NBA Power Rankings: Top 10 Guards in the Western Conference

In NBA terms, when I declare someone as being the best, I’m talking in terms of impact. It isn’t about who has the most skill or who can put up the best player efficiency rating (doesn’t Brook Lopez being fifth take away some credibility to the stat?), it’s about who can do the most for their team. Great players have the ability to make the players around them better and if you’re having a great year statistically, but not helping your supporting cast, you’re either hurting them or they’re incompetent (still not sure where that leaves Monta Ellis, his supporting casts have always been on the fence).

There’s a stark contrast between a traditional point guard and a traditional shooting guard, so comparing them is a tough exercise. James Harden is a 2, but he gets the bulk of the play-making responsibilities for Houston. This means that he does significantly more for an offense than a point guard who’s a secondary scorer and a lead ball handler, like Mike Conley. Comparisons like that are what make lumping the guards together interesting.

I’ll leave the comparisons there before I ruin any of the suspense:

Honorable Mentions

The top eight spots in these rankings are pretty solid, but the last two spots could really go in a number of directions. Jrue Holiday could have a big year in New Orleans, but both he and his team still have a lot to prove (although they’re certainly an intriguing bunch). Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon (my favorite player for no specific reason) could turn some heads in Dallas. I wouldn’t be surprised if Steve Nash had a bounce-back year (if Kobe Bryant allows that to happen). The aforementioned Mike Conley could definitely be on here, but I feel like his role as Memphis’ point guard could be played just as well or better by any of the point guard’s on this list.

For the record (and for all you numbers freaks that haven’t realized that individual defense is unquantifiable), my biggest sleeper at guard in the West is Kevin Martin. He’s back in Rick Adelman’s system, he’s got a great supporting cast and his team will play little to no defense, which will veil his biggest weakness. He might be able to score 22 or 23 a game and turn some heads in the process for what’s going to be an exciting Wolves team.

10. Klay Thompson, SG, Golden State Warriors 

From his first to second year, Klay Thompson jumped from playing 24.4 to 35.8 minutes per game and his scoring jumped from 12.5 to 16.6 points per game. Thompson is an elite jump shooter already at the age of 23 and has shot better than 40 percent from 3-point land in both of his first two NBA seasons. Stephen Curry’s backcourt mate was third in the league in 3-pointers made with 211, trailing only Curry and Ryan Anderson. On draft day, I remember someone comparing the former Cougar to Ray Allen and I scoffed at the remark (mainly because I remembered someone saying on draft night that Jake Tsakalidis closely resembled Shaquille O’Neal and more recently remembered someone saying that DeMar DeRozan was going to be the next Tracy McGrady). Now, it’s pretty clear that Thompson has that kind of potential. He and Curry make up by far the best shooting backcourt in the game and the better the Warriors’ record gets, the higher Thompson climbs on this list.

9. Ricky Rubio, PG, Minnesota Timberwolves

I’d like to preface this by saying if you think this is controversial, wait until you see where I put Kobe Bryant. I love what Minnesota has going on this year and if they stay healthy, there’s no doubt in my mind they will lead the league in points (quite possibly with a number close to 110). If things go right for Minnesota, Rubio is going to be an All-Star. If Rubio, Kevin Love, Martin and Nikola Pekovic can all stay healthy (which is a 30/70 deal if I had to handicap it), Rubio could put up 12 assists per game. Last season, with all the injuries that Minnesota had, Rubio still made an impression on me as one of the most intelligent, creative and accurate passers in the game and that was playing with a lot of guys who will be buried on their bench next year. At this moment, this is definitely a shaky pick, but this guy is a legitimate talent on a team with a great offensive system and scorers who fit nicely into it. I won’t hesitate to go back to this and make fun of myself if Rubio struggles to keep his head about the Mendoza Line for shooters, 35 percent (it’s called the Rubio Line now).

8. Ty Lawson, PG, Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets’ starting point guard has quieted all the critics who said that he was too small, forcing him to drop to No. 18 in the 2009 NBA draft. Lawson is a good 3-point shooter (38 percent for his career), a great passer and an even better ball handler. He works in such a stark contrast to his backup, Andre Miller, and it’s a thing of beauty to see the two run the same system with such different approaches. Unfortunately for Denver, Danilo Gallinari went down a few weeks before the playoffs and the third-seeded Nuggets bowed out of the playoffs in the first round. With the departure of Andre Iguodala and the acquisition of Randy Foye, we might see Lawson do a little more attacking of the basket, which will only strengthen his case for being a top-tier point guard.

