Top Point Guards Vol. 3
Rankings and lists are two of the worst things about sports media; we, as fans, have this burning desire to put everything in order and determine how good something is relative to other things. We can’t just accept greatness; we have to figure out just how great it is. I am certainly guilty of this over the past couple weeks. I’m here to atone for my mistake; though it may be more of a copout than an act of decency. The more I studied the point guards in my top six, the more difficult it became to put them in order. I was finally able to pick the top two but the players three through six are in such unique situations relative to each other, that it is hard to quantify their respective greatness and determine who is better than who. So, forgive me, the next four players are not in order; the last two however are who I believe to be the first and second best point guards in the league, which will be in the next volume.
Kyrie Irving’s path to the NBA and his first few years in the league, have been filled with injury, cockiness, and brilliance. He played only nine games, due to ligament damage in his big right toe at Duke, but did enough in those games and workouts to make the Cleveland Cavaliers draft him with the first overall pick in 2011. He won the Rookie of the Year Award in 2012 averaging 18.5 PPG, 5.4 APG, 3.7 RPG while shooting 47% from the field and 40% from three. Apparently, he was feeling great about himself coming off the season because he challenged Kobe to a 1-on-1; we’ve all seen the footage. Sadly, he broke his hand slapping it against a wall at practice just a few days after, a surprisingly immature move for a player whose shown nothing but poise thus far in his career. With the injuries, it’s hard to fully grasp how good he is or can be. His numbers are good and he’s pretty much unguardable one-on-one. We haven’t seen what he and Anderson Varejao can do in the pick and roll for a whole season, and the more Dion Waiters develops the easier it will become for Irving to control the offense. I think that is the last step in his progression, he already has the scoring and the vision, but the ability to manipulate defenses and consistently impose his team’s offense will come with more experience. Where he really stands out, though, is in the clutch; according to 82games.com, Irving averaged 53.8 points at 58 eFG% in crunch time (4th quarter or overtime, 5 minutes or less, game within five points). With the game on the line, he’s been great; the shots against Oklahoma City are particularly special.
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Irving has all the tools to be the best point guard in the league by 2015, I fully expect him to realize his potential.
Even though he was awarded perhaps the most undeserved MVP in history, you can’t discount how much Derrick Rose means to the Bulls. Their offense without him is pathetic, which really makes what he’s done in his career even more impressive. They don’t have a particularly creative system; most of the time it’s a pick and roll with Boozer/Noah and Rose creates from there. His performance carrying the Bulls to the 2011 ECF was masterful; until he ran into the Miami Heat defense. In that series he failed to shoot of 46% in any game and averaged nearly four turnovers a game. That series, however, was more of an indictment of the Bulls offense than of Rose. It showed that Rose can’t do it all in the playoffs; when defenses clamp down, offenses need more than just a go-to player. Unfortunately we never got to see him in the 2012and 2013 playoffs. I am eager to see how Thibodeau and Rose will run the offense upon his return. Offensive issues aside though, Rose is as explosive a player as we have in the league; his athleticism is up there with Lebron James, Russell Westbrook, and Blake Griffin. His defense needs work, both 1-on-1 and within the team system; in the 2011-12 season, Bulls’ opponents had an offensive rating of 100.0 with him on the floor, and a rating of 96.9 with him off. That is a significant difference that really matters late in games. Obviously, the Bulls need him on the floor in crunch time, but he needs to improve on that end to really have complete effectiveness. This was all pre-injury, we don’t know if he will be the same player and it’s probably safe to say that he’ll have to change his game, but to what extent is to be seen.
Rajon Rondo is one of the two top six point guards on my list with a championship ring, although it came five seasons ago. He’s averaged over 11 assists for three years in a row, which is even more striking considering he can’t shoot and really only plays from the free throw line down. His passing highlights are probably the most exciting of anyone in the NBA, but aside from the highlights he is the best at creating angles for passes of the players in my top six,. The only problem for him, as Grantland’s Bill Simmons loves to point out, is that sometimes he doesn’t seem interested. When it’s a big game, he usually comes up huge (see: Game Two 2012 ECF; Game Seven 2012 EC Semis). His tendency to check out can be frustrating, but his ceiling is remarkable. No stage is too big for him; in fact he relishes matchups with Lebron, Kobe, and such. Last season, he was on pace to match his career high in scoring and average over 11 assists. This year will be a different story, as the Celtics unloaded in order to rebuild. Tanking is clearly an option for them this season, but it is unjust to waste a year of Rondo’s prime. As a Rondo fan, I hope they go full tank mode and trade Rondo to a playoff team, giving us another year of playoff-Rondo.
Russell Westbrook as my number three is my most ambitious pick and, naturally, the one that will catch me some flak. Allow me to explain: His numbers are right on par with the last three players discussed, he’s gone farther in the playoffs than Irving and Rose, and has consistently had the best PER of the four for three straight seasons. Defensively, he and Rondo are both better than Rose and Irving; as Westbrook gains more experience, his lapses on team defense should decrease. This rank is as much about how good I think he will be as how good he has been. Yes, he takes bad shots. Yes, he can be turnover prone. But we saw in the 2013 playoffs, after his injury, just how important he is to the Thunder. Their offense is basically Westbrook creates or Durant gets hot. Westbrook puts enormous pressure on the defense and takes just as much pressure off of Durant. Yet people criticize his play late in games and claim he takes away from Durant. Durant can become passive at the end of games so he feels the need to takeover; sometimes the results are great, sometimes they are not so great. He means as much to Durant as Durant means to him. I think people forget how young he is when they criticize him. He’s had to learn on the fly while taking his team to the finals and maintaining the Thunder as a top-three offense for two straight seasons. As his maturity and shot selection improve, he’ll become even more dominant. NBA beware.