The Five: Point Guards

Now that we’ve all shoveled the mounds of used wrapping paper into the trash, finished off the last of the Christmas ham, and burped off the last of the eggnog, we turn a keen eye back to the doings in the NBA. December is almost at an end, and the league is heating up. Powerhouses are rising (and some are floundering), ensuring that our complete league power rankings are going to look a LOT different  when they’re updated next week.

One thing is increasingly clear:  the point guard position is deeper and more impactful than it’s ever been. With the modern emphasis on strong perimeter play and spacing replacing plodding, predictable big man post ups of old, long gone are the days of the “traditional point guard”. The ’99 Spurs would have a tough time capturing a chip in today’s NBA with  5’10” Avery “The Little General” Johnson’s shaky jumper and pedestrian athleticism running the point.

Spurs blogger Jesse Blanchard said it best in his fascinating breakdown of the value of Carmelo Anthony and Kawhi Leonard. The position on the court is different, but the concepts apply.

“Basketball, more than most other sports, is a game of limited resources. Once you get past the NBA’s salary cap and punitive luxury tax versus Major League Baseball’s blank check payroll system and the NFL’s non-guaranteed contracts, basketball is still just five players against five players operating simultaneously with just one ball…. 

…There is no division of labor between offense and defense in basketball, just five players on each team shifting roles with each bounce of the ball. Every player has some responsibility to contributing in each facet of the game, and playing a ‘specialist’ with a narrowly defined skill set in basketball comes at a significant cost everywhere outside that skill set. 

Translation: long gone are the days when a team could contend with a steady, pass-first-second-and-last point guard who’s a minimal threat to score. Today’s crop of point men are too dynamic, affect the game in too many ways for a team to enter into the gunfight against their opponent while wielding a butter knife as their lead guard. It’s why I worry about Rondo in Dallas (that’s a topic for another day).

And there’s some serious advanced weaponry playing point guard all over the league in the 2015 season. Consider this: Kemba Walker is averaging 17 points, almost 6 assists, and 4 rebounds, a mighty healthy stat-line,  yet you could pretty easily make the argument that he’s NOT a top 10 NBA point guard. So I’m here to answer the question: which point guards are the cream of the crop? This isn’t about pass, reputation, nor legacy. This is: “Who’s the best RIGHT NOW?”

Let’s take a look at the tale of the tape.

(All statistics via Basketball-Reference.com. All statistics accurate as of 29 December 2014)

5  John Wall

Season: 35.8 mpg, 17.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 10.3 apg, 3.8 t/os, 2.1 stls, 45.8%, 32.4% 3pt (3.1 3pt fga/gm), 75.7% FT, 35.8 mpg, 21 PER

Last 10 gms: 36.8 mpg, 18.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 10.9 apg, 3.9 t/os, 2 stls, 52.4%, 36.8% 3pt (1.9 3pt fga/gm), 65.6 FT, 36.8 mpg

Why He’s In: Confession time:  coming into the season, I was sure that Kyrie Irving, not Wall,  would elevate himself to the upper echelon; his superior scoring + Kevin love’s rebounding + LeBron’s all around excellence = dominant season for Irving, I figured Irving would razzle-dazzle dribble and score his way into Top 5 conversations and John Wall would be on the outside looking in.

My bad.

Wall has made “The Leap”. While Kyrie is having a fine season, John Hildred Wall is simply on another level right now. His scoring is down a tick from his last couple of years, but who cares?  Wall’s displaying the beginnings of mastering the position: he’s showing a much deeper, more comfortable feel for when to turn into on the afterburners and when to pace himself and run offense for others. His career best 46.2% assist percentage (the percentage of his teammates’ field goals he assists on while he’s in the game) is tops among qualified players. He’s shooting better than ever from the floor, and his impact on the defense is absurd. the Wizards give up 99.1 points per 100 possessions (better than Golden State’s league leading 99.9) when Wall’s on the floor, and a pitiful 113.1 when he sits (by comparison, the Lakers’ 30th ranked Defensive Rating is 113.6).

After appearing to stagnate in the soul-sucking dysfunction that was Washington in his first 3 years, Wall took great strides last season, and now is finally living up to the lofty expectations that come with being a number 1 lottery pick.

