December 1, 2014

SHATZMAN | Who’s the Best Point Guard?

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The point guard position has transitioned through phases over the years. The point guard has always been the quarterback on the court, making plays to free teammates for open shots, and in turn, piling up assists. In the modern NBA, though, the position has bred several Oscar Robertson-esque scoring threats: dynamic shooters like Stephen Curry, who cannot be left open for a millisecond or a three will be buried, and athletic freaks like Russell Westbrook, who can get to the rim from anywhere on the court. Today the point guard is often both the leading scorer and the leading assist-man on the roster.

So then, who is the top point guard in the league today? There is certainly no consensus number one, but the top tier includes Curry and Westbrook, along with Chris Paul. Young studs like John Wall, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard are in the conversation, but, being a few years younger than the first tier, are just a season or two behind.

Let’s take a look at Steph Curry. Curry, as said before, just doesn’t miss shots. He is shooting nearly 50 percent from the field and almost the same from beyond the arc. And he is as unselfish as any in the league. Frankly, Steve Kerr would be content with any Stephen Curry field goal attempt, but Curry is more than adept at passing the rock, and with shooters like Klay Thompson up-and-down the Warriors roster, Curry is a perfect fit in Oakland. When the double team comes, nine times out of 10 Stephen Curry will make the right play. Curry is one of the most dynamic players in the league today — not just at his position — and he will make a run for MVP.

Then there is Russell Westbrook. Playing alongside the reigning MVP, Westbrook’s career with the Thunder has been overshadowed by Kevin Durant’s stardom. There was a time last season when I argued with friends that Westbrook was a more dynamic player than K.D. And although I came to my senses as the season progressed, I am still tempted to make the same claim this season. I know Durant is Durant, but have you seen Westbrook play? It looked as though Westbrook would have a chance to lead the Thunder by himself when K.D. went down early in the season, but just a couple games later, so too did Wesbrook land on the injury report. He returned on Friday night versus the Knicks, though, and did, eh, fine: 32 points, seven boards and eight dimes —in 24 minutes. NBA games are 48 minutes. Since leaving UCLA in 2008, Westbrook has improved as much as any player in the league. His freakish athleticism led the then-Seattle Supersonics to select him fourth overall in the draft after a solid, but not eye-popping, sophomore season at UCLA. His jumper was a huge question mark when he entered the NBA, but today Russell Westbrook’s jumper is a staple of his game. His ability to attack and finish at the rim is second-to-none, but his ability to drain mid-range shots, and outside shots, too, has transformed him into a nightmare matchup. He simply does it all. He needs the Spurs to not be the Spurs anymore, but even with them, alongside Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Thunder will contend for a title each and every season.

And finally, Christopher Paul. For Curry, it’s his shot that makes him a nightmare. For Westbrook, it’s his athleticism. But Chris Paul is just a natural, classic, smooth, fluid point guard. CP3 is special because, although he probably classifies as a pass-first guard, his scoring ability is totally underrated. The guy can score whenever he wants, but his knack for finding open teammates is uncanny and often overshadows his sweet jumper and driving ability. Paul is a point guard in the purest sense of the position. Like the Nash’s, the Magic’s, and so on, Chris Paul controls the basketball game. With Chris Paul, it’s his natural ability at the position that can hide the skills that are so evident when watching Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook. The fluidity with which he plays can make him appear slow, in a way, but he’s one of the quickest in the league. His passing wizardry can make him appear to have a weak jump shot, but then he drains a three at the end of the shot clock and you remember. When the Clippers need a bucket to close out a game, the ball is in Chris Paul’s hands, because he knows what to do with it.

There are a lot of talented point guards in the NBA. I needn’t list them all. To be a starting point guard in the association, you must be really, really good. But while many are really, really good, there is only one Steph Curry, one Russell Westbrook and one Chris Paul. Each one of them is special.