29-18-13. Before Sunday night, those were just a group of numbers that some people may have picked on their lottery tickets. That was until Game 4 of the Cavaliers-Celtics series, otherwise known as Rajon Rondo’s coming out party. The 29 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists were a rare stat-line, the likes of which we’ve only seen two times in playoff history before Rondo’s effort, and the fact that it came from a 6’1″ point guard makes it all the more ridiculous.
That effort by Rondo helped to thrust into the spotlight a very interesting question that was touched on by Charles Barkley and his TNT brethren last week; who is the best point guard in the Association? When pressed for an answer Barkley said Deron Williams, Chris Paul, and Derrick Rose. Not a bad trio by any stretch of the imagination, but one that left out two-time MVP Steve Nash and the newly minted Big One, Rondo.
With a sudden influx of star point guards in the NBA, we have to ask – who is the best lead man in the league today? Let’s list the top five candidates, and then this committee of one will decide who the best point in the game is today. This article will kick off a series analyzing the top five players at each position in the NBA.
Who better to start the list with than the man who inspired this article? Rondo has gone from unreliable fifth wheel on a championship squad in 2008 to the unquestioned leader of a veteran group trying to regain that title swagger in the 2010 playoffs. The Celtics struggled through an up-and-down regular season that saw them start 23-5, only to finish the last 54 games of the season at .500, going 27-27 the rest of the way. Despite a rough stretch of injuries, team drama, and statistical declines from its best players, Rondo was the steadying factor, keeping everyone happy while sharing the ball and playing solid defense. This defense lead to Rondo receiving a first-team All-Defensive selection this season for the first time in his career.
After a solid regular season, the playoffs is where Rondo really made his impact. Take a look at his numbers in the regular season and then the playoffs:
Regular Season: 13.7 points, 9.8 assists, 2.33 steals, 4.4 rebounds
Playoffs: 17.9 points, 11.4 assists, 1.89 steals, 7.1 rebounds
With the exception of steals, Rondo has stepped up his game all across the board. He has taken a heavier scoring load, upped his assists by almost two per game, and is averaging nearly three more rebounds per game. His rebounding numbers alone are ridiculous for a point guard.
Another big key for the Celtics in this postseason? Rondo’s stellar defense. Mo Williams is expected to be the Cavs third scoring option, and take away a big Game 1, Rondo has dominated him on both ends of the court. It’s that great defense, along with a great offensive skill set that has allowed Rondo to launch himself into this discussion.
Quick, what do the first two point guards on this list have in common? They have used big showings against Mo Williams in the playoffs to launch themselves into this argument. In only his second year, Rose has become the unquestioned leader of the young Chicago Bulls, displaying great leadership qualities along with an unmatched blend of athleticism and speed that gives him an advantage on most point guards in the league. Like Rondo, Rose was a steadying force for a team facing controversy during the regular season, and then proceeded to up his numbers once the postseason began.
Regular Season: 20.8 points, 6.0 assists, 3.8 rebounds
Postseason: 26.8 points, 7.2 assists, 3.4 rebounds
It is debatable whether or not the ballooning of stats is a product of Mo Williams ineptitude on defense (by the way, Williams isn’t making this list), or a product of Rose raising his game to another level. We’re going to give the benefit of the doubt to Rose, especially in the NBA playoffs where teams can strategize better with individual match-ups, and still the Cavs couldn’t contain Rose. Looking at that series, there were a lot of close games, and Rose was the direct reason behind that.
Although he is still learning the intricacies of the point guard position, Rose has been learning on the fly and succeeding greatly. Rose made his first of what we assume will be many All-Star teams this season, while also becoming one of the better young closers in the league.
The best comparison between Rose’s skill set and that of his peers is a less-refined Lebron James and other small forwards. While this may sound downright blasphemous to some, try and look beyond the obvious in this. Rose is a blur of speed in the open court, one of the fastest players in the game today. His biggest advantage, however, is an unparalleled athleticism that we don’t see in other point guards he faces. His “hops” for lack of a better term are on par with players who are four or five inches taller than him, and he is stronger than almost every opponent he faces, save for Deron Williams. It is not a long stretch of the imagination by any means to suggest that in two years, Rose may be the unquestioned best point guard in the league.
