Metrics 101: Greatest Point Guard Seasons in Modern NBA History
Even within the modern portion of NBA history—1973-74 through the present day (when the scope of box scores expanded), point guards have seen their roles change dramatically.
They're no longer just the table-setters who once graced the league's premier rosters, though players who fill such roles are now known as pure point guards. Today, many are also responsible for providing plenty of scoring production, ideally by spacing out the defense with a constant barrage of three-point daggers.
Of course, every individual floor general fills a slightly different role for his team. Defensive stalwarts add plenty of value, and so too do limited shooters who constantly attack the basket and routinely punish the rim.
They can all be great.
To determine how great, we're turning to NBA Math's total points added (TPA) metric, which weighs both per-possession efficiency and volume to show how much value a player added during a season. The calculation here is rather simple: Add together the regular season and postseason scores so that both the first 82 games and the all-important playoffs are taken into account.
Each point guard is eligible just once, so we're taking only their best scores to determine the modern-era hierarchy.
15. Steve Francis, Houston Rockets, 2000-01: 396.99
Regular-Season TPA: 396.99
Postseason TPA: N/A
Per-Game Stats: 19.9 points, 6.9 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.4 blocks
The NBA wasn't ready for Steve Francis.
Just two years after he left Maryland, he took the Association by storm with his offensive prowess, shooting 45.1 percent from the field, 39.6 percent from downtown (on an ahead-of-his-time 4.2 attempts per game) and 81.7 percent at the stripe. While he thrived on the glass and as a dual-faceted producer of points, the rest of the league struggled to keep up. He was so new to the scene as a sophomore that he couldn't even make the All-Star squad in the Western Conference.
Perhaps that's also because the Houston Rockets weren't winning enough games.
Though their net rating jumped from minus-0.4 to 3.2 when Francis was on the floor, the talented guard couldn't singlehandedly pull them into the playoff picture. Not when Moochie Norris, Shandon Anderson, Cuttino Mobley and a 38-year-old Hakeem Olajuwon were the only other Rockets to finish with positive box plus/minuses.
Houston wound up winning 45 games behind Francis' early-career heroics, leaving it just two victories shy of the Minnesota Timberwolves and the West's No. 8 seed. This former Terrapin standout is alone as the only player in this countdown who didn't log a single postseason minute during the year in question.
Honorable Mentions: Terry Porter (1990-91), Fat Lever (1986-87), Micheal Ray Richardson (1984-85), John Stockton (1991-92), Tim Hardaway (1990-91)
14. Gilbert Arenas, Washington Wizards, 2005-06: 397.17
Regular-Season TPA: 357.88
Postseason TPA: 39.29
Per-Game Stats: 29.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.3 blocks
Awards: All-Star, Third Team All-NBA
Don't let the unraveling of Gilbert Arenas' late career prevent you from remembering what a special talent he was as a younger member of the Washington Wizards. He even competed for the scoring title in 2005-06, trailing only Kobe Bryant (35.4), Allen Iverson (33.0) and LeBron James (31.4) while still finding time to dish out 6.1 dimes per contest.
If Francis was ahead of his time in the early-'00s, Arenas was even further ahead during the prime of the hero-ball era. He refused to take many inefficient looks, instead constantly probing the defense for cracks leading to the rim when he wasn't letting fly from beyond the arc.
The 24-year-old's slash line (44.7/36.9/82.0) is impressive enough. But when you add volume into the equation, he becomes a much more obvious predecessor to the high-scoring guards of today's game.
Throughout all of NBA history, only six qualified seasons have seen a player make—not take—at least eight shots per contest from the charity stripe while averaging no fewer than 2.5 made triples. Arenas cleared both those marks during the 2005-06 and 2006-07 campaigns, but no one did before or after until James Harden (2014-15, 2015-16 and 2016-17) and Russell Westbrook (2016-17).
Daryl Morey would've been so proud.
13. Isiah Thomas, Detroit Pistons, 1984-85: 403.24
Regular-Season TPA: 351.36
Postseason TPA: 51.88
Per-Game Stats: 21.2 points, 4.5 rebounds, 13.9 assists, 2.3 steals, 0.3 blocks
Awards: All-Star, First Team All-NBA
Subjectively, Isiah Thomas should probably rank higher in this countdown. But unfortunately, we don't (yet) have metrics that can quantify just how much better his teammates played on defense because of his example and leadership.
The Detroit Pistons legend instead grades out as an average stopper, and his offensive scores are dragged down by his inability to shoot from beyond the arc (25.7 percent on 1.4 attempts per game). Of course, they're also buoyed by the immense volume of his production.
