October 27, 2010

Steve Nash and the point guard rankings

Steve Nash was the point guard of record during the first decade of the 21st century. With the Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns, Nash led the most efficient, most fun and fastest-paced offenses in the league. He engineered fast breaks and pick-and-rolls. He shot 3-pointers in transition and assisted on 3-pointers in transition. He created open shots and dunks for Dirk Nowitzki, Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion. He led three-guard lineups with Michael Finley and Nick Van Exel and Joe Johnson and Quentin Richardson.

Nash was a beautiful player to watch, a master of every type of pass — chest, bounce, skip, outlet, alley-oop, no-look, behind-the-back. He made the right pass, the most efficient pass every time. He was all substance and style. Nash didn’t change the game. He changed it back — to a better time, the Showtime 1980s, when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird ruled the league.

This is where Nash’s teams ranked in Offensive Efficiency, the number of points a team scores per 100 possessions, during his 10-year prime. The first four seasons are with the Mavericks, the following six with the Suns:

2000-01 | fourth
2001-02 | first
2002-03 | first
2003-04 | first
2004-05 | first
2005-06 | first
2006-07 | first
2007-08 | first
2008-09 | first
2009-10 | first

Mavericks coach Don Nelson and Suns coach Mike D’Antoni had the right point guard to run their fast-paced teams. Jack McCallum’s Seven Seconds or Less — his book about the 2005-06 Suns — was so titled, because that was the length of D’Antoni’s ideal possession.

This is where Nash’s teams ranked in Pace Factor, the number of possessions a team uses per game:

2000-01 | fourth
2001-02 | fourth
2002-03 | seventh
2003-04 | second
2004-05 | first
2005-06 | first
2006-07 | third
2007-08 | fourth
2008-09 | fourth
2009-10 | fourth

Nash is also one of the best shooters of all time. He shot 51.8 percent from 2-point range, 42.8 percent from 3-point range [ninth all-time] and 90.4 percent from the free throw line [first].

This is where Nash ranked in True Shooting Percentage, a measure of shooting efficiency that takes into account field goals, 3-point field goals and free throws:

2000-01 | third
2001-02 | fifth
2002-03 | (not in the top 10)
2003-04 | sixth
2004-05 | eighth
2005-06 | first
2006-07 | first
2007-08 | third
2008-09 | eighth
2009-10 | fourth

Nash is among the top 10 point guards of all time. He won two MVP awards. He led the league in assists five times, and he is third all-time with 10,335 assists. He led his teams to eighth consecutive 50-win seasons. But Nash never played in the NBA Finals, partly because of injuries and suspensions to his teammates.

Nowitzki sprained his right knee in Game 3 of the 2003 Western Conference Finals and missed the rest of the series, which the Spurs won in six games. Johnson fractured a bone near his left eye during Game 2 of the 2005 conference semifinals. The Suns beat the Mavericks, but they lost to the Spurs in the following round, with Johnson missing the first two games. Stoudemire missed all of the 2005-06 season after knee surgery, and the Suns lost to the Mavericks in conference finals. The following season, Spurs forward Robert Horry hip-checked Nash into the scorer’s table in Game 4 of the conference semifinals. Stoudemire and Boris Diaw were suspended one game for leaving the “bench area” during the ensuing scuffle. The Suns lost Game 5 and the series.

Nash is 40 years old. He is out for the season — his third with the Lakers — with a back injury. His delicate back has kept him prone on his stomach for most of the past decade while taking his second and early fourth quarter rests.

NOWITZKI: I was proud to be his teammate.

LEBRON JAMES: I wish I could have been a teammate of his.

Nash leaves the game during a Golden Age of point guards, and ranking them is a tightrope balancing act. Chris Paul is an easy pick for the top spot. Then things get complicated. There is almost no difference between Kyrie Irving [fourth], Kyle Lowry [10th] and all points in between. In fact, I think I had Lowry fourth during a previous draft. These rankings are not a definitive answer, but they are my answer:

1. Chris Paul [Clippers] 19.1 points, 4.3 rebounds, 10.7 assists, 46.7 2-point shooting, 36.8 3-point shooting, 85.5 free throw shooting, 2.5 steals, 25.9 PER. Age [29] Paul has never played in the conference finals. That will change this season.

Strengths | everything
Weaknesses | none

2. Russell Westbrook [Thunder] 21.8 points, 4.5 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 48.2 2-point shooting, 31.8 3-point shooting, 82.6 free throw shooting, 24.7 PER in 46 games. Age [26] Over the past five seasons, Westbrook has played only 9 percent of his minutes without Kevin Durant, who will miss the first 15 to 20 games with a broken bone in his right foot. Oklahoma City was 34-12 [.739] last season with Westbrook and 25-11 [.694] without him.

