Tuesday, August 14, 2007
Making The Best Point
"I dish out, like the point guard off your favorite team, without doubt." - Hov, "Dead Presidents"
Coming up in the early-to-mid '90s, also known as the Jordan Era, the basketball world seemed perfect. Every kid dreaming about soaring through the air, hitting fadeaways and dominating through scoring not only had Mike, but Clyde Drexler, Dominique Wilkins, Steve Smith (don't front), Glen Rice, and Mitch Richmond, to name a few. Big men like Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaq, David Robinson, Alonzo Mourning, Mutombo, and Patrick Ewing ran rampant through the league with guys like Chris Webber and Rasheed Wallace coming out of college.
But for little men like myself, it was all about the point guards. The generals. The quarterbacks. Magic was just leaving and Isiah was winding down, but we still had dudes like Jason Kidd, Gary Payton, Tim Hardaway, John Stockton, Kevin Johnson, Mark Jackson, Muggsy Bogues, Mark Price, and Penny Hardaway. Had me feeling like small was the thang to be.
At some point during the beginning of the late 90s, it seemed the most important position in basketball was falling off. Point guards didn't want to be distributors anymore; assist totals plummeted (some of you might remember when being a top assist man in the NBA meant averaging at least over 10 a game); and the overall quality of the game suffered heavily.
(Though he's my favorite player, I blame Allen Iverson for this pg plague. Even in college, he revolutionized the position. Slashing at all opportunities, dunking on big dudes at will, taking advantage of every mismatch no matter what, AI changed the way little men looked at pgs. No longer would they be Stockton-type pick-and-roll distributors who fed the post and hit open jumpers. Iverson triggered this movement. He was never me-first; he was talent-first, and he had more than anybody on the court.)
To me, the recent revolution of the true point guard began with the 2001-02 season. Kidd had just been traded to the Nets for Stephon Marbury, who fell and bumped his head and thought he could have the same impact as a scoring guard as Iverson. Kidd took the same players Marbury couldn't lead to the NBA Finals, coming in 2nd to Tim Duncan in MVP voting (though he really should've won). The Nets made it back to the Finals in 2003, again with Kidd as the playmaking catalyst.
That same season, University of Texas freshman T.J. Ford showed college lead guards how to run NCAA squads, becoming the first pg ever to lead Division I in assists. Ford went on to win NCAA Freshman of the Year in 2002. The next season, Ford won the National Player of the Year award while leading UT to the Final Four.
That season, in 2003, I remember watching "College Gamenight" on ESPN one night and they were discussing T.J. Somebody stepped up and said that he was one of the best pgs in the country, including the NBA. Big statement.
With Steve Nash's recent back-to-back MVP run and the resurgence of the point guard in the college and high school ranks, the art that is the true pg is back and headed in a great direction. So we must now debate.
Who are the best point guards (NBA, amateur) in America?
1. Jason Kidd - In my humble opinion, Jason Kidd is still the best point guard in the world. Two Finals appearances, 5-time assist leader, 2nd player ever to average a triple-double for an entire postseason, 7th all-time in assists. He even holds the NCAA record for assists average for a freshman. The downside to him is that he's been traded twice (though his teams slumped after his departure) and was rumored to be traded again. Also, he's consistently been a horrid shooter from the outside his entire career. But he's still one of the best playmakers ever and one of the top defensive guards of this era.
2. Steve Nash - Of course he's next. Nash has led the league in assists the past three years (which included consecutive MVPs) and was one of the top assist men before that. He's definitely raised his game in his later years in the NBA, a feat rare in little men like him. Nash (like Kidd) can be credited for bringing back the art of passing, seemingly making it cool again. He led the Suns to their best record in 12 years in 2005. The negatives with Steve is that he still hasn't been able to take a loaded Suns team to the Finals and his window is closing rapidly. An almost perfect point guard, his major weakness being horrendous one-on-one defense.
This is where it gets extremely tricky (and controversial). The next two are Chris Paul and Deron Williams. They both have similar numbers (CP: 17 ppg, 8.9 apg; Deron: 16 ppg, 9.3). Do you put Paul ahead of Deron due to lack of established surrounding talent or do you give Deron the nod due to his breakthrough postseason performance?
Blaze says: "Chris Paul because he can create at will and is dominant with the rock. He always finds the right man and is a leader. He needs a better jumper but I would rather have him." Well, then. My boy Frank (from Dallas, by the way, where Deron is from says: "D-Will can do all the things that CP3 can do plus he is more of an all around scorer, can post up and wear down the opposition with his size and strength. Plus he from the crib." Damn hometown bias.
