Basketballjohn's FanPost (below) inspired me to finally do a post I've been pondering all summer. Who are the best point guards in the NBA? I've seen quite a few of these lists floating around the tubes. But most of them involve nebulous terms like "proven leader" or "knows how to win." Very few of them offer legitimate logic and reasoning for why one player is specifically more valuable than the other.
The irony is perhaps quite thick. A Hornets blogger purporting to make a logical, non-biased point guard list? It's fair to sneeze rather loudly. When was the last time you saw a Jazz fan call Chris Paul the best point guard in the NBA or a Hornets fan call Steve Nash the best point guard in the NBA? Probably never. That said, this list is based on plainly verifiable facts.
I've decided to present it differently from how such lists are normally made. Each player's blurb explains why he's better than the guy above him. It's the basketball version of the Straight Talk Express. On steroids. Before the whole "Running for President" thing.
10. Devin Harris
#11 for me is Andre Miller.
Scoring: One of the biggest gripes against Miller is that he has no range. He went 3 for 34 from three last year, to follow up 1 for 19 the year before. Harris offers a 32% stroke from three. While Andre is pretty good at everything else he shoots, so is Harris, who ranks among the better lay-up finishers in the league. The slight advantage in scoring goes to Harris, by virtue of his better true shooting and effective field goal percentages (56% to 53% and 50% to 46%).
Passing: 6 years ago, Miller was perhaps the best passer in the league, leading the NBA in assist rate at nearly 50%. His rates have plummeted since then, while Harris' increased with New Jersey and figure to rise again in his first full season with the Nets. Miller has also turned the ball over a tad more than Harris (16.7 rate to 16.2 rate), and again, I expect Harris' rate to decline this year as he gains familiarity with his system. It's clear who the better passer/ballhandler will be in a couple years, but for now it's a tie.
Defense: I'm a bit torn on this one. Pre-season, John Hollinger called Harris the best defensive point guard in the league, but Devin definitely struggled defensively during his time with Dallas and Jersey last year. He has the lateral quickness to be a Rondo-like defender, and his block rates and steal rates surprass Dre's. Harris is the better defender, and he could eventually become a significantly better defender than he is right now.
9. Gilbert Arenas
Scoring: This one's not even close. Gil has proven himself to be a scorer in the ilk of the Kobes and Lebrons of the world. His field goal percentage took a precipitous drop last year, but when he's been healthy, he's been a monster on the court. His 36% three point shooting dwarfs Harris 32%, his 7.1 free throws/36 dwarfs Harris' 5.1, and he's attempted about 10 field goals per game more in his career than Harris. Really no question here.
Passing/Ballhandling: Gilbert's a surprisingly accomplished passer, given how much he shoots the ball. His career 26.4 assist rate is actually higher than Harris' 25.5. No doubt Harris' assist rates will increase over the next few years as he becomes the man in New Jersey, but up till now, Gilbert has helped out his teammates a tad more. Gil also takes care of the ball quite well. Toss out his injury ridden season last year, and he hasn't posted a turnover rate worse than 11.8 since joining the Wizards. The edge again goes to Arenas.
Defense: This is one of those that more advanced defensive metrics would really help out with. I probably watch about 10-15 Arenas games a season (obviously not last year), but I really can't make a read on how great of a defender he is over an 82 game stretch. See above for my take on Harris's defense. I think, a few years down the road, Harris will definitely be the better defender. For now, I'll call it a push.
Other: Tossing Arenas into this list was easily the hardest thing to do. Healthy, I have him much, much higher than #9. Definitely top 5, if not top 3 or 4.
8. T.J. Ford
Scoring: Ford's ability to put the ball in the bucket will never be the focal point of any offensive attack. He struggles with the trifecta (29.4% last year), doesn't draw fouls at rates his quickness indicates he should, and his career high .484 eFG% last year is lower than Arena's career eFG% of .488. Toss in the fact that Arenas has scored 29.3 and 28.4 ppg in separate seasons with little to no loss in efficiency, and it's clear who the better scorer is.
Passing/Ballhandling: Ford's always been a great passer, starting with his years in Texas. The last two seasons, he's posted assist rates of 44.4 and 44.8, behind only Chris Paul and Steve Nash last year. On the turnover side, he started his rookie campaign as one of the wildest PG's in the league (24% TOV rate) but has improved every year since. While Gil posts surprisingly high AST% figures himself, they pale in comparison to Ford's. Arena's career 14% TOV rate is very similar to Ford's last year. All in all, Ford is the better playmaker.
