Ranking the Top 10 NBA Point Guards Entering 2017-18 Season

Dan FavaleFeatured ColumnistSeptember 25, 2017

Ranking the Top 10 NBA Point Guards Entering 2017-18 Season

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    Imagine the 2017-18 NBA season tipping off without a ranking of the league's 10 best point guards. Oh, the horror.

    Don't worry, though. We won't deprive you of the floor general hierarchy. 

    This pecking order is based solely off expected value for the upcoming year. Last season's performance matters; it matters a whole lot. But age, health, projected playing time and role changes (new teammates, play-style adjustments, etc.) will all shape final placement.

    Isaiah Thomas, for instance, would typically crack this list without second thought. But his hip injury—which will likely keep him sidelined to start the schedule—damages his projected contributions.

    James Harden, to use another example, could have been deemed a point guard last year, when Houston Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni gave him free rein over the offense. But he won't be getting a shout-out, because he now calls Chris Paul, an actual point guard, his teammate.

    Now, let's rank.

Honorable Mentions: Nos. 15 to 11

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    15. Ricky Rubio, Utah Jazz 

    Age: 26

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 11.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, 9.1 assists, 1.7 steals, 0.1 blocks, 40.2 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 16.8 Player Efficiency Rating (PER), 2.49 Real Plus-Minus (RPM), 34.06 Total Points Added (TPA)

    Ricky Rubio continues to hold defined upside in a league exceedingly outfitted to expedite his extinction.

    Ball-dominant guards who cannot shoot threes or consistently finish around the rim aren't supposed to be assets. Look at what's happened with Rondo, the All-Star-turned-mercenary. Or Monta Ellis, the tolerable-scorer-turned-unemployed-afterthought.

    Rubio has staved off an identical career curve, even amid injuries, because his craftiness still outweighs his shortcomings.

    Defenses know he isn't trying to shoot, which puts him in a hole when orchestrating predictable pick-and-roll sets. By and large, though, they don't know where the ball will be flung next. He is opportunistic in transition, dribbles in and out of the paint with ease and maintains his handle long enough for plays to develop and teammates to get open.

    More recently, Rubio has become better at pump-faking closeouts or showing extra hesitation as he nears the rim. This puts extra pressure on defenses to keep him off the line—where he's a career 83 percent shooter—while affording friendlies another beat to gather position for a last-second dish.

    Sending a third player to cut toward the basket within pick-and-rolls, as the actual screener pops out, also helps manufacture additional space and scoring opportunities around him. And when his offensive game isn't working, Rubio has his defense to use as a crutch. He can take too many gambles, but he is deceptively big (6'4") and busts up enough one-on-one sets to coax rival backcourts out of their elements.

    14. Jeff Teague, Minnesota Timberwolves

    Age: 29

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 15.3 points, 4.0 rebounds, 7.8 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.4 blocks, 44.2 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 19.2 PER, 1.64 RPM, 100.86 TPA

    Jeff Teague's case is weird. 

    Just four other players are averaging as many points (15.8) and assists (6.9) over the past four seasons while hitting at least 36 percent of their outside missiles. And this foursome ranges from megastars to MVP candidates: Stephen Curry, James Harden, Kyle Lowry and Chris Paul. 

    Teague has shown he'll find his equilibrium pretty much anywhere, shimmying between on- and off-ball missions, often on a possession-by-possession basis. He isn't an exceptional defender, and his pick-and-roll reads weren't good with the Indiana Pacers, but he's a recurring recipient of "Not The Worst Defender on the Floor for My Team" award.

    Joining the Minnesota Timberwolves threatens to throw off his buttoned-up balance. His defensive evenness won't change unless the rim protectors behind him extend their inattentive comas, but he's never played beside this many ball-first scorers.

    Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins all need their touches. Teague will be tasked with both overseeing and adjusting to this world order. Head coach Tom Thibodeau can run him out with bench-heavy units to give him some me-time, but even then he'll have to manage the egos and faculties of Jamal Crawford and Shabazz Muhammad.

    Inserting him into this largely supervisory role threatens to yank Teague's production below the role-player line it has comfortably evaded for the past half-decade.

    13. Jrue Holiday, New Orleans Pelicans

    Age: 27

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 15.4 points, 3.9 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.7 blocks, 45.4 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 17.1 PER, 1.82 RPM, 76.02 TPA

    Where Jrue Holiday lands depends largely on where he'll actually play.