3. Chris Paul - I'm a big fan of both CP3 and D-Will, but this is a question of who I think is better, not who I like more. Skill for skill, Paul is a better creator, better off the dribble, better scorer after two years, and averaged 0.4 less assists than Deron, even though Chris was stuck on considerably less talented squad that was ravaged by injuries his rookie and sophomore seasons. CP3 still managed to lead the Hornets to the brink of the postseason in both years, capturing Rookie of the Year in 2006. His weakness still continues to be his outside shot, which lets teams play off of him in the halfcourt (though he still gets into the lane at will). It also doesn't help that he has yet to play a playoff game, but I'm taking Paul and I'm happy with my decision. A little bit.
4. Deron Williams - It's hard to put D-Will this low, especially after the playoff explosion he had in '07. Deron and CP will be #1 and #2 in the league in a short amount of time, though, in whatever order. Deron came along slowly his rookie year, typical for a Jerry Sloan first-year player, but had the reins mostly taken off in 2006-07. It culminated with him coming in 2nd in assists per game (9.3) to go along with his 16 ppg. He's learned how to master the pick and roll perfectly and his size and strength get him into the lane any time he wants. His outside shot has gotten more consistent, making him a more complete offensive weapon and the perfect pg for Sloan's system. The only knocks on his game are his tendency to sometimes be too passive (as evident by Games 2 and 3 of the GS series last year) and he still hasn't become that dominant off the dribble like Nash and Paul.
5. Baron Davis - BD's gotta be on this list, right? If it weren't for his chronic injuries, he could easily be #2-4 on this list. He delivered one of the best postseason performances in years by almost single-handedly slaying the number 1 seeded Mavs in round one of the playoffs. He's about as dominant a point guard there is today (20 ppg, 8 apg) and is widely considered one of the toughest matchups in the league, regardless of position. Baron has always been a great passer and distributor from his days at UCLA, to Charlotte/New Orleans, to Golden State, his problem has just been staying healthy and toning his game down, as he's been sometimes too erratic and (before last season) not much of a on-court leader.
Outside Of The League:
Now for the dudes that are doing it for free. This is the group that's gonna be responsible for a lot of trade ups in the next couple of drafts.
1. Tywon Lawson - Tywon enters his sophomore season as arguably the best point guard in Division I. Ty had an up-and-down freshman season (mostly up) that ended in an Elite Eight loss to Georgetown which Lawson didn't play so well in. The 5'11 waterbug is uncontrollable off the dribble and in the open court, where coach Roy Williams wants him the most. Tywon should cut down on the turnovers and run the Tar Heel squad (which will be ranked very high again this season) like his predecessor, Raymond Felton did in that '05 title run.
2. Derrick Rose - As the supposed D-Rose lovefest continues. (Note: Let me clear up something, my post the other day comparing Rose to O.J. Mayo was not meant to demean Mayo's skills or purposely catapult Rose far above him, it was meant for me to express my opinion about a debate I have seen taking place for a while now. Yes, I thought Rose was better coming into the post, but that was the aim, to claim he was better and provide the reasons I thought he was better. With that said, I think Mayo is talented as f*ck and will be one of the best players in the nation next year.) Anyway, Rose comes in as the piece that will supposedly push last year's Elite Eight Memphis squad to a long-awaiting national title. He brings unstoppable scoring and uncanny court vision to a team that already likes to get up and down the court for easy baskets. He, like Lawson, should go very high in next year's draft.
3. O.J. Mayo - Mayo comes in with as much hype and flair as any college freshman...ever! He's been a basketball prodigy since the 7th grade and rightfully so. Dude has a silky smooth game and the confidence to go along with it. He might not be the purest of pgs, but he possesses unique passing ability to go along with his size (6'5, 210). He's a proven big-time scorer and the Trojans will need it after losing two of their top scorers from '07 (Gabe Pruitt, Nick Young). The city of Los Angeles needs more sports stars, and O.J. will definitely fit the bill playing at Southern Cal next year (like Rose, most likely his only year).
4. Darren Collison - The man that will be facing Mayo (in what looks to be a very entertaining UCLA-USC rivalry) comes in at number 4. Collison is the quintessential solid college point guard. He defends extremely well, distributes the ball evenly, hits a fair amount of shots when open, doesn't do too much and not too little, and he wins games. He's played in back-to-back Final Fours (he was Jordan Farmer's backup in '06) and has been the steady leadership the Bruins needs. He doesn't do anything flashy, unless lockdown defense is flashy to you. Collison doesn't provide much of creativity off the dribble, but he'll be sure to find new UCLA recruit Kevin Love pretty easily.
5. Brandon Jennings - Mr. Jennings is a 2008 product out of Los Angeles with as much creativity and flashy in his thumb as almost any guard walking. He committed to Lute Olsen's Arizona Wildcats earlier this year and has a legitimate chance to be one of the best pgs ever to play in the desert (which is saying a ton). Jennings has been tearing up AAU tournaments since last year and is the lead guard of the mighty Oak Hill powerhouse. He still makes too many unnecessary flashy plays and desperately needs to get stronger, but he's 17 and already on his way to greatness.
Yep, the true point guard is back. Let's just hope the great play of the NBA returns with it.