Why He’s Not Higher: Wall has proven to be a consummate game manager, a strong, crafty finisher around the basket, and an improving shooter. Key word: “improving”. His jumper is still unreliable. He’s coming along as a perimeter scorer (if he’s in a groove, feeling it, he’ll drop his jumpers), but he’s still not a shooter. Wall has more of the mythical “traditional point guard” in him than the guys in front of him, but even with shooters (Beal and Pierce) and quality bigs (Marcin Gortat, nene, and yes, Khris Humphries), the Wiz are only the 15th ranked offense in the NBA. Oddly, the squad has basically the same Offensive Rating when he’s on the floor (107.1) as when he’s on the bench (107.0).  all who can simply take the ball and be unstoppable offensively for stretches, but I tip my hat to his rapid ascension.

 

4 – Damian Lillard

Season: 35.6 mpg, 21.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 6.3 assists, 2.7 t/0s, 1.5 stls, 46.2%, 39.9% 3pt (6.8 attempts), 88.1% FT, 26.1% Usage, 23.2 PER

Last 10 gms: 36.6 mpg, 26.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 6.5 apg, 3.3 t/os, 1.4 stls, 48.6%, 45.7% 3pt (7 attempts), 90.9% FT

Why He’s In: This season, Lillard shot 34% in his first 5 games, the Blazers started off 3-3 in their 1st 6 games, and young Dame’s name so got lost in the babble of the many other NBA storylines. Fast forward to present day and look closer: after the slow start, Portland has ripped off 22 wins in it’s last 26 games. It’s Lillard,  not big man LaMarcus Aldridge, who has been the tip of the spear. In games 6-32, he’s slapping up 22.5 points, 4.8 boards, and 6.5 assists a night while draining almost 41% of his 3s: this is like a cheat code. If Lillard can maintain his current season averages, he’ll join 2012-’13 LeBron and Larry Bird (he did it 4, yes, FOUR times) as the only players to hit at least 21 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 6 rpg, and shoot at least 39% from 3. Dame and Wall are polar opposites in regards to the effects they have on their team’s offense and defense; Portland’s defense is about the same with or without him on the floor, but the Offensive Rating plummets from an electric 112.5 to an anemic 100.4 when he sits.

Why He’s Not Higher: Consistency, or lack thereof. As great as Dame has been overall, he’s ran hot and cold all year. 34% from 3 his first 5 games. over 60% on 6.6 attempts a night for the next five. 19 ppg and a frigid 28.6% from downtown for 12 games, then you can see above what he’s done over the last 10. Make or miss, Lillard (along with Matthews and Batum) being a deep threat AND his sneaky-swift ability to get to the bucket open up the Blazers’ offense to full throttle. It was a toss-up between Wall and Dame here, but the edge for me goes to the ability to punish a defense from everywhere on the court. Also, Wall’s name is Hildred.

 

3 – Chris Paul

Season: 34.5 mpg, 18.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 9 apg, 2.1 t/os, 2 stls, 48%, 39% 3pt (3.9 attempts), 87.9% FT, 22.8% Usage, 25.0 PER

Last 10 gms: 35.2 mpg, 18 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 8.2 apg, 2.8 t/os, 2.2 stls, 41.9%, 38.6% 3pt (4.4 attempts), 88.6% FT

Why He’s Here: In short, because he’s Chris Paul. No other point guard is more skilled, has a better understandings of the nuances of running the point guard spot. He’s quick, he’s strong, he’s a deadeye midrange shooter (in fact, he’s shooting 47% or better from every distance on the floor out to the 3 point line), he has tremendous ball control (his 4.5:1 Assist to Turnover ratio is almost unfair), and he’s one of the most savvy players in the league. The on/off court numbers are ridiculous; the Clippers are 19 points per 100 possessions better with CP3 running the show. If we reduced this list to a Pass/Shoot/Dribble/Brains competition, CP3 would grade out higher than any other lead guard, easily.

Why He’s Not Higher: There’s more to being a the “best” at your position than skill. At 29, Chris Paul has plenty of high level basketball left. His below-the-rim style will allow him to be efficiently lethal for years to come. The 2 guys in front of him simply have abilities to bend and break defenses that he simply can’t match. Curry’s floor stretching shooting and Westbrook’s bone-crunching, uber-athleticism can overwhelm teams in ways that are feared across the league. Chris Paul has proven to be a fierce competitor and is known for his leadership, but the Clippers have been up and down so far this year and have dropped 6 of their last 10. There’s a lot of things that Chris Paul can do, but there’s only so much Chris Paul can do.

