In the Golden Age of NBA Point Guards, Not All Are Created Equal
As far as point guards are concerned, this is the Age of Aquarius in the NBA.
Or the dawning of it, at least. Injuries to Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo and Kyrie Irving, along with age-related regression from Steve Nash and Deron Williams (among others) have shallowed the overall pool of talent between the lockout-shortened season and the 2012-13 campaign.
On the whole, though, there's never been a better or more competitive time to be a professional floor general. Of the 30 teams in the league, only three—the Dallas Mavericks with Mike James, the Miami Heat with Mario Chalmers and the Utah Jazz with Mo Williams—employ guys who might be considered placeholders rather than full-time starters, and all of them have done well for themselves and their respective squads.
But what makes this a Golden Age of point guards isn't just the fact that there are so many good ones, or that the rules of the game have shifted so far in favor of perimeter players. Of course, there's something to be said of the fact that a third of the league's point guards have played in at least one All-Star Game, with another handful (i.e. Stephen Curry, John Wall, Damian Lillard, Ricky Rubio, Ty Lawson) who figure to reach that level before long.
Rather, it's the sheer variety of playing styles among passers and ball-handlers that allows this group to both fill specific needs on a wide variety of teams and, as a group, go toe-to-toe with their counterparts from the days of Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas and John Stockton in the annals of NBA history.
To illustrate the diversity of today's point guards, I've grouped them into six general stylistic categories—Pass-First "Prodigies," Attackers, Scorers, Craftsmen, Jacks-of-All-Trades and Gunners—with an assist from Synergy Sports. Most players fit better into one category than they do into others, though the groupings are by no means perfect, nor are they meant to suggest that a particular player doesn't fit into a different one.
The Pass-First Prodigies
Qualifications: Must love to dish—the more ways, the better. Prone to turnovers as a result, particularly in the pick-and-roll.
Injury issues have considerably diminished the current crop of pass-first point guards this season. Steve Nash missed 24 games between November and mid-December and has since been plagued by a host of issues with his lower body, while Rajon Rondo had some quasi-MVP moments in 2012-13 before succumbing to a season-ending ACL tear in late January.
Those two represent the dichotomy inherent in pass-first point guards. Nash is an otherworldly passer and ball-handler who, in another life, could've been a top-notch scorer had he opted to employ his historically great shooting stroke more frequently. Rondo, on the other hand, is a poor shooter who compensates for his inability to space the floor with his ability to distribute and attack.
Not to mention the athleticism and massive mitts with which he wreaks havoc defensively.
A similar split plays out between Jose Calderon and Ricky Rubio, albeit on a lower tier than that occupied by Nash and Rondo. Calderon is a superb shooter with career splits of .483/.399/.877 who doesn't penetrate much, but whose sharp stroke makes him a dangerous spot-up player. As for Rubio, he's young, but the 40-percent field-goal shooting mark has thus far proven elusive for the Minnesota Timberwolves talisman.
Still, unlike his Spanish countryman and international teammate, Rubio trends more toward driving and kicking rather than serving up dishes from the outside, though he's been known to alley more than a few oops in his time:
Greivis Vasquez represents something of a happy medium among passing point guards. He's a productive facilitator—ranks third in the NBA with 9.2 assists per game—who's capable of hitting shots and certainly isn't afraid to let it fly. His field-goal (.434) and three-point (.351) percentages are both slightly below average, though he still has free rein to get up 13.1 shots per game.
Not that he doesn't usually stick to passing. He handles the ball in the pick-and-roll 43.1 percent of the time, as opposed to 12.7 percent in isolation and 12.2 percent as a spot-up shooter, per Synergy Sports.
Those are approximately on par with Rubio (43.1 percent pick-and-rolls, 18.4 percent spot-ups), though they still pale in comparison to those of Nash, who picks-and-rolls more than 53 percent of the time and spots up just 18 percent of the time.
What truly binds these five guys together, though, is what's always brought primary passers together: their penchant for turnovers. Anyone who handles and distributes the ball as frequently as these guys do is bound to give it away from time to time.
In fact, according to Synergy Sports, Calderon is the only one of these five who doesn't turn the ball over during at least one in five pick-and-roll possessions, and he sits at a shade over 19 percent. Rubio knows how to razzle and dazzle on the fast break, though his flair for the fantastic leads to a miscue nearly 29 percent of the time.
Qualifications: Can get to the hole, preferably with soul. Uses physical prowess more than clever maneuvering to do so. Approach to the game portends control issues.
For the speed demons and high-fliers among the NBA's floor generals, turnovers are part and parcel of eschewing patient, methodical play in favor of a more aggressive approach.
Russell Westbrook is arguably the NBA's preeminent player in this category, though he'd have some stiff competition for the crown if Derrick Rose were healthy. At their best, Westbrook and Rose rank among the most terrifying covers in the league.