The grandfather of the group, Nash is a direct contradiction of the idea that players get worse with age. The 36-year-old Nash turned in what was arguably his best regular season ever this year in leading the Suns to a three-seed in the loaded West. That’s saying something, considering the fact that Nash is a two-time NBA MVP. Compare this season’s averages with that of his two MVP years:
2004-2005: 15.5 points, 11.6 assists, 50% FG, 43% 3-point FG, 89% free throws
2005-2006: 18.8 points, 10.5 assists, 51% FG, 44% 3-point FG, 92% free throws
2009-2010: 16.5 points, 11 assists, 51% FG, 44% 3-point FG, 94% free throws
While his numbers may not surpass his second MVP season, they are on par with his first season taking home the MVP award. Oh and by the way, those two MVP seasons were five years ago. The idea that a point guard can still be putting up numbers this consistently good at his age is unheard of.
Nash has shown his true leadership skills, taking a team that missed the playoffs altogether last year to the Western Conference Finals this season while basically being overlooked. The funny thing is, Nash probably received too much attention in his MVP seasons, and not nearly enough in a season in which he finished eighth in the voting despite very similar numbers.
The main knock on Nash’s game, however, is the fact that he plays virtually no defense. Despite his great numbers, he gives up as much if not more on any given night, and the Suns lack of size this year has not been able to cover that. This is the main reason that younger point guards have the ability to score at will on the Suns, and always seem to win the individual match-ups with Nash. Regardless, while most analysts want to write off Nash and look to the future when deciding the NBA’s best point guard, the two-time MVP just goes about his business putting up great numbers and winning ballgames.
How important are the playoffs? As recently as last season, Paul was hands down the best point guard in the NBA. Fast forward to 2010 where the Hornets miss the playoffs, and suddenly there is once again debate. While injuries may play a role in this, Paul is suddenly being underestimated by some who have the ridiculous notion that Darren Collison may be a better long-term option than Paul. While Collison stepped in admirably during Paul’s absence, the idea that an injury and missing the playoffs suddenly make you a worse player is insane to me.
A couple of seasons ago Kobe Bryant and the Lakers missed the playoffs, and well, look how much that has affected the defending champion/reigning Finals MVP. The fact of the matter is that Paul’s numbers weren’t actually that far off this season. Take a look at his numbers from an injury-riddled 09-10 campaign compared to his career numbers:
2009-2010: 18.7 points, 10.7 assists, 2.13 steals, 4.2 rebounds
Career: 19.3 points, 10.0 assists, 2.38 steals, 4.7 rebounds
In reality, his numbers weren’t that far off his career pace. In fact, with an aging roster lacking any real shooters outside, Paul upped his assist average.
Another thing working in Paul’s favor in this argument is the fact that his on-ball defense is on par with the best defensive point guards in the league. Paul made the NBA All-Defensive first team last year and the All-Defensive second team the year before, and his steal numbers have been consistently up there with other league leaders. The only deficiency that Paul might possibly have on defense is his lack of size, but that really only comes into play when a bigger guard like Deron Williams takes him into the post. Otherwise, his speed and quick hands allow him to keep up with anyone.
The three-time NBA All-Star was also an All-NBA first teamer two years ago while making the All-NBA second team last year. Although all of the accolades are nice, the fact of the matter is that Paul is a vocal leader who demands the best of his team and is not afraid to let them know if they are underperforming on the court. He also holds himself to the highest standard and does not shy away from self-criticism. These are all qualities that any team would hope they could get from their floor general, and Paul excels in each of those areas.
Finally, we reach the player who has been dubbed by most as the best point guard in the league today, Deron Williams. After leading the undermanned Jazz to a first round upset of the Nuggets, many people were quick to point out the greatness of Williams during that series. However, when Williams struggled in a second-round sweep against the Lakers, the debate was once again open.
Williams strength and size are unmatched by most other point guards in the NBA. Blend a quickness you would not expect from a bigger guy with an uncanny passing instinct and ability to read the game, and you have possibly the best point guard in the league. After a great start to the young point guard’s career, he took it to another level this year:
Career: 16.7 points, 9 assists, 1.03 steals, 3.1 rebounds
2009-2010: 18.7 points, 10.5 assists, 1.26 steals, 4 rebounds
All of his numbers across the board were above his career averages, and that lead to his first All-Star selection this year in his hometown of Dallas. Williams was also named to his second All-NBA second team this past season.
As in the case of Paul, the accolades are nice but it’s what Williams brings to the table that separates him from most others at his position. Defensively, Williams is not known as much of a force when compared to the other guards on this list; however, with his size and speed it is hard for most point guards to get by him. With a more refined post game, Williams could quickly become a dominant force inside that will only make the shooters around him better.
Williams displays great leadership qualities on and off the court, setting an example during games by taking good shots and distributing the ball to appease his teammates. The only issue that some may have with Williams is that at times he is not vocal or confident enough, something that was on display during Utah’s series with the Lakers. Whether it was somber post-game interviews or stretches of no aggression offensively, Williams disappears at times – which is something your best player can’t do.
So with all the information on the table, who is the best point guard in the league? Rondo is unlike most other point guards with his nose for rebounding and physical play, but his offensive limitations knock him out of the conversation. Rose is an amazing blend of strength and athleticism, but his lack of court vision right now and his general youth knock him out of the race as well. And as impressed as I am with how well Nash is playing at his age, his defense, or lack thereof, and the fact that he gives up as much as he produces also take him out of this conversation.
So that takes us down to Williams and Paul. The answer may be a matter of preference on which 2005 draftee you want running your team. If you want a more physical guard who can run your offense from the outside or the post, then you might want Williams. If you want a point guard who can ignite any fastbreak, use his speed to score at will, and defensively lock down his opponent, then you want Paul. Personally, I think Paul is the better all-around player and the one you want leading your team. While his outside shot may not be as consistent as the others, he uses his speed and vision to make all his teammates better and not make himself a liability on the defensive end. It is for those reasons that Chris Paul is the best point guard in the league.
Winner and Best Point Guard in the NBA: Chris Paul
Just for fun, here’s the second-team version of the top point guards in the league:
Russell Westbrook (OKC Thunder) – While young and unpolished, Westbrook’s athleticism rivals that of the Bulls’ Rose, and as his court vision improves to catch up with the athleticism, he will become one of the best point guards in the league.
Jameer Nelson (Orlando Magic) – Nelson is the head magician of the Orlando Magic act, keeping everyone happy while being a threat to score at will. With shooters all around him and a monster inside in Dwight Howard, Nelson’s life is much easier than most point guards in the NBA.
Baron Davis (LA Clippers) – While some might say other guys deserve to be in this spot due to the slippage in his game, Davis is still one of the biggest offensive threats of any point guard in the league today. With unlimited range and the build to post up inside, along with a great passing vision, Davis is a great veteran leader for any team.
Brandon Jennings (Milwaukee Bucks) – The future in Milwaukee rests solely in the hands of Jennings, who some have dubbed AI version two. While Jennings is more of a scorer than a point guard, he should develop the skills required to run a team and be a perennial All-Star very soon.
Tyreke Evans (Sacramento Kings) – The reigning rookie of the year is quite possibly the most talented player of either the first or second teams. While not a natural point guard, Evans took the reins this year and ran the Kings to the tune of a 20-5-5 average. It remains to be seen how well Evans can adapt to the point, but what is for sure is that we are looking at a future superstar.
Belal Abdelfattah is BSO’s newest writer and comes from a long background in sports writing at the Sports Authority Blog and The Block Radio. You can follow Belal on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/belal_a