Strength | motor
Weaknesses | 3-point shooting, right knee

3. Stephen Curry [Warriors] 24.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 8.5 assists, 50.9 2-point shooting, 42.4 3-point shooting, 88.5 free throw shooting, 24.1 PER. Age [25] Curry said he is a better offensive player than LeBron James. He’s not wrong. He is certainly the best shooter in the league.

Strength | offense
Weakness | defense

4. Kyrie Irving [Cavaliers] 20.8 points, 3.6 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 45.8 2-point shooting, 35.8 3-point shooting, 86.1 free throw shooting, 20.1 PER. Age [22] Defenses will focus on LeBron and Kevin Love. Irving will benefit.

Strengths | teammates, potential
Weakness | playoff experience

5. Tony Parker [Spurs] 16.7 points, 2.3 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 50.9 2-point shooting, 37.3 3-point shooting, 81.1 free throw shooting, 18.9 PER in 29.4 minutes. Age [32] Parker signed a three-year, $43.3 million contract extension in the offseason. Backup Patty Mills [18.7 PER] is a great shooter.

Strength | experience
Weaknesses | none

6. Damian Lillard [Trail Blazers] 20.7 points, 3.5 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 44.7 2-point shooting, 39.4 3-point shooting, 87.1 free throw shooting, 18.6 PER. Age [24] Lillard made a record 403 3-pointers during his first two seasons.

Strengths | shooting, potential
Weakness | expectations

7. John Wall [Wizards] 19.1 points, 4.0 rebounds, 8.7 assists, 45.8 2-point shooting, 35.1 3-point shooting, 80.5 free throw shooting, 19.5 PER. Age [24] Wall led the Wizards to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since Gilbert Arenas.

Strengths | speed, potential
Weakness | shooting

8. Goran Dragic [Suns] 20.3 points, 3.2 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 54.2 2-point shooting, 40.8 3-point shooting, 76.0 free throw shooting, 21.4 PER. Age [28] Phoenix coach Jeff Hornacek uses Dragic and Eric Bledsoe [19.6 PER in 43 games] almost interchangeably. Isaiah Thomas [20.5 PER], acquired from the Kings in the offseason, will win the Sixth Man Award. By the end of season, the trio could be better than the Suns three-man backcourt of Hornacek, Kevin Johnson and Dan Majerle in the early 1990s.

Strengths | shooting, passing
Weakness | defense

9. Mike Conley [Grizzlies] 17.2 points, 2.9 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 48.4 2-point shooting, 36.1 3-point shooting, 81.5 free throw shooting, 20.0 PER. Age [27] Entering his eighth season, Conley has improved every year.

Strengths | defense, consistency
Weakness | rebounding

10. Kyle Lowry [Raptors] 17.9 points, 4.7 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 46.0 2-point shooting, 38.0 3-point shooting, 81.3 free throw shooting, 20.1 PER. Age [28] Lowry signed a four-year, $48 million contract in the offseason — the spoils of a career year.

Strengths | everything
Weaknesses | consistency

[unrated] Derrick Rose [Bulls] He won the MVP award in 2010-11, then played 39 games the next season, zero the next and 10 last season, because of injuries to both knees. Age [26] Rose averaged just 4.8 points on 25.4 percent shooting in 17.1 minutes in the FIBA World Cup, but he has been good in the preseason. Maybe he should rank higher. Or lower. Projection | 41 games

Strengths | TBD
Weakness | knees

12. Ty Lawson [Nuggets] 17.6 points, 3.5 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 45.5 2-point shooting, 35.6 3-point shooting, 79.8 free throw shooting, 19.0 PER. Age [27] No UNC point guard has ever made an All-Star team.

Strength | decision making
Weaknesses | defense, teammates

13. Deron Williams [Nets] 14.3 points, 2.6 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 50.0 2-point shooting, 36.6 3-point shooting, 80.1 free throw shooting, 17.6 PER. Age [30] Williams is now in decline, just like his backcourt teammate Joe Johnson.

Strength | decision making
Weakness | ankles

14. Jeff Teague [Hawks] 16.5 points, 2.6 rebounds, 6.7 assists, 46.9 2-point shooting, 32.9 3-point shooting, 84.6 free throw shooting, 17.1 PER. Age [26] He got better last season under first-year coach Mike Budenholzer.

Strength | quickness
Weakness | 3-point shooting

15. Kemba Walker [Hornets] 17.7 points, 4.2 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 41.7 2-point shooting, 33.3 3-point shooting, 83.7 free throw shooting, 16.8 PER. Age [24] He needs to get easier shots.

Strength | step back jumper
Weakness | shooting

16. Rajon Rondo [Celtics] 11.7 points, 5.5 rebounds, 9.8 assists, 44.2 2-point shooting, 28.9 3-point shooting, 62.7 free throw shooting, 15.3 PER in 30 games. Age [28] Rondo has missed 96 over the past two seasons. He broke a bone in his left hand in September, but he says there’s a “79 percent” chance that he will play in Wednesday’s opener. He cares more about assists than winning, and he is a strange presence off the court. The Celtics want to trade him, but I don’t see why a contending team would want him. Projection | 50 games

Strength | passing
Weaknesses | health, head, shooting

17. Ricky Rubio [Timberwolves] 9.5 points, 4.2 rebounds, 8.6 assists, 39.3 2-point shooting, 33.1 3-point shooting, 80.2 free throw shooting, 2.3 steals, 15.4 PER. Age [24] Rubio is fun to watch, but he is not an above average player.