They're both fearless fliers with the speed to scoot past, the athleticism to leap over and the strength to power through defenders and into the paint. It's quite possible that they're the two best athletes to ever play the position, with Westbrook owning a slight edge in both sheer explosiveness and perimeter shooting ability.
Not that there aren't plenty of problems plaguing each of them. Rose's middling shooting ability capped his tremendous potential even before his knee gave way. Of course, the injury itself has been the biggest impediment to his continued superstardom of late and will likely remain so until next season, when he'll presumably be back at full speed.
Westbrook has had no such injury concerns. In fact, he hasn't missed a single game since the dawn of his high school days, at the very least. Instead, he's been left to deal with a Jekyll-versus-Hyde struggle between "Good Russ" and "Bad Russ."
He's second among point guards in turnovers per game (3.4) and has tallied at least five giveaways on 25 occasions this season. Not surprisingly, the Oklahoma City Thunder are 14-11 in those 25 games, as opposed to 40-9 when Westbrook comes away with four or fewer mistakes.
Rose has had some issues of his own with turnovers (3.1 per game last season, 3.4 the season before that), though at least a share of those mistakes can be excused on account of him being the only creative offensive facilitator the Chicago Bulls' employ.
Such are the eccentricities expected of the best athletes at the position—high risk, high reward. John Wall seems to have struck a better balance between the two as of late. As a result, he could finally be on his way to realizing the considerable potential that made him the No. 1 pick in the 2010 NBA draft.
Wall has looked like anything but the wild, poor-shooting youngster of old since mid-March. Over his past 12 games, Wall has averaged 24.7 points with astronomical shooting splits of .493/.529/.825. Those numbers are likely to settle down over time, though Wall's stroke has looked considerably smoother and more confident, particularly from the mid-range, since his return from a knee injury.
More importantly, his tally of nine assists to 2.9 turnovers over his past 12 is not only sustainable, but perhaps indicative of a player who's maturing into a more patient point guard, especially now that his Washington Wizards teammates aren't all nincompoops.
For now, though, Wall belongs more comfortably in the mix alongside fellow speedsters like Ty Lawson, Raymond Felton and Jeff Teague. Wall is taller, faster and has a considerably higher ceiling than any of those three, but he must prove himself a more consistent performer before he can claim company among perennial All-Stars like Westbrook and Rose.
Qualifications: Top-notch passer with a knack for hitting big shots in crunch time. Not an imposing athlete by any stretch, but has a deep bag of tricks with which to fool defenders and operate in traffic.
If John Wall can do what Chris Paul did once upon a time—that is, learn how to change gears to his advantage—then he, too, might someday be an elite point guard in the NBA.
Paul was certainly a better passer and more effective maestro from the get-go than Wall is or was. However, as with Wall, CP3's impetus toward a more complete stylistic shift didn't come until after he was racked by a serious knee injury during the 2009-10 season.
Prior to that, Paul had actually been something of an aerial enthusiast:
Nowadays, he's routinely referred to as the best point guard on the planet, even though his numbers have dipped from a two-year peak (between 2007 and 2009) with the New Orleans Hornets.
More than anything, Paul understands how to utilize his own physical strengths and weaknesses to a T. He still has spurts of quickness in his legs but is more liable to use his tight dribble and patient approach to maneuver around the floor.
He's also been known to put his rear end to work, particularly in the post where, surprisingly enough, he ranks as the most efficient player by points per possession in the NBA (per Synergy Sports).
But Paul's offensive repertoire wouldn't be complete without a deadly mid-range game, which he just so happens to possess in spades. According to NBA.com, CP3 is no worse than a league-average shooter from every conceivable zone inside the three-point arc and is actually well above average in most cases:
At present, Tony Parker is the only other player in the MVP runner-up conversation (because LeBron James has already wrapped up the MVP) who might otherwise contest Paul's claim to the Iron Throne at the point guard position. But Parker's assist numbers, in terms of both raw totals and team percentages, aren't exactly on par with CP3's.
When it comes to floaters, flip shots and general sneakiness, though, Parker has Paul (and everyone else) beat. His quickness has long been the stuff of legend (and frustration) in the Association, and his floater in the lane might be the deadliest weapon that any guard has at his disposal in the mid-range.
As far as crunch time is concerned, Parker has actually piled up more points and more assists with fewer turnovers during the last five minutes of close games than Paul has, per NBA.com. In CP3's defense, though, Parker has played 60 more such minutes across eight more games.
Beyond that, both are superb purveyors of the pick-and-roll. Paul is slightly more efficient in those situations—sixth in the NBA at 0.97 points per possession vs. ninth at 0.96 points per possession (per Synergy Sports)—though Parker plays pick-and-roll as a much larger share of his possessions (45.7 percent) than does Paul (34.2 percent).
