Most of the NBA’s top scoring options come in the form of a wing or big man. In fact, the only qualified point guards to lead their respective clubs in scoring last season were Golden State’s Monta Ellis (25.5 PPG), Chicago’s Derrick Rose (20.8 PPG) and Houston’s Aaron Brooks (19.6 PPG). Only three of the league’s 30 teams rely on their point guard for premier scoring production, but any coach or team executive will tell you that you need a quality, competent point guard to run the show if you want to advance in the playoffs. It isn’t imperative for a contending team to take the floor with an elite-level floor general, but if you can’t rely on your point guard to remain on the same page with the coaching staff, get the team into its sets and display a certain level of leadership, you’re probably going to have a tough time hoisting up the annually coveted Larry O’Brien trophy.
Think about the NBA champions of the last three decades. The Lakers of 2000-2002, 2009 and 2010 had the reliable and clutch Derek Fisher. The San Antonio Spurs, who have won four titles since 1999, were led by Avery “The Little General” Johnson and 2007 NBA Finals MVP Tony Parker. The 2008 Boston Celtics ran with a young, yet rising and very capable Rajon Rondo. Chauncey Billups took home the 2004 Finals MVP trophy for the Detroit Pistons. Dwyane Wade may have taken over the 2006 NBA Finals, but a more mature Jason Williams and savvy veteran Gary Payton held down the point guard position nicely for the Heat and made multiple crucial plays down the stretch of those games. The ’94 and ’95 Houston Rockets may not have won back-to-back championships had it not been for the sharpshooting Kenny Smith and steady play from the up-and-coming Sam Cassell. And don’t tell me that you haven’t watched hundreds of highlight reruns of those sweet game-winning threes from John Paxson and Steve Kerr to help push those dominant Chicago Bulls teams over the top in the 90′s. Isiah Thomas, anyone? Magic Johnson? Dennis Johnson? You get the picture.
From 19-year-old No. 1 overall draft picks destined for stardom to 36-year-old former two-time MVPs, the NBA’s diverse mix of established veterans and rising youngsters leave many offenses in good hands across the league. Let’s take a look at some of the top names and discuss who sets themselves apart from whom, shall we?
1a. Deron Williams (UTA)
2009-10 Stats: 18.7 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 10.5 APG, 1.3 SPG
Deron Williams is finally certified. In each of the last three seasons, Williams has posted averages better than 18 points and 10 assists per game, a statistical feat that only Steve Nash and Chris Paul have been able to match since the new millennium hit. This past season, Williams was rewarded for his spectacular play with his first NBA All-Star selection, which expects to be the first of many.
Williams is the total package. He knocks down jumpers, attacks the rack with a purpose, bullies smaller guards with his size and strength, is not afraid to put a gargantuan opponent on a poster and he will shoot above 80% from the free throw line if you put him there. In the open court he will reward lane-fillers, finish strong at the rim or stop on the dime to punish sagging defenders with a silky-smooth pull-up jumper. Want to slow the game down? Go ahead, but don’t expect to put a clamp on Williams, as he runs Jerry Sloan’s classic 1-4 pick n’ roll package to perfection. The efficient five-year veteran runs a team beautifully, possesses the ability to take games over and never ceases to raise his level of play in the postseason. What more can you ask for?
There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Deron Williams was the best point guard that the 2009-10 NBA season had to offer. He has earned the title of the league’s top point guard… temporarily, anyway. Had Chris Paul avoided the inactive list for nearly half of the season, choosing the top point guard may not have been quite as clear-cut. In 2008-09, it sure as heck wasn’t, hence the hesitancy for most spectators to “pass the torch” to Utah’s star point-man. Until Paul comes back and matches past production, however, Williams will grace the throne.
