With opening nights rapidly approaching, it’s time to rank the top players at each position going into the 2016-17 season, based on numbers, past performance and just personal preference.
We’re starting with the point guards since they seem to have taken over the NBA and changed the way the game is played:
1. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors: OK, so your last memory may be the struggle to find any kind of form or rhythm in The Finals loss to the Cavaliers. But that had as much to do with lingering fatigue from the record-setting pace of the regular season and then the injury suffered in the first round of the playoffs against the Rockets. It’s reasonable to think that his scoring average will take a bit of hit with Kevin Durant now alongside in the starting lineup. But that doesn’t make Curry any less dangerous to take over a game as a scorer and/or passer on any given night at any given moment. A healthy Steph at 28 is just entering his prime.
2. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder: He’s got the flip side of the Durant coin this season, more opportunities with the ball in his hands to create and more shots. It’s his show now with the Thunder as long as he wants to stay in OKC. His 18 triple-doubles last season beat out Magic Johnson as the best in the 3-point shot era and Westbrook is a legitimate threat to make a run at Oscar Robertson’s triple-double average for the season. Physically overpowering with jaw-dropping gifts that make him worth the price of admission, even if it’s to shake your head at the times when he tries to do too much on his own.
3. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers: The young guns keep climbing up the ladder, but he’s still the quintessential leader with all of the attributes you want in your point guard. He’s looking to set up his teammates first, but can get to the rim, hit the outside shot and do all of the other things to take over a game. A hand injury last spring was the latest setback to make you think he and the Clippers are simply snakebitten in the playoffs. At 31, he should be giving way to the next generation at the position. But his ferocious competitive streak will keep him in the upper echelon for at least a few more seasons and that means LA is in the hunt for one of the top three seeds in the West.
4. Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers: Can a single shot change the trajectory of a player’s career? Irving was already one of the special talents before nailing the clutch clinching 3-pointer in Game 7 against the Warriors. But there were always the questions circling. He was open to criticism through the 2015-16 regular season, then went back to shining with the start of the playoffs. He reached the crescendo with the performance in The Finals, especially with his solid defense against Curry. Putting that ring on his finger on opening night could be the official validation that Irving always needed to become more than just LeBron James' “little brother.” Could be time to really take off.
5. John Wall, Washington Wizards: From a numbers standpoint, 2015-16 was his best pro season, averaging career highs of 19.9 points, 10.2 assists and 4.9 rebounds. But he also coughed up a career-high 4.1 turnovers and was unable to get the underachieving Wizards into the playoffs. Frankly, Walls needs backcourt partner Bradley Beal -- now that he’s got a new, big contract -- to deliver the consistency and benefit from his setup man. He’s a six-time All-Star getting a new start under new coach Scott Brooks. With the size, the handle, the court vision and all of the physical tools, maybe we’re still ranking him this high more on potential than how he’s lifted his team. But it’s just plain difficult to keep him out of the top five.
6. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers: Go ahead, let him run up and down the court with that chip on his shoulder. In fact, the Blazers should see if there’s a way they could sew the chip right into his jersey. The feisty little guard keeps using real and perceived slights to take his game to another level. It was silly that Lillard averaged a career high 25 points per game in 2015-16 and wound up as the odd man out when it came to All-Star honors. He’s merely an unjust victim of of the numbers game in the loaded Western Conference and could keep taking hits if backcourt partner C.J. McCollum raises his numbers this season. He’s simply a gamer. And if keeping him out of our top five is seen as another slight, well, the Blazers will benefit all season long.
7. Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics: The little firecracker seems to have found a comfortable home in Boston playing for coach Brad Stevens and should only thrive this season as a playmaker with Al Horford in the middle of the lineup. Plain and simple, a scorer who will always find a way to put the ball into the basket. But enjoys his teammates and being part of a system. The fun could just be beginning in a big way for the small man as the Celtics keep climbing in the Eastern Conference.
8. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors: It took a handful of years and his third NBA stop to finally find the place where he could thrive. Now the fireplug point guard is as much of the scenery in Toronto as mittens and a scarf in winter. Following a standout regular season and second straight All-Star appearance, his shooting percentage and overall play dropped in the playoffs. But his aggressive, bulldog mentality is a big part coach Dwane Casey’s attack.
9. Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies: How does a guy who has never been named to a single All-Star team suddenly get the richest contract in NBA history? Right time, right place when it came to free agency last July. In short, the most underrated, under-appreciated point guard in the league. He’s spent nine seasons in the shadow of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph in the Grind House and lost in the riches of Western Conference QBs. A solid team leader, who can dish and hit the 3.
10. Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets: Last season was the breakout year that many have been waiting on since he led UConn to the national title. At 26, Walker added a 3-point shot to his repertoire and that seemed to open up everything else. A career-high 20.9 scoring average went with career bests in shooting percentage and 5.2 assists per game. Then the playoffs arrived and Walker lit things up with his performance in the first round series against Miami. The hope is that 2015-16 was just the first step.
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