    The backcourt partnership with Rajon Rondo was always going to curb his time at point guard, but staggering their minutes should make it so Holiday's positional designation doesn't change. 

    Or maybe not.

    "The Paul Georges and Kevin Durants—we're going to ask Jrue to guard those guys," New Orleans Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry said, per ESPN.com's Zach Lowe.

    Spending significant time at small forward won't just impact the 6'4" Holiday on defense. He'll face taller and longer players on offense, demanding his off-ball work be on point.

    That shouldn't be a problem. Holiday's sub-31-percent clip on spot-up threes from last season is an aberration, and he's always been an elusive and timely cutter. He'll standout no matter what becomes of his offensive role.

    12. Goran Dragic, Miami Heat

    Age: 31

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 20.3 points, 3.8 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.2 blocks, 47.5 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 19.8 PER, 0.92 RPM, 131.68 TPA

    Goran Dragic has quietly played himself into the underrated ranks.

    The Miami Heat flipped a switch last season at the midway mark, and his efforts were part of their revival. But he wasn't exactly lost before their about-face.

    He put up 19.3 points and 6.5 assists while shooting 45.5 percent overall and 40.5 percent from beyond the arc through the first half of the year. He was more efficient and aggressive during that 31-10 parade, but his end-to-end showcase bore more resemblance to his All-NBA display in 2013-14 than any other season of his career.

    Miami did figure out how to survive offensively without him by year's end. No one knows if that will hold. Head coach Erik Spoelstra doesn't have the same cadre of shooters in his arsenal, while James Johnson and Dion Waiters, two of the team's most important secondary ball-handlers, are trying to provide adequate encores to career campaigns.

    Having Dragic to blitz through defenses or leverage his jumper off the ball is a pivotal part of the Heat's offensive structure. Their ceiling rests on a few wild cards—including Justise Winslow—but their floor can fall only so low with Mr. Reliable directing the scene for 30-plus minutes per night. 

    11. Isaiah Thomas, Cleveland Cavaliers

    Age: 28

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 28.9 points, 2.7 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.2 blocks, 46.3 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 26.5 PER, 1.83 RPM, 274.58 TPA

    Putting Isaiah Thomas any higher is hard when his availability entering 2017-18 remains up for question.

    "There's never been an indication that I wouldn't be back, and there's never been an indication that this is something messing up my career," he told ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski after being traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers. "Maybe I am not going to be back as soon this season as everyone wants me to be, but I'm going to be back, and I'm going to be the same player again. No doctor has told me anything different than that."

    A healthy Thomas would be positioned to leave this 11th-place finish in the dust. He is still playing for his next contract and now has the added chip that comes with being abandoned by a Boston Celtics team he carried on the offensive end for two years. He didn't finish fifth on the 2016-17 MVP ballot for nothing. 

    But these past two years have contained dream performances, during which he's held more individual value than Kyrie Irving, the point guard Boston flipped him to acquire. Regression would be in the cards anyway. Thomas' standing on the totem pole was too high to fend off a collection of other All-Stars.

    Factoring in his hip injury only facilitates that inevitable dip. He led the league in drives per game last season, but his ability to get by defenders and finish in traffic, at unfathomable angles, will suffer if his hip isn't right. And though the Cavaliers can get production out of him as a spot-up shooter, the concessions are on defensive end aren't quite worth it when he's not distorting defenses with his zigzag quickness.

    All bets are off if Thomas returns shortly after opening night. Hell, they're off anyway. He's earned two All-Star cameos on the back of annihilated expectations. This hedge is necessary, but his response to it, and his situation in general, remains an unknown.

10. Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix Suns

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    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 27

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 21.1 points, 4.8 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.4 steals, 0.5 blocks, 43.4 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 20.5 PER, 1.69 RPM, 150.05 TPA

    Player placement can go all Goldilocks and the Three Bears in certain instances: Top-10 Inclusion X could zoom up the standings, plunge down them with alarming quickness or be ranked juuust right.

    Eric Bledsoe is one of those cases. He has among the widest window of finishes in this pecking order.

    Harden, Thomas, Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Damian Lillard and Kyle Lowry are the only other players clearing 20 points and six assists per 36 minutes with an true shooting percentage north of 56 since 2015-16. Bledsoe's three-point accuracy is up and down, but the Phoenix Suns don't chuck a bunch of triples, and the offense wouldn't know how to pronounce "floor spacing" without his drives into the soul of opposing defenses.

    Maybe four or five point guards are better defenders when locked in—both a knock and compliment. Bledsoe can be impassable when working in open space and suffocating on closeouts and pick-and-rolls. But he suffers from John Wall-itis—separate periods of disinterest or over-aggression.

    Phoenix's most recent attacks haven't done anything to boosts Bledsoe's resume. The offense has failed to score like a top-10 machine when he's on the court through each of the last two seasons.

    Inexperienced running mates and special circumstances could be the largest symptoms of Bledsoe's glass ceiling. Knee issues cost him most of 2015-16, and the Suns shut him down at the end of last year to tank for Josh Jackson. Bledsoe's own defense would have more room to grow if he wasn't surrounded by a bundle of foul-happy kiddos, and even the best floor generals need competent shooters around them.

    Again: His stock could go in either direction—particularly with Phoenix rebuilding and a trade being inevitable. Slotting him at No. 10 is good for now. He's more likely to make those in front of him feel uncomfortable than make way for the names behind him.

9. Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets

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    Age: 27

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 23.2 points, 3.9 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.3 blocks, 44.4 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 21.3 PER, 2.68 RPM, 196.60 TPA

    Wake the heck up if Kemba Walker checking in at No. 9 grinds your gears. You've been sleeping on him for too long. (If you're more rattled because you think he's too low, then you have my #respek.)

    Walker has blossomed into one of the NBA's most dangerous offensive weapons. He's ditched low-percentage isolations for higher-quality drives, and his jumper is now a strength on which the Charlotte Hornets lean.

    Among the 194 players to cycle through 125 or more spot-up touches last season, Walker finished fourth in points per possession, trailing only Curry, CJ Miles and Otto Porter Jr.

    One-hit-wonder conspiracy theorists can waste their energy on someone else. Walker's shooting isn't a flash in the pan. He averaged more points per spot-up possession in 2015-16 (1.14) than Kevin Durant (1.13).

    Other guards are better playmakers. He just barely finished in the top 20 of potential assists last year, earning a three-way tie with Curry and Thomas. And that's the point. The Hornets want to run Walker off the ball to score first, create for others second. That adaptability—strikingly similar to Kyrie Irving's role in Cleveland—is a boon by itself.

    Charlotte went from piling on points at the rate of a top-seven offense with Walker to faring like the league's worst attack when he sat on the bench. The same story held true in 2015-16, albeit to a slightly lesser degree (top seven to bottom five).

    Any case Walker has to surpass the next two names should begin with his defense. He's more situational asset than liability. He is a reliable pick-and-roll defender and closes out like he means it. Bigger guards and wings target him, but they don't obliterate him as much as they should. If Walker ever bends defenses with his on-ball offense like Irving or Lillard, he'll have an airtight case to climb this list.

8. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics

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    Age: 25

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 25.2 assists, 3.2 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.3 blocks, 47.3 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 23.0 PER, 2.05 RPM, 126.52 TPA

    Truth-telling time: Maybe people are too hard on Irving.

    Much of the criticism that follows him is founded upon fact. He gets tunnel vision. He is a disaster on defense—except on those rare occasions when he locks down, free from rival screeners, on an island. He has yet to prove he can be the fulcrum of a team that doesn't have a LeBron James-sized safety net.

    But Irving's role with the Cleveland Cavaliers these past three years didn't dictate—or allow for—him to reinvent his game. They needed someone who could play off James and strike in one-on-one situations as needed, which Irving did. 

    Citing his solo performances is uncomfortable on so many levels. Opponents outscored the Cavaliers by eight points per 100 possessions in the 570 minutes Irving played without James—a net rating that would have placed dead last. 

    Taking that mark at face value is fair. But no Irving-led lineup without James totaled more than 46 minutes. (It was a net wash). That's not even an entire game.

    Ditto for 2015-16. The combination Irving played in most frequently without James logged 47 minutes. It included Kevin Love and outscored opponents by more than four points per 100 possessions.

    Maximizing independence is hard when you're not given it. Trying to exist on your own when the other personnel around keeps changing is even more difficult. Irving deserves the flak he gets for his defense and playmaking; his 6.6 assists per 36 minutes without James are whatever. But completely writing him off as a viable option is inane when he hasn't enjoyed that freedom since he was 21.

