Point Guard Tiers: Showcasing the Depth of Talent During the Position’s Golden Age
We are in the golden age of point guards.
No longer are the duties of the position restricted to getting everyone involved and looking to score in opportunistic situations. Along with initiating the offense, lead guards in today’s NBA are tasked with putting up large scoring nights on a regular basis.
For reference, in the entire 1990s (’89-90 to ’99-00), there were 18 instances in which point guards averaged at least 20 points and five assists. That includes players who did so more than once (for example, Tim Hardaway accounted for five of those 18).
In 2016-17, an unthinkable 12 point guards notched at least 20 points while dishing out five assists per game.
The position has changed, and gauging players’ offensive value has become increasingly complicated as a result. Do we rate a pristine scoring point guard who doesn’t get his teammates involved as highly as one who scores less but facilitates the offense to perfection? That’s a tough question to answer…but I’m getting ahead of myself.
On the other side of the ball, estimating a player’s defensive worth remains among the most difficult of tasks of talent evaluation, especially among point guards. They are the first line of resistance, with a spotlight on their every move. At the end of the day, offenses are structured to take and make the easiest, most efficient shots, so naturally they target slower bigs or smaller guards to attack in the pick-and-roll.
Defense is ultimately a team concept, and some of the miscues are the result of faulty schemes. But one way to judge a player’s strength on that end is in how they defend those PnR sets. Some are adept at fighting through screens and sticking to their man. Others have mastered going under the pick and recovering to prevent or alter shot attempts. The worst of the bunch do neither, simply stopping dead in their tracks at any hint of body contact.
As a result, some of the players in this list are simultaneously the best at manning the pick-and-roll and the worst at defending it.
What follows, taking both sides of the ball into account, is not only a ranking of the NBA’s best play-callers, but a case for why the position is the deepest the league has to offer.
Note: Players within tiers aren’t necessarily in order.
Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
2016-17 per-game stats: 31.6 points, 10.4 assists, 10.7 rebounds and 1.6 steals on 42.5/34.3/84.5 percent shooting splits.
There’s no two ways around it—Russell Westbrook’s MVP campaign was historic. Not only did he become the first player to average a triple-double since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62, but he also managed to accrue a record 42 trip-dubs, the last of which came in a buzzer-beater to rip the hearts out of the Denver Nuggets’ playoff hopes:
Westbrook ranked ninth in value added in isolation situations (per NBA Math’s Play-Type Profiles), tallying 30.3 more points than the average player would’ve with his possessions, a feat more impressive when you consider his teammates’ lack of accuracy from downtown. The Thunder shot the worst percentage on wide-open three-pointers (32.4 percent), but even with an extra set of defender’s feet constantly in the key, Westbrook managed to score 10.1 points in the paint per game.
He shot career-bests from three (on 7.2 tries per game) and from the line while remaining one of the most explosive athletes on the planet, sailing in for rim-rattling dunks at least a couple times per game. But Westbrook makes his money with a quick-trigger pull-up jumper, with which he scored an NBA-best 10.9 points per contest.
In the Thunder’s first post-Kevin Durant season, the UCLA Bruin alum led a ragtag bunch of players to the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference playoffs, where the Houston Rockets finished them off in five games. Westbrook set the record for usage percentage at 41.7 percent, but with superstar Paul George added via trade over the summer, the reigning MVP should both be more efficient and have less of a burden on his shoulders.
That said, Westbrook isn’t the NBA’s best point guard. That honor still belongs to the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry.
Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
2016-17 per-game stats: 25.3 points, 6.6 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 1.8 steals on 46.8/41.1/89.8 percent shooting splits.
Curry’s two-year reign as MVP may have ended in 2017, but he’s still the most valuable player on the league’s best team.
