Where Does Derrick Rose Rank Now in Point Guard Hierarchy?

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 21, 2014

Where Does Derrick Rose Rank Now in Point Guard Hierarchy?

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    Clearly, Derrick Rose's frustratingly long roller coaster ride isn't over yet.

    The unbridled optimism surrounding his play at Team USA's training camp once again gave way to a wave of concern for his surgically repaired knees.

    The former MVP sat out two consecutive days of practice, then was held out of the Wednesday's exhibition with the Dominican Republic, via ESPN.com's Marc Stein. Bulls coach and Team USA assistant Tom Thibodeau said Rose was "just getting another day of rest," but that rest comes with worry for someone who has played only 10 games over the past two seasons combined.

    Without a crystal ball to peer into Rose's future, it's hard to say exactly what his absence means. If nothing else, though, this reinforces the fact nothing is guaranteed on his climb back to elite status.

    Nowhere is that more evident than at Rose's point guard position, where Chris Paul still sits atop a deep, talented group of NBA floor generals.

    On the strength of his past and the hope for his tomorrow, Rose still has a seat at that table. But a look at the league's top seven point guards—based on a combination of proven production, star power and a forecast of the upcoming seasonshows that the 25-year-old faces an uphill climb to the No. 1 spot.

Honorable Mentions

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    Goran Dragic, Phoenix Suns

    After taking home the Kia Most Improved Player Award his last time out, Goran Dragic will look to continue his sudden ascent up the point guard ladder.

    His 2013-14 campaign, his sixth in the league, encapsulated the reasons for having the award he claimed. Not only did he see a tremendous boost in quantity by posting a personal best in points (20.3), he also made significant strides in quality, setting career marks in field-goal percentage (50.5), three-point percentage (40.8), player efficiency rating (21.4) and total win shares (10.3).

    Although he shared point guard duties with fellow rising star Eric Bledsoe, coach Jeff Hornacek's dual-point guard system allows Dragic to get a mention on this list. The setup hurt the Dragon's assists average (5.9, down from 7.4 the previous season), but it also allowed the Phoenix Suns to finish eighth in offensive efficiency (107.1 points per 100 possessions), via NBA.com.

    With another offseason for Hornacek to fully implement his system, the stage is set for Dragic to keep climbing.

    Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

    Damian Lillard still hasn't completely shed the not-a-true-point-guard reputation that followed him out of Weber State, but he hasn't needed to.

    Even if he's more of a scorer than setup man, he's still more talented than most at the position. He punched his first All-Star ticket last season while pouring in 20.7 points a night and helping the Portland Trail Blazers to 54 wins and their first playoff berth in three years.

    "Lillard has the requisite skill and physical tools to become an elite point guard, assuming he isn't one already," wrote Bleacher Report's Josh Martin. "In a league with an analytics-driven obsession over shooting threes and getting to the rim, Lillard is already the most prolific of his peers when combining the two."

    Lillard excels in high-efficiency areas of the floor, either taking aim from distance (39.4 percent shooting on 554 long-range attempts) or bullying his way to the free-throw line (5.2 attempts a night).

    If his distributing skills start to approach his scoring prowess, he could vault up these rankings.

    Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

    It was hard to miss what Kyle Lowry did for the Toronto Raptors last season, but it feels like the basketball world managed to do just that.

    Toronto's 6'0" bulldog provided 17.9 points, 7.4 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 1.5 steals a night. He had arguably the biggest hand in the Raptors' dramatic turnaround (6-12 out of the gate, 42-22 from that point on), yet no accolades came his way.

    He was snubbed out of an All-Star spot, finished sixth in the Most Improved Player voting and did not make a single appearance on an MVP ballot. For helping snap a five-year postseason drought, he deserved better.

    With a new four-year, $48 million deal in hand, Lowry could once again cement himself among the game's top signal-callers. Maybe this time around the league will better appreciate what he's doing.

7. Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    2013-14 Notable Numbers: 20.8 PPG, 53.3 TS%, 6.1 APG, 3.6 RPG, 1.5 SPG, 35.2 MPG, 20.1 PER

    No matter how your summer went, chances are Kyrie Irving had a better one.

    He started his offseason by inking a five-year, $90 million contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Before the pressure of being a max-contract player even had the chance to set in, it was immediately lifted off his shoulders by the return of Cleveland's prodigal son LeBron James.

    Since then, Irving has also seen the arrivals of sharpshooters Mike Miller and James Jones, along with versatile forward Shawn Marion. Three-time All-Star (and Uncle Drew's former commercial costar) Kevin Love is reportedly headed there next, via Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports. The Cavs also like their chances of landing the NBA's all-time leader in three-point makes Ray Allen, via Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports.