Thomas didn't just score 21.2 points per game during his fourth professional season. The 23-year-old also averaged a staggering 13.9 assists to lead the league, doing so while still averaging fewer than four turnovers per contest. Coughing the ball up 3.7 times during his average appearance may seem like a lot, but don't forget how heavily involved he was in just about every Pistons set.
Behind his play, Detroit won 46 games and advanced into the Eastern Conference postseason, where it swept its way past the New Jersey Nets before falling in six games to the star-studded Boston Celtics. There's no shame in that finish, especially while Thomas was averaging 24.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 11.2 assists on even more efficient shooting throughout the playoffs.
12. Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls, 2010-11: 404.39
- LeBron James, 498.89
- Chris Paul, 340.61
- Derrick Rose, 336.24
Regular-Season TPA: 336.24
Postseason TPA: 68.15
Per-Game Stats: 25.0 points, 4.1 rebounds, 7.7 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.6 blocks
Awards: MVP, All-Star, First Team All-NBA
Derrick Rose was incredible during the 2010-11 season, but let's not pretend he would've won MVP if the narrative factor didn't matter. He was the young superstar on the rise, and voters were eager to crown him at the expense of LeBron James, who had just moved to the Miami Heat and was attempting to play the villain role.
According to NBA Math's TPA, Rose should have finished third—assuming MVP was evaluated in solely objective fashion:
That's still an incredible season, of course. And Rose only helped his case when he kept thriving during the Chicago Bulls' playoff run.
While moving past the Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks before falling to the Heat in five games during the Eastern Conference Finals, the dynamic floor general averaged a whopping 27.1 points, 4.3 rebounds and 7.7 assists for his Chicago Bulls. He shot just 39.6 percent from the field and 24.8 percent from downtown, but the sheer magnitude of his contributions for a team that so desperately needed offensive production trumped the inefficiencies.
Rose was incredible from start to finish. He just wasn't quite as impressive as the accolades might lead you to believe.
11. Anfernee Hardaway, Orlando Magic, 1995-96: 418.88
Regular-Season TPA: 369.02
Postseason TPA: 49.86
Per-Game Stats: 21.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 7.1 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.5 blocks
Awards: All-Star, First Team All-NBA
Perhaps Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway would've topped this score if he'd been able to stay healthy. But a devastating knee injury during the 1997-98 campaign—and all the subsequent maladies—knocked him off his Hall of Fame trajectory and forced his third season to remain his best.
It was still quite special.
Though he was little more than an adequate defender, the 6'7" point guard gave opponents fits on the offensive end. He could haul in a rebound, sprint the floor in transition and finish with a thunderous jam. He could look over the top of an undersized defensive assignment and pick apart the opposition with his passing chops. And even without a deadly perimeter game, he could score in volume by attacking the hoop and converting with flair.
Perhaps most impressive of all—in 1995-96, at least—was his knack for doing so much while coughing up the rock so infrequently. Even though the ball was in his hands on almost every possession, he recorded just 2.8 turnovers per game.
During the Orlando Magic's run to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they were swept by the Chicago Bulls, he got even stingier, accumulating only 2.2 turnovers during his typical appearance.
10. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors, 2015-16: 428.03
Regular-Season TPA: 375.23
Postseason TPA: 52.8
Per-Game Stats: 21.2 points, 4.7 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 2.1 steals, 0.4 blocks
Awards: All-Star, Third Team All-NBA
Kyle Lowry's inability to make anything more than the All-NBA Third Team speaks to how ridiculously stacked the point guard position has become in recent years. Earlier in NBA history, the Toronto Raptors superstar would've been an MVP candidate, as well as a lock for even loftier accolades that what he actually earned. But not while he's competing against so many players who have yet to appear in this countdown.
Still, don't let that diminish Lowry's accomplishments.
The floor general burst onto the scene in 2015-16, propped up by offseason weight loss and unabashed confidence. He quickly established himself as the unquestioned on-court leader in Toronto, excelling on both ends of the floor with his remarkable combination of physicality and finesse.
If players such as Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard didn't exist, Lowry's knack for pulling up from beyond the arc might've received even more attention. He loved to dribble down the floor, size up an opponent from the top of the key and immediately launch. The strategy often worked, as he averaged 21.2 points while shooting 38.8 percent from beyond the rainbow on 7.1 deep tries per contest.
He was even more effective offensively in the follow-up campaign, but 2016-17's increased offensive production also came with a decline on the defensive end. He was a true two-way star one year earlier, which also allowed him to overcome—to some extent, at least—his traditional postseason shooting woes.