Strengths | passing, defense
Weaknesses | layups, scoring

18. Jose Calderon [Knicks] 11.4 points, 2.4 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 46.4 2-point shooting, 44.9 3-point shooting, 82.5 free throw shooting, 15.2 PER. Age [33] He is a liability on defense, but a clear upgrade over fat Raymond Felton.

Strengths | shooting, decision making
Weaknesses | age, defense

19. Jrue Holiday [Pelicans] 14.3 points, 4.2 rebounds, 7.9 assists, 45.9 2-point shooting, 39.0 3-point shooting, 81.0 free throw shooting, 17.1 PER in 34 games. Age [24] Holiday went to high school in North Hollywood, Calif.

Strength | shooting
Weakness | defense

20. Michael Carter-Williams [76ers] 16.7 points, 6.2 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 44.0 2-point shooting, 26.4 3-point shooting, 70.3 free throw shooting, 15.5 PER. Age [23] He was named Rookie of the Year last season. Recent point guards who have received the honor have fared well — Lillard, Irving, Rose and Paul. He is expected to return from shoulder surgery next week.

Strength | rebounding
Weaknesses | shooting, teammates

21. George Hill [Pacers] 10.3 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 49.7 2-point shooting, 36.5 3-point shooting, 80.7 free throw shooting, 13.4 PER. Age [28] Hill is expected to miss the first three weeks of the season with a knee contusion.

Strength | defense
Weakness | Paul George is out for the season.

22. Brandon Jennings [Pistons] 15.5 points, 3.1 rebounds, 7.6 assists, 39.7 2-point shooting, 33.7 3-point shooting, 75.1 free throw shooting, 15.6 PER. Age [25] Jennings is like Stephon Marbury without the talent.

Strength | Stan Van Gundy
Weaknesses | head, shooting

23. Jeremy Lin [Lakers] 12.5 points, 2.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 49.2 2-point shooting, 35.8 3-point shooting, 82.3 free throw shooting, 14.3 PER. Age [26] It was hard to tell how good he was last season with the Rockets, because James Harden dominated the ball. Kobe Bryant will do the same this season.

Strength | playmaking
Weaknesses | defense, teammates

24. Darren Collison [Kings] 11.4 points, 2.4 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 50.1 2-point shooting, 37.6 3-point shooting, 85.7 free throw shooting, 16.2 PER. Age [27] The Kings downgraded at point guard, trading Isaiah Thomas, because DeMarcus Cousins didn’t want to play with him.

Strength | decision making
Weakness | potential

25. Brandon Knight [Bucks] 17.9 points, 3.5 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 46.6 2-point shooting, 32.5 3-point shooting, 80.2 free throw shooting, 16.5 PER. Age [23] He was good last season and should improve with former point guard Jason Kidd as his coach.

Strength | free-throw shooting
Weakness | 3-point shooting

26. Patrick Beverley [Rockets] 10.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 47.3 2-point shooting, 36.1 3-point shooting, 81.4 free throw shooting, 12.4 PER in 56 games. Age [26] He’s a much better defender than Lin.

Strength | defense
Weakness | offense

27. Mario Chalmers [Heat] 9.8 points, 2.9 rebounds, 4.9 assists, 50.0 2-point shooting, 38.5 3-point shooting, 74.2 free throw shooting, 14.0 PER. Age [28] Unfortunately, Chalmers will have more responsibility with LeBron gone.

Strength | teammates
Weakness | decision making

28. Jameer Nelson [Mavericks] 12.1 points, 3.4 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 44.4 2-point shooting, 34.8 3-point shooting, 85.7 free throw shooting, 13.9 PER. Age [32] A Nelson-Devin Harris platoon could work, but there isn’t much upside. Raymond Felton stinks.

Strength | experience
Weakness | age, 3-point shooting

29. Trey Burke [Jazz] 12.8 points, 3.0 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 41.0 2-point shooting, 33.0 3-point shooting, 90.3 free throw shooting, 12.6 PER. Age [22] He wasn’t good, but most 21-year-old rookies on bad teams aren’t.

Strength | free throw shooting
Weakness | field goal shooting

30. Elfrid Payton [Magic] 19.2 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 54.1 2-point shooting, 25.9 3-point shooting, 60.9 free throw shooting, 25.2 PER at Louisiana-Lafayette. Age [21] Payton joins a 23-win team without much hope.

Strength | rebounding
Weaknesses | experience, free throw shooting, teammates

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