Since the NBA’s decision to outlaw the hand checking that predominated the backcourts in the Jordan years and just after he retired (the second time), the league is now point guard dominant. If you take into account LeBron‘s role on Cleveland and Miami as a point forward, Kobe‘s role as the Lakers’ offensive focal point at the top of the key, point guards have won seven of the last eight MVP awards (obviously Steve Nash and Derrick Rose are the other, more traditional points that have won the league’s top regular season honor). Thankfully for the purposes of this list, off guards and point forwards like James and Kobe aren’t included, but it’s a testament to how important they are that offensive instigators have been at the top of the voting for the league’s highest individual award.
Teams increasingly rely on the point guard if they want to have any chance of competing for a title. If you look at the top teams around the league, they all have something in common: a great point guard (sorry Knicks fans). Defenders are no longer allowed to bully the man they’re guarding with a hand on the thigh, keeping them in front as they’re trying to get the team into an offensive set, and a more free-wheeling offensive league means point guards are in high demand; witness Deron Williams‘ highly-coveted services this offseason even after shooting close to 40 percent from the floor last year in the Nets’ final season in New Jersey.
Because point guard is – arguably – the most important position in the league right now, you’ll forgive us for stating this list is a better translation for team success than any other position featured, and that’s ignoring the fact we’ve asked this important question before. Point guards are that important. With the exception of the aforementioned Williams, the entirety of our top five consists of players whose teams advanced past the first round of the playoffs last year, and Williams new, just over the Hudson and East River, Brooklyn Nets team could join that group this year. If you want to win a title, and don’t have the luxury of a LeBron, you better have a top-flight point guard.
Just as we did last season, we’ll be going position by position this week, giving you the best players at each spot heading into the NBA’s regular season. Stay tuned for the SGs, SGs, PFs and Cs. For now, here are the 20 best point guards in the league today…
*starts the year injured and on the bench.
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20. GEORGE HILL, Indiana Pacers
Ahh yes, the man that replaced Darren Collison in Indiana last season (Collison, truth be told, just missed out on this list), George Hill played his way onto Indiana’s starting lineup last season, but he broke into the NBA consciousness, like Collison, during the ’09-10 season with the Spurs. In their first round playoff series against Dallas that year, he averaged 22.6 points a night, and helped them advance in six games. If he continues to mature as a point guard, and plays as well as he did in the first round against Orlando last year (outplaying Jameer Nelson in five out of six games in the process), his 5-year, $40 million contract signed this offseason could be a bargain. Or it could be an awful investment; it’s tough to see what he can do when he hasn’t really played as a team’s starting point guard for a full 82-game season.
19. JAMEER NELSON, Orlando Magic
Don’t tell Dwight Howard, but the former St. Joseph’s standout isn’t such a bad point guard. Maybe he’s not worth the $25 million deal (over three years) he signed in July, but he’s been an All-Star, he’s been a part of one Finals team and two teams that went deep into the playoffs. He’ll also consistently provide a rebuilding Magic team with 15 points and 6-7 assists a night. Hopefully his final game against Indiana last year, where he dropped 27 points, is a prescient look towards this season, where they’ll need all he can provide as they attempt to rebuild after the Dwightmare finally ended.
18. JEREMY LIN, Houston Rockets
This is tricky. After this year, Lin could drop a bunch of spots or he could rise a lot further. So far in the preseason, he’s been shooting horribly (7-for-28 in 99 minutes of action over four games as of this writing), but it’s preseason after all. He’s still making less money than Devin Harris, and Harris may not even be starting with Jeff Teague playing so well last year in Atlanta. Hopefully for Houston fans, Lin picks up his shooting and runs McHale‘s offense like he did when he took New York (and the world) by storm last season. And look at it this way, when has James Dolan been right about anything? I wouldn’t bet against Lin playing up to the level we saw when the Knicks went on their win streak, and I already miss having him in New York.
17. MIKE CONLEY JR., Memphis Grizzlies
The lefty point for Memphis used to just be known as that guy who played with Oden at OSU. With Oden out of the league these days, Conley’s finally coming into his own on another dangerous Memphis team. With, fingers crossed, a full year of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, Conley should see an uptick in his assist numbers. Since O.J. Mayo went to Dallas, he’ll be the primary outside shooter when teams collapse on Gasol/Randolph. Look for another productive year and increases in all offensive categories. The Grizz will need it if they’re going to compete in a loaded Western Conference.
16. STEPHEN CURRY, Golden State Warriors
The ankles are a problem, but the black hole that was Monta Ellis in the other guard spot means Curry will finally be allowed to control the ball full-time. His defense is questionable as is his size (most opposing guards are stronger), but his shot and playmaking ability are top shelf (even though this ranking has him at the middle point of the league’s starting point guards). He could very well make the leap this year, or re-injure another ankle. Time will tell.