At this point in the NBA season, teams have finally played at least half of their games (41 games). It is also right around this time when teams have already matched up with the other 29 teams. This means real “data” from the season starts becoming more significant, and the SSS (small sample size) reason becomes less and less valid.
It’s the right time to take a step back and talk about who are having the best seasons.
Now, I have a strong affinity to point guards, particularly those pass first point guards because:
1.) I think passing is a fascinating part of the game of basketball that incorporates synergy and chemistry all together. It’s both an underrated and overrated part of basketball, if that makes sense.
2.) I can relate to their heights (I’m just 5′ 8″) and share in their battle among the trees that are big men.
3.) There’s something soothing about seeing a ball screen action.
So with that out of the way, let’s talk about the top 10 NBA point guards.
In order to answer this question better, we need to ask: what defines a PG? A point guard is usually defined by one thing — their ability to lead a team. Whether it’s through their scoring or the much more traditional passing, a point guard should be able to direct his team into the right spots offensively. Of course, this is aside from his individual production.
Now for this evaluation, I’d primarily give 3 key stats: Net Offensive Rating, DRAPM and Intangibles.
Net Offensive Rating is basically how much does a player contribute offensively compared to league average. We calculate this simply by using Dean Oliver‘s Individual Offensive Rating, subtract it with the league average ORTG, and then multiply it with the total possessions that player uses. This way, we can answer “how much is this certain player contributing to the offense?”. This idea was made known to me by a colleague of mine. I’ll get most of the ORTGs and the other pertinent numbers on Basketball Reference.
DRAPM or Defensive Regularized Adjusted Plus/Minus (whew, that was a mouthful) is basically your typical plus/minus but it’s adjusted for the players that you play with and the opponents you played against. It’s a stronger brother of plus/minus and aims to capture all the “little things a box score can’t capture” because you only care about the result. J. Engelmann has done some work on this website about RAPM.
Lastly, I’ll assign an “intangible” number (from 0-10) on each of the top 10 PGs so people can see what I think about their leadership quality. Let’s begin!
1.) Chris Paul (Net Off Rating: 2.81, DRAPM: +0.69, Intangibles: 10)
Was there any question who the top PG in the NBA is now? As someone who followed every game of Chris Paul up until he got traded to the Clippers, take it from me: the guy is a difference maker. Him and Lebron, KD are the only three players than can have such a huge impact on both sides of the floor.
In order to understand Chris Paul you first need to understand what he is — he is a 6′ 0″ PG that is an efficient scorer and passer, takes care of the ball and eats your heart out on defense. Chris Paul alone pushed the Clippers into title contention. He’s a vulture that waits patiently until your team dies and then that’s the time he comes to eat. He feasts on the opponents’ mistakes because of his rare ability to take a stranglehold of a game. He’s a surgeon that slowly dissects your team’s defensive schemes. One wrong move and it’s all over for your team.
Yes, that’s how good Chris Paul is — he’s a legitimate difference maker on offense and defense. For the record, he leads the league in RAPM at +7.8 (where his ORAPM is +7.1). That’s how good Chris Paul is. Words can’t really describe how good he is on offense (even at a such a diminutive size) and on defense. As a Hornets fan, I hate that he’s playing for another team and he’s building a culture in LAC that I didn’t see him do in NOLA. But as a basketball fan and a lifelong fan of his work, I’m extremely happy that his Clippers are now a legitimate title contender because of him.
2.) Tony Parker (Net Off Rating: 1.89, DRAPM: +0.9, Intangibles 9)
A very unsexy pick for the 2nd best PG in the league. He’s not physically imposing by any stretch. He’s also not a dribbling wizard. What he is though is fast and crafty with his body and angles. Watch Tony Parker play and see how he uses the ball screen to get to the paint. It’s simple basketball really but Parker has been able to use it with such deadly precision — despite not having a consistent 3 PT shot — that he has carried the Spurs offense for much of this season. According to Synergy Sports LLC, Parker ranks 13th in the league as a PnR ball handler where he shoots a ridiculous 50.3%.