    Playing for the Boston Celtics may not simplify his situation. Gordon Hayward and Al Horford are both studs; Irving could be the third-best distributor on his team. But head coach Brad Stevens is a magician with the clipboard, while Hayward and Horford are as low-key as stars come.

    Irving's stock should spike, even if he ends up being a superhuman Kemba Walker rather than a Kyle Lowry-Chris Paul petri dish. 

7. Damian Lillard

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    Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

    Age: 27

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 27.0 points, 4.9 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.3 blocks, 44.4 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 24.1 PER, 3.14 RPM, 238.80 TPA

    Few players can chisel out an esteemed reputation while failing to grow at one end of the floor. Lillard is among the exceptions.

    He still doesn't pack a defensive punch. He hasn't met a screen that can't kill him, and the Portland Trail Blazers' pick-and-roll schemes both reflect and crumble under it.

    Still, his offensive game could slingshot him into the top four or five for any given season. He is equal parts devastating and warping with the ball in his hands, charting last-second changes in course that allow him through the most airtight blockades.

    As Rob Mahoney wrote for SI.com:

    "There’s so much to explore when every defense he faces is rightly terrified of his jumper. Schemes are built to stop him from even taking shots, and still they cede 27 points per game without Lillard really pressing beyond what is reasonable. There are nights when Lillard settles when he shouldn’t and those when he isn’t seeing the full view of the game. But by and large, Lillard is filling exactly the role that’s set out for him—for which commanding attention is an essential part. Lillard is puzzling out in real time how to use all that attention to his advantage. His latest trick: manipulating defenders to get to his drive (and to to the free throw line) even more often. 

    "The cat-and-mouse game has been good to Lillard, who finished 58.6% of his shots in the restricted area last season, up from 51.9% the season prior. More of his heavily contested layups are ending in fouls, too, as Lillard feels his way through the nuances of creating contact. Making space comes naturally. Lillard has spent his entire basketball life trying to put enough separation between himself and his defender to hoist up a jumper. It’s knowing when to bump and how to fall that demanded some on-the-job training, the result of which has Lillard up to 7.3 free throw attempts per game."

    Distributing separates Lillard from the top-five names more than his defense. Some of that comes with the territory. He truckles to another crafty on-ball scorer, in CJ McCollum, not to mention touches for Evan Turner and, now, Jusuf Nurkic.

    Boundless range also makes for a more uninhibited shot selection. He can hit contested floaters and off-balance pull-up jumpers, so he takes them.

    Lillard ranked sixth in stop-and-pop attempts last season and posted a lower pass percentage on drives (23.6) than the singular-minded Derrick Rose (24.1). Only six players jacked more contested shots. McCollum, fittingly, was one of them, which further shows the complexity of Lillard's balancing act.

6. Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies

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    Age: 29

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 20.5 points, 3.3 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.3 blocks, 46 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 23.2 PER, 4.47 RPM, 255.63 TPA

    Mike Conley is a warrior.

    Well, actually, he's a member of the Memphis Grizzlies. He's a warrior Grizzly. His name doesn't pop up among the toughest-player conversations nearly enough—similar to how he's not mentioned enough in the same breath as other All-Star peers.

    Harken back to the Grizzlies' Nov. 28 loss to the Hornets, during which Conley left with a back injury. He was diagnosed with "transverse fractures in the vertebrae located in his lower back" the next day that would keep him out for at least six weeks.

    He returned to the lineup in less than three, because extraterrestrials have special healing powers.

    Playing for Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale looks good on the perennial All-Star snub. Conley has long been the NBA's Alex Smith—a high-end, low-mistake game manager. Fizdale unleashed the Aaron Rodgers in him.

    Conley posted the highest usage rate of his career without incurring a damning uptick in turnovers. His attack mode is reserved; he is patient more than explosive and restrained, to some extent, within the Grizzlies' half-court setup. But it works. The offense doesn't function the same way without him.

    It doesn't function, period. Memphis pumped in 108.6 points per 100 possessions with him running the show, compared to 99.4 when he watched from the bench—the difference between a top-eight and last-place finish. Marc Gasol erases some of the deficit during his solo stints, but not enough for the Grizzlies to feel good about Conley's absence. 

    Plucking out the best player on the Grizzlies used to be a gutting task. It's not anymore. Conley is the clear answer, even if he and Gasol operate with equal stature. And as he's surged through Memphis' food chain, his point guard standing has improved too—minus the recognition. His 4.47 RPM placed fifth at the position.

    Take that for data.

5. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

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    Age: 31

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 22.4 points, 4.8 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.3 blocks, 46.4 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 22.9 PER, 5.88 RPM, 292.19 TPA

    Sound the second, and final, Goldilocks and the Three Bears alarm.

    Lowry could be due for some regression in 2017-18. He turns 32 in March and isn't playing for his next contract, and the Toronto Raptors cut ties with key members from their Lowry-plus-bench masterpieces.

    Canada's bulldog could also blow this placement to smithereens—insofar as a one-spot leap qualifies for that description. And knowing what that movement would do, it does.

    Lowry could wind up being the Eastern Conference's best all-around guard. Giannis Antetokounmpo isn't a guard. He's an everything. Jimmy Butler is in the West (and basically a power 3 now). Thomas isn't a defensive asset when he's healthy. Irving needs to make strides as a defender in Boston before entering the discussion.

    Wall, as of now, is Lowry's only realistic competition. Youthful exuberance will compel most to favor him, which is fine. But Lowry had him beat last season. He is the more consistently engaged defender and has a little of Chris Paul's maniacal edge to him. He ranked fourth among point guards in ESPN's Defensive Real Plus-Minus (DRPM); Wall landed outside the top 50. 

    Start a franchise from scratch, and Lowry won't get the nod over as many guards. Someone like Wall is more imposing. But so much of Lowry's value lies in the universality of his skill set. 

    Great players don't fit in everywhere. Lowry's act would translate just about anywhere. Defensive workaholics have a place on every team, and he doesn't need to monopolize touches. Curry, Thomas and Langston Galloway were the only point guards to launch more spot-up threes per game.

    DeMar DeRozan wouldn't be as potent of a scorer without Lowry's magnetic pull. He needs to leverage it for breathing room. Put him next to Bledsoe or Wall, and the results wouldn't be the same. Lowry makes his teammates better just by being on the court. He doesn't need the ball. He doesn't even need to score. He just needs to be in the game, as a hypothetical threat—which, really, is the highest praise you can offer a point man.

4. John Wall, Washington Wizards

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    Age: 27

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 23.1 points, 4.2 rebounds, 10.7 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.6 blocks, 45.1 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 23.2 PER, 2.26 RPM, 241.45 TPA

    Parts of Lowry's case needed to come at the expense of Wall, but don't get it twisted: This proud owner of a four-year, $170 million extension is a monster.

    Derailing him in transition and when he's attacking downhill in the half court is an impossibility. He sends defenses into fits of confusion by the time he uses a second dribble—collapses that manufacture quality looks galore.

    So many of his Washington Wizards running mates rely on that chaos he incites. Otto Porter Jr. isn't the same knockdown sniper when playing beside other ball-handlers. Marcin Gortat goes from basically infallible to just ridiculously accurate when Wall grabs a breather. The Wizards, as a team, see their three-point efficiency plunge below the league average during his stays on the sideline.

    Elite point guards are supposed to have this type of impact. But Wall's pull is unique, and not just because of his burst. He has upped his scoring profile—he's set a new career high in each of the last two seasons—without forcing his supporting cast to adjust.

    The skeleton of his approach is still rooted in deference. He passes on a larger share of his drives than Conley, Irving, Thomas and Walker, and Harden is the lone player who generated more points off his passes.

    Wall's jumper continues to be a wrinkle in his game. His swings are unpredictable, and while he's cut down on long twos, they remain a bigger-than-needed chunk of his shot distribution. He has, at least, emerged as a viable outside threat. Defenses don't leave as much room to ward off his drives. They know he's willing to fire away.

    Washington does need more from Wall on defense. He secures the more-the-than occasional kudos, but like Bledsoe, his physical tools suggest he should be the stingiest stopper at his position. When he's on, he's great. When he's not, he'll get tripped up by screens and be an onlooker after opponent misses.

    The good news: He doesn't need to be in the zone to dissuade enemy point guards from attacking. His size and speed are deterrents unto themselves, and he's unnavigable when offenses aren't proactive in picking him off.

    "I'm the best two-way point guard...in the league," he said during an episode of Ballislife's No Off Season (h/t CSN Mid-Atlantic). He's not, of course. But he could be. And soon might be.

3. Chris Paul, Houston Rockets

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    Age: 32

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 18.1 points, 5.0 rebounds, 9.2 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.1 blocks, 47.6 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 26.2 PER, 7.92 RPM, 330.75 TPA

    Dragging Paul down a peg or two as he enters his age-32 season and joins the Rockets is tempting. Age isn't kind to six-foot-nothings, and he won't be controlling the ball as much next to Harden.