9. Mookie Blaylock, Atlanta Hawks, 1996-97: 449.91
Regular-Season TPA: 403.4
Postseason TPA: 46.51
Per-Game Stats: 17.4 points, 5.3 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 2.7 steals, 0.3 blocks
Awards: Second Team All-Defensive
Mookie Blaylock's name doesn't typically get bandied about with other point guards of this caliber. He's not a Hall of Famer. He made only a single All-Star appearance, and it came three years prior to the actual best season of his career.
He's also one of the most underrated players in NBA history.
This Atlanta Hawk didn't produce massive offensive numbers during the 1996-97 campaign, averaging only 17.4 points and 5.9 assists. But those are sterling stats for a player specializing on the defensive end.
Blaylock was an absolute menace out of the Peach State backcourt. Though he stood just 6'0" (perhaps a generous listing), he constantly disrupted passing lanes and did his darnedest to swipe away the rock whenever the opposition got careless.
Averaging a league-high 2.7 steals is reason enough for praise. Doing so while committing just 1.8 fouls per contest is downright ridiculous. Only three different players in NBA history have matched those numbers during a qualified season: Blaylock, Allen Iverson (twice) and Don Buse.
Calling this diminutive 1-guard anything less than a true star would be erroneous, even if he didn't get the recognition he deserved while actually playing.
8. Walt Frazier, New York Knicks, 1973-74: 455.62
Regular-Season TPA: 388.7
Postseason TPA: 66.92
Per-Game Stats: 20.5 points, 6.7 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 2.0 steals, 0.2 blocks
Awards: All-Star, First Team All-NBA, First Team All-Defensive
Travel back with us, all the way to the first season of the modern era—defined as the period of time in which we can calculate advanced box-score statistics because the league started tracking more pertinent information.
Early on, this was the era of Walt Frazier.
Just listen to some of his contemporaries describing him during his prime years, per NBA.com's:
"Possessing exceptional peripheral vision and quick hands—'faster than a lizard's tongue,' commented one opponent—Frazier began delighting New York fans with sudden steals and lightning passes. 'The great thing about Clyde are his hands, his anticipation,' [head coach Red] Holzman told Sport. Added teammate Bill Bradley, '[Frazier] is the only player I've ever seen [whom] I would describe as an artist, who takes an artistic approach to the game.'"
The artistic ability manifested itself in so many different areas. Look at the per-game averages for proof.
But those also mask his commitment to stingy defense and ability to operate in efficient fashion. Guards weren't supposed to shoot 47.2 percent from the field during the 1970s. They weren't supposed to be capable of operating without turning over the rock on reckless plays.
And they certainly weren't supposed to be central figures in deep playoff runs.
Frazier, however, broke all those rules.
7. Gary Payton, Seattle SuperSonics, 1999-00: 478.22
Regular-Season TPA: 453.15
Postseason TPA: 25.07
Per-Game Stats: 24.2 points, 6.5 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.2 blocks
Awards: All-Star, First Team All-NBA, First Team All-Defensive
Just imagine what might have happened if Gary Payton's Seattle SuperSonics had advanced deeper into the 2000 playoffs.
After winning 45 games during the regular season, the Sonics ran into the buzzsaw known as the John Stockton/Karl Malone Utah Jazz. Five contests later, they were out of the hunt for the Larry O'Brien Trophy. But it was hard to blame Payton, who more than held his own on both ends of the floor while averaging 25.8 points, 7.6 rebounds and 7.4 assists in the postseason.
Let's change history. Pretend that the Sonics won during the first two rounds while Payton maintained his exact level, allowing him to triple his TPA score in the playoffs. In that scenario, he'd have moved past the next player in this countdown.
Still, there's no shame in a No. 7 finish.
Payton consistently functioned as one of the NBA's greatest two-way floor generals throughout his prime years, and 1999-00 was no different. He was magnificent on the offensive end with his flair for both calling his own numbers and involving his Seattle teammates, and he was no slouch when trying to buckle down and prevent the opposition from scoring (see: All-Defensive, First Team).
This era of professional basketball featured plenty of talented 1-guards, but Payton was the nightmare lurking on everyone's schedule.
6. Jason Kidd, New Jersey Nets, 2002-03: 498.92
Regular-Season TPA: 393.58
Postseason TPA: 105.34
Per-Game Stats: 18.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.2 steals, 0.3 blocks
Awards: All-Star, Second Team All-NBA, Second Team All-Defensive
What couldn't Jason Kidd do?
During his peak years with the New Jersey Nets, the versatile point guard was a constant triple-double threat. And though he came closer to averaging one for a full season in quite a few other campaigns, 2002-03 stood out because of his increased scoring output, shooting efficiency and playoff run.
