 percent shooting leads the names on this list by a wide margin. How does he do it? By taking more than half of his shots at the rim, according to NBA.com, an incredible figure for a player who stands just 6-2.
The 30-year-old Parker is quick, crafty and disciplined, more eager to make the extra pass than to force a shot. He’s good anywhere you put him: in transition, in high pick-and-rolls or weaving through traffic. No offensive system generates better looks than San Antonio’s, and Parker has been at the helm so long that he makes it all look like child’s play.
A three-time champion and five-time All-Star, Parker has met every challenge and joins Rondo as the only point guards on this top 10 to win a title. There isn’t much separating Parker from Paul, but the latter is the choice as a better individual defender and a bigger threat from three-point range. Paul is a touch more physical, too, without giving up anything meaningful in the quickness department.
1. Chris Paul, Clippers
Stats: 16.3 PPG, 9.6 APG, 3.5 RPG, 2.4 SPG, 2.2 TO, 47.7 FG%, 34.3 3P%, 26.1 PER, 32.6 MPG
Despite stiff competition, Paul’s spot at the top of this list feels as undisputed as it has been in some time. His arrival flipped the Clippers’ franchise upside down and he hasn’t looked back. This season, Los Angeles is winning 75 percent of its games when he suits up and just 50 percent when he has been out. He captains both the Clippers’ No. 7 offense and No. 6 defense; his ability to keep the many scoring options around him happy is unmatched, and his league-leading steals average is the trigger to the devastating Lob City transition attacks.
Paul does his best work late, asserting himself off the dribble more regularly when the game is on the line. He’s the total package in game-deciding situations: He’s quick enough to turn the corner; he has a mid-range game that can make you pay; he’s an expert reader of defenses if helpers over-commit; his basketball intelligence and feel for time/score situations are off the charts; and he loves the moment. Even though he lacks James’ physicality, Paul is the only player in the league who can match the Heat forward’s ability to dictate the action in the fourth quarter.
This is a big year for Paul, who will turn 28 in May, as he’s approaching the point where questions will surface about his standing relative to his contemporaries if he doesn’t make his first trip out of the conference semifinals. Last year, Paul was clearly banged up when the Spurs swept the Clippers in the second round. This season, he’s surrounded by the deepest and most talented cast of teammates of his career. The Thunder and Spurs are so good that they are capable of making superstars look like mortals, but the combination of Paul’s age and his team’s quality depth will leave him facing an unprecedented number of doubters should the Clippers make another quick exit. That might seem unthinkable now, given Paul’s near-universal popularity, but just you wait. The critics eventually come for everyone.