7. Damian Lillard, PG, Portland Trail Blazers

The former Weber State standout was given the reins to the Portland Trail Blazers right away last season and he exceeded all expectations. As a rookie–a rookie who was playing in the Big Sky Conference a year earlier no less–Lillard led the league in minutes and put up some impressive numbers. The 2012-13 Rookie of the Year averaged 19 points and 6.5 assists per game, while posting averages of 43 percent from the field, 37 percent from 3-point land and 84 percent from the line. He helped keep the Trail Blazers in the playoff conversation before the team lost their last 13 games of the season (all but three by double digits) and that was with the worst bench in the league (possibly worst bench of the decade). It’s only a matter of time before Lillard enters the likes of the four point guards listed beneath him and the bold prediction I’ve been throwing around is that Lillard will emerge as a better point guard prospect than Kyrie Irving (let’s revisit this in three years).

6. Stephen Curry, PG, Golden State Warriors

There’s something special about Stephen Curry. First, we saw him make an improbable run at the Final Four with Davidson and then last season we saw him lead Golden State to a first-round upset of Denver before putting a legitimate scare into the Spurs. Curry and Thompson are the game’s premier gunslinging tandem and Curry’s ability to shoot the 3 is unparalleled (led the league with 272 3-pointers and had 59 more than Ryan Anderson, who was second). The Golden State’s franchise hinges on Curry’s ability to lead them and with Jarrett Jack gone, Curry will now have to clutch the reins tighter than he did last season. If Golden State has a somewhat disappointing season, it will in all likelihood be because Curry had trouble managing point guard duties and floor general duties or that his ankle is giving him problems again. Golden State has finally pulled their squad out of the doldrums and Curry is the first man to thank for that.

5. Kobe Bryant, SG, Los Angeles Lakers

With the Black Mamba coming off an Achilles injury and returning to an aging, misfit, makeshift core, I think this is the first season we see a noticeable decline from Kobe. I stated earlier this off season that Harden was going to take over the top shooting guard spot in the league and I firmly do believe it. As he ages, I don’t think Bryant will get any easier to play with and there’s absolutely no chance that he can play second fiddle to anyone. With the Lakers likely falling in the standings (projected as 12th by ESPN), the Mike D’Antoni experiment will likely be over before the 2014 free agent class starts being tempted by the wicked witch of the West (don’t do it Paul George). This season will be a year in limbo for the Lakers and even if they do manage to make it back to the playoffs, they have no shot at making a run at a crown.

4. James Harden, SG, Houston Rockets

Last year, Harden emerged as a premier talent in this league and this year, he’ll build on that. I love everything that Harden does on the court. He can shoot from outside with a quick trigger. He can spread the floor with his range, able to shoot off the dribble and in catch-and-shoot situations. He can beat taller defenders with pull-up jumpers and is extremely creative with his runners and fadeaways. He can take the ball all the way to the hole, draw contact and finish through contact. Last year, he was pretty much the only Rocket who could consistently beat his man, which led to a very high scoring average (25.9 points per game) and a high turnover rate (3.8 turnovers per game, tops in the league). I expect Harden to average around 23 points, 2.5 turnovers and seven assists per game (up from 5.8 assists per game last year) next season. Just how great of a year Harden has revolves around what kind of team Houston becomes in the playoffs. With Harden and Dwight Howard combining to make the best inside-outside combination in the West, the Rockets have an outside chance to win the crowded and loaded Western Conference. If Houston can win a playoff series or two, they’ll be the new darlings of the league; young, talented and fun to watch. I have a theory that Howard’s mouth might actually work in his favor while playing alongside Harden, who’s quiet, unassuming and committed to winning. When Howard starts mouthing off about the Rockets being as good as anyone in the league, it’ll be Harden who will have to hit the big shots and carry the team down the stretch, which is something he showed us he can do last season. The sky is the limit for Harden and Howard’s Rockets, but the roster will definitely need some fine tuning if they want to compete for the Western Conference crown.

2A. Russell Westbrook, PG, Oklahoma City Thunder  

2B. Tony Parker, PG, San Antonio Spurs 

It would be an injustice to put one player ahead of the other, so I’ll let them share second place. On one hand, you can say that Parker has rings, a controlled game, a great mid-range jumper, discipline, leadership, a wicked runner and experience. On the other hand, you can say that Westbrook is mind-shatteringly fast, just as explosive as Derrick Rose, a fantastic defender (who can guard two positions), a once-in-a-generation athletic talent, the league’s fifth best scorer last year and who at only 24 years old is still improving. Tough choice, right?