Kidd shot 41.4 percent from the field, 34.1 percent from downtown and 84.1 percent at the stripe during his second season in New Jersey. And whlie though those first two numbers aren't particularly impressive, the former is close to a career high, while the latter marked the start of the floor general figuring things out from beyond the arc. They're good enough, especially when factoring in everything else he did.
The California product paced the NBA in assists per game. He emerged as one of the peskiest defenders in the Association while racking up 2.2 steals per game and using his 6'4" frame to cross-match within the backcourt when the need arose. He thrived on the glass and started plenty of one-man fast breaks. He even crashed the offensive boards to create plenty of second-chance opportunities.
And, perhaps most importantly, he won a lot.
The Nets were ultimately thwarted by the San Antonio Spurs during Game 6 of the NBA Finals, but Kidd first helped them emerge victoriously from 49 regular-season contests before taking down the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics and Detroit Pistons en route to the sport's biggest stage.
5. Chris Paul, New Orleans Hornets, 2007-08: 624.96
Regular-Season TPA: 517.96
Postseason TPA: 107
Per-Game Stats: 21.1 points, 4.0 rebounds, 11.6 assists, 2.7 steals, 0.1 blocks
Awards: All-Star, First Team All-NBA, Second Team All-Defensive
And all of a sudden, we jump into another tier.
Jason Kidd's cumulative score from 2002-03 would've ranked No. 92, regardless of position. Chris Paul's 2007-08 efforts, which only narrowly outpaced his work one season later, slot in at No. 41 overall. The gap between the two is rather expansive, though that's more a testament to Paul's greatness than a knock on Kidd's legacy.
Then playing for the New Orleans Hornets, the aptly nicknamed Point God was the living embodiment of efficiency.
Not only did he lead the league in assists and steals while averaging 21.1 points, but he did so while shooting 48.8 percent from the field, 36.9 percent from downtown and 85.1 percent at the stripe. He also coughed the ball up just 2.5 times per game and still had enough energy to play some of the league's best backcourt defense.
Running constant pick-and-pops with David West and pick-and-rolls with Tyson Chandler, Paul led the Hornets to the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference with a 56-26 record. He also paced the Association in win shares (17.8) and win shares per 48 minutes, which means he was essentially responsible for 31.8 percent of the team's victories by himself.
And lest you think, because of his unfortunate reputation, that he disappeared in the playoffs, nothing could be further from the truth.
His player efficiency rating (PER), box plus/minus (BPM) and win shares per 48 minutes all rose—and they each led all postseason entrants. By the time the Hornets were eliminated by the San Antonio Spurs in Game 7 of the second round, he was averaging a stellar 24.1 points, 4.9 rebounds, 11.3 assists and 2.3 steals while shooting 50.2 percent from the field.
Not bad for a 22-year-old point guard making his playoff debut.
4. Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers, 1981-82: 646.65
Regular-Season TPA: 533.19
Postseason TPA: 113.46
Per-Game Stats: 18.6 points, 9.6 rebounds, 9.5 assists, 2.7 steals, 0.4 blocks
Awards: NBA Champion, Finals MVP, All-Star, Second Team All-NBA
Magic Johnson is outside the top three? How is that possible?
Well, the Los Angeles Lakers legend still has the best career of any point guard in NBA history. But he didn't have the same astronomical peak as the future Hall of Famers taking the three superior slots; his legacy stems from his ability to play at a remarkably high level throughout his entire career.
Eliminating the positional restrictions from our methodology, the top three finished ranked Nos. 2, 11 and 18, respectively. Johnson, meanwhile, holds down six of the top 75 scores in modern NBA history, including four of the top 42.
This one falls at No. 31. Eight years later, he sat at No. 42. That type of longevity is mind-boggling.
But Johnson's 1981-82 campaign has the slight edge over his other seasons for a few reasons.
He stayed healthy throughout the year, suiting up in 78 games while averaging a career-high 38.3 minutes and thriving on both ends. Maybe he wasn't a true stopping stalwart, but he more than made up for his moments of porosity by cleaning the glass so frequently—an understated part of the defensive game. That allowed him to come closer than ever to averaging a triple-double for the entire season.
Also working in his favor is the postseason.
Johnson was fantastic from start to finish, eventually winning Finals MVP after leading the Purple and Gold past the Phoenix Suns, San Antonio Spurs and Philadelphia 76ers. His 113.46 postseason TPA remains one of the dozen best scores by a point guard in league history.