1b. Chris Paul (NO)
2009-10 Stats: 18.7 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 10.7 APG, 2.1 SPG
Look for Chris Paul to take the league by storm with a Dwyane Wade-like “comeback.” From 2006-2008, Wade missed a total of 62 regular season games while his Heat failed to even come close to making another run at a title to couple with its 2006 success. As a result, Wade was somewhat written off and forgotten about when discussing the NBA’s elite… until his outstanding showing in the 2008 Olympics. Back at full health with a gold medal to flash (no pun intended), Wade reentered the MVP discussion in 2008-09.
Last season was a tough one for “CP3″ to deal with. A sprained left ankle in mid-November kept him out of action for nearly three weeks, and just when he and the Hornets started playing better basketball, Paul was hit with a torn left meniscus in late January that would require surgery and keep him sidelined until March 22. Paul returned to the court for seven games late in the season, but tore a ligament in his right middle finger and decided to sit out the last four games on the schedule. Rookie Darren Collison held the point guard position down nicely in Paul’s absence, averaging 18.8 points and 9.1 assists in 37 starts, but New Orleans’ playoff hopes had been shot down without their leader. The Hornets finished the year with a lackluster 37-45 record, putting them in 11th place in the Western Conference.
Due to injury, Paul was unable to dazzle the basketball world with his remarkable quickness, elite playmaking ability, reliable jump shot, harassing perimeter defense, competitive spirit and admirable charismatic gifts like he had in years prior, but let’s not forget just how special he is. From 2007-2009, Paul was routinely regarded as the top point guard in the league and backed up that notion with approximate averages of 22 points, 11 assists, five rebounds and three steals per contest. Let’s not look past his performance in the 2008 Western Conference playoffs, either, where solidified his place in the discussion as one of the top five players in the game.
Chris Paul is only 25 years old. He’s got a lot of basketball left in him, and at full health he is still at the same level he was two years ago. Whether or not he is a Hornet next season seems to be a hot debate in recent weeks, but regardless of what uniform he is wearing, don’t be surprised if people start flip-flopping back to Paul as their number one point guard in 2011.
3. Rajon Rondo (BOS)
2009-10 Stats: 13.7 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 9.8 APG, 2.3 SPG
Rondo is a very unique guard, as he positively affects nearly every aspect of the game with his blazing speed, long arms, big hands, exceptionally high basketball IQ, finishing ability, rebounding and leadership qualities to go along with elite-level perimeter defense and playmaking ability. On top of all those physical and mental gifts, the intangibles that Rondo brings to the table are unquestioned. Shooting remains Rondo’s glaring weakness, especially at the free throw line, but he has developed the confidence in himself to knock open shots down. He certainly still has a long way to go with that stroke, but he has shown slow and steady improvements since his rookie year, especially in clutch and end-of-clock situations.
Following his coming out party in the 2009 NBA Playoffs, where he nearly averaged a triple-double through two grueling seven-game series’ (16.9 PPG, 9.7 RPG, 9.8 APG), Rajon Rondo officially arrived last season. The fourth-year floor general posted career averages in scoring (13.7 PPG), assists (9.8 APG, 4th in NBA), steals (2.3 SPG, 1st in NBA), field goal percentage (50.8%, 1st in NBA among guards) and minutes (36.6 MPG). As a reward for his improvements, the former Kentucky Wildcat landed his first NBA All-Star selection in addition to finishing second to only Dwight Howard in Defensive Player of the Year voting.
From 2007-2009, the “Big Three” were the leaders of the Boston Celtics. In 2009-10, however, Rondo officially emerged as the leader of the team and was considered by most as Boston’s best player throughout the year. Come playoff time, he raised his level of play once again, highlighted by a historic 29-point, 18-rebound, 13-assist effort in the Game 4 victory vs. Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
From a scoring standpoint, Paul and Williams are on a level that Rondo will likely never reach, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better two-end quarterback in the league today.
4. Steve Nash (PHX)
2009-10 Stats: 16.5 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 11.0 APG
Ever since Steve Nash locked up back-to-back MVP’s at ages 31 and 32, we have all entered each season with the train of thought that he is going to start regressing. “He’s getting old,” we say. “He can’t maintain this level of production, right?”