He flaunts an array of offensive moves, from crossovers and hesitations to behind-the-backs and everything in between. But ultimately, all of these are just setups for his most considerable weapon: the greatest jump shot in NBA history. Don’t believe me? Just read Dan Favale’s assessment of the two-time MVP’s powers in a recent article for Bleacher Report: “Curry is enchanting to follow, even when his shots aren’t nuking nylon. He is basically a contrived freelancer—an under-control loose cannon who has, quite inexplicably, melded the auto-efficiency of Kyle Korver with the handles of Kyrie Irving and shot-selection conscience of a younger J.R. Smith and Nick Young.”
He needs next to zero space to get his shot off and has one of the quickest releases of all time. Curry is also masterful at setting his feet at high speeds and can launch from every perceivable angle and distance:
And when defenders play too close, the eight-year veteran blows by the opposition, finishing in traffic with nifty floaters or showing off an increasingly dangerous in-between game.
When examining Curry’s play-type profiles, we can see he adds value in an assortment of categories, especially on spot-up possessions and off screens:
He finished second among point guards and fourth overall in offensive value added, tallying 234.4 more points than the average player would’ve with his possessions. Curry scored 6.8 catch-and-shoot points per game, 10th in the league and first among 1-guards. He also shot 46.8 percent on such shots, third among guys who scored at least five points on catch-and-shoot opportunities.
The four-time All-Star was first in value added off screens (61.8) and tops among point guards in transition, adding 38.4 more points than the average player.
In what was considered a “down” year statistically for the dynamic point guard, he didn’t disappoint. Speaking of which, I think we kind of forget just how remarkable Curry’s 2015-16, unanimous-MVP campaign was. He put up marks of 30.1 points, 6.7 assists and 5.4 rebounds, becoming just the seventh player since 1946-47 to notch such averages (Westbrook also did so last season).
But the craziness doesn’t stop there. Only nine players have recorded at least 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three and 90 percent from the line for a season (otherwise known as the 50-40-90 Club): Larry Bird (twice), Mark Price, Reggie Miller, Steve Kerr, Steve Nash (four times), Dirk Nowitzki, Jose Calderon, Kevin Durant and Curry in 2015-16.
Not only did Curry join the prestigious club, but he connected on a mind-numbing 45.4 percent of his 11.2 tries from downtown per game en route to 402 makes. To top it off, he swiped 2.1 steals per game. His unanimous MVP season will go down as one of the greatest in NBA history, if only damaged by a 3-1 collapse in the Finals. Those pesky Cleveland Cavaliers….
Even so, Stephen Curry holds the crown of best point guard, and he will for the foreseeable future.
Chris Paul, Houston Rockets
2016-17 per-game stats: 18.1 points, 9.2 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 2.0 steals on 47.6/41.1/89.2 shooting splits.
Chris Paul is the ideal mix of old-school and new-age point guard, both getting teammates involved and putting the ball in the hole himself. He has finished no fewer than 15.9 points and 7.8 assists in each campaign of his career. But after spending six seasons with both the New Orleans franchise and the Los Angeles Clippers, Paul is taking his talents to the Houston Rockets in a move made via sign-and-trade over the summer.
“The Point God” was born to run the pick-and-roll, where he is adept at stopping and popping for threes and mid-range jumpers or fighting his way all the way to the cup. Paul’s 10.3 points on pull-up jumpers ranked second in the league, and his 46.1 percent shooting was second among players with at least three points on pull-ups.
But his first option off the screen is to the roller, where a bulk of his assists are accrued. After six seasons playing the alley to DeAndre Jordan’s oops, he should have new teammate Clint Capela chomping at the bit for more of the same.
Paul rarely had to relinquish control of the offense in Los Angeles, but with new teammate James Harden often playing the role of de facto point guard, the 12-year veteran will find himself thriving in a revamped setting. Despite a low volume of attempts, Paul shot 47.4 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers in 2016-17 and should have no trouble playing both the role of facilitator and shooter in Houston’s offense.