Jeremy Lin and Isaiah Thomas rank among those who've taken a skill-based, pick-and-roll-heavy approach to playing point guard while blessed with far more speed than athleticism (Lin) or size (Thomas). Even so, both would be hard-pressed to ever achieve a level of NBA mastery on par with what Paul and Parker have compiled over the years.
Qualifications: Good at a number of things, but not truly elite at any one thing, at least on the offensive end. A knack for above-average defense. Talents are often underappreciated, be it for a lack of team success or a less glamorous role next to bigger stars.
Of course, the same cap placed upon Lin and Thomas could be applied to any number of guards in the NBA—even some of the really good ones.
Take Jrue Holiday, for instance. Holiday has played at an All-Star level for the Philadelphia 76ers all season, averaging 18.4 points and 8.5 assists per game while turning himself into something of a defensive hound on the perimeter using his above-average size, strength and agility for his position.
But Holiday hardly has the individual talents to lift his squad to new heights. He's a solid shooter (.441 from the field, .375 from three), but hardly spectacular. He's a good facilitator, but it's not as though he makes his teammates so much better as to alter the course of a game, as Chris Paul and Steve Nash have over the years.
Even his clutch dunks in traffic aren't quite as emphatic as you might otherwise expect:
Then again, if Holiday had a healthy Andrew Bynum by his side, who knows how much better he and the Sixers would be? He's still just 22 years old, but at the moment, Holiday appears best suited as the second- or third-best player on a title contender.
That looks to be the ceiling shared by George Hill and Mike Conley Jr. Both are quality floor generals with carefully prescribed roles on second-tier contenders in their respective conferences. Hill's duty with the Indiana Pacers, more often than not, is to defer to Paul George and David West while making himself available as a spot-up shooter, be it in half-court sets or on the occasional break.
Conley, on the other hand, has a greater sense of control over the Memphis Grizzlies offense, even more so now that Rudy Gay is gone. But even he is no better than the third banana next to Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, the latter of whom serves as the elbow-based hub of Lionel Hollins' offense.
Gay now has the pleasure of playing alongside Kyle Lowry, another "Swiss Army knife" guard, on the Toronto Raptors. Physically speaking, Lowry fits in with Ty Lawson of the Denver Nuggets among those who would be aptly compared to bowling balls, albeit with more of an all-around effect.
Lowry's a tough guy who can finish in traffic, shoot from the perimeter (37.5 percent from three, 1.18 points per possession on spot-ups) and create for himself and those around him. And, better yet, he can be a pest on defense. According to Synergy Sports, Lowry forces turnovers on nearly 20 percent of opponents' isolations and pick-and-rolls and holds his foes to just 0.7 points per possession in those situations.
Then there's Jameer Nelson, the longtime point guard of the Orlando Magic. The St. Joe's product isn't a flashy player or a particularly dominant defender by any stretch of the imagination. But the guy's a consummate pro who understands how to operate the pick-and-roll and can lift his teammates with a long jumper from time to time.
Qualifications: Gets buckets. Outside shooting a big plus, as is craftiness in close quarters. Can serve as primary scorer, primary facilitator or both.
Speaking of long jumpers, have you seen what Stephen Curry's done to the NBA this year? The kid's second in the league in three-point shooting at 45.5 percent, behind only Jose Calderon.
Of course, you don't have to dig too deep into the numbers to understand just how great of a shooter Curry is. One look back at his 54-point explosion at Madison Square Garden should suffice:
Then again, such a dive can provide additional context. As proficient as Curry is at producing points as a pick-and-roll ball-handler—0.89 points per possession, which rates him among the top four in the NBA, per Synergy Sports—he's even better at taking care of business off the ball.
Curry ranks 11th in the league in spot-up scoring (1.29 points per possession) and 16th in coming off screens (1.07 points per possession). Those aren't just All-Star-worthy numbers; they're numbers that help lift a team back into the playoffs and justify the faith of such a team in rewarding a player like Curry with a sizable extension prior to the start of the season.
But as outstanding of a shooter as Curry may be, even he had to step aside during All-Star Weekend's Three-Point Shootout, which Kyrie Irving thoroughly dominated. The second-year stud has been fantastic from three (41.9 percent) and is already superior to Curry when it comes to scoring inside the arc.
If anything, there may not be another player who's more creative with the ball, whether handling it or putting it through the hoop, than Kyrie:
It makes sense, then, that isolations constitute the majority of Irving's plays—29.8 percent of them, to be exact. Throw in the fact that he scores 1.09 points per play on isos (second in the NBA), and Irving might as well try to score whenever and wherever he sees fit. If not for injuries, Kyrie would be neck-and-neck with Russell Westbrook for the title of "Most Prolific Point Guard" at 23.2 points per game.