While unimpressive physical attributes left him out of many elite-point guard conversations earlier in his career, those same limitations have come to work in his favor as his career has progressed. It’s difficult to lose a step when you never had a step to lose. It’s as if the 36-year-old Canadian product has gotten better with age, defying the typical pattern.
Steve Nash was up to his same old tricks in 2009-10, as he continued to match his remarkable production (16.5 PPG, 11.0 APG, 50.7% FG, 42.6% 3FG, 93.8% FT) and managed to lead the Suns to the Western Conference Finals for the third time since re-arriving in Phoenix in the summer of 2004.
Nash doesn’t have the necessary physical gifts to defend or keep up with the quicker guards in the league, but on the offensive end, there is not a better table-setter or more efficient perimeter player in the league. Even at age 36.
5. Chauncey Billups (DEN)
2009-10 Stats: 19.5 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 5.6 APG, 1.1 SPG
Chauncey Billups’ M.O. has always been his calm, cool and collected approach, but he was never to be slept on. He has been somewhat of a silent assassin at times, and that’s exactly what he was last season. While many analysts and fans were focused on the rising stars at the point guard position, Billups was able to quietly put together an excellent 2009-10 campaign.
Perhaps expectations had a lot to do with it. Everybody expected Chauncey to do his thing, but the fact that the Rajon Rondos, Derrick Roses and Russell Westbrooks of the world were just knocking on stardom’s door may have taken “Mr. Big Shot” out of the spotlight to a certain degree. Regardless, he continues to get the job done. In fact, he posted a career-high 19.5 PPG average while he helped lead the Nuggets to tie Utah for the fourth-best record in the Western Conference (53-29). Ironically enough, the Jazz would defeat Denver in six games in the first round of the playoffs, but that doesn’t deteriorate Billups’ value.
Athletically and statistically speaking, there are sexier resumes to challenge Billups for the fifth spot on this list. However, the all-around impact of Chauncey Billups cannot be matched by those younger studs. What Billups brings to the table as a point guard is special. He makes sure everybody is on the same page, stresses the importance of routine and most importantly, leads by example. He runs the offense, is an extension of the coach on the floor, acts as a mentor to his teammates, displays a terrific work ethic, shows up in crunch time, stays consistent with what he does, is a great locker room influence and makes everybody around him better. For all aforementioned reasons, the presence of Billups may be the best thing that could have happened to the maturation of Carmelo Anthony.
Plain and simple, the 2004 NBA Finals MVP knows how to run a team, and that is his biggest advantage over the younger group below.
6. Derrick Rose (CHI)
2009-10 Stats: 20.8 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 6.0 APG
There was a lot of hype surrounding Derrick Rose when his hometown Chicago Bulls made him the #1 overall pick in the 2008 NBA Draft, met by sky-high expectations to live up to. To sum up his progression lightly: so far, so good.
Rose is an absolute freak of nature. His combination of speed, quickness and explosiveness on his strong 6’3” frame is as impressive of a physical package as you’re going to get from a guard. The sky is the limit for his potential, especially when you factor in his commendable attitude, work ethic and rapid improvements he has already made in just two years as a pro.
Highlighting Rose’s rookie-to-sophomore progression is the consistency of his mid-range jumper, which is reaching near-automatic status. The first-time All-Star is now daring opponents to pick their poison in screen-roll situations. If you fight over the top of the pick, he will be halfway to the bucket before the average hedge even has time to think about cutting him off. Should you decide to take his penetration away, which may be your best bet as it is his biggest strength after all, he will make you pay with a J from the top of the key. If a scoring opportunity is not there, he is a willing passer that is getting noticeably better with his decision making. Now, you factor in Carlos Boozer in all of this, it makes controlling Rose that much more difficult.
Going forward, superstardom is in the cards for D-Rose. Before he reaches that level, however, he must improve defensively – which is virtually guaranteed under new head coach Tom Thibodeau – and grow as a floor general. In a year or two, we may be talking about what John Wall has to do to reach Derrick Rose’s level in that category, but until then it is difficult to place the second-year sensation above the likes of a Chauncey Billups.