When the trade was completed, many were skeptical of the downside of giving up Patrick Beverley’s defense. But believe it or not, Paul is even better on that end than the team’s old point guard. He is proficient at fighting through screens, keeping his man in front and, despite being just (a generous) 6’0″, challenging and defending towering players.
And when the ball-handler rests or throws an errant pass, Paul is always there to swipe it away with his quick hands. In his 12 seasons in the league, he has ranked outside the top three in steals just three times:
that stat you know but is still disarming to read: Chris Paul has ranked outside top 3 in steals per game *TWICE* since entering NBA. pic.twitter.com/c9xJZV3qOE
— Dan Favale (@danfavale) August 30, 2017
But the awe-inspiring numbers don’t stop there. Paul’s career numbers are matched by a select few: Only five players have notched at least 18 points and nine assists per game over the course of their careers: Robertson, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Paul and John Wall.
Which brings us to the next point guard on our list.
John Wall, Washington Wizards
2016-17 per-game stats: 23.1 points, 10.7 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 2.0 steals on 45.1/32.7/80.1 shooting splits.
John Wall is coming off a career-year across the board, including a statistically incredible playoffs. In 13 games against the Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics, the four-time All-Star put up 27.2 points, 10.3 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 1.7 steals on an effective field-goal percentage (eFG%) of 48.9 percent.
The Washington Wizards haven’t been to the conference finals since 1979, but Wall did everything in his power to get them there, including hitting a game-winning three in Game 6 against the Celtics. The team lost the series in seven, but that doesn’t diminish this moment:
With lightning quick handles and a crossover that would make Allen Iverson blush, Wall is one of the most explosive players in the game. He scores 9.9 points per game in the paint, using his speed to blow by defenders. His 5.9 points averaged in the fast-break rank third in the NBA, and that’s a play type where he accrues many of his assists, as well.
Wall recently made headlines when he called himself the best two-way point guard in the NBA, and even if he doesn’t reign supreme, it’s tough to argue he’s not near the top. When he’s locked in, he’s one of the best defensive point guards, using his long arms and quick hands to swipe the ball away. When he’s not, he loses focus, giving up backdoors like he constantly did to Dennis Schroeder and Avery Bradley in back-to-back playoffs series. Even so, Wall is up there with the league’s top two-way point guards.
The one element barricading the Kentucky alum from the first tier is his jump shot, which has been sporadic since he entered the league. If he can right the ship in that regard, expect Wall to take another leap on this list.
Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
2016-17 per-game stats: 27.0 points, 5.9 assists and 4.9 rebounds on 44.4/37.0/89.5 shooting splits.
Even though Damian Lillard only added significant offensive value in isolation and as the pick-and-roll ball handler, he ranked third in total value added among point guards and fifth overall, adding 233.0 more points on offense than the average player might have with his assortment of possessions.
In isolation, Lillard gets the job done with a barrage of three-pointers, mixed with relentless attacks on the rim. He ranked second behind Kyrie Irving (50.7) in value added in that particular play type. Meanwhile, his 8.6 points in the paint per game was tied for seventh among guards.
As a PnR handler, Lillard ranked second behind Harden, recording an astronomical 138.1 more points than the average player. He is masterful controlling the pick-and-roll, with a variety of moves and fakes and a quick-trigger jumper to boot:
Lillard’s career averages put him in elite company. Over the past five seasons, just five players have scored at least 22 points, while dishing out five assists and grabbing four rebounds per game: LeBron James, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Lillard. The only problem? Outside of James, all those players suit up as guards in the Western Conference.
As such, last year Lillard became the first 25-points-per-game scorer to miss consecutive All-Star games since 1986.
There’s no question he is a top dog on the offensive end, but so far in his career, the two-time All-Star has been an absolute sieve on defense. Among guards over the last two seasons, Lillard ranks fifth in NBA Math’s offensive points added (OPA) at 663.12, while he is fifth worst in defensive points saved (DPS) at minus-226.29 over the same span.
