Ranking the Top 10 Point Guards in the NBA

Bryan Toporek@@btoporekFeatured ColumnistDecember 22, 2012

Ranking the Top 10 Point Guards in the NBA

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    Ever since 2005, the NBA has found itself in the midst of a point guard renaissance.

    The back-to-back-to-back selections of Deron Williams, Chris Paul and Raymond Felton as the third, fourth and fifth picks of the 2005 draft are still having reverberations around the NBA nearly a decade later, with each player heading one of the league's better teams in 2012-13.

    Since then, the additions of Derrick Rose (drafted in 2008), Russell Westbrook (2008) and Kyrie Irving (2011), among others, have built a mind-boggling amount of depth at the position.

    You know it's a brutally tough competition when two Olympic gold medals don't even guarantee you a top-five spot on this list.

    Keep that in mind as you sit there wondering why your favorite point guard isn't featured here.

    Note: All 2012-13 statistics and records are current through games played on Dec. 20. These rankings assume that all of these point guards are healthy enough to play, although injury history will be noted for certain players. 

10. Ricky Rubio, Minnesota Timberwolves

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    It may seem early to classify Ricky Rubio as a top-10 NBA point guard. He's only played a total of 44 NBA games as of Dec. 22. But watch him for five minutes and tell me he doesn't deserve it.

    What's that? You can't?

    Rubio already rivals Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul as one of the most creative passers in the NBA. He's able to squeeze the ball through holes that other point guards wouldn't even see.

    A torn ACL in March 2012 derailed his otherwise promising rookie season and caused him to miss the first month and a half of the 2012-13 season. He returned to the Minnesota Timberwolves lineup on Dec. 15, but Minnesota plans on limiting his minutes at first to ease him back into playing.

    Rubio needs to improve significantly as a shooter to move much further up this list. But his passing ability alone makes him a lock for the top 10, no matter how inexperienced he may be as an NBA player. 

9. Steve Nash, Los Angeles Lakers

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    There's only one two-time league MVP on this list, and if he wasn't nearly 39 years old, he'd be much, much higher.

    Steve Nash, operator extraordinaire of the "Seven Seconds or Less" offense back with the mid-2000s Phoenix Suns, has been one of the league's top point guards for the past decade. Regardless of whether you believe he deserved both, Nash won back-to-back MVP awards in 2005 and 2006 with Amar'e Stoudemire and the Suns.

    Even as Nash transitioned into his mid-to-late 30s, he managed to stay elite. Since the 2004-05 season, Nash has led the league in assists six times, assists per game five times and free-throw percentage twice.

    Since 2005, Nash trails only two point guards (Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups) in terms of total win shares, according to Basketball Reference. He's about as pure of a passer as they come, which has the Los Angeles Lakers hoping that Nash's return will cure all that ails them.

    As long as Nash can stay healthy, he should at least be able to breathe some life into the Lakers on offense, even though he's roughly a year away from turning 40.

    Defense, as has always been the case with Nash, is another question entirely.

8. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

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    Stephen Curry may be most well known for his Cinderella run through the 2008 NCAA Tournament with Davidson, but he's quickly emerging as one of the NBA's best young point guards.

    It's only a matter of time before Curry joins the elite 50-40-90 shooting club one of these years. He led the league in free-throw percentage in 2010-11 (shooting 93.4 percent) and hasn't hit fewer than 42 percent of his three-point attempts in any of his four NBA seasons, including 2012-13.

    After progressively increasing his field-goal percentage in each of his three seasons, Curry's shooting average from the field has taken a nosedive in 2012-13. He's knocked down only 42.4 percent of his shots through 26 games for the Golden State Warriors, although he's averaging a career-high 19.9 points per game.

    Curry isn't one to put up John Stockton-esque assist numbers on a nightly basis—he's averaged 5.9 dimes per game over his four-season career—but he's a more than capable passer.

    With Monta Ellis gone and the Warriors backcourt finally his to lead, Curry is averaging a career-high 6.3 assists per game in 2012-13.

    Ankle problems plagued Curry throughout 2011-12, but those thankfully appear to be a thing of the past. Those ankle troubles are virtually all that can keep Curry from becoming a top point guard before he retires. 

7. Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs

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    Tony Parker, like the rest of the San Antonio Spurs, won't often make splashy headlines (unless it's tied to his famous ex-wife Eva Longoria) or end up on SportsCenter's Top 10.

    Instead, Parker and the Spurs just keep humming along, dominating opponents and remaining one of the league's best-kept secrets year after year.

    Before Tim Duncan decided to actively defy Father Time in 2012-13, the Spurs appeared to be well on their way to transitioning from Duncan's team to Parker's team.

    Parker finished fifth in the 2012 MVP voting after averaging 18.3 points and a career-high 7.7  assists per game for the Spurs, who tied the Chicago Bulls for the best record in the NBA (50-16).

    Parker's per-game statistics don't leap out like those of Derrick Rose or Kyrie Irving, but that's largely a result of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. Pop loves playing his stars only 30-32 minutes per game, effectively limiting the damage they can do on a game-by-game basis.

    Make no mistake, though: Parker is one of the NBA's elite point guards. He's one of only two players on this list with an NBA championship ring, and the only player with multiple championships to his name.

6. Deron Williams, Brooklyn Nets

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    It's only been two years since I called Deron Williams a top-three passer in the NBA, but it's impossible to ignore the slide he's been on since then.

    Even Williams himself admits it. He told ESPNNewYork.com on Dec. 18 that injuries and a different system haven't allowed him to be the same player he was before being traded from Utah to the then-New Jersey Nets on Feb. 23, 2011.

    Whatever the excuse, it's clear that Williams hasn't hit his stride with the Nets. With the Jazz, Williams managed three straight seasons of putting up at least 18 points and 10 assists per game before 2010-11, the year he was traded to the Nets.

    In 2012-13, he's averaging only 16.9 points and 8.1 dimes in 36.9 minutes per game.

    Williams can blame the system or the players around him all he wants, but the Nets in 2012-13 have enough talent to allow an elite point guard to construct a semi-competent offense. As SBNation's Mike Prada explained on Dec. 20, Williams appears to have "lost his grasp" on timing with the Brooklyn Nets, trying to force too much too often.

    He still has top-three talent. But with Williams already being 28 years old and at least two years removed from his top form, it's worth wondering whether he'll ever reach that same peak again. 

5. Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics

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    Rajon Rondo ranks right up there with Chris Paul and Ricky Rubio in terms of the best and most creative passers in the NBA.

    Rondo is the only player in the league averaging more than 10 assists per game (he's averaging 12.3), and he tied John Stockton earlier this season for the second-longest streak in NBA history with at least 10 assists per game.

    In terms of "pure" point guards, Rondo almost unquestionably belongs in the top three. This isn't just a list of pure point guards, though.

    Rondo falls short as a shooter. He's only hit more than 30 percent of his three-point tries in one of his seven  seasons and, before 2012-13, hasn't been a great mid-range shooter, either.

    To Rondo's credit, he's knocked down 57 percent of his jumpers from 16-to-23 feet in 2012-13, according to HoopData, even while attempting 3.5 shots from that range per game. Before this season, he's never hit more than 43 percent of his shots from 16-to-23 feet in a given season.

    His subpar free-throw shooting ultimately holds him back from rising higher on this list. He's hit 61.9 percent from the line, nearly 30 percentage points lower than what players like Steve Nash and Stephen Curry can do.

    That makes him a liability at the end of games, whereas other elite point guards are a strength for their teams. 

4. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    If anyone still had doubts about Russell Westbrook being one of the NBA's best young point guards, his performance in 2012-13 should finally put those to rest.

    Both Westbrook and Kevin Durant began shouldering more of the offensive load after the trade that effectively swapped James Harden for Kevin Martin, and neither Westbrook nor Durant has missed a beat.

    Through five seasons (including 2012-13), Westbrook already has three seasons when he's averaged 20 or more points per game, three seasons with at least eight assists per game and three seasons with at least 1.5 steals per game. He's averaging a career-best 8.8 dimes and two steals per game in 2012-13.

    As long as he plays alongside the uber-efficient Durant, he's always going to get attacked for iffy shot selection, especially with a career 42.9 shooting percentage.

    As long as the Thunder keep winning—the team's a league-best 21-5 and had a 12-game win streak snapped by Minnesota on Dec. 20—here's guessing Westbrook won't care one bit about what critics say about his shooting tendencies.

