The Highest Peaks Reached by NBA Point Guards in the Modern Era
Nothing has taken the NBA by storm quite like the wave of sharp-shooting point guards who have contributed to title runs throughout recent history.
Stephen Curry became a two-time MVP and helped lead the Golden State Warriors to a pair of titles. Damian Lillard hasn’t hit quite as many triples, but he’s still devastated one defense after another with his pull-up splashes. How about Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry, both of whom are capable of contributing in every area imaginable and have a knack for hitting timely jumpers? Though Russell Westbrook doesn’t exactly qualify as a sharpshooter, talking about the great point guards of the last few years and excluding him would be a horrible mistake.
But how do they stack up against their positional counterparts throughout the modern era? Since the beginning of the 1973-74 season, when the NBA began tracking more stats and allowed for the retroactive calculation of many advanced analytics such as total points added (TPA), the league has never experienced a dearth of quality floor generals.
Plenty of basketball analysts have looked at their careers as a whole. The best single seasons tend to take center stage when the Maurice Podoloff Trophy is greeting a new MVP. But here, we’re concerned only with lengthier peaks.
Having a one-off campaign can be special. Maintaining that success for a three-year stretch, however, is far more impressive and meaningful.
Journey with us as we travel through the best three-year stretches from modern-era point guards (as defined by Basketball Reference and based on number of seasons listed at each position) by adding together their TPA scores in each of the three relevant consecutive campaigns. One stellar season can counteract more lackluster contributions surrounding it, but playing at a high level for the entirety of a three-year period is the best way to vault up the rankings.
20. Damian Lillard, 2015-17: 723.83 TPA
Despite his defensive woes, Damian Lillard has used his three-point shooting to become one of the most potent scoring threats the position has seen. Were it not for Stephen Curry’s exploits from beyond the arc, he’d be setting records and turning heads with his remarkable pull-up proficiency. Instead, his ability to fire away deep threes off the bounce often gets overlooked.
Lillard probably won’t improve upon this score. His defense during the 2014-15 campaign was strong enough that it remains the best season of his young career, and more high-scoring exploits in 2017-18 wouldn’t be enough to shift his three-season peak—unless he improves on the preventing end, of course.
But don’t hold that against him.
This Rip City standout has still put himself on a Hall of Fame trajectory, and he’s not going to experience a decline anytime soon. Even if he defers more touches to C.J. McCollum, he’ll be able to tap into the leftover energy in other areas, thereby keeping Portland as competitive as its been throughout the last few years.
19. Chauncey Billups, 2006-08: 735.71 TPA
Chauncey Billups helped the Detroit Pistons win a title in 2004, but it wasn’t until he’d played another two seasons that he would truly hit his stride. He began his run of five consecutive All-Star appearances by averaging 18.5 points, 3.1 rebounds and 8.6 assists in 2005-06, and that was also the start of his true peak.
No campaign was better, though, than his work in 2007-08. He wasn’t quite as potent on the offensive end, even if he managed to offset a declining three-point percentage with even more impressive finishing ability around the hoop. But he was more locked in than ever on defense, constantly pestering opposing ball-handlers and doing his best to contest every opportunity.
“Mr. Big Shot” was always more of an offensive stud than a two-way contributor, but he could hold his own as a one-on-one perimeter defender in the right situations. Never was that more true than during the end of this three-year peak, and his efforts helped lead the Pistons to a 59-23 record and an eventual clash with the star-studded Boston Celtics, coached by the No. 18 player in this countdown, in the Eastern Conference Finals.
18. Doc Rivers, 1987-89: 745.58 TPA
How’s that for consistency?
The rest of Doc Rivers’ playing career never quite measured up to those three seasons, but he was a two-way terror for the Atlanta Hawks throughout his prime. He wasn’t the league’s best offensive point guard, and the same was true on the defensive end. Instead, he just managed to fill any role Atlanta needed on a nightly basis.
It’s an enduring shame that the current head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers was only awarded a single All-Star berth, earned during the 1987-88 campaign as he upped his scoring average and led the Hawks to a 50-win season. He just didn’t produce enough points to gain league-wide appreciation, though the advent of advanced metrics have now made it easier to retroactively appreciate what he brought to the table.
When you’re constantly challenging for double-doubles without racking up turnovers, playing tenacious perimeter defense, contributing on the glass and scoring efficiently around the hoop, your value may well exceed the reputation produced by your per-game scoring average.
17. Kevin Johnson, 1989-91: 768.41 TPA
It didn’t take Kevin Johnson long to blossom once he left the University of California and joined the ranks of professionals. He got off to a slow start during his rookie season and was even traded from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Phoenix Suns. But he broke out as a sophomore, averaging 20.4 points and 12.2 assists during his first full season in the desert.
And he kept getting better.
During the modern era (1973-74 through the present), only 10 different qualified players have topped 20 points and 10 dimes for an entire campaign. Just five men have done so multiple times: Kevin Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson, Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook. But only the two Johnsons and Thomas have achieved the feat in three consecutive seasons, as the Phoenix floor general did in the peak you can see represented above.
16. Terry Porter, 1990-92: 784.75 TPA
Nowadays, point guards can emerge from smaller Division I schools and find success in the Association. But Terry Porter entered the league out of University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point—then a Division II school, though it’s since shifted to the WIAC in Division III—and was still the No. 25 pick of the 1985 NBA draft.
It took him a while to get his bearings at the sport’s highest level, but he eventually settled in rather nicely for the Portland Trail Blazers. He’d become one of the league’s greatest shooting point guards, even if he played in an era that didn’t prioritize three-point prowess to nearly the same extent as today’s league.
From 1989-90 through 1991-92, Porter took 3.6 attempts per game and connected at a 39.7 percent clip—numbers matched or exceeded by exactly zero players during the same three-year span. He’d actually get even better in 1992-93 (4.3 and 41.4 percent), but his defense wasn’t up to the same standard he’d established during the first go-round of this peak.
15. Micheal Ray Richardson, 1980-82: 804.24 TPA
Micheal Ray Richardson, who we have as a point guard because he’s listed as such by Basketball Reference in six of his eight NBA seasons, is the first member of this countdown who actually added more value on defense (441.9 defensive points saved) than offense (362.4 offensive points added) during his three-year peak.
He was a stalwart stopper throughout his playing career, often serving as the backcourt member who would take on the toughest assignment each and every night. And no matter who he was checking, he was always aggressive with his hands, allowing him to rack up steal tallies that consistently challenged for the league lead. Of course, he was also one of the NBA’s most gifted distributors, as well as a scoring threat who always seemed capable of getting to the hoop.
Given the well-rounded nature of his game, Richardson should be remembered more fondly. But he doomed himself by testing positive for cocaine three times and becoming the first player to receive a lifetime ban, which made his 1985-86 campaign with the New Jersey Nets the last he’d play.
14. John Stockton, 1989-91: 820.79 TPA
Talk about offensive consistency.
John Stockton knew his role for the Utah Jazz, and he filled it perfectly each and every season. One of the greatest passers in NBA history, he and Karl Malone helped popularize the pick-and-roll, constantly tormenting opposing defenses who couldn’t figure out whether to hedge out and prevent him from hitting threes or sag back and cut off pocket passes to the rolling power forward. He led the league in assists during each season of his three-year peak—part of a longer run of nine consecutive dime-dropping crowns.
Sitting at No. 14 might seem low for this Hall of Fame floor general, and that’s for two reasons. First, TPA undersells his defense, since he forced so many players to pass up shots and rarely recorded defensive rebounds. Second, his reputation was derived more from his long-standing excellence than the loftiness of his peak, as you can see by looking at every season of his career:
Don’t think we’re trying to sell this legend short. We’re not.
13. Steve Francis, 2001-03: 822.59 TPA
Sorry, New York Knicks fans.
Steve Francis was supposed to help pull the Knicks out of the cycle of mediocrity into which they’d entered after the departure of Patrick Ewing, but he never lived up to “The Franchise” moniker. Instead, he lasted for just 68 games before he was shipped off to the Portland Trail Blazers and had his remaining contract bought out, clearing the way for his return to the Houston Rockets.
But don’t mistake the lackluster ending to his NBA career with a lack of production in his true prime.
With his aggressive driving instincts and yo-yo handles, he embarrassed plenty of defenders while becoming one of the modern era’s greatest offensive threats—for a short while, at least. During his sophomore season, he even averaged 19.9 points, 6.9 rebounds and 6.5 assists while shooting 45.1/39.6/81.7.
12. Kyle Lowry, 2014-16: 866.2 TPA
Fortunately for Kyle Lowry, we’re not including postseason work in this analysis. Though that’s fundamentally important to a legacy, even reaching the playoffs is dependent on having a strong team, which unnecessarily harms some great players and correspondingly adds to the legacy of lesser contributors who happened to play for title contenders.
So much of the narrative about the point guard who’s blossomed for the Toronto Raptors revolves around his shortcomings after Game 82, but that unfairly looks past just how good he’s become during the regular season. Dropping in plenty of pull-up triples, taking charges and remaining physical on defense, always finding the open teammate and finishing plays around the hoop, Lowry has become a complete player since leaving the Houston Rockets for a fresh start.
And were it not for the surgery on his right wrist that limited him to just 60 appearances in 2016-17, his three-year peak might be even more impressive. Right now, it’s superseded by the full-season efforts from 2013-14. But if he’d maintained his exact level of play and suited up in every game, he’d have upped his his peak score to 948.55 and jumped past the next two standouts in this countdown.
11. Isiah Thomas, 1984-86: 866.77 TPA
Despite his reputation as a fearsome defender, Isiah Thomas doesn’t fare particularly well in the defensive portion of TPA. This isn’t the product of his peak happening to feature better offensive seasons, either. He graded out as a slight positive for each of the five seasons after the relevant period, but his overall career score is still in the red.
Still, the Hall of Famer was an offensive force for the Detroit Pistons. He wouldn’t steer the Motor City to a pair of titles until later in his career, but he managed to do more than “just” average 20 points and 10 assists. During the 1984-85 campaign, he even posted 21.2 points and 13.9 dimes during his average appearance.
It’s also possible that advanced metrics sell Thomas rather short. They can’t account for his ability to make an attitude contagious, and the attention he paid to physical play on the preventing end pervaded the entire Pistons roster, even if it was often the frontcourt doing the heavier lifting.
10. Gilbert Arenas, 2005-07: 900.84 TPA
Just for fun, look at how Gilbert Arenas’ peak years compared to what Isaiah Thomas did in 2016-17 (the best season of the Boston Celtics floor general’s career). The two point guards filled rather similar roles for their respective teams by constantly gunning away and focusing all their energy on offense, often at the expense of playing even passable defense:
Hopefully that helps put in perspective just how dominant prime Arenas was on the scoring end.
Thomas doesn’t yet have enough seasons as a superstar to challenge for one of these 20 spots. He actually sits at No. 32. But he still put together one of the more dominant offensive seasons in recent memory, and Arenas—when at his absolute best—was a comparable point-producing threat while playing slightly better defense.
9. Jason Kidd, 2001-03: 971.2 TPA
Jason Kidd’s 2002-03 season for the New Jersey Nets was almost certainly an aberration, driven toward the top of the offensive charts by a skyrocketing true shooting percentage that stands out against the backdrop of everything else he did in his prime. All of a sudden, he found himself making constant trips to the charity stripe, connecting on more than 40 percent of his field-goal attempts and hitting from downtown at a 34.1 percent clip.
And keep in mind, this was in Kidd’s athletic prime, back when he was involved enough to average 18.7 points. He’d later become a spot-up sniper for the Dallas Mavericks, but converting so frequently while operating as a leading source of points was an entirely different role.
Let’s pretend the aberration had never happened. If Kidd’s prime had continued as it had each of the two seasons prior and he’d posted another season of about 290 TPA, he’d still have a three-year peak of 867.7, which would leave him on the verge of earning a top-10 spot.
8. Gary Payton, 2000-02: 1000.92 TPA
During the early portion of Gary Payton’s career with the Seattle SuperSonics, “The Glove” was a legitimate defensive ace. He even posted one of the stingiest seasons from a point guard in 1995-96, when he won Defensive Player of the Year. But his best overall scores still come at the tail end of his time in the Pacific Northwest, and his contributions stemmed largely from his remarkable offense.
Payton could simply do everything.
Not only was he capable of scoring 25 points on any given night, but he challenged for the league lead in assists per game. He could drill triples (34.3 percent on 4.2 attempts per game during the three-year peak) and get to the charity stripe, all while avoiding those pesky little things called turnovers.
It may be surprising that one of the greatest defensive floor generals in NBA history saw his peak come while he was a negative on the preventing end. But just view that as a testament to how great he became on the side that didn’t help him earn his the most prominent portion of his reputation.
7. Mookie Blaylock, 1995-97: 1005.75 TPA
From 1995 through 1997, Mookie Blaylock made exactly zero All-Star games. He averaged just 16.7 points per game, and the combination of those two irrefutable facts didn’t help push his reputation up toward the era’s other elite point guards.
But that didn’t stop Blaylock. He just kept doing all the little things, and they added up.
The 6’0″ floor general shot 36.5 percent from beyond the arc while taking 7.5 attempts per game. Despite his heavy involvement initiating offense for the Atlanta Hawks, he averaged just 2.6 cough-ups per contest and fouled even less frequently while constantly challenging for the league lead in steals. He even rebounded far better than you might expect from a player his size.
Two-way contributions tend to play well, and that’s what Blaylock provided year in and year out.
6. Walt Frazier, 1974-76: 1019.47 TPA
Our definition of the modern era automatically disadvantages Walt Frazier. His best seasons came in the five years directly before 1973-74, but we can’t include them here since TPA can’t technically be calculated. And yet, he still places just outside the top five.
But just for fun, let’s take the same methodology I used to project Jerry West’s full career for NBA Math and see what an approximation of his true peak might look like.
His top TPA in the three-year peak represented in these rankings came in 1974-75 (399.2). Using win shares per 48 minutes as the baseline for estimation, that would actually fall behind his efforts in 1968-69 (490.3), 1969-70 (593.6), 1970-71 (597.6), 1971-72 (541.6) and 1972-73 (470.2). And yes, you know what’s coming next.
If we were looking beyond 1973-74 and deep into the more distant past, Frazier’s true three-year peak would grade out at 1732.8, thereby moving him past all but one member of the modern era.
Breaking news: Frazier was quite good at this whole basketball thing.
5. Fat Lever, 1987-89: 1139.23 TPA
Before triple-doubles were cool, there was Fat Lever.
Technically, Oscar Robertson came first. But then Lever started putting up big numbers for the Denver Nuggets a few decades later, showing off his athleticism as he finished plays at the hoop, excelled in the drive-and-kick game and established himself as one of the best rebounding guards ever. From 1986-87 through 1988-89, he posted a whopping 36 trip-dubs.
Now, he’s one of the most underrated players ever. The NBA didn’t understand the value he brought with his non-traditional production, but it’s now abundantly clear just how much he added to Denver’s efforts on both ends of the floor. Of course, there were a few exceptions back in the day.
“The only thing Lever can’t do is shoot straight (.437 career. .459 this season), but then, no one on the Nuggets can,” Jack McCallum wrote for Sports Illustrated in 1987 while calling Lever the Western Conference’s most underrated point guard, based on a survey of players, coaches and broadcasters. “Instead they shoot often, and Lever is the guy who distributes the ball, both on the break, where he makes excellent open-court decisions, and in coach Doug Moe’s half-court passing offense.”
4. Chris Paul, 2007-09: 1336.36 TPA
Chris Paul sits in a tier of his own.
His 2007-08 and 2008-09 campaigns were some of the finest seasons the NBA has ever seen from a point guard, and they elevate him well above Fat Lever and the other men who have already populated this countdown. But the two choices to extend that two-year peak to the full required length were a bit more lackluster.
