The NBA has seen teams transition to more positionless basketball in recent years, but point guard has been arguably the most competitive position in the league over the last decade.
Point guards today consist of both traditionally-size players and oversized, unique athletes. Depending on how a team is structured, the point guard doesn’t have to shoulder the playmaking duties as significantly as it has historically. This allows for more diverse offensive schemes, as well as point guards developing other skills aside from ball-handling and passing.
To properly categorize the NBA’s current point guards, let’s place the top-25 in the 2019-2020 season into five tiers, ranging from solid starters to superstars.
Tier 1: Solid
Eric Bledsoe, Mike Conley, Devonte' Graham, Terry Rozier, Collin Sexton
The “Solid” tier represents point guards who are major contributors to their teams, can both score and pass the ball, and are capable of the occasional All-Star-caliber performance. Although above average in terms of standing in the league, this group doesn’t always help their teams’ cap space in comparison to their abilities.
Eric Bledsoe and Terry Rozier all make nearly $20 million per season. Their production is mostly equivalent to their salary, but in a league where getting maximum value out of players who are supposed to aid the team’s star(s) is paramount, the lesser ones may be holding their teams back.
Getting a player of this caliber on a cheaper salary significantly helps a team’s overall strength and roster construction. Devonte’ Graham and Collin Sexton are two players who may be on the lower end of this tier but play above their pay-grade.
Mike Conley is on the least team-friendly deal in Tier 3. He made $32.5 million this year but had perhaps his worst season in a decade. Luckily for Utah, his contract has an “early termination” clause eligible for next season if the team feels he isn’t worth top-dollar.
Tier 2: Good
Malcolm Brogdon, Goron Dragic, De'Aaron Fox, Ja Morant, Derrick Rose, Ricky Rubio, Dennis Schroder, D’Angelo Russell
Tier two highlights point guards who are legitimately important to their teams, but for various reasons have either fallen off from elite status or yet to develop into that type of player. Especially for older players like Goron Dragic, Derrick Rose, and Ricky Rubio, it’s uncertain if they can help put a contending team over the top. Still, they must be accounted for by the opposition and are capable of getting 20-plus points or 10-plus assists on a given night.
Younger players on this list like De’Aaron Fox, Ja Morant and D'Angelo Russell have yet to play on a high-level team, but they show potential to ascend to the next tier. The defensive end of the floor is a big hindrance in their ranking since these three still lack discipline and I.Q. at times on that end. They are, however, extremely young and can quickly turn into two-way players by as early as next season.
Dennis Schroder, although slightly older, fits a similar mold as a strong offensive presence who is iffy on defense. Still, he is maybe on the fairest deal of those not on their rookie contracts as he’ll make $15.5 million next season.
Surprisingly, none of these players have significant team accomplishments in their careers, at least not for extended periods. Rose’s 2011 MVP is the greatest award anyone in this tier has received, but injuries kept him from sustaining that level of play. Aside from him, only Dragic has been an All-Star, and no one has even made the Finals. Someone will eventually earn some accolades or win a title, yet none of these guys have besides Rose.
Tier 3: Stars
Kyle Lowry, Jamal Murray, Chris Paul, Ben Simmons, Kemba Walker, John Wall, Russell Westbrook, Trae Young
This is the most interesting tier. Firstly, there are significant age differences in this group. Chris Paul is 35 years old and still going strong, while Trae Young is 21. It’s cool that today’s point guards can succeed with both youthful exuberance and veteran savvy, which has to do with how the game is refereed today. Older guards can manipulate the referees and pick apart defenses with the pick-and-roll, while athletic youngsters can showcase their talents now more than ever with so much spacing and an emphasis on transition play.
Secondly —or perhaps, unfortunately —, it’s unclear if a franchise can win a championship with any of these players as a No.1 or No.2 option. The younger stars like Ben Simmons, Jamal Murray, and Trae Young still have plenty of time to develop into championship-caliber players. But if you look at the careers of Paul, Russell Westbrook, and John Wall, they’ve all failed in critical playoff games. It’s not all their fault, but if your team is depending on you to lead them to victory, these three haven’t proven they can consistently rise to the occasion.
Kemba Walker hasn’t had an opportunity to do so until this season, although he hasn’t exactly looked like “Cardiac Kemba” in the bubble thus far. You could argue Kyle Lowry broke through last season, but he and Pascal Siakam were more a 2(a) and 2(b) to Kawhi Leonard, so Lowry wasn’t exactly a go-to guy. When he was alongside DeMar DeRozan, the pair failed miserably time and time again.
This group exemplifies the uber-talented crop of guards that flooded the 2010s. Their talent is supreme and most fans love to watch them play. It’s just unfortunate that the older players have playoff shortcomings. Hopefully, the up-and-coming ones learn from the mistakes of their predecessors.
Tier 4: Superstars
Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, Luka Doncic
These are three of the premier point guards in today’s NBA. All three are All-NBA members and All-Stars who’ve compiled individual accolades throughout their careers. They’re tantalizing to watch, truly contribute to winning, and can go toe-to-toe with almost any of basketball’s top players.
Luka Doncic might just be the best of this trio. He proved himself as a true leading man in Dallas’ first-round series against the heavily favored Clippers, helping his team capture two wins and hitting a buzzer-beater in overtime of Game 4. He plays at his own pace and uses angles and body positioning to get wherever he wants on the floor. His passing and rebounding are elite for a point guard. Doncic’s shooting consistency and overall shot selection, however, still need improvement, but he’s already one of the top players in the NBA at just the age of 21.
Damian Lillard ranks second even though he’s enjoyed less playoff success than Kyrie Irving. He’s a scoring machine with limitless shooting range, and although his teams have faltered in the postseason, it’s seldom his fault. Lillard has remained Portland’s No.1 option for several seasons, but his teams simply were never good enough to challenge the Western Conference’s true contenders. Hopefully, the Trail Blazers can give him the right supporting cast before he begins declining. The clock is ticking, and because Lillard is committed to staying in Portland, he may never win a ring with teams like the Lakers and Clippers poised to contend for the next several seasons.
Irving is No.3 in this tier, if nothing else because he’s always injured and was a controversial figure in Boston. His leadership came into question in recent years, but he also sports the peak moment of these three. His game-winning shot in Game 7 of the 2016 Finals is an all-time clutch play in NBA history. Irving has never shied away from big moments and can carry an offense when engaged. He’s just not a true No.1 option like Curry and Lillard are.
All three of these guys are capable of leading playoff teams by themselves, but they each need another star teammate to make their teams truly contenders.
Tier 5: Best Right Now
Stephen Curry is not only the top point guard of his generation but also top-5 all-time at the position. He’s a former back-to-back MVP, a three-time champion and the greatest shooter in NBA history. He almost single-handedly spearheaded the 3-point shooting revolution and led the winningest team in regular-season history when his Warriors won 73 games in 2015-2016. He played just five games this season before suffering a broken hand, but fans are anxiously awaiting both his and teammate Klay Thompson’s return next season.
Some people forgot during Curry’s absence this season just how dominant he is when healthy. There are few players like him who are as dangerous without the ball as they are with it. He’s an unselfish player who’s coachable and adaptable, and while his defense isn’t stellar, he’s a solid team defender and has a knack for accumulating steals.
Hopefully, Curry has several seasons left of playing at a high level. He’s only had a handful of elite years in the league, so a couple more All-NBA-caliber years should cement his legacy as one of the best players ever.