    Durant and the Thunder completely understand that Westbrook's aggressiveness (which sometimes borders on recklessness) only makes the game easier for them. Opponents have to sell out defensively to make sure Westbrook can't explode against them, drawing defenders away from the league's three-time reigning scoring champion.

    Westbrook likely wouldn't be nearly the player he's become without Durant by his side. But with both players signed long-term in Oklahoma City, that duo isn't separating anytime soon. That's only going to make Westbrook that much more dangerous as he continues to evolve. 

3. Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    If the Cleveland Cavaliers could only have one player to help them try to forget the LeBron James era, Kyrie Irving was just about the best the team could have hoped for.

    After a sensational rookie season in 2011-12 when he averaged 18.5 points, 5.4 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 1.1 steals per game en route to the Rookie of the Year award, Irving only stepped up nearly every aspect of his game in 2012-13.

    It's virtually sacrilege to have a sophomore this high on this list, given the plethora of talent at the point guard position. But given Irving's ball-handling skills, it'd be a crime not to have him in the top three.

    Uncle Drew was one thing. The highlight video from Team USA camp from the summer of 2012 and seeing him cross over a three-time Defensive Player of the Year against the Los Angeles Lakers on Dec. 11  was something else entirely.

    What's truly terrifying is that Irving hasn't even turned 21 yet. He's battled through a litany of injuries throughout his young NBA career, but none that suggest he'll be chronically sidelined.

    Not every No. 1 pick of the past 10 years has panned out—here's looking at you, Andrea Bargnani—but Irving already appears well on his way toward NBA superstardom.

2. Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls

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    Derrick Rose's current recovery from a torn ACL may make this ranking seem outlandishly high, but he's the only league MVP on this list below the age of 38 for a reason.

    Rose personifies the NBA's new group of elite point guards—a large (6'3", 190 pounds), physical player who can just as easily pass or put his head down and drive to the basket. His creativity in getting to the rim is nearly unmatched by any player not named LeBron James.

    In his MVP season, Rose averaged 25 points, 7.7 assists, 4.1 rebounds and a steal per game for the Chicago Bulls, who finished with a league-best 62-20 record that year.

    Steve Nash, who was the MVP in both 2005 and 2006, and Rose, who won in 2011, are the only other point guards to win the award since Magic Johnson did in 1989 and 1990. When Rose won, he became the youngest player in league history to ever take home the award.

    If Rose wasn't only 24 years old and modern science wasn't what it is today, his ongoing recovery from a torn ACL would be much more of a concern.

    Instead, having seen what Adrian Peterson is doing in the NFL less than a year after tearing his ACL, there should be zero doubt in anyone's mind that when Rose comes back, he's coming back strong.

    Besides, what's one thing you can do during the early recovery from ACL surgery? Shoot the ball standing still. If Rose spent his early rehab working on his jumper, he's only going to be that much more unguardable whenever he returns.

1. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers

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    If you don't believe Chris Paul is the best point guard in the NBA, you haven't been watching since he tore his meniscus back in the winter of 2010.

    Let's break it down nice and simple: In his eight seasons since being drafted No. 4 overall in 2005 (including 2012-13), he's led the league in total steals six times. He's finished with the league lead in steals per game five times, total assists twice and assists per game twice, too.

    Since the 2004-05 season, when Paul was a rookie, he ranks fourth in total win shares, behind only LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant, according to Basketball Reference. He's ahead of players like Dwight Howard, Dwyane Wade, Steve Nash and Tim Duncan.

    Offensively, there's not a player in the league who's better at orchestrating offense than Paul. He's a magician with the ball, a perfect fit for the high-flying act of the Los Angeles Clippers and "Lob City."

    His quick hands also make him pesky on defense (as evidenced by his number of steals), despite his diminutive 6'0", 175-pound frame. He hasn't been anywhere close to an elite defender in 2012-13, but has limited ball-handlers in pick-and-roll situations to only scoring 0.62 points per possession, according to SynergySports (subscription required).

    When Paul hits free agency in the summer of 2013, every team in the league could well be openly pining for his services, no matter their point-guard situation. He's just that good.

    There's also this: Paul became the third-youngest player in NBA history to record 5,000 assists after hitting that benchmark against the New Orleans Hornets on Dec. 19. He trails only Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas.