NBA Playoffs 2011: Ranking the Most Valuable Point Guards in the Postseason
A good point guard is hard to find. Teams that don't have them know how difficult life can be without one, and teams that do have them wouldn't trade them for the world. Elite centers and Kobe-type scorers aside, a quality point guard is the hottest commodity in the NBA.
And as we head into the 2011 playoffs, it is no surprise that many of the NBA's best teams have elite point guards.
This list ranks the point guards of the 2011 NBA playoffs based on how much of an impact they have on their team’s playoff chances, and not necessarily who is the best point guard overall in the regular season.
As an example, Derek Rose has unquestionably been the NBA’s best point guard this season—but he doesn’t rank first on my list. This is because, while the Bulls will undoubtedly be significantly less successful without Rose, their success is not predicated by him—an unbalanced team would be more influenced by his departure.
16. Derek Fisher, Los Angeles Lakers
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The triangle offense run by the Lakers puts far less emphasis on point guard play than any other offense that will be seen in the playoffs. A point guard in L.A. is expected to simply be a manager; someone who doesn’t require 15 shots a game, or even 10. They are relied upon to set up offensive sets, and then give way to the heavy lifters (Kobe Bryant), and the big men (Pau Gasol and, health permitting, Andrew Bynum) who are truly the strength of this Lakers team.
Additionally, the Lakers used the offseason, leading into the 2010-11 season, to invest in a backup for Fisher. In Steve Blake, the Lakers found a younger, more durable version of Fisher, and have used the two interchangeably. Looking at their stats reveals just how similar they are.
Both are streaky shooters, averaging between 35 percent and 39 percent from the floor, and roughly the same from long range. They both average between two and three assists a game, and neither is relied upon to do much else.
Like most Lakers, their job is to get Kobe the ball and get out of the way.
Fisher’s main contributions will be in the locker room, and at the end of close games. In these regards he is a known entity—a universally respected veteran with ice in his veins who has seen it all, played with the best, and is unafraid to take a big shot.
He is a luxury. He might ultimately be the most important luxury in the playoffs, but the Lakers' success will more than likely not hinge on Fisher’s production.
15. Mike Bibby, Miami Heat
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As much as solid point guard play would help the Heatles rise above the incredibly high expectations they have set for themselves, the team’s success is in no way dependent on Bibby. If Mike Bibby plays as well as he can possibly play, and at this point in his career expectations have to be low, he might win the Heat a game or two—but probably not.
Playing with the Big Three will result in some open looks for Bibby, however. He has consistently shown throughout his career that he is unafraid of big moments but, beyond a possible clutch three, his production will be limited.
We all know that the success of the heat is based on the efforts of Lebron, Wade and, to a lesser extent, Bosh. They are the ones who decided that their collective greatness could trump more balanced rosters, and now it is up to them to prove it. No one doubts their South Beach talents, but their mental and emotional makeup is another story. Either way, that story likely does not include Mike Bibby.
14. Kirk Hinrich, Atlanta Hawks
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Kirk Hinrich is the Bud Light to Mike Bibby’s Budweiser. There may be a difference between the two, but ultimately neither is getting you anywhere. Like the Heat, the Hawks will rely on their wing players (no pun intended) for playoff success. It is Joe Johnson, not Hinrich, who is the true playmaker on this team, and the efforts of Marvin Williams, Jamal Crawford, and Josh Smith will all be of paramount importance. Hinrich’s play will not.
However, watch for Hinrich to lead the team in such categories as ridiculous goggles worn, most times crossed over, and wide-open three-pointers taken.
The abilities of Johnson and Smith to draw defenses to them will result in at least a few open looks for Hinrich, at which point his years of playoff experience could be his greatest asset. Like Bibby though, his production will otherwise be minimal.
13. Mike Conley Jr., Memphis Grizzlies
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After years of disappointment, Conley had a breakout of sorts in 2011. He averaged career highs in points, assists, and steals. It was a poor man’s coming-out party.