7. Russell Westbrook (OKC)
2009-10 Stats: 16.1 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 8.0 APG, 1.3 SPG
Westbrook began his sophomore campaign as many expected, spectacular yet inconsistent and mistake-prone. Before the New Year, the former UCLA Bruin was shooting below 40% from the field while turning the ball over five or more times in multiple outings. He showed many flashes of brilliance, but clearly had some seasoning to undergo before he fully understood how to play the point guard position.
As the season progressed, Westbrook progressed. After the All-Star break, especially, he started becoming a more efficient offensive player and raised his consistency to a new level. Throughout 11 February contests, in particular, Westbrook shined with averages of 18.8 points, 10.0 assists and 6.6 rebounds per game on a much-improved 46.2% clip from the field. As the Thunder continued to roll, Westbrook took positive steps in his development and began to excel on a much more consistent basis. Struggles reappeared in the latter weeks of the regular season, but he was not going to allow himself to go out without a bang.
When the playoffs tipped off, he took his game to the highest level it had ever been. Oklahoma City surprisingly pushed the top-seeded Lakers to six games in the first round, and Westbrook’s performance was a large part of their success. The postseason version of Westbrook topped his regular season per-game averages in multiple key categories: 16.1 to 20.5 PPG, 4.9 to 6.0 RPG, 1.3 to 1.7 SPG. The most impressive, and perhaps important improvements, were displayed in his efficiency. After shooting 41.8% from the field and 78% from the free throw line in the regular season, he shot the ball at a 47.3% clip in the playoffs alongside an 84.2% mark from the charity stripe. Heck, he even hit five of his 12 attempts from beyond the arc in the series, which was especially impressive considering his ugly 24.9% three-point rate throughout his first two regular seasons as a pro. Finally, they say every possession counts in the playoffs. Westbrook apparently took that to heart, lowering his 3.3 TOPG regular season average to just 2.3 in the playoffs. Derek Fisher was utterly embarrassed all series long.
Westbrook has an extremely bright future, and don’t be surprised if he makes an All-Star team within the next couple of years. As impressive as he is (on both ends), however, he’s still got a lot to learn as a point guard and he must be more consistent next season. If he can improve his jumper, shot selection and decision making to the point where 2010 playoff Russell Westbrook shows up more often, look out.
8. Jason Kidd (DAL)
2009-10 Stats: 10.3 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 9.1 APG, 1.8 SPG
At age 37 and on the verge of beginning his 17th season in the NBA, Jason Kidd’s career does not have many miles left on it. With that said, the living legend is far from toast. Past his prime? Sure, but he’s no slouch.
Similar to Steve Nash, Kidd remains a high-level producer despite his age. He has lost a step and can no longer lock down quicker guards defensively, but he still makes a serious impact across the board. He is still one of the top floor generals in the game, he still epitomizes the consummate leader, he still makes all of his teammates better, he still knocks down that spot-up long-ball with consistency, he’s still dangerous in transition, he still picks pockets, he still wreaks havoc in the passing lanes and he is still capable of posting a classic J-Kidd triple-double on any given night.
He might not be quite at the Hall of Fame level that he once was, but any player, coach or general manager would still take Jason Kidd as their point guard any day of the week and twice on Sundays.
9. Tony Parker (SA)
2009-10 Stats: 16.0 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 5.7 APG
Parker joins Chris Paul on the list of premier point guards severely hindered by injury in 2009-10. Playing for the French National Team in the summer of 2009, Parker suffered an ankle injury and was diagnosed with plantar fasciitis. Shortly after in a November contest in Portland, Parker turned another ankle and was forced to sit out four of the next five games due to soreness. A strained hip joint would also keep him out of a few games here and there in late-January and February. The most significant injury would take place in a March 6 game in Memphis, where Parker suffered a fractured metacarpal which would keep him sidelined for approximately one month.