Paul played just 45 games in 2009-10 and struggled on defense while he was getting healthy, so that one’s out. The other choice—and ultimately, the better one—comes from 2006-07, a year in which he was still gaining responsibility as a sophomore with the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets. He wasn’t yet tasked with nearly as many scoring responsibilities, averaging 17.3 points per game to sit behind both David West (18.3) and Peja Stojakovic (17.8).
Without that stellar third season, Paul sits well behind each member of the top three. But at his very best, even if that level wasn’t sustained long enough for our purposes, he was every bit their equal.
3. Magic Johnson, 1989-91: 1602.65 TPA
Let this serve as a reminder of how ridiculously dominant Magic Johnson was throughout his career.
The Los Angeles Lakers 1-guard thrived from the moment he entered the league, but it wasn’t until the tail end of his NBA tenure that he put up his statistical peak. Even as he moved into his 30s, he was able to use his awe-inspiring vision and passing chops to put the ball in the right places, running an up-tempo Showtime attack that never allowed the opposition to get comfortable.
Unfortunately, Johnson’s peak ended abruptly. His HIV diagnosis forced him into a four-year hiatus before he’d return for 32 games in 1995-96, and we’ll never know whether he could’ve topped this three-year score during the early ’90s.
2. Stephen Curry, 2014-16: 1650.1 TPA
No one in the modern era has had an offensive campaign quite like Stephen Curry’s 2015-16.
Not only did he average 6.7 assists to go along with his league-leading 30.1 points per game, but he did so while shattering efficiency norms. The Golden State Warriors point guard and eventual back-to-back MVP connected on 50.4 percent of his field-goal attempts, 45.4 percent of his 11.2 three-point attempts per contest and 90.8 percent of his shots from the stripe. All together, he paced the league with a 66.9 true shooting percentage, which put him in a rather exclusive class.
Throughout history, 66 individual seasons have seen someone average at least 30 points. Prior to Curry, 1983-84 Adrian Dantley had the top true shooting percentage during one such go-round (65.2).
The baby-faced assassin was special in the seasons surrounding 2015-16, but his historic offensive exploits throughout his best year push him close to the top of these rankings.
1. Russell Westbrook, 2015-17: 1949.32 TPA
Russell Westbrook’s score is a bit misleading.
He posted the best TPA since 1973-74, regardless of position, while averaging a triple-double in 2016-17. But that’s at least partially because of some strange interaction effects, as ESPN.com’s Kevin Pelton explained wonderfully toward the end of the campaign:
Frankly, Westbrook’s season has broken BPM, which is not quite as flattering to him as it sounds.
To improve the quality of the rating for most players, BPM 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.
In short, Westbrook probably isn’t having the greatest year in modern NBA history, just the one best designed to maximize BPM.
BPM is the basis for TPA, so the same analysis applies here. Westbrook’s scores, especially on defense, are significantly inflated.
But let’s pretend they weren’t.
Westbrook was still objectively better in 2016-17 than he’s ever been. Hs increased usage didn’t correspond with a decline in per-minute production; he even matched 2015-16 to replicate the highest true shooting percentage of his career (55.4). So let’s pretend he improved, but rather than by the monumental leap TPA shows, only by as much as the gap between his 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons.
In that situation, he’d have emerged from the most recent expedition with 601.8 TPA. Correspondingly, his three-year peak would sit at 1661.4, still allowing him to hold down the fort at No. 1. Interaction effects may have boosted him to the top of the single-season leaderboard, but they’re not responsible for his ridiculous surge over the last few years.
Honorable Mentions: Tim Hardaway (656.76 TPA from 1996-98), Baron Davis (639.63 TPA from 2002-04), John Wall (618.1 TPA from 2015-17), Terrell Brandon (588.34 TPA from 1996-98), Derek Harper (573.97 TPA from 1988-90)
If you’d like to run through all these graphics in quick succession or see the players at other positions who surround these top-notch floor generals, you can do so by playing around here:
Adam Fromal is the founder and Editor in Chief of NBA Math. Follow him on Twitter @fromal09.