04 May 2010
PHOENIX -- Let the debate begin. It's been quite a postseason for point guards, and Monday night might have been the best moment yet. Rajon Rondo started things off with 19 assists in three quarters to lead Boston's surprise demolition of Cleveland, and Steve Nash followed up with a 33-point, 10-assist masterpiece as Phoenix knocked off San Antonio while Nash's Spurs counterpart Tony Parker (26 points off the bench) was no slouch, either. Tuesday, it continues, as two more All-Stars -- Orlando's Jameer Nelson and Utah's Deron Williams -- get their turn with the conch. Both players were magnificent in the first round of the playoffs, with Nelson blowing up for 23.8 points per game in Orlando's four-game sweep of Charlotte and Williams averaging 24 ppg in Utah's six-game vanquishing of Denver. All of which makes the debate over the game's top point guard more heated than ever. Chris Paul of New Orleans, the standard-bearer at the position the past three seasons, once again led point guards in player efficiency rating (PER) at 23.74 -- but he played only 45 games and was markedly less effective once he returned from knee and ankle injuries. At the very least, his health has thrown the question wide open again; at worst, he might not be capable of regaining the throne. Fortunately, we aren't lacking for candidates to take over. In addition to the players above, up-and-comers such as Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook, Chicago's Derrick Rose, Milwaukee's Brandon Jennings, Golden State's Stephen Curry, and (if you consider him a point guard) Sacramento's Tyreke Evans figure to muscle their way into the argument in coming seasons. Nonetheless, one can't help noticing that most of the main contenders are still playing. Five of the eight point guards to post a PER better than 19 in either of the past two seasons are still active in the playoffs -- Nash, Williams, Rondo, Parker and Nelson. (The other three, for the curious, are Paul, Denver's Chauncey Billups and New Jersey's Devin Harris.) [+] EnlargeTony Parker Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireSlowed by injuries this season, TP is starting to heat up for the Spurs. Let's start with Nelson and Parker because they were much better in 2008-09, when each could have put up a much stronger argument for the title of the league's best. Nonetheless, each might be hitting his stride at the right time. Parker operated as San Antonio's sixth man in the first round after a thumb injury and bout with plantar fasciitis limited his usual burst in the regular season, but he once again confounded Phoenix's defense with his quickness off the dribble. So effective was Parker that he played 36 minutes, started the second half and might start at the point for the rest of the series. Still, it's a far cry from his performance of a year ago, when he was the Spurs' go-to offensive performer and averaged a career-high 22 ppg on 50.6 percent shooting, which is why he's fifth on the list of point guards still active in the playoffs. Up next is Nelson, who has a similar problem to Parker -- great numbers last season but, thanks to injuries, middling results this season. He steadily improved in the second half of the season, shooting 50 percent from the field and 51.4 percent on 3-pointers in April. He has kept up that progress in the playoffs, where he ranks second behind LeBron James in postseason PER after riddling Charlotte for 95 points on just 62 shots -- while committing only five turnovers in four games. Nonetheless, Nelson can't compare with the top three on this list, not after a regular season in which he barely surpassed the league average in PER. This is where the competition really heats up. Let's start with Rondo, the best defender of the bunch and one who's not so shabby offensively despite his poor outside shot. Although Rondo's 19-assist shredding of Cleveland on Monday was obviously a bit of an outlier, he's no stranger to impressive triple-crown stats: Rondo averaged 13.7 points, 9.8 assists and 4.3 boards in the regular season while arguably surpassing each of Boston's Big Three with his broad-based contributions. He's been even better in the postseason -- for a third straight year. Remember, it was Rondo's dominant Game 6 that fueled Boston's title-clinching rout of the Lakers in the 2008 Finals. Last year, he nearly averaged a triple-double in 14 postseason games, finishing with a line of 16.9 points, 9.8 assists and 9.7 rebounds per game in 14 games and adding 2.5 steals a game. This year, he has redoubled his efforts. In addition to last night's effort, Rondo scored 27 points and added 12 assists in Boston's Game 1 defeat in Cleveland, and he is averaging 16.3 points and 11.7 dimes in the playoffs. Factor in his impressive defense and you could make a case for Rondo as the league's top point