But it would take a Herculean effort to get the Grizzlies past the first round and, simply put, Conley does not seem capable of putting together four of these efforts in a seven-game series, especially when Memphis will face either the Spurs, Lakers or Mavericks in the first round.
All three of Memphis’ potential opponents are stellar defensively, and possess years of experience as well as veterans who will know how to guard Conley, a young player making his first playoff appearance.
The only member of the Grizzlies who is capable of carrying the team to a first round upset is Zach Randolph. However, there is one thing working against him; he’s Zach Randolph. The return of a healthy Rudy Gay would help put less pressure on Conley as well, but there is no guarantee that Gay will return at all, let alone at full strength, ready to play.
Conley had a nice season in 2010-11, and it was good to finally see the progression many predicted when he entered the league. But it is too much to expect him to take it up a notch further in the playoffs, against the game’s best and without his best wing player to support him.
12. Jason Kidd, Dallas Mavericks
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Kidd isn’t the 12th-worst point guard on this list (although at this point in his career he is closer to irrelevance than he has ever been). It’s just that the Mavs have had success all season despite career-worst production from Kidd.
This team is carried by Dirk Nowitzki. He is the Mavs, the heart and soul of their team. As Dirk goes, so go the Mavericks. And while Kidd may help Dirk get there, the big German’s career tells us that he can do it with anybody.
Kidd saw his minutes-played drop only slightly this season, but otherwise posted the worst stats of his career. He has always been a questionable shooter, but 36 percent from the field and 33 percent from long range will significantly reduce any player’s value, no matter how great they may been in years past. He also posted his lowest assist numbers this season since 2003-04, a season in which he only played in 67 games. For seasons in which Kidd has played a minimum of 70 games, his assists were the lowest since his rookie season, way back in 1994.
Additionally, Kidd is no longer this team’s best playmaker. That place on the mantle now belongs to Jason Terry and Roddy Beaubois, who may be inconsistent, but possess the first step, the quickness, and the slashing ability that Kidd no longer does. They are streaky long-range shooters, but are both unafraid to step up in a big moment and hit a big shot.
Kidd’s shooting abilities have never been the strength of his game. But now, as time wears on, it is only making his diminished skills more obvious.
As unthinkable as it was to say it ten years ago, time has passed Kidd by—on the 2011 Mavericks, he is almost fully replaceable.
11/10. Darren Collison, Indiana Pacers/Jrue Holliday, Philadelphia 76ers
Darren Collison isn't in this picture. But then again there were no pictures of him dunking in awesome bright yellow shoes.
Collison and Holliday are grouped together on this list because their value to their respective teams is a relatively unknown quantity. Like Charlie Kelly, they are wild cards.
Both players certainly have the ability to rise to the occasion and break out into the superstars they could be. But it would also not be surprising to see them both overwhelmed by the magnitude of the playoff stage, the quality of their opponents, and the intensity of playoff basketball.
Both Collison and Holliday had unexpectedly solid seasons in 2009-10, and showed good development this season. The national media also largely ignored both players as they led their teams to surprise playoff berths.
I ranked Holliday slightly higher than Collison simply because the 76ers' game plan is predicated so much more on guard play than the Pacers. The 76ers rely heavily on Holliday and Andre Iguodala. They are the heart of the team—young, athletic, tenacious on defense, scrappy and ultimately unproven. In many ways, the team as a whole takes their identity from their guards.
While Collison may have tons of pure talent and has shown flashes of being a very potent offensive threat, the Pacers take their identity from guys like Danny Granger, Roy Hibbert, Tyler Hansbrough, and Mike Dunleavy—workmen who are fine with specializing for a team that is greater than the sum of its players. Collison is more of a skill-player in the making. And while a star-making turn from him could certainly elevate the Pacers, he is less vital to the team’s game plan than Holliday is to his.
Collison and Holliday are similar in that they could both break out, or they could both disappear, and neither would surprise anyone. They have the talent, but the playoffs are a different game. And for two players who are completing only their second full NBA season, it is more realistic to project the worst rather than the best they have to offer.