The three-time All-Star guard returned to the court for the final six games of the regular season and managed to get through San Antonio’s playoff life injury-free, but the season was certainly a frustrating one for Parker on the whole, especially with the way they went out in the Western Conference Semifinals, getting swept by Phoenix.
Let’s hope he can get through 2010-11 without spending significant time on the inactive list, because a healthy Tony Parker is one of the most successful point guards in the game for a reason. A three-time champion, Parker is one of the most efficient scorers the league has to offer. In each of the last six seasons, the 2007 NBA Finals MVP has shot the ball above 48% from the field while reaching the 50%-plateau in three of the past five years.
For reasons I will never understand, San Antonio’s style is often considered “boring,” but whether you’re into fast-paced shootouts or halfcourt defensive battles, how can you not enjoy watching Tony Parker knife through the lane at will and finish over the trees with his second-to-none array of runners and floaters? The man can ball, on and off the court.
10. Jameer Nelson (ORL)
2009-10 Stats: 12.6 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 5.4 APG
It took Jameer Nelson over four years to reach All-Star status, and his time to shine came in 2008-09. Through the first 42 games of the season, Nelson posted career-highs in scoring (16.7 PPG), rebounding (3.5 RPG), steals (1.2 SPG), minutes (31.2 MPG), field goal percentage (50.3%), three-point percentage (45.3%), free throw percentage (88.7%) and turnovers per 48 minutes (3.0). Deservedly so, his first NBA All-Star selection followed. Unfortunately, he was unable to participate in the game, or any game throughout the remainder of the regular season, due to a torn labrum in his right shoulder. He would appear in all five games of Orlando’s NBA Finals loss to Los Angeles, but was not himself and was limited to just 18 minutes per contest.
Last year was up-and-down for Nelson on the injury front, as well. In mid-November, he opted to undergo microscopic surgery to repair a torn left meniscus. After missing a month of action to recover, he’d experience some inconsistencies and take a while to get back to his typical level of play.
Fortunately, it all came together at the perfect time. Nelson had his best month of the regular season in April, where he averaged over 15 points and six assists per game while shooting above 50% overall and from beyond the arc. When it was time to win or go home, Nelson played some of the best ball of his career. Throughout Orlando’s run to the Eastern Conference Finals, Stan Van Gundy’s lead guard put up 19 points and 4.8 assists per game on a 47.9% clip from the field.
Nelson’s top qualities are perfect for Orlando’s style. He is a terrific pick n’ roll player (especially when he turns the corner), he can shoot the ball, he can use his speed to attack the rack, he’s makes excellent reads and he really creates a lot of offense with his combination IQ and quickness. He may not lead the league in assists, but he knows how to pick his spots and make the right play.
Honorable Mention: Aaron Brooks (HOU)
Aaron Brooks has emerged as one of the most exciting and likable young guards in the Western Conference. With Yao Ming sidelined and Tracy McGrady out of the picture, Brooks knew that he needed to step up offensively and provide the Rockets with a scoring punch in order for them to stay competitive. He more than stepped up to the challenge, leading the team in scoring and posting career highs in nearly every category (19.6 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 5.3 APG, 0.8 SPG, 0.2 BPG, 35.6 MPG, 43.2% FG, 39.8% 3FG).
Brooks uses his ridiculous speed and quickness to leave most opponents in the dust, and he’s got a sweet outside shot with a quick release to pair with it. In fact, he led the entire league in three-point makes with 209, a mark that even Ray Allen has only been able to reach three times in his career. When Houston needed someone to put the ball in the hole last season, especially in clutch situations, Brooks delivered more often than not. He may not be your prototypical point guard, but he’s a player with a big heart and multiple impressive attributes.
On the Bubble: Devin Harris (NJ), Baron Davis (LAC), Mo Williams (CLE), Brandon Jennings (MIL), Stephen Curry (GS)
Stay tuned for “Positional Rankings: SG.”