    Counterpoint: He won't be controlling the ball as much next to Harden.

    Paul has spent his career as his team's offensive lifeline. Even with the Los Angeles Clippers, alongside Blake Griffin, everything ran through him. He has assisted on 40-plus percent of his squad's baskets when in the game 11 times through 12 seasons—more than anyone in NBA history not named John Stockton.

    Setting up shop beside Harden simplifies things. Paul's assist totals should drop, if not take an outright nosedive, but his efficiency will skyrocket amid more catch-and-shoot opportunities. Though he's connecting on 43.9 percent of his spot-up threes since 2013-14 (145-of-330), they account for a little more than 8 percent of his total looks. That ratio will jump in Houston as he orbits Harden's drives.

    Think about what this hybrid, co-pilot role will do for his defensive stands. He's already unrelenting on the less glamorous end. The thought of his conserving energy on offense to then unleash it at the other side is harrowing.

    Paul led all point guards in 2016-17 with a 2.76 DRPM. Patrick Beverley snagged second place with a 1.37.

    In other words: The gap between Paul and his closest challenger (1.39) was worth more than the runner-up himself.

    A top-three spot it is, then.

2. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Age: 28

    2016-17 Per-Game Stats: 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds, 10.4 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.4 blocks, 42.5 percent shooting

    Advanced Metrics: 30.6 PER, 6.27 RPM, 890.62 TPA

    Westbrook didn't have sole ownership of a top-two spot before his first season as the unquestioned leading man with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He registered in the debate, but it was, in fact, a debate. 

    Carrying Oklahoma City to respectability, on his own, changed everything.

    The Thunder would not be relevant without Westbrook. Rivals outscored them by 8.9 points per 100 possessions when he was on the bench—a differential that would have by far and away been the Association's worst mark overall.

    It gets better—or, depending on how you look at it, much worse.

    In the 194 minutes Westbrook logged through their first-round playoff series against the Rockets, the Thunder were a plus-15. During the 46 minutes he sat, they were a minus-58. They lost that best-of-seven set in five games because they were nothing without him.

    Paul George and Carmelo Anthony give the Thunder a pair of stars to stagger with their reigning MVP. Life should get better, but it will also be an adjustment. Adapting to George and Anthony will take time, even though these three stars complement one another well.

    Westbrook has to rework his approach to be more inclusive. Maybe last season's taste of total independence makes that easier. Or maybe Westbrook struggles, both in approach and production, as he slips ever so slightly down the floor-general ladder.

    Sticking him in second is the only call for now. His efforts last year were too mesmerizing—especially toward the end of the season, during crunch time—for him to be slotted any lower.

1. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

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    Age: 29

    2016-17 Per-Games: 25.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.2 blocks

    Advanced Metrics: 24.6 PER, 7.41 RPM, 405.88 TPA

    Joining forces with Durant has not ended Curry's run as the league's best point guard. Nor is this alliance in danger of doing so anytime soon.

    Curry will cede touches and status to Durant on occasion, but he's still the Golden State Warriors' go-to option. He paced them in usage rate and averaged at least 4.1 more shots per 36 minutes in clutch situations than anyone on the team—including Durant. He will retain his in-house crown so long as that dynamic holds.

    Even if he one day relinquishes that badge, it won't matter within the context of this conversation. He makes everyone around better merely by being on the floor, eliciting the attention of defenses—kind of like Lowry...on steroids.

    Aside from David West, everyone on the Warriors saw their true shooting percentage jump by at least 4.4 points with Curry in the game, per Def Pen Hoops' David Morrow. This is, in a word, absurd. Westbrook didn't come close to having this same pull. Nor did Paul. Wall didn't either.

    You get the point.

    No one in the league bends defenses the way he can both on and off the ball. Few could also perform at such a high level when moved away from the action, more and more, to carve out room for Durant and Draymond Green to do their thing. And while the Warriors aren't strangers to stashing him on defense, he doesn't get enough credit for his awareness of spot-up shooters and when the rock changes hands.

    Curry has been in a class all his own for some time, but he's also closer to the entire package than most realize.

           

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.

    Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference or NBA.com. TPA totals via NBAMath.com, and RPM totals via ESPN.com. Salary information via Basketball InsidersSpotrac and RealGM.