9. Andre Miller, Portland Trailblazers
Andre Miller is the affordable mid-sized sedan of the NBA
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Andre Miller may be the most boring player in the NBA. I don’t mean this as an insult. It just seems like he’s been in the league for 15 years, and has averaged 14 points and 7 assists every season.
He is the Toyota Camry of point guards. No flash, no fuss. Just consistency, durability and reliability.
He always seem to play on teams that are between the seventh and tenth best teams in their conference—either good enough to make the playoffs but not do any damage, or just poor enough to miss the postseason by only a spot or two.
He is quiet, efficient, and unheralded. He is ranked higher than Holliday, Collison or Conley because he is a known quantity. The Blazers know what they will get from him, and there is no reason to expect more. His ceiling may be lower than the younger point guards, but his basement is significantly higher.
However, he is more valuable to his team’s postseason than Bibby or Heinrich because his team relies on him more. He may not be spectacular, but the Blazers need what he gives them.
They have Brandon Roy (for another couple of weeks at least, until the rubber bands that hold his knees together get weak and break) at the shooting guard position, so they need a point guard who doesn’t need the ball in his hands, but will be efficient when he does. These needs are Andre Miller’s version of the bat signal.
With a breakout year from Lamarcus Aldridge, and the midseason acquisition of Gerald Wallace, the Blazers possess incredible balance and are a scary matchup for any opponent. For a team with so many skilled players, a boringly efficient point guard is a good thing.
Which is fortunate because “boring” is Andre Miller’s middle name.
8. Jameer Nelson, Orlando Magic
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Jameer Nelson could conceivably be much higher on this list. Unfortunately, it is impossible to predict how he will perform. One day he can be incredible; the perfect compliment to Orlando’s stable of big men and long-range bombers. The next he can be totally ineffective; a low percentage scorer who can’t seem to strike a balance between distributor and scorer.
He is not more valuable to his team because his team cannot count on him—but they will need to if they want to contend for a title. Going into the playoffs, a team should be a well-oiled machine. All the kinks, mistakes and growing pains should be worked out so that efficiency is at its maximum.
Having a point guard like Jameer Nelson makes this extremely difficult because he constantly seems to be working through growing pains, working his way back from injury, or trying to learn how to avoid simple mistakes.
Unlike some other point guards headed for the playoffs, Nelson could truly be a difference-maker on his team. But his team simply cannot rely on him, and therefore he cannot be considered as valuable as his upside would suggest.
7. Ty Lawson, Denver Nuggets
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No one is expecting much from the Nuggets in these playoffs. After trading Carmelo Anthony, they were one of the NBA’s best stories. Projected to miss the playoffs entirely, the Nuggets seemed to take on a new identity immediately following 'Melo’s departure.
Instead of being lost without Carmelo, they were actually found. They banded together, ran teams off the floor, and played basketball in a way that conjured images of cracked asphalt courts and rims without nets. They became a way less talented version of D’antoni’s Suns teams. It is an awesome identity for a team to have.
Ty Lawson is key to this identity. He is an energizer bunny—he always keeps going. No matter what the situation, he goes full throttle—driving Denver further than anyone thought they were capable of going. This is what makes him so valuable.
Lawson’s style makes the game fun to watch, and creates an on-court narrative that fans can get behind. The problem is that this style, the signature of the new-look Nuggets, is traditionally unsuccessful in the postseason. Teams that are built for speed, short possessions, and scoring in bursts usually struggle in the playoffs when the game slows down, the fouls are harder, and teams actually focus on defense.
The Nuggets have been a good story, but if Steve Nash couldn’t do it, I doubt Lawson can.
6. Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs
Watch out, ladies - Tony Parker's in the playoffs!
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Parker is difficult to rank because his value is tied so heavily to the health of Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan. History shows us that whenever the Spurs' big three are healthy, they are a force to be reckoned with. But take away one of these pieces (any of them) and their success rate dips dramatically.
Therefore, Tony Parker’s place on this list also represents the health of his fellow all-stars. It could be argued that because the loss of Parker would certainly destroy the Spurs' championship hopes, he could be higher on this list. However, this notion must be tempered with the fact that the same could be said of two of his teammates, making him less singularly responsible for the fate of the Spurs.