guard. [+] EnlargeRajon Rondo Dave Miller/US PresswireRondo has stepped up his play for the C's in the playoffs yet again. That case breaks down, though, when you compare his shooting ability with that of his two Western Conference counterparts -- that's why Nash and Williams averaged more than 20 points per 40 minutes this year while Rondo netted only 15. Williams put together another rock-solid regular season with averages of 18.7 points and 10.5 assists and has the Jazz in the second round of the playoffs for the third time in four seasons. Following that up, he's been so good in the postseason that a consensus is building that he has supplanted Paul as the game's top point guard. Williams certainly has a case versus Paul, simply because he's been on the court so much more this season and appears to have a brighter future, given his combination of health and size. Additionally, he's first in the "point guards not named Chris Paul" category in PER over the past three seasons. But that takes us to the biggest oddity of the entire point guard debate: Williams versus Nash. Williams barely outranks Nash in the PER category in the past three seasons, even though Nash spent two-thirds of a season mired in a half-court system that was destroying his stats. In fact, if you compare Nash today with the Nash of five years ago, the similarities are remarkable: His points, assists, shooting percentages and turnovers are almost exactly the same. So is his PER, and, more importantly, so are the results -- the Suns again were the league's top team in offensive efficiency, this time by an even wider margin than usual, and they're once again 50-something-game winners pushing to make a deep playoff run. Half a decade ago, that sort of performance earned Nash not one but two MVP awards. Somehow, the consensus has shifted to the point that Monday night on TNT, Charles Barkley left Nash off his list of the league's top three point guards. This is crazy -- Nash has barely changed. We've moved on, looking for whatever was "next," but Nash has just kept on chugging out ridiculously efficient offensive seasons, and he's still doing it at age 36. So if Paul supplanted Nash as the league's top point guard when CP3 put together his MVP runner-up season in 2007-08, and we're now looking to fill the title again as a result of Paul's injury-plagued season, shouldn't our top contender be the guy who previously held the title belt? And if so, isn't there a strong argument to pull the lever for Nash? He led the "point guards not named Chris Paul" category in PER this season, and he would have done so last season if you included only the part of the season when Alvin Gentry coached the team. Alas, I can't quite go there. I'd take Williams, and I'd take him for two reasons. First, he's a much better defensive player. Nash takes an unreasonable amount of criticism for his defense, but he is vulnerable to dribble penetration by quick guards. Williams is a bit more stout on this front and is big enough to check wing players in switches. Second, and more importantly, Williams is more durable. Remember, quantity can be just as important as quality. Although he has suffered some injuries, he has played in all but 24 games in his first five seasons, and his minutes don't need to be managed the way Nash's do. This is critical when it comes to the postseason, especially -- for instance, in the 2010 playoffs, Williams averages nearly seven minutes a game more than Nash. That difference is so large that Nash would have to outplay Williams by quite a bit on a per-minute basis to be the more valuable player overall. I don't think Nash has done that. So although it's really close, I'll take Williams by a whisker. So right now, my list of the top point guards in the league looks like this: 1. Williams 2. Nash 3. (Keeping it warm for Paul) 4. Rondo 5. Billups Honorable mention: Rose, Westbrook, Parker, Nelson. That might not be your list, and that's part of the fun. Nash, Williams and Rondo have renewed the debate over the league's top point guard, a matter that had been settled as long as Paul was healthy. And we might find ourselves changing our minds several times in the next two weeks as we watch those three light up the second round. We might even get the occasional urge to move Parker and Nelson higher up the list, as well. This is a rarity, actually. Usually by now, the playoffs have been reduced to dominating big men and electric wing players -- rarely do we see elite teams feature a point guard as their primary weapon. This time, we have three teams with point guards as the primary weapon, plus another two teams with point guards playing major roles. Regardless of your preference among these elite point guards, be sure to enjoy the show. It might be a while before you get an encore.
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