Defense: Opponent counterpart production suggests that neither is the greatest defender at his position, but that the two are pretty equal. End of the day, I'd probably want Gil defending my goal simply because he's got a 30 pound advantage on Ford.
Other: In a pure talent sense, it's virtually impossible to argue that T.J. Ford is better at playing basketball than Gilbert Arenas. Both have had pretty extensive injury histories throughout their careers. The difference, though, is the nature of those injuries. Ford has suffered two freak neck and head injuries that really have nothing to do with conditioning or bodily wear and tear. Arenas, on the other hand, has what appears to be a recurring knee problem- one that has some analysts questioning whether he'll ever return to his prime again. On that basis, Ford's the pick.
7. Baron Davis
Scoring: Davis and Ford are probably far closer in scoring ability than their raw statistics indicate. Take a look at their per/36 minute scoring stats, and it's clear that the 10 point point per game difference in 2008 has more to do with the minutes Ford played than field goal efficiency. But while Davis might not be that much better at scoring than Ford, he still has the edge in three point shooting and an even greater edge in getting to the foul line. They're not as different as you might imagine, but Davis is still the better scorer.
Passing/Ballhandling: One of the defining trends of Davis' career is a marked decrease in turnover rate. He started wild but gradually improved at taking care of the ball. Last year, that trend culminated in an 11.9 TOV%, the lowest by any point guard in the NBA. Ford is also on that path, but he has a ways to go before reaching Davis' level. Ford has posted better AST% numbers, but Davis' turnover rates more than make up for it, making him the better passer/ballhandler.
Defense: Davis has long been accused of laziness and losing interest over the course of a long season. It happened in New Orleans, and even in Golden State where Coach Don Nelson benched him. But when he's playing inspired basketball- something that happened more often than not in GS- he simply has more physical tools at his disposal than does Ford.
Other: The biggest fear for the LAC is that Davis sits on his fat contract and gets lazy. Everything else- scoring, passing, and defensive ability- indicates that he's better than Ford.
6. Tony Parker
Scoring: I don't know of a better finisher in traffic and around the hoop than Tony Parker. Dwayne Wade makes some circus layups every now and then, but Parker routinely has a couple of those per game. While Parker is not really known for his range, his career 3P% is relatively close to Baron Davis' (.314 to .325). Moving away from the hoop, Parker routinely ranks among league leaders in field goals attempted 5 feet from the hoop and closer as well as total FG%. I doubt that Parker could shoulder the scoring loads and usage percentages that Davis has had to in his career, but his incredible efficiency comes close to negating that. Scoring is a push between these two.
Passing/Ballhandling: While Davis was the best point guard in the league last year with an 11.9% TOV rate, Parker was right there with him at a miniscule 12.1% rate. Parker's career assist rate is at 30%, while Davis hovers at 35.4%. It's Davis by the thinnest of hairs.
Defense: It's probably a little bit unfair to look at statistics on this one, simply because Parker has Tim Duncan behind him while Davis did not. But Parker also has the fundamentals of defense down pat far more than Davis. He moves his feet well to stay with quicker players. He fights over screens rather than ducking around. Davis could afford to stay under because his Golden State teammates were quick enough to stay with guards (Jackson, and even Harrington). However, Davis does have some of the best hands in basketball. His 2.8 STL% dwarfs Parker's 1.6%. Again, neither guy has a significant advantage.
Other: Parker's a career 71% free throw shooter to Davis' 69%. Davis has gotten to the line a career 4.4 FTA/36 to Parker's 4.2. Davis has a rebound rate of 6.4 to Parker's 5.5. It's difficult to imagine two point guards closer in talent and execution. At the end, the edge goes to Parker for durability. Over 7 seasons, Parker has averaged 77 games a year, and over 9, Davis has averaged 67, including various accusations of "dogging it." 10 games a year is enough of a difference to offset Davis' other advantages.
5. Jose Calderon
Scoring: Like Parker, Calderon isn't really called upon to carry a heavy scoring load. In fact, in Toronto's system, less is expected of him than of Parker in San Antonio. But when he calls his own number, he's just as, if not more deadly than Parker. For one, he shot 43% from downtown last year. His effective field goal percentage of .575 dwarfed Parker's .502- and Parker's considered the best in the business not named Steve Nash. Toss in a 91% free throw stroke (to Parker's 71%) and it's clear that Calderon is the better scorer.