It also seems that, no matter what heights the Spurs have reached in years past, Parker doesn’t get the credit of Duncan or Ginobili. This is partially understandable, since Ginobili has a knack for big shots, big stops and acrobatic plays, and Tim Duncan is…well, Tim Duncan.
But I think these perceptions short change Parker. Realistically, he is just as important as either Duncan or Ginobili. For Parker, as well as his battery mates, team success cannot be attained without the other two.
5. Chauncey Billups, New York Knicks
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These days in the NBA, GMs seem to think you have to have three stars. The Lakers, Spurs, Celtics and Heat all have formed their own version of the Big Three, and all have experienced some level of success because of it. In New York, Chauncey Billups can be be the Knicks' third wheel. In a good way.
Billups is vital to the Knicks because he can make the difference between a squad that gets swept in the first round, and one that pulls off a massive upset.
In the Carmelo-to-New-York hubbub/media blitz, Billups was an afterthought. He was just another washed-up point guard who was traded for salary purposes; a formerly good (and at times great) leader who had lost a first step and was shown the door because of it.
But Chauncey still has something left in the tank. This has been obvious at times during the 2010-11 Knicks season, as the team has been basketball’s streakiest.
They could win 10 in a row. Then lose 10 in a row. They could compete with the Celtics, and then get stomped by the Cavs. Anything is in play.
This inconsistency has surprised some people, but it shouldn’t. Point guards are the engines that make NBA teams go. A team like the Knicks, with an engine that is getting on in years, but still has a ton of horsepower when it works, will always result in inconsistent play.
Billups may be an old engine, prone to breakdowns, but he can still kick his game into fifth gear if he needs to. He may be more prone to nagging injuries, but to think that this means he cannot lead a successful team is simply incorrect. If Billups is healthy, and can withstand the rigors of a full NBA season, the Knicks could be dangerous. A team with Carmelo and Amare only needs a little bit of help to be darn good. Billups can provide this little bit.
In the playoffs, the fate of the Knicks lies, at least partially, on the shoulders of Chauncey Billups. And that is not such a bad thing.
4. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
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The Thunder are scrappy. They are a roster who seems to be too young, too inexperienced, and too naïve in the ways of the playoffs to do any real damage. However, that is also what people thought last year, and OKC gave the Lakers quite a scare in round one. A year later, Russell Westbrook has only gotten better.
Not just better, dramatically better.
This season, Russell Westbrook became the player many fans expected him to become somewhere around the year 2013—a dynamic scorer, excellent ball handler, capable defender, and true all-around threat. He is paired with Kevin Durant, already one of the league’s best players, and together the two have created one of the West’s scariest first-round matchups.
I stated earlier that the conventional wisdom in the NBA is that you need three stars. The Thunder are hoping that the greatness of two can carry them. Unlike last year, Westbrook is expected to step it up in the playoffs, and now there is no doubt that he can deliver. Although three stars are ideal, the Thunder are one of the rare NBA teams built well enough and evenly enough to pull off an NBA Championship with two.
To do this though, they need Westbrook to be as great as he has been all year. He cannot fall off even one iota.
The rest of the OKC roster is balanced to be sure; it is a nice mix of athleticism, size, speed and skill. But they are a team that will have to play up to every bit of its potential to compete with the juggernauts in the West. They can do it, but they will need maximum production, especially from their stars.
Even though this was Westbrook’s first year in which he was considered a legitimate star, he could be the difference between Oklahoma City’s playoff success, and another year of waiting to make the leap to elite status.
3. Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics
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For whatever reason, the Celtics haven’t been the same team since they traded Kendrick Perkins.
The easy answer to this reversal of fortune is that in the trade, Boston lost part of their attitude, their swagger. Perkins was a beast for them—not in terms of statistics, but in terms of intimidation, testicular fortitude, and overall scariness.