3. James Harden, Houston Rockets, 2016-17: 690.8
Regular-Season TPA: 626.23
Postseason TPA: 64.57
Per-Game Stats: 29.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, 11.2 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.5 blocks
Awards: All-Star, First Team All-NBA
Though he's always functioned as a primary ball-handler, James Harden had logged only 1 percent of his career minutes at point guard before the start of 2016-17. That's why you'll probably see him show up in the shooting guard edition of these rankings next week.
But during his latest season with the Houston Rockets, he spent 98 percent of his action at the 1, thriving as he did everything for head coach Mike D'Antoni's offense. The Rockets relied on him to score with aplomb and involve their myriad shooters as he consistently threw up triple-doubles and created a jaw-dropping number of points.
As Bleacher Report's Kelly Scaletta pointed out, he was at one point producing more points per game than anyone in NBA history ever had. That number fell to 56.2—27.1 per game off assists and 29.1 as a scorer—by the end of the season, which put him just behind Tiny Archibald's 1972-73 campaign.
Harden was responsible for basically everything Houston did while on the floor, and he somehow managed to stay marvelously efficient. Thanks to his penchant for knocking down one free throw after another, he became one of seven players in the Association's record books to average at least 29 points with a true shooting percentage north of 61.
He did slow down in the playoffs and notoriously disappeared in the final outing against the San Antonio Spurs, but he'd already added so much value that he surpasses almost every other noteworthy point guard of the modern era. And since Chris Paul's presence will likely push him back to the 2 going forward, this is a pretty darn good lone season at the point.
2. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors, 2015-16: 777.67
Regular-Season TPA: 698.25
Postseason TPA: 79.42
Per-Game Stats: 30.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 2.1 steals, 0.2 blocks
Awards: Scoring champion, MVP, All-Star, First Team All-NBA
Throughout NBA history, only 11 different players have averaged at least 15.3 points, 5.4 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 2.1 steals and 0.2 blocks for an entire qualified campaign: Magic Johnson, Jason Kidd, Fat Lever, Micheal Ray Richardson, Clyde Drexler, Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Chris Paul, Alvin Robertson and Russell Westbrook.
Anytime you can join that group, you're doing something right.
But why 15.3 points per game? Why not the 30.1 that Curry actually averaged while leading the league in scoring and winning MVP in unanimous fashion—the only time a player has ever done so?
That's because Curry averaged 15.3 points per game off three-pointers alone during his record-shattering 2015-16 campaign. He made a staggering 45.4 percent of his deep attempts while blasting past the old single-season tally he'd previously set, extending the record from 286 to 402.
Among everyone who'd connected at no worse than a 45 clip during a qualified go-round, Kyle Korver held the previous high-water mark for most triples made per game (2.9). With 5.1 successful treys per contest, Curry nearly doubled that.
And all the while, he was an underrated defender who understood positioning on the perimeter and racked up steals, one of the league's best rebounding guards and a terrific distributor who sparked the Golden State Warriors' historically dominant offense. There's a reason he has the highest single-season mark in the offensive component of NBA Math's TPA.
Actually, there are plenty of reasons.
1. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder, 2016-17: 942.82
Regular-Season TPA: 890.62
Postseason TPA: 52.2
Per-Game Stats: 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds, 10.4 assists, 1.6 steals, 0.4 blocks
Awards: Scoring champion, MVP, All-Star, First Team All-NBA
Caveats are important here, because Russell Westbrook shouldn't realistically blow everyone else out of the water. His last season, in which he became the second player to average a triple-double and won MVP, was historically impressive. But not to the point that it should lap the field.
Here's ESPN.com's Kevin Pelton, explaining how the Oklahoma City Thunder 1-guard basically broke BPM, which serves as the underlying basis for TPA:
"To improve the quality of the rating for most players, BPM [box plus/minus] uses interaction effects that multiply a player's assist percentage by his usage rate and his rebound percentage. As you might guess, Westbrook's season is off the charts historically by both measures. Basically, Westbrook's season is way outside the sample on which BPM was trained to estimate player value, making its estimate of his value unreliable. BPM is treating Westbrook's versatility as exponentially better than anyone else's on record, and that's surely an exaggeration."
It's not that he didn't earn those massive usage and assist rates; they're just disproportionately affecting his score here because of the formula. And even still, a more realistic picture would likely have Westbrook in the No. 1 or No. 2 spot.
He undoubtedly improved upon his 2015-16 campaign, in which he posted a score of 710.23 for this exercise—better than Harden's mark and behind just Curry's 777.67. He also played an additional 52 minutes, and volume does matter for these rankings.
Ultimately, we'll never get a truly accurate picture of Westbrook's campaign. But at worst, he added so much value that he's in a class of two.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.