Passing/Ballhandling: Calderon has a ways to go before reaching Parker's turnover levels. He has improved his ball control every year (22.3 to 16.2 to 14.2) so it's quite possible that he improves to the 12% range this year. But for now, Parker's the better bet. However, Calderon did post a 42.3 AST% last year. His career low 29.1 rate (rookie season) is virtually the same as Parker's career assist rate. So passing/ballhandling is a push; if anything, Calderon's advantage in passing is bigger than Parker's advantage in ball control.
Defense: Calderon's biggest weakness defensively is that he struggles to keep quick point guards in front of him. Tony Parker has no such problems, but he gives up 30 pounds to Jose. The two play as stylistically different defenses as possible. This is one of those situations where I wish we had more advanced defensive measurements. It's really impossible to say who's the better defender here. I don't imagine that one is wildly better than the other at defense, but it's possible. Push, if for no other reason than lack of data.
Other: Both are average rebounders (actually the exact same rebound rates), so Calderon's scoring edge ends up giving him the overall edge.
4. Steve Nash
Scoring: Nash's shooting percentages have come to represent the standard by which all point guards are measured. Players that Nash had a higher true shooting percentage than in 2008: Tyson Chandler and Andris Biedrins. For the unacquainted, those are two guys that essentially catch the ball and dunk. On every field goal attempt. So for Nash to be outshooting them is quite a feat. And by the way, he outshot (TS%) every single player in the league in 2007 and 2006. Calderon is no slouch, but Nash hasn't shot below 40% from three since 1999. Nash wins scoring handily.
Passing/Ballhandling: Nash's passing is pretty much the stuff of legend, as he led the league in assist rate in 2006 and again in 2007. That said, he's also one of the most prolific turnover-ers in the NBA. Only Jason Kidd posted a worse turnover rate among point guards last season. For some reason, this aspect of his game doesn't get nearly the press his passing does. So while Nash can make a ton of flashy passes, Calderon is virtually even on passing/ballhandling by virtue of his 14.2 turnover rate to Nash's 21.6. This one's push.
Defense: Nash' defense has reached such a stage where he no longer guards point guards in the ilk of Deron Williams, Chauncey Billups, Chris Paul, Tony Parker... I could go on. He's simply assigned to a different guy whenever possible. Complain all you want about Calderon's inability to keep guys in front of him. But I'd rather take that than a point guard who won't, or rather can't, guard point guards.
Other: He might not play D, but Nash still has a hell of a lot of value because of his offensive game. Unfortunately, guys don't magically cut down their turnovers 12 years into a career. With a lower turnover rate, Nash might be considered among the greatest guards of all time. With his current rate, he's definitely among the contemporary greats, and definitely more valuable than Calderon for now.
3. Chauncey Billups
Scoring: Billups is one of the few point guards in the league that can challenge Nash both from three and from the charity stripe. Nash does have the slight edge in terms of 3P% and true shooting percentage. But Billups makes up for those deficiencies in another way: getting to the free throw line. Through his 11 year career, Billups has visited the stripe an average 5.2 times per 36 minutes. During his time with Detroit, that average is in the 6's. Nash, meanwhile, only shoots free throws 3.3 times per 36. So while both Nash and Billups are incredible foul shooters, Chauncey actually takes advantage of his abilities far more than Nash. The extra points generated by Nash through his superior field goal efficiency virtually cancel the extra points Chauncey generates at the line. Call this one a push.
Passing/Ballhandling: Billups is closer in assist rate to a Tony Parker than Steve Nash, and he's really no match for Nash's 39.0 career assist rate. However, he makes up for a lot of it by taking care of the ball well. Last year, he posted an excellent 13.0 turnover rate, his worst in three seasons. Nash's career best turnover rate as a starter (15.8) would be far and away Billups' worst as a starter. Nash owns passing, Billups owns ballhandling, and no matter what the media and flashy highlight reels would have you believe, it's another push.
Defense: Even at his advanced age, Billups is among the best defenders at his position. His biggest strength is being extremely physical with opposing point guards. He knows when to push, when to bump, and how not to get penalized for his physicality. It's amazing that Billups only gets called for 2.4 fouls/36 compared to Nash's 2.1 fouls/36 even though Nash is among the least physical defenders in the league. You often hear commentators refer nebulously to the "smart" defender. Here's a living, breathing example of one. That 2.1-2.4 stat just amazes me.
Other: One guy plays one half of the game extremely well while the other plays both halves very well. That Billups has better steal rates, block rates, and rebound rates is just icing on the cake.
