Welcome to Five-by-Five! Every Thursday, I will be ranking the top five NBA players at each position, starting with point guards. Known as the 1, the point guard is vital to their team's success, initiating plays and controlling the pace of play. Having an elite point guard is one of the key ingredients of a well-oiled and playoff-ready offense. Let's dive into the five best point guards with the 2021-22 season just over a month away.
Honorable Mentions (10-6): Ben Simmons, De'Aaron Fox, Russell Westbrook, Ja Morant, Trae Young
5. Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns
Paul came this close to winning his first ring last year, but he and the Suns could not stop Giannis Antetokounmpo from terrorizing the paint. He’ll try to run it back in his second season in Phoenix with Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, but there’s a good chance that last year was his best shot at winning it all. At 36 years old, Paul is still one of the best floor generals and can carry his team to victory in late-game situations. His elbow jumper is as lethal as ever, and his 3-point percentage of 39.5 last year was his highest since the 2016-17 season.
The main caveat in his pursuit of another Finals run would be injuries. Paul’s accomplishing amazing things for his age, but a time will come when his body begins to betray him. There’s no telling whether it’ll be this season or in four years, so it’s important to appreciate the tough-nosed Paul for everything he’s achieved in his 16 years in the NBA.
4. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
It pains me to have Doncic at fourth, but this comes with the knowledge that he’ll top this list within the next three seasons. The players ahead of him are established megastars with 33 combined years of NBA experience. If anything, this is a testament to how brilliant he is at just 22 years old. Doncic is averaging 25.7 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 7.7 assists per game over his career.
Watch a few minutes of a Mavs game and the first thing that stands out is how smooth and easy the game looks for Doncic. He made his professional debut at just 16 years old for Real Madrid, so by the time Dallas drafted him, the Slovenian played like a grown man in his own right. Doncic is on a trajectory of stardom akin to Michael Jordan and LeBron James. His scoring efficiency—one of his few weaknesses—should only improve as he continues to gain a nuanced understanding of NBA defenses. Basketball fans will look back on Doncic when it’s all said and done as one of the greatest to ever do it.
3. James Harden, Brooklyn Nets
“You’re the point guard, and I’m going to play shooting guard,” Kyrie Irving told Harden last February. If The Beard played enough games last year to qualify, he would’ve been second in the league with 10.8 assists per game. That was his kryptonite—and Brooklyn’s Big Three, for that matter. He just couldn’t stay healthy, mostly due to a serious hamstring strain that cost him roughly five weeks. As a result, it seems that many people have forgotten how dangerous Harden is when fully healthy.
This is the man that averaged 33.6 points over three seasons, including a nuclear 2018-19 season with 36.1 points per game. Harden can put points up blisteringly fast, in large part due to his patented stepback move behind the arc. When he isn’t heaving from deep, he has a deep bag of tricks around the rim, including a nasty floater and a penchant for drawing fouls. The Nets want Point Harden, the player that puts up double-digit assists and complements the isolation-heavy styles of Irving and Kevin Durant. But if they need points in a hurry, look no further than the biggest beard in the league.
2. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
One of the best active players without a ring, Lillard’s patience with Portland is impressive. They’ve persistently failed to make impactful moves—both in free agency and the draft—and Lillard has never made a Finals appearance because of it. It’s crushing to watch one of the league’s most likeable and talented players hit game-winner after game-winner, just to fall short every postseason. Behind Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, “Dame Time” will end his career as one of the best clutch time performers in NBA history.
Last year, among players with at least 50 games played and 30 minutes per game, Lillard’s offensive rating of 119.6 was fourth in the league. His free throw percentage of 92.8 was second behind Chris Paul, and his assist percentage of 34.6 was tenth. Lillard is one of the most well-rounded offensive players the NBA has today, and it would be a shame to see him leave Portland without a championship to his name.
1. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
The man, the chef, the legend. His generation-defining shooting prowess needs no introduction. Coming off a career-high 32.0 points per game in his 12th season, there’s no doubt that Curry is the league’s best point guard. It took him 21.7 field goal attempts per game (also career-high) to reach the league-leading figure—a reflection of the Warriors’ dependence on his offense. His usage rate of 34.8 percent was third in the NBA behind Luka Doncic and Joel Embiid. Despite his nuclear performance throughout the season, Golden State could only claw their way to the eighth seed in the West.
Looking forward, Curry should fortunately have more help in the 2021-22 season. The season-defining moment will be the return of Klay Thompson, who hasn’t seen NBA action since June of 2019. He may never be the same on defense, but he’s considered one of the best shooters of all time for a reason. His smooth touch will immediately take some of the offensive load off of Curry’s shoulders. Golden State also had a busy offseason by their standards, signing seasoned veterans (Nemanja Bjelica, Otto Porter Jr.) and drafting pro-ready rookies (Jonathan Kuminga, Moses Moody)—all of whom should help Curry pursue his fourth championship ring.