Who Are the NBA's Best Playmakers Right Now?

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 4, 2021

Who Are the NBA's Best Playmakers Right Now?

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    There isn't a prettier play in basketball than the pass leading directly to a score.

    No matter the style—behind-the-back, over-the-head, through-the-legs or just a simple bounce with the right amount of speed and spin—it's what makes NBA action the real beautiful game.

    So, while rim-rockers and "He shot it from where?!" three-point splashes might fill up the highlight reel, we're here to celebrate the often subtle and always spectacular art of table-setting.

    To do so, we'll be assembling the 2020-21 campaign's All-Assist first team by weighing metrics like assists per 36 minutes, assist percentage, points created by assists and assist-to-turnover ratio. As usual, the eye test plays a factor in the assessment process as well.

    All players will be slotted at the position they've played the most this season according to Basketball Reference's position estimate play-by-play data. Finally, to avoid any small-sample shenanigans, we're only considering those who have logged at least 200 minutes of floor time so far.

Point Guard: Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns

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    Richard W. Rodriguez/Associated Press

    If this was all about volume, Russell Westbrook would get the nod, with Trae Young close behind. If we were talking pure excitement, it might come down to Stephen Curry or Kyrie Irving. If it highlighted matchup problems, then we're talking LeBron James or Ben Simmons. If we spotlighted simple efficiency, we'd go off the radar to salute Tyus Jones and his ridiculous 6.33 assist-to-turnover ratio.

    But when you combine all of the above in search of the total package, Chris Paul still reigns supreme as the playmaking point god.

    He is both the consummate offensive conductor and a master manipulator of opposing defenses. Even if the 35-year-old has lost some zip, he changes speeds and directions so often that his matchup never gets comfortable. He also somehow knows both when he's in scoring position and when one of his teammates has wiggled open—or could be made open with a perfectly delivered dime.

    His impact in Phoenix has been immense. If the campaign ended today, the Suns would have their highest winning percentage since 2013-14.

    So much of that is tied to his table-setting. His 8.7 assists per game are fifth-most in the Association, and his 20.9 assist points created per contest ranks sixth. Tack on his 3.30 assist-to-turnover ratio (ninth among players averaging 30-plus minutes), and he remains the cream of the shot-creating crop at the lead guard spot.

Shooting Guard: James Harden, Brooklyn Nets

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    James Harden knows point production like he knows facial hair. Maybe even better.

    He's most commonly associated with scoring, which tends to happen when you reel off buckets at a rate unseen since Michael Jordan. But it gets glossed over (or forgotten) that prior to collecting three consecutive scoring titles, Harden was the league's assists leader in 2016-17.

    He should probably start rewriting his resume to include a pair of assist titles.

    It's early, sure, but he's running away with the category. He's averaging 11.2 assists on the season and 12.0 since his move to Brooklyn. No one else is averaging double-digit dimes (Westbrook comes closest at 9.5), and only five other players are dropping even eight a night.

    Some questioned if he'd be willing and able to adjust from being the center of Space City's offensive universe to co-chairing a Nets attack with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. That debate has already been settled. The Nets not only have the NBA's best offense since the swap, scoring an astronomic 121.0 points per 100 possessions, but they've also reached that point due to Harden's willingness to handle primary distributing duties at the expense of his shots (22.3 last season, 15.4 with Brooklyn).

    "Obviously, I could be more aggressive offensively, but we have more than enough scorers and guys that can put the ball in the basket," Harden said, per Alex Schiffer of The Athletic.

    By keeping it simple, Harden has Brooklyn's offense humming and ownership of this position on the All-Playmaking team despite the best efforts of Luka Doncic and Fred VanVleet to wrestle it away.

Small Forward: Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    When Miami somehow snagged Jimmy Butler in the 2019 offseason—how a team with no cap space signs a star is beyond me, but that's why Heat GM Andy Elisburg makes the big bucks—it knew it was getting a no-nonsense defender, a supreme #Culture fit and a capable scorer unafraid to take clutch shots.