    Irving went from the leader of a 33-win team to the sidekick on a club that FiveThirtyEight.com's Nate Silver projects for 65 victories.

    Yet, all those changes don't necessarily help Irving's ranking. As a prolific scorer with yo-yo handles, he might have checked in higher on his own. His new reality will force him to make adjustments, cleaning up his efficiency and fully committing to the defensive end.

    "You do think about [changes] because you're going to be playing with the greatest player in the game," Irving said, via ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst. "I've talked to several teammates about how we're going to have to change our games."

    This should be an infinitely more rewarding challenge than the one he seemed to be facing, but the unanswered questions about how he'll adapt kept him from claiming a more prominent post.

6. Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls

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    USA TODAY Sports

    2011-12* Notable Numbers: 21.8 PPG, 53.2 TS%, 7.9 APG, 3.4 RPG, 0.9 SPG, 35.3 MPG, 23.0 PER

    By the end of this season, this ranking will either look way too high or not high enough. Using a bit of Goldilocks logic here, that should mean the ranking is just right for now.

    A healthy Derrick Rose is a franchise-changer. During his top-two statistical seasons (2010-11 and 2011-12), the Chicago Bulls enjoyed a .757 winning percentage.

    With Tom Thibodeau holding the coaching reins, the Bulls have always graded out as an elite defensive team. But Chicago posted elite efficiency rankings at the opposite end with Rose leading the charge in 2011-12 (104.5 points per 100 possessions, fifth overall) before tumbling to 27th in the category without him last season, via NBA.com.

    That's why it's been hard to temper expectations surrounding his return, especially with the lofty praise that has surrounded him.

    "He looks, to me, as good as when we had him in the world championship in '10, when he was at full strength coming [into] an MVP year," Syracuse coach and Team USA assistant Jim Boehiem told ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell.

    Rose may well get back to his old form, and if he does, he might have the best chance of threatening Chris Paul's throne. But Rose's recent absence is a reminder he will likely encounter some bumps on the road back to relevance, and those hurdles are high enough to keep him behind the five players in front of him.

5. Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs

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    2013-14 Notable Numbers: 16.7 PPG, 55.5 TS%, 5.7 APG, 2.3 RPG, 0.5 SPG, 29.4 MPG, 18.9 PER

    It's hard to think of San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker and not have that mental image include the coaching genius of Gregg Popovich. Depending on that picture's capacity, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard might pop in as well.

    San Antonio's whole-greater-than-sum-of-its-parts construction makes it hard to single out an individual, regardless of his talent level.

    That's not necessarily a bad thing. The Spurs have become synonymous with greatness (see: 15 consecutive 50-win seasons, five world titles since 1999), and that label has a way to trickling down to their players.

    Parker is a six-time All-Star and four-time All-NBA selection, so his stock certainly isn't hurting. His willingness to follow Popovich's lead is what helps keep the team-first Spurs dominant in a league of superstars, and Parker's dribble penetrations are key for San Antonio's high-powered offensive attack.

    Still, it's sometimes hard to decipher whether he would be the same player elsewhere—or if the Spurs could enjoy the same success without him.

    "Parker is a system point guard, and that's not an insult," wrote Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal. "He thrives running an offense and defense that he's intimately familiar with, but he also does that better than most point guards could. It's a bit of a 'chicken or the egg' scenario here, because the system makes Parker great, and vice versa."

4. John Wall, Washington Wizards

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    2013-14 Notable Numbers: 19.3 PPG, 52.4 TS%, 8.8 APG, 4.1 RPG, 1.8 SPG, 36.3 MPG, 19.5 PER

    Save for perhaps a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, it would have been hard to imagine a better 2013-14 campaign for Washington Wizards point guard John Wall.

    He had compiled mind-numbing box scores before, but these numbers were different: cleaner, more impactful, definitive signs of progress. He took more threes than ever (308, 106 more than his first three seasons combined) and shattered his previous best percentage (35.1, was 29.6). Both his scoring and assists were career highs, and his 19 points, eight assists line was matched only by Chris Paul and Stephen Curry.

    Wall's stat sheets were stuffed with everything, substance included. After promising a playoff berth, he made good on his word by guiding the Wizards to their first playoff appearance since 2008 and highest win total since 2004-05 (45).

    And after being cut by Team USA, he is motivated to do even more in his breakout sequel.