 

2 – Stephen Curry

Season: 33.5 mpg, 23.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 7.5 apg, 3.4 t/os, 2.1  stls, 48.9, 38.5% 3pt (7.6 attempts), 91.4% FT, 28.8% Usage, 26.2 PER

Last 10 gms: 34.9 mpg, 23 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 7.4 apg, 3.7 t/os, 2.5 stls, 49.2%, 34.2% 3pt (7.9 attempts), 88.5% FT

Why He’s Here: Steve Kerr (and Mark Jackson before him) constructed a dangerous, versatile team around Curry’s scintillating shooting and crafty passing. I don’t want to understate Curry’s importance (the team is a mind-blowing net+26 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor) or overstate it (Klay Thompson is a net +20.5, Draymond Green is a net +16. There’s a lot of talent spread through this roster for the Warriors to work). Curry has become one of the most unselfish volume shooters the league has ever seen. He understands that the Dubs offense depends on him to create for others and launch (and make) a plethora of threes, and he so does he goes out and does just that. Steph is a combination of volume shooting and accuracy never seen before in the NBA. No player has ever taken over 7.5 threes a game, made at least 42% of them, AND handed out over 6.5 dimes…until Curry did it 2 years ago and last year. While Jackson used to hide Curry on a lesser offensive threat, Curry’s energetic and surprisingly effective on-ball defense under Kerr’s regime has been pleasantly eye opening.

Why He’s Not Higher: Not listing Curry higher isn’t an indictment on him; the gut ahead of him has been simply monstrous. Oddly enough, while having probably his finest all around season, Steph’s super weapon, the 3 point shot, has been less than sterling this season (for HIM…almost any other guard does backflips if they could  drain 38.5% of their 3s like Curry is doing; if he shot like all season it would be the worst 3 point mark of his 6 year career by far).

 

1 – Russell Westbrook

Season: 31.8 mpg, 28 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 7.3 apg, 4.0 t/os, 2.3 stls, 45.7%, 28.6% 3pt (3.1 attempts), 81.9% FT, 41.1% Usage,  32.0 PER

Last 10 gms: 34.0 mpg, 30.8 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 7.8 apg, 3.8 t/0s, 2.9 stls, 44.2%, 25.7% 3pt (3.5 attempts), 83.3% FT

Why He’s Number 1:

Because last year’s playoffs were his coming out party, and this year has been a continuation of Westbrook’s brand of dominance. While he most likely won’t maintain this level of production once Durant is back on the floor and up to speed, the “at least 28-5.5-7-45%” Club is pretty exclusive. Since returning from a broken hand (16 games), Westbrook is bullying his way to 29 ppg, 6.3 rpg, and 7.6 apg on 46% shooting. While he lacks the dead-eye range from distance of the guards behind him (shooting a disappointing 28% from 3), Russ makes up for it with physicality and blazing athleticism unmatched at the position. There’s not much nuance to what Russell Westbrook does- he’s a big, strong, fast guard who uses being bigger, stronger, and faster to his full advantage. Combine that with his stop-on-a-dime pull up jumpers, acrobatic finishes at the rim, and a new array of fall-aways and turnarounds, and you’ve got a force to be reckoned with. RW eschews the cerebral approach of a Chris Paul for a relentless attack that keeps defenders on their heels and keeps Westbrook at the free throw line (the 9.5 freebies he’s shooting a night are 2nd to only James Harden). After his stinker of a game against the Mavericks, where “bad Russ”-he of the terrible turnovers, blown layups, and “dude, what were you thinking?”  shots- came out to play, I almost nudged Westbrook down to number 2, but a bad game (or 2, or 3) does not a season make, especially when you’re unofficially leading the league in scoring and you’re 2nd in PER. Russell Westbrook wrested the crown from Chris Paul during last year’s 4-2 Oklahoma City victory over the Clippers in the playoffs, so let 2014-’15 be his coronation as the Best Point Guard in the NBA.

 

Who did I miss? Disagree with my 5? Who’s your top 5 point Guards In The NBA? Join the discussion in the comments below, or on twitter, @SnottieDrippen!

 

 

 

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