If there’s one ingredient holding him back, it’s defending the other elite talents at his position.
Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
2016-17 per-game stats: 22.4 points, 7.0 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.5 steals on 46.4/41.2/81.9 shooting splits.
Aside from Wall, Kyle Lowry has been the best point guard the East has to offer for the last couple of seasons. In 2016-17, he ranked seventh among point guards and 14th overall in offensive value added, finishing with 181.9 more points than the average player.
Lowry plays both the role of facilitator and scorer in starting units, and he functions as a downright bucket-getter when surrounded by role players. With DeMar DeRozan off the floor last season, Lowry scored 1.25 points per possession (PPP) and shot an eFG% of 57.8 percent, compared to 1.18 PPP and 56.1 percent while playing with his running mate (per nbawowy).
He also possesses the skills to not only find his own shot, but also benefit from catch-and-shoot opportunities, as he ranked fourth among point guards in value added on spot-ups (47.0). But like so many others on this list, Lowry’s talents make him flourish as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll—a play-type in which he ranked sixth in value added (95.1 points added):
Lowry is often referred to as a bulldog because of his relentless play on the defensive end, which helps make up for the shortcomings on his backcourt mate.
But Lowry doesn’t get nearly the credit he deserves, because in the playoffs—when the spotlight is on and casual fans are watching—he struggles. Whereas most stars step up with the bright lights shining, Lowry’s numbers diminish. In the last three seasons (all All-Star campaigns), he has averaged 17.4 points, 5.8 assists and 4.4 rebounds on 46.3 eFG% in the playoffs, compared to 20.4 points, 6.7 assists and 4.7 rebounds on 51.8 eFG% in the regular season.
To make matters worse, the Raptors essentially started 0-1 in each series thanks to Lowry’s woes in Game 1s. If you take out this year’s first contest against Cleveland (since he had 20 points and 11 assists), he’s mustered the following line in five Game 1s over the past three seasons: 7.4 points, 5.6 assists and 4.0 rebounds on 22.9 percent shooting from the field and 6.5 percent shooting from three.
Yes, he remains among the firmest hands in the East. But like it or not, his perception will wither until he starts truly shining in the postseason.
Isaiah Thomas, Cleveland Cavaliers
2016-17 per-game stats: 28.9 points, 5.9 assists and 2.7 rebounds on 46.3/37.9/90.9 shooting splits.
Isaiah Thomas had one of the most efficient seasons ever in 2016-17, but it wasn’t enough for Celtics general manager Danny Ainge to hold onto him. The two-time All-Star was traded last month from the Boston Celtics to the Cavs in a move that brought Kyrie Irving in exchange for him, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, the 2018 unprotected first-round pick of the Brooklyn Nets and a 2020 second-rounder. The 2020 pick only entered the equation because the Cavs negotiated for extra compensation after medically examining Thomas’ injured hip.
The Seattle native has yet to begin running and is unlikely to be ready at the start of the season. But teams with LeBron James don’t play for November and December, and if Thomas is back at full strength by February or March, the team will be more than happy.
The newest Cavalier is a sensational scorer, getting the job done in countless different fashions, which is apparent when examining his Play-Type Profile:
Thomas was first among all players in offensive value added, notching 304.9 more points than the average player would’ve with his distribution of possessions. He ranked third in added value in the PnR ball-handler (125.6), third off screens (33.9), third on hand-offs (30.7) and second among point guards in spot-up looks (59.8).
But Thomas’ most impressive scoring barrages came in isolation, where he added 42.4 more points than the average player, good for fifth in the league:
If you haven’t heard, Thomas is just 5’9″. But he’s incredibly creative at finishing with touch, as he’s been forced to adjust to this height deficit his entire career. It’s common to see IT barreling into the lane, hanging his body in the air until the last possible second and flipping the ball over the defender’s outstretched hand. As such, he ranked sixth in points in the paint per game (9.6) among guards last year.