2. Deron Williams
Scoring: Owner of perhaps the best crossover this side of Allen Iverson. Stylistically, Williams plays a very similar game to Chauncey Billups. He looks poised to equal Billups in true shooting and three point percentage in a few years. For now, he's a hair off on both those figures (.549 to .574 and .374 to .385). Billups also retains the foul drawing advantage, getting to the free throw line more proficiently than Williams. Throw in that Billups is a significantly better foul shooter than Williams, and the scoring advantage goes to Chauncey.
Passing/Ballhandling: Perhaps the most criticized part of Williams' game is his ballhandling/turnovers. He really hasn't shown much improvement in turnover rate in 3 years (actually getting worse from 14.4 to 16.9 to 17.7). So Billups wins that battle with his 13.4 rate. Deron is the better passer, surpassing a 40% assist rate in back to back seasons, something Billups has never accomplished. Passing/ballhandling is a push, with maybe a slight edge to Williams.
Defense: Judging from his fouls/36 rates (3.6 as a rookie, then 3.1, 2.4 last year), Deron is gradually mastering the skill that Billups excels at- playing physical defense without fouling. Deron obviously has the fresher legs at this point, so I'd say defense is a push.
Other: So Billups is better at scoring, even with Williams in passing/ballhandling, and an equal defender, but is ranked worse. Why? Overall work load. Billups played only 32 minutes a game last year to Deron's 37, and with the emergence of Rodney Stuckey, I don't expect that to change this year. Five minutes a game might not sound like much, but over an 82 game season that's about 400 minutes of basketball. Also known as: a lot.
1. Chris Paul
Scoring: The difference in shooting ability between Paul and Williams was quite marked in '05-'06, the pair's rookie year. Paul looked tentative, afraid to shoot threes, while Williams attempted about 40 more threes, at a 42% clip. Three years later, Paul is rapidly closing the gap, connecting on 37% of his threes last year, and both taking and making more threes than Williams last year. At this point, Deron is still the more accomplished three point shooter. But in that time frame, Paul also perfected a move that Tony Parker has used successfully for years- the floating one hander. It's allowed him to close with 0.02 points on true shooting percentage of Williams. While Williams has posted higher efficiency in his scoring, Paul has shouldered a greater scoring load, taking about 16.1 field goals per game last year to Williams' 13.6. This one's a marginal advantage at best for Deron, and probably a push.
Passing/Ballhandling: This is where the difference in the two players really comes to the forefront. For one, Paul's 52.2 assist rate last year is higher than any player in NBA history not named John Stockton. Williams' career high 43.6 assist rate in 2008 is still lower than Paul's career assist rate. In terms of ball handling, Paul's career worst turnover rate (13.7) is 7 points worse than Williams career best turnover rate during his rookie year (14.4). Their ball-handling abilities are headed in opposite directions. It's something Deron needs to fix, no matter how pretty his crossover may be, if he hopes to catch Paul. In 60 years, no player had ever crossed the 50% assist rate threshold with a turnover rate lower than 19.1% (Stockton, '90). Last year- Year 61- Chris Paul posted a 12.1 turnover rate to go with his 52.2 assist rate.
Defense: CP3's defense has been much maligned, not only by fans of opposing teams, but also by myself. I do consider Williams the better defender at this point; his frame and size advantage over Paul enable that. But people that say "Chris Paul only plays one side of the ball" are quite mistaken. By virtue of his steals last year, Paul got 126 defensive stops above the average defender (Williams, by the way, finished exactly league average on steals). Paul also offers a significant increase in defensive rebounding over Williams (12.1 to 8.7). So for Paul to have been even an average defender (let alone a defender so horrible as to cancel out his historic offensive contributions), he would've had to give up an outrageous field goal percentage- think in the 70% range- to his opposition- something the numbers suggest he did not.
Other: Fine, Chris Paul has played his worst basketball against Deron Williams. But if you look it up, DWill hasn't played too well against Chris Paul either. At the end of the day, I'll take the guy that destroys 28 NBA teams over the guy who destroys the guy who destroys the other 28. Every player has his nemesis; CP's just happens to be the guy he's compared with all the time.
I've declined to mention overarching stats like PER, Wins Produced, or Win Shares a single time in this post, if only because I wanted to analyze things on a much subtler level. But I will say this. John Hollinger projects a 20.98 PER for Deron Williams this year (a notable increase from last year). Chris Paul posted a 22.1 PER... as a rookie.