But, unfortunately, physical ailments of all sorts have come to hinder his young career, just as those involving Curry's ankle have his.
The same could be said of Deron Williams. Once considered an elite point guard—if not the top challenger to Chris Paul in the positional hierarchy—Williams has seen his NBA stock tumble amidst a trying individual season with the Brooklyn Nets.
Part of that decline can be attributed to nagging issues with D-Will's lower half, along with the overall wear and tear that comes with spending 10 years in the NBA. Part of that may also be the result of having spent the previous season-and-a-half in what amounted to cruise control as the Nets extricated themselves from New Jersey.
But the biggest problem of all for D-Will may very well rest with his coaches and teammates. It wouldn't be much of a stretch to suggest that he's been misused for much of the season in Brooklyn. Now-ex-head coach Avery Johnson had organized much of the Nets' offense around the isolation-based talents of Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez.
All the while ignoring that Williams—on whom Brooklyn spent so much this past summer—is at his best while running the pick-and-roll. No point guard considered in this conversation can "boast" a share of pick-and-roll plays as low as D-Will's 17.6 percent—an astonishingly low number for any noteworthy starter in today's NBA.
Even more so for a guy who once carried the Utah Jazz to the Western Conference Finals on the strength of a two-man game with Carlos Boozer.
Which class of point guards do you prefer?
Regardless of the misuse, Williams remains one of the most physically imposing specimens at his position. At 6'3" and 210 pounds, he possesses the sheer mass and power to bowl his way to the bucket and get off shots after considerable contact.
And fortunately for the Nets, D-Will appears to have rediscovered his comfort zone. Over his past 22 games, he has averaged 21.7 points and 7.5 assists per game while shooting 45.8 percent from the field and a blistering 43.2 percent from downtown.
Interestingly enough, if Williams weren't in Brooklyn, the Nets might otherwise have wound up with Damian Lillard. The No. 6 pick the Portland Trail Blazers used to get Lillard came into their possession by way of a 2012 trade deadline deal that sent Gerald Wallace to New Jersey.
So far, so good for the Blazers. All Lillard's done is lead all first-year players in points (19.0) and assists (6.5) while running away with the Rookie of the Year award and bringing hope back to the forlorn fanatics of Rip City.
His offensive game is about as complete as one might hope a 22-year-old point guard's to be. According to Synergy Sports, Lillard already ranks among the top 50 in the NBA in efficiency as a pick-and-roll ball-handler (42nd, 0.89 points per possession), in isolation (48th, .99 points per possession) and as a spot-up shooter (27th, 1.21 points per possession).
On the downside, what binds Lillard to this group, other than an affinity for scoring, is an inability to stop anyone on the other end. He's certainly not alone in this regard; Curry, Irving and Williams all grade out as below-average defenders, at best.
To Lillard's credit, though, his proficiency in this regard may well change in the years to come as he acclimates himself to the NBA game.
Qualifications: Errant shooting. Questionable discipline. Tons of talent that is or appears to be untapped.
At one point, such a defensive progression was but a part of the presumed plan for Brandon Jennings. He shot out of the gate as a rookie looking like a superstar in the making.
Truth be told, scoring 55 points in his seventh NBA game might've been more impressive had it not come against the Golden State Warriors, who, at the time, were still an awful defensive club that loved to push the pace under legendary head coach Don Nelson.
Jennings has shot better than 40 percent from the field during just one of his four pro seasons, though his career three-point percentage (.353) is right around league average. Jennings' flippant approach to shot selection and outspoken nature has landed him in hot water with the Milwaukee Bucks on many an occasion over the years, to the point where a summer divorce between player and organization seems all but inevitable.
Jennings is certainly a dynamic young talent and a creative force when he wants to be:
However, he hasn't even come close to fulfilling his considerable promise in Milwaukee for a wide variety of reasons, and he figures to be moving on to another team with money to burn and a void at point guard as a result.
Kemba Walker seemed destined for Jennings-like disappointment just last season. Then everyone remembered that the former collegiate champion was a rookie stuck playing the point for a Charlotte Bobcats squad that was arguably the worst in NBA history.
The 'Cats are still rather depressing, though Walker looks far less like a waste of a lottery pick this time around. His shooting percentages have improved across the board, though they're still below league average. As a result, his scoring is up considerably, though his assists per 36 minutes have held steady and his rebounding per 36 has declined quite a bit, from 4.7 boards in 2011-12 to 3.5 this season.
With any luck, Walker will continue to grow and improve along with his teammates and Charlotte rather than develop into an egotistical nuisance like Jennings. The fact that Kemba already ranks among the top 30 in the league in pick-and-roll proficiency and averages a steady 2.3 turnovers per game bodes well for his future.
So long as the well at Michael Jordan's feet doesn't remain poisoned.
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