He uses his quickness to burst by the big on hedges/traps and attack the rim or kick out to an open shooter. Of course, when teams decide to go under the screen or if the bigs sag a little bit, Parker can just pull up from 18 feet. This is one of the most surprising things about how teams defend Tony Parker — for the past several years, Parker has been a decent jump shooter from 18-23 feet (according to Hoopdata). Of course, you’d rather have Parker pulling up for jumpers than completely tearing your defense apart from the inside where Parker has routinely ranked among the best finishers in the league despite standing 6′ 3″. This is where his craftiness and use of angles comes in. Parker is a master of using the board as additional protection. Whether he’s making a regular layup, a reverse layup with the other hand (example, a layup on the left side on the court using the right hand) or a reverse layup with the strong hand (a layup on the right side of the court using the right hand but coming from the left baseline), Parker always uses the board on his layups because he understands that once it hits the board, shot blockers can no longer touch it (since it’s already counted as a field goal attempt). Add all that up and what you get is a smart, attacking PG.
For the record, Tony is 52% from the field. 52%. As a 6’2″ player playing in a 6’6″ above league. Yeah, he’s good.
3.) Russell Westbrook (Net Off Rating: 1.11, DRAPM: -1.3, Intangibles 8)
While Parker is a smart and calm player, Russell Westbrook is an angry and athletic player. The physical advantage he has over his counter parts is so huge it’s unfair. He’s a bulldog, his body control is uncanny, his first step is lightning, his change of pace is breath taking, his top speed is one of the fastest in the league. This has allowed him to get to the rim whenever he pleases (first step, change of pace and top speed) where he uses his bulldog nature and body control to finish over defenders and/or get to the FT line. According to Hoopdata, Russell Westbrook ranks 8th in FG% at the rim. He currently ranks 7th in the league in terms of FTA and is among the top 30 in terms of FTA/FGA and this is with him taking the 3rd most FGA in the league. However, a huge improvement that you can see from Westbrook is his play making ability. He was able to not only increase his assists% to 40.7% (5th in the league) but he was also able to lower his TOV% to 13.8% — a more acceptable number.
That’s not even counting the fact that he gets 1.9 steals per game. His DRAPM isn’t pretty (-1.3) but that’s largely offset by his huge ORAPM (+4.4).
He still shoots too much for my liking, but he’s an attacking point guard to the core and he will make your team pay for not taking him into account in a scouting report.
4.) Stephen Curry (Net Off Rating: 1.44, DRAPM:+1.3, Intangibles 8)
Nobody combines 3PT shooting and volume as a PG better than this guy. He’s not called “baby-faced assassin” for nothing. He won’t wow you with his quickness (he’s not quicker than the average PG) nor will he wow you with his strength (he’s not stronger than than the average PG). But as a shooter?? This guy is among the best of the best. Check this out. It’s a list of all the volume shooters this league has ever seen. See who’s ranked 3rd? Yep. It’s Stephen Curry.
This kid takes more 16-30 feet shots than anybody in the league. According to Hoopdata, he takes approximately 5.1 attempts from 16-23 feet and 7.1 3PT attempts while being assisted on just 27.8% and 59.5%, respectively. The guy is a jump shooter, through and through. The only guy who could compare to Curry’s long range volume attempts is Kobe Bryant — and he takes 6 more attempts than Curry.
He’s also a very smart off ball player – beautifully using screens and pindowns to free himself up for jumpers or occasional drives to the rim. He’s also quite deadly on corner 3s — a spot on the floor that has a positive correlation with offensive efficiency. According to NBA.com, Curry has made 24-43 of his corner 3 attempts, good for 56%. This has allowed Mark Jackson to play Steph Curry off the ball (alongside another playmaker in Jarrett Jack) and allow David Lee to operate more efficiently on the high/low post because Steph Curry spaces the floor so well for him. Of course, he isn’t just a shooter but he’s a playmaking shooter — one who averages 6.5 assists per game.
Lastly, Curry’s defensive acumen is somewhat of an unknown. On one hand, he’s not particularly a good isolation player — he allows 1.02 PPP, ranking him in the lower half of the league. But Golden State has ranked as a top half defensive team (12th) for much of the season. It’s also well publicized how Golden State’s defensive schemes requires so much work from their guards, since their front court rotation doesn’t exactly scream “good defenders. Thus, Curry’s DRAPM of 1.3 holds SOME weight to it. And despite not being a good isolation player, Curry knows how to disrupt ball handlers where he uses his quick hands to strip the ball to the tune of 1.6 steals/game.
5.) Mike Conley (Net Offensive Rating: +0.5, DRAPM: +1, Intangibles 10)
I know, I know. You are surprised that he’s 5th on this list when there are other more sexier picks like Rajon Rondo, Jrue Holiday, Deron Williams and Kyrie Irving (who I love, by the way). But there’s more to Conley than meets the eye.