However, the other answer is that by trading Perkins, the Celtics traded Rajon Rondo’s best friend on the team. For a player who has been described as quiet, introverted, and sensitive, losing a close teammate isn’t just a business. It is personal. And like anyone who has had their best friend shipped out of town, it could become the impetus for an attitude change. In Rondo’s case, this was a decidedly bad thing.
Not only have the Celtics been a different team since the trade, but Rondo has been a different player. And for Boston, a great Rondo vs. a good Rondo is the difference between a great team and a good team.
At the beginning of this season, Rondo wasn’t just good, he was historic. He dished out 151 assists in his first 10 games. Not coincidentally, the Celtics were looking like a juggernaut at 8-2. But after the trade, he has not been the same. In his last 10 games, he has contributed only 84 assists.
In those games, the Celtics are 5-5.
But beyond statistics, Rondo, and the Celtics in general, have looked despondent. Previously, there was an air of invincibility among the team; an intrinsic knowledge that they were better than anyone. This primarily came from Kevin Garnett, but Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Perkins and Shaq all had it too.
For the first time in his career, Rajon Rondo was exhibiting this same swagger. Now, it seems to have evaporated.
Rondo is vital to the Celtics because when he is great, they are great. When he is good, they are good. If he can elevate his game, the Celtics must be considered prohibitive title favorites.
If he cannot, Celtics fans will have to somehow find a way to deal with life with only 17 championships.
2. Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls
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Ladies and gentlemen, your 2011 NBA MVP!
There isn’t much left to say about Rose that hasn’t already been said. He made the jump this year. He is truly one of the five best players in the league. He’s an absolutely unguardable beast who transformed the Bulls into one of the NBA’s best teams.
The only reason he isn’t number one on this list is because the Bulls have so much talent. They are a team that is so well constructed at every position that it seems they could last one round in the playoffs, even if you were to remove Rose from the equation. Without Rose they wouldn’t be title contenders, but Boozer, Noah, Scalabrine and the rest are talented enough to win a playoff series. Great as Rose is, they aren’t 100 percent reliant on their point guard.
They are only 99 percent reliant on him.
However, heading into the playoffs, there is little doubt that Rose is the best player on this list. He cannot be stopped.
His mid-range game has improved just enough to make his already-blinding greatness impossible to stop. He gets to the basket at will, finds the open man with ease, and is the clear-cut answer to the question every playoff team must answer:
There are ten seconds left in the fourth quarter of a must-win game. Who do we go to when we absolutely must have a basket?
Derrick Rose is the only player on this list who is the obvious answer to this question. That makes him the most valuable player in the league. But there is one player whose team relies on him totally and completely, more so than even the Bulls rely on Rose…
1. Chris Paul, New Orleans Hornets
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Looking at the Hornets roster (minus David West), you would think that they are terrible.
Not terrible in comparison to other playoff teams, terrible in comparison to anyone in the NBA.
Aside from Chris Paul, their roster would have a hard time competing with even the most modest of competition; the Cavaliers, the Kings, etc. From a first glance, you wouldn’t pick them to make the playoffs, let alone win 47 games.
I mean seriously, their second and third best players are Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor. Does that sound like the makings of a playoff team to you?
As impressive as Derrick Rose’s ascendance to greatness has been, without Chris Paul, the Hornets would be contending for the number one pick in the draft lottery.
No one is expecting the Hornets to make any noise in the playoffs, but the mere fact that the Hornets are even in the playoffs supersedes that. Paul might not have the possibility of winning a title like Rondo, Rose or Parker, but his team relies on him 100 percent. He is not just the engine on the Hornets; he is the steering wheel, the axles, the wheels themselves, the frame, the seats and the stereo.
I can understand if you don’t agree with this ranking. It was difficult to put a guy whose team will likely lose in the first round ahead of someone legitimately competing for a championship. But the Bulls, Celtics, and even Thunder have talent that dwarfs Paul’s teammates.
It has to count for something that Chris Paul (who has been injured all season by the way) took a group of nobodies and cast-offs and brought them to the playoffs. Paul is number one on this list because he is the Hornets. They are nothing without him.
And as unceremonious as their playoff exit may be, they would not even be close to the postseason without him.