    "I guess I'm overlooked again," he said, via Comcast SportsNet's Ben Standig. "I guess have to prove myself one more time."

    What more can he do? Well, his three-point percentage needs to keep trending up, his turnovers need to come down (3.6 last season) and his defensive effort must get more consistent.

    He has the physical tools to erase those limitations, but until he does, this is as high as he can go.

3. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    2013-14 Notable Numbers: 21.8 PPG, 54.5 TS%, 6.9 APG, 5.7 RPG, 1.9 SPG, 30.7 MPG, 24.7 PER

    There should be a gap, likely a sizable one, between a player's strengths and his weaknesses. Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook is one of the few exceptions to that rule.

    His devastating combination of explosive athleticism and unrestrained energy allows him to make plays others simply cannot. Whether clogging a passing lane, chasing down a fast-breaking opponent or soaring to the rim, he makes the most of his natural gifts.

    Just look at those numbers.

    Only he and four-time MVP LeBron James averaged at least 21 points, six assists and five boards last season. Westbrook managed the incredible feat while undergoing three knee surgeries in an eight-month span. Despite what the statistics suggest, he was clearly impacted by the procedures, shooting only 39.2 percent on drives to the basket, via SportVU data provided to NBA.com.

    Yet, even at his best, Westbrook can be his own worst enemy. He plays at such a break-neck pace he can curtail his own effectiveness by taking too many gambles on defense, attempting impossible plays of on offense (4.5 turnovers per 36 minutes) or firing up ill-advised shots.

    "He can be better, and more useful to Oklahoma City’s winning cause, if he occasionally (and with good timing) handcuffs the very thing that makes him so effective," Bleacher Report's Michael Pina wrote.

    It's hard to tell Westbrook to slow down when he so often looks as if he's mastered the fast life. But those occasional hiccups hold him out of a top-two spot here.

2. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

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    2013-14 Notable Numbers: 24.0 PPG, 61.0 TS%, 8.5 APG, 4.3 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 36.5 MPG, 24.1 PER

    Remember the knocks on Stephen Curry's game in the past? That he couldn't stay healthy, wasn't real a playmaker and never bothered to play a lick of defense?

    With 78 games under his belt each of the last two seasons, the sixth-highest assists average in 2013-14 and the Golden State Warriors' rise to an elite defensive team, there's a chance none of them apply any longer.

    While cleaning up the rest of his game—admittedly Klay Thompson's ability to handle the toughest defensive backcourt assignment has been an immense help to Curry on that end—he hasn't lost what makes him such a special talent. In fact, he's managed to bolster his strengths.

    His sizzling scoring average looks even better when coupled with his .471/.424/.885 shooting slash. He can frustrate a defense like few others in the business, as bad shots for most are often good looks for him.

    "I put a lot of work in to make sure that those shots are good shots to me," he told Beckley Mason of The New York Times. "My coach, whoever it is, counts on me to shoot it, so as long as I'm in rhythm and have a good look at the basket, I feel like that's a good shot."

    Curry isn't a scoring guard who can pass, he's a point guard who happens to be a dominant scorer. His defense could still get better and his turnovers need to come down (3.8 per game last season), but he's headed in the right direction.

    Of course, he's facing the same road block on this point guard path as any floor general whose career has overlapped that of Chris Paul.

1. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers

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    2013-14 Notable Numbers: 19.1 PPG, 58.0 TS%, 10.7 APG, 4.3 RPG, 2.5 SPG, 35.0 MPG, 25.9 PER

    Chris Paul has carried the point guard torch for so long, you sometimes wonder whether it's based on merit or reputation.

    Then, you look at the stat sheet. And it quickly becomes obvious that production remains the reason he's seen as the NBA's true point god.

    As one of the measures used to construct these rankings, each player's PER was weighed against the PER they surrendered to opposing point guards (the latter statistics coming courtesy of 82games.com). The average difference for the other nine players mentioned here was 5.9.

    Paul's was 12.5, easily the best.

    Think of the different hats "true" point guards are supposed to wear. They should initiate an offense and set the defensive tone at the opposite side. Paul led the league in both assists and steals, while finishing sixth among qualified point guards in scoring and tied for third in rebounding, via ESPN.com.

    "Paul does it all, he does it consistently and he does it on both ends of the floor," wrote ESPN Insider Bradford Doolittle (subscription required).

    Father Time will eventually creep up on the 29-year-old, but it's tough to think of anyone else who can disrupt Paul's run as the standard-setter at this position.

    Unless otherwise noted, advanced statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.