We are in the middle of a golden age of point guards. Even before the remarkable leap forward taken by Chicago’s Derrick Rose, the last half-decade of NBA basketball has been marked by some incredible performances at the point position. Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Steve Nash have led the charge but there have been others. Russell Westbrook has risen to prominence recently, breaking out last season and developing even further for the Thunder this year. There has even been a solid second tier, mostly involving Raymond Felton and Devin Harris when they’ve been healthy, as well as rookie John Wall. Washington’s young point struggled with injuries and his shot but he showed all kinds of intriguing signs. As for Rajon Rondo, his points per game drops him from consideration for my purposes here.
With all of this talent floating around, the question remains: who is the best?
There are many ways to evaluate who is the best at anything in sport. Does best mean the most productive from a statistical point? The most wins? The best balance in terms of game impact? Best two-way player? Best value long-term as a franchise player? The list of questions and criteria is nearly endless and it stirs conversation at every turn.
For example, Steve Nash was far and away the most productive player in terms of assists, averaging 11.4 assists per game (1.1 more than the next-best player, and playing fewer minutes than any of the aforementioned guards except for Devin Harris) and has long been regarded as an absolutely incredible playmaker. He led a fairly unimpressive Phoenix lineup to the 9th ranked offense, a remarkable feat. Deron Williams was the only other double-digit assist producer, authoring a 20/10 season over 65 games and two teams (and averaging almost 13 apg in his dozen games as a Net). From one standpoint, a player’s impact on team offense should be considered a large aspect of his value at the point guard position. This is the traditional value Steve Nash has brought to the Suns, orchestrating their offense to perfection, creating open looks for even highly limited players while controlling the tempo effectively.
But what about someone like Derrick Rose? Widely regarded as the forerunner for the MVP, Rose put together an extremely impressive 25 ppg, 4 rpg, 7.7 apg season on solid efficiency (55% TS). The Bulls were only the 11th-ranked offense, largely winning on the basis of their defense (which was the best in the league) but Rose’s value as a scoring playmaker cannot be denied and his impact on that team as it weathered injuries to Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer (neither of whom played even 60 games) cannot be ignored.
The overall value of players such as Rose, Paul and Williams cannot be denied. Likewise with Steve Nash who, despite lacking any kind of legitimate teammates, nearly took the Suns to a .500 record. What about someone like Russell Westbrook?
Westbrook and Durant led the Thunder to a 55-win record, a division title and the 4th seed in the Western Conference, along with the 5th-ranked offense in the league. He also added nearly 6 ppg to the scoring he average he posted a year ago, improving from 16.1 ppg to 21.9 ppg. He also took a nearly-5% leap forward in scoring efficiency while doing so while maintaining the playmaking that helped the Thunder in the 2010 season, and is building off of the impressive playoff performance he had last season as well. Westbrook has, in a nutshell, firmly thrust his name into the discussion with the others around him, despite several flaws in his game (most notably his perimeter shooting).
So how does one measure whom is the best among such an impressive group?
In the opinion of this humble writer, there is not a single way to adequately decide who the best is in a definitive sense. Each player brings a different set of skills and abilities.
Do you take Rose, who isn’t as good at controlling tempo and distributing the ball as someone like Nash, Deron or Paul but has far and away the best scoring skills? He can cover up for the lack of a significant secondary isolation scorer while still providing very good floor leadership from the point.
Do you take Westbrook, who isn’t as good a scorer as Rose but adds better rebounding and defense while still a 20/8 type player?
What about Steve Nash? Phoenix’s Old Man isn’t as good a defender as the others but his playmaking and shooting abilities are unmatched by any one other player in the league. There are concerns about his minutes played but it’s clear from the impact he had on the Suns this season (while they fielded either Hedo Turkoglu or Vince Carter as a major component of the lineup all year in the absence of a significant frontcourt partner for Nash).
Ultimately, it comes down to team fit; who would be best with a specific roster.
The Chicago Bulls, especially factoring in the injuries to their frontcourt), needed a strong scoring threat, someone to shoulder the load, and while Westbrook and Deron were both 20+ ppg scorers this season, they really don’t have the same kind of scoring chops as does Rose. This seems a little amusing in the wake of what Chris Paul did to the Lakers recently and given that he has a couple of 20+ ppg seasons under his belt already but it’s clear that Paul scores at volume mainly out of necessity as opposed to having the sort of ability that would allow him to do it regularly. Rose is around three inches taller and a lot more physically powerful than Paul, who does his work more with his blinding speed and excellent timing. For the Bulls, it seems that Rose is the best fit.
For the Thunder? Westbrook seems to be the best fit, although I could see Deron Williams doing a little better for them because of his superior shooting ability. Still, Westbrook’s disruptive help defense erodes that gap to some extent, as does his superior rebounding and his considerably greater ability to get to the rim.
It generally seems that each of these players is best suited to his particular team, and that makes sense assuming halfway sensible management. Each of these teams would look a lot different with another of these superb point guards at the helm.
Nevertheless, it is clear that Rose has catapulted himself into the upper tier of point guards with his performance in the 2011 regular season. I would argue that Westbrook has done the same.
Which is superior of that pair and the others? Time will tell, though I believe Rose (operating without the aid of a player such as Kevin Durant alongside of him) is better than Westbrook at this stage. Statistically speaking, Rose has a strong argument over any other point guard besides Chris Paul, and likewise the success of the Bulls (regardless of how much influence their league-leading defense had on that) helps reinforce that he’s doing something right. It’s a down year for Paul, if you can believe it, and the biggest question here is whether or not the difference in volume scoring, which favors Rose, is enough to off-set the difference in shooting and playmaking ability between him and Paul/Deron.
For right now, I think I’d still be inclined to take either of those guys over Derrick Rose, but Chicago’s bright star is making that an increasingly difficult proposition to back up. We’ll see how the playoffs shake out and I’ll keep watching going forward. This much is certain, Rose’s capacity for improvement makes him one of the most compelling young players the league has seen in some time.