The way I see it, the league’s point guards come in three different models: Tony Parker, Russell Rose and Damian Lillard. Parker is more of a traditional point guard, which means his leadership and cool composure set the tone for the team. He runs the offense, is loyal and subservient to his coach, a fantastic passer who can beat his man seemingly at ease but picks his spots intelligently and a guy who uses his shot to open up his passes (not vice versa). The Spurs’ floor general is a lethal mid-range shooter who has no trouble shooting on the go (I’m a big proprietor of the runner) and rarely shoots the 3, although he’s shown he can if he needs to.

(Others in the “Parker Model” include Ty Lawson, Mike Conley, Kemba Walker, Kyle Lowry )

Westbrook (and Derrick Rose) represents the second model. A few years ago, guys like these didn’t exist, but now they’re popping up all over the place. Westbrook is electricity with the ball. The wick is always lit and he’s the cannonball flying towards the rim. He’s a volume shooter and he scores in bunches. He is a great passer, but utilizes vertical passing lanes as much as horizontal passing lanes, standing at a long and lean 6’3”. He has no problem getting shots up at any moment, using his athleticism and high release point to his advantage, which leads people to start questioning his shot selection when he’s having an off night and praising his shot selection when he’s hitting at a high clip (which is flawed and simple-minded logic). On defense, he can get in your face when he wants to, although he usually just conserves his energy while keeping his man in check, until he needs to up the ante and starts playing the passing lanes and/or hounding the ball handler. Westbrook is the Derrick Rose of the Western Conference, except he has Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka and Rose has Luol Deng, Joakim Noah and Thibodeau’s flawless defensive designs.

(Others in the “Russell/Rose Model” include Kyrie Irving, John Wall, Rajon Rondo and Brandon Jennings)

The Damian Lillard is a combination of the first two models, but he’s a shooter above anything else. Yes, he’s a floor general and yes, he’s a leader, but he’s a gunslinger at heart. You definitely can’t go under the pick-and-roll with him and he uses that to his advantage. He’s not unbelievably quick, but he can beat you with the combination of a quick first step and a tight dribble move. He’s a solid ball handler who can get his team in and out of sets or play a more freelance style of ball. He’s a very good passer, as well as a very good floor spacer, which allows his teammates to indirectly benefit from playing with him. He can convert near the rim and in the mid-range game with a minimalist style, meaning he’s not the flashiest finisher, but he gets the job done. He’s the kind of guy who you watch, are underwhelmed by, but then notice that he scored 22 and dished out seven assists while leading his team to victory.

(Others in the “Damian Lillard Model” include Deron Williams, Stephen Curry, Mo Williams and Luke Ridnour)

The number one guy on this list, is a combination of all three…

1. Chris Paul, PG, Los Angeles Clippers 

Paul is the premier point guard of this current generation of NBA players. He has traditional point guard skills (leader/floor general, elite ball handler and passer, creative and successful shooter), while displaying the flash of electricity (incredibly quick first step, change of pace moves, explosive finishes) while also possessing an incredibly accurate shot (shot 50 percent from the field in the 2008-09 campaign, the same season he averaged a career-high 22.8 points and led the league in assists and steals per game). The Clippers’ point guard can do anything that you ask him to, but his unselfishness and lack of size (6’0” 175 pounds) hold him back from having the impact people like LeBron James and Kevin Durant have on the game. That isn’t to say that Paul doesn’t do as much for his team as those guys do, but those guys control their own fate because of their scoring abilities, while CP3 can only put his teammates in the right spots and hope they come through (meaning that if and when Blake Griffin takes the next step in his progression, so will the Clippers). This summer, the Clippers picked up J.J. Redick, Jared Dudley, Darren Collison, Byron Mullens and new head coach Doc Rivers. Hopefully this is the group that puts them over the edge. Again, Blake Griffin’s maturation (and to a lesser extent DeAndre Jordan’s maturation) will determine whether this team can win the West and we won’t have a better idea about that until we watch the Clips next season. Whether the Clippers turn out to be championship contenders or not, Paul is still the best guard in the West right now.[slider_pro id="31"]

Tags: Chris Paul Damian Lillard Derrick Rose James Harden Klay Thompson Kobe Bryant Ricky Rubio Russell Westbrook Stephen Curry Tony Parker Ty Lawson

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