In two-and-a-half seasons playing in Boston, Thomas became a beloved fixture in the city’s sports fandom. Despite being one of the worst defenders in the NBA, his offense more than made up for the porosity. He was the straw that stirred the drink of the Celtics offense, and it will be interesting to see how his game adjusts playing next to LeBron James.
Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies
2016-17 per-game stats: 20.5 points, 6.3 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.3 steals on 46.0/40.8/85.9 shooting splits.
Mike Conley’s 10th campaign in the league was his best thus far, and examining his Play-Type Profile makes it clear why:
Conley ranked sixth among point guards and 10th overall in offensive value, adding 194.3 more points than the average player. As we can see in the chart above, the Ohio State product put the ball in the basket in a multitude of ways. He placed second in value added off screens (44.1), second on handoffs (31.2), eighth in spot-ups among point guards (29.1) and eighth as the pick-and-roll ball handler (86.3):
Underrated as a scorer in PnR:
-No. 4 among guys w/> 500 looks
-Behind only Isaiah Thomas, Harden & Dame pic.twitter.com/4nYMohioNx
— Frank Urbina (@frankurbina_) August 1, 2017
Despite averaging 17.3 points, 5.9 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.3 steals on 51.0 eFG% over the last four seasons, Conley has never made an All Star team, because the competition at the guard position is so damn competitive, especially in the West.
For perspective, there have been just 24 instances where a player averaged at least 20 points, six assists and three rebounds for a season (which Conley did in 2016-17). The only three to miss out on the All-Star team in their respective campaigns? Kevin Johnson in 1996-97, Curry in 2012-13 and Conley last year.
Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets
2016-17 per-game stats: 23.2 points, 5.5 assists and 3.9 rebounds on 44.4/39.9/84.7 shooting splits.
There’s no doubt about it: Kemba Walker can score the rock with the best of them. Looking at his Play-Type Profiles, we see that the former Connecticut Husky adds value in a medley of different ways, especially as pick-and-roll ball-handler and in spot-up opportunities:
Walker ranked fourth among point guards and seventh overall in offensive value added, tallying 222.6 more points than the average player. He was fifth in value added on handoffs (27.7), fifth off screens (29.2) and third among point guards on spot-ups (54.9). But like so many others on this list, Cardiac Kemba brings home the bacon with his play in the pick-and-roll, ranking fourth in value added by recording 123.0 more points than league average:
Walker’s offensive game is top notch, and even if his defense remains a bit underwhelming, it’s easy to imagine him continuing to serve as one of the better point guards going forward.
Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics
2016-2017 stats: 25.2 points, 5.8 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 1.2 steals on 47.3/40.1/90.5 shooting splits.
Don’t take this placement the wrong way—Kyrie Irving is downright amazing on the offensive end. He has the smoothest handle in the game, which he uses to put the opposition on skates, either to find a window of space for splashy jump-shots or to zoom past for an array of finishes at the rim. As a result, Irving ranked first in value added on isolation possessions, finishing with 87.5 more points than the average player would’ve with his volume:
Irving also thrived as a PnR handler, helping him along to a finish of fifth among points guards and eighth overall in offensive value, adding 206.5 more points than the average player.
He scored 8.9 points per game on pull ups (fifth in the league), and his 8.3 points in the paint ranked 10th among guards. The four-time All-Star is an elite bucket-getter, and though isolations are known as some of the least efficient plays, Irving’s success in the play type is no fluke.
But even in the age of the scoring point guard, putting teammates in scoring position is still a priority for the position. Irving’s career mark of 5.6 assists per game looks adequate on paper, but when you consider how often he possesses the rock, he should be averaging a couple more per appearance.