    But it's fair to wonder whether the Heat also knew they were getting the league's best playmaker at the small forward spot. Considering he hit South Beach with an unassuming career average of 3.5 assists, we're guessing they did not.

    However, from the start of his Heat tenure, he's kept busy picking his teammates up. At first, it was with words, like dismissing the notion he was the franchise's top talent and serving as conductor of the Tyler Herro hype train. But when Butler dropped double-digit dimes in three of his first 10 games with Miami, it was clear that support went beyond words.

    He finished last season with a career-best 6.0 assists per outing, and he's opened this campaign with a personal-best 6.6 assists per 36 minutes. Not counting LeBron James (considered a primary point guard by Basketball Reference), Butler's 31.5 assist percentage is best among all forwards logging 30-plus minutes. In fact, the gap between Butler and No. 2 (Julius Randle, 28.4) is wider than the one between Nos. 2 and 6 (Paul George, 25.7).

    Butler's selection was nevertheless closely challenged by Khris Middleton and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, with Butler's 3.21 assist-to-turnover ratio helping clinch his spot.

Power Forward: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Draymond Green often has this position all to himself in the playmaking department.

    This might be Stephen Curry's offense, but Green has long greased Golden State's gears as its primary passer. This is on course to be his sixth straight season averaging six or more assists. For reference, the only five other players hitting that mark are LeBron James, James Harden, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Kyle Lowry.

    So, yeah, Green's playmaking is kind of a huge deal. But there's one major reason the position wasn't easily handed to him this time: DeMar DeRozan's slide to the 4 spot as part of the San Antonio Spurs' small-ball evolution. Going further back, DeRozan's growth as a ball-mover since heading to the Alamo City is the reason any discussion must be had.

    Green is averaging 6.6 assists per outing; so is DeRozan. Green owns a 30.3 assist percentage; DeRozan is right behind at 29.4. Green's assists are creating 16.1 points per game; DeRozan's are yielding 17.2.

    This is really close. Close enough that if you wanted to go with DeRozan, you wouldn't get major pushback from us.

    So, why are we leaning Green? Two reasons. For starters, he gets more mileage out of his passes. Change the scale from per-game to assists to per-36-minutes helpers, and the gap grows to 8.8 for Green against 7.2 for DeRozan. Secondly, track record matters. DeRozan deserves no shortage of praise for his late-career growth as a passer, but he's still a scorer at heart. Green, meanwhile, is programmed to perk up his teammates with on-time deliveries and defender-dislodging screens.

Center: Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    No disrespect to Bam Adebayo or...well, just Bam Adebayo, but if this were a race, Nikola Jokic would be running unopposed. He's not just the best passing big man in the current NBA; he's the best ball-moving big the league has ever seen.

    If that rings the slightest bit hyperbolic to anyone out there, just chew on these two statistical nuggets. First, Jokic, who is 20 games into his sixth NBA season, already has the 20th-most career assists of any center. Everyone else in the top 20 played more than 24,000 minutes; Jokic is at 11,769.

    Impressive, right? It gets more absurd. Jokic has a 31.1 career assist percentage. The next best center is Alvan Adams at 21.4. Then it's Tom Boerwinkle at 19.4. James Harden, who could be a two-time assist champ by season's end, is at 32.4 for his career. Derrick Rose, a former MVP point guard, is at 30.8.

    Jokic isn't an elite passer for a center. He's an elite passer period.

    "It's like every night he makes a highlight-reel pass," Will Barton told The Athletic's Kendra Andrews in Dec. 2019. "He just has a great sense of the court and where players should be. He doesn't have to look multiple times, he just knows where you're going to be, and he's going to hit you."

    For Jokic to be creating shots at this magnitude from the center position is mind-boggling. It would almost be revolutionary, but it's hard to see more centers coming along with his combination of vision, creativity and selflessness.

                    

    All stats current through games played on Feb. 2 and used courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.

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