If you look at Conley’s advanced statistics, nothing jumps out of the page — ORTG differential (with respect to league average) of just +3.7 (for comparison, CP3 is at +20.7, Parker is at +10.7, Curry is at +7.7, Westbrook is at +4.7). His USG% rate is just a shade under 20% and his TS% and eFG% are barely above average. But what makes Conley such an integral part of Memphis and my vote as the 5th best PG this season is his intangibles both on offense and on defense.
As it stands, Memphis is the 2nd best defensive team in the league. Integral to that defense is Marc Gasol clogging the lane and Tony Allen and Mike Conley wreaking havoc on the perimeter. His 2.5 steals/game ranks 2nd in the entire league (to Chris Paul’s 2.6). Also, according to Synergy Sports, Conley ranks as the 23rd best isolation defender in the league allowing just 0.57 points per possession. If you aren’t convinced that Mike Conley is a difference maker, maybe this will convince you.
|Chris Paul (overall)||13.1||47%|
|Chris Paul (w/ Conley on the court)||10.1||44%|
|Russell Westbrook (overall)||18.7||42%|
|Russell Westbrook (w/ Conley on the court)||17.5||29%|
|Tony Parker (overall)||16.7||52%|
|Tony Parker (w/ Conley on the court)||15||56%|
|Stephen Curry (overall)||15.7||44%|
|Stephen Curry (w/ Conley on the court)||16.7||39%|
With the exception of Parker, all of the players ranked above Conley played worse than their season averages when Conley was on the court. In fact, go ahead and scroll over to the other known scoring PGs: Deron Williams, Kyrie Irving, Jrue Holiday, Jeff Teague, George Hill, Damian Lillard — more often than not they played worse than their season averages.
That’s not even counting the fact that Memphis’ entire offensive system collapses without him on the court. The Grizzlies offense is built around Marc Gasol — high post, low post and ball screens. And when Memphis executes a simple pick-and-roll between Conley and Gasol that is immediately followed by a high-low pass from Gasol to ZBo, Conley’s speed and ability to turn the corner is important. It allows Memphis to take advantage of Gasol’s superior passing and ZBo’s big body. Without him running the show, Memphis has been in shambles. According to NBA.com, Memphis is 11.2 points better with Conley on the court than off and overall Conley’s on/off court contributions, according to NBA.com is 11.5 (11.2 points better on O, 0.3 points better on D).
The league isn’t just about offense. Sometimes, even the defensive PGs should be ranked among the game’s elite. This is true for someone like Conley — who’s been integral to the Grizzlies.
The next 5 will just be a summary instead of a detailed explanation of why.
6.) Kyrie Irving (Net Off Rating:+0.79, DRAPM: -1.6, Intangibles: 7)
Cleveland’s offense would be in such rut if Kyrie Irving wasn’t there. I’ve talked about Kyrie extensively in my previous article. To sum it up: Kyrie Irving is awesome.
7.) Deron Williams (Net Off Rating:+1.32, DRAPM: -3.4, Intangibles: 8)
It’s been such a long time since Deron was considered “elite”. He was not his usual self to start the year but since turning the calendar, he’s been dynamite (ORTG of 124). He’s a difference maker on offense when he’s clicking but he’s a liability on defense. He needs to maintain his blistering start to the new year if he wants to break into the top 5.
8.) Rajon Rondo (Net Off Rating: -0.33, DRAPM: +1, Intangibles 10)
Rondo isn’t a particularly efficient offensive fellow (evidenced by his net Off Rating of -0.33) but his effect on the team is felt far and wide. Plus, Boston was never really a good offensive team — they’re a defensive team. And Rondo (and of course, KG) is a big reason why Boston is able to hold water despite having one of the worse offenses in the league.
9.) George Hill (Net Off Rating: +0.64, DRAPM: 0, Intangibles 7)
He’s held the PG spot in Indiana steady and is one of the reasons why Indiana is among the top teams in the East. He doesn’t have as much touches as the 8 PGs above him in this list, but he’s efficient when he does (ORTG of 110), and he’s a defensive ball hawk (According to Synergy Sports, he allows just 0.68 PPP good for 57th in the league).
10.) Jrue Holiday (Net Off Rating: -0.44, DRAPM: +1, Intangibles 9)
Looking at his offensive rating, he’s hasn’t been anything special (Net Off Rating of -.44) and his team is currently floundering (they are 3-7 in their past 10 games) both offensively (28th worst) and defensively (19th worst). But if you take away his huge turnover tally (with a TOV% of 18% while playing a lot of minutes), he’s been a good (but not efficient) scorer for Philadelphia that badly needs someone to take the reins. Plus, he’s been a great defender.
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