As Cleveland.com’s Chris Haynes wrote in 2016, after an especially Mamba Mentality-esque game from the Cavs point guard, “Just because you have a snow blower, doesn’t mean you should overuse it. Sometimes, it’s all right to break out the shovel. Irving has to take some of that responsibility away.”
Yes, Irving can score with the best of them. But until he becomes more of a playmaker on offense—not to mention his horrendous defense—he’ll remain a notch below some other point guards in the league.
Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix Suns
2016-17 per-game stats: 21.1 points, 6.3 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.4 steals on 43.3/33.5/84.7 shooting splits.
When Eric Bledsoe is healthy, he remains among the best pure point guards in the league. In four seasons playing starter minutes with the Phoenix Suns, the seven-year veteran has averaged 18.8 points, 6.0 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.6 steals on 49.6 eFG%. But when you examine his games played per season, his lack of recognition starts to make sense.
The Kentucky guard has had three major knee surgeries since entering the league and has failed to play over 50 games in back-to-back seasons. Last year wasn’t Bledsoe’s fault, as he was shut down after 66 games so the Suns could get a high draft pick. But not before enjoying the best campaign of his career.
The Suns’ play-caller ranked seventh in value added (90.3) as a PnR handler and ninth in fast-break points per game (4.2). He is a formidable defender at his position, while also shouldering an immense load on offense, both in scoring and facilitating the action. If Bledsoe can remain healthy, he’ll continue creeping up these rankings.
The Forgotten Ones
There are 11 sure-fire, elite point guards in the NBA today. But what makes the position the deepest in the league are the players not even mentioned above. Guys like Goran Dragic, Jeff Teague, Jrue Holiday and Ricky Rubio—not to mention steady hands such as George Hill and Dennis Schroder—are immensely skilled, yet not quite among the elite.
Dragic may be the most underrated lead guard in the league and is coming off a season in which he put up 20.3 points, 5.8 assists, 3.8 boards and 1.2 steals on 47.5/40.5/79.0 shooting splits. He is unstoppable running the fast-break, and his relentless drive-and-kick game is truly something to behold.
Teague, the new play-caller of the Minnesota Timberwolves, is the definition of middle-level consistency. Over the past four seasons, he has averaged no fewer than 15.3 points and 5.9 assists, and no more than 16.5 points and 7.8 assists. Simply put, Teague gets the job done but doesn’t necessarily wow you while he does it. He shoots a decent percentage from downtown, is more that capable of both finding his own shot and getting others involved and is immaculate in the pick-and-roll.
Holiday has trouble staying healthy, but when on the court, he’s easily an above-average point guard. He’s a capable scorer at all three levels and has the court vision and awareness to amass a ton of assists. He also possesses the length and quickness to play lockdown defense and accrue a few steals along the way.
Rubio is the quintessential old-school point guard, equipped with impeccable vision and a knack for locating teammates in scoring position. As such, he has never notched fewer than seven assists per contest. The issue is today’s lead guards are tasked with taking on massive scoring loads, as well, and that’s a skill the Spanish guard hasn’t quite mastered. His meager 11.1 points were a career high last season, and it’s impossible to stretch the floor when he’s shot just 31.5 percent from downtown throughout his NBA tenure.
All four are vastly talented. But as previously stated, the position is so damn deep they hardly get the recognition they deserve.
Where Do We Go From Here?
As you can tell, the point guard position is ripe with some of the best talent in the NBA. And it’s only getting more robust. With the next generation growing up watching Steve Nash, Chris Paul and now Curry running circles around the opposition and launching threes from way downtown, still dropping dimes all the while, players will naturally gravitate toward playing the same way.
In the 2017 NBA draft alone, Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, De’Aaron Fox, Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr. were all selected in the top 10. With so many elite players at the position—and more on the way–more teams should at least try testing out two-point-guard lineups. After all, the game is getting faster, and the position that was once known for merely getting teammates involved now includes some of the highest fliers and most complete scorers in the game.
Follow Michael on Twitter @mbrock03