One of the most enthralling experiences in sports is watching a point guard in full control of the game — Jason Kidd pointing teammates to spots on the floor, Magic Johnson throwing behind the back passes across the floor, and Tony Parker shuffling in and out of screens.
From Bob Cousy to Isiah Thomas to Chris Paul and Steph Curry, the position has evolved and evolved, but the through line is that the best point guards establish their team’s style of play. Tiny Archibald, Mark Jackson, Mark Price and Russell Westbrook — Their games couldn’t be more different, but they’re all fantastic point guards.
Matt Zemek and I have been ranking positions all week, and this position was, in my opinion, the most challenging to work out. The sport of basketball has changed in myriad of ways since the 1950s, and point guard — more so than the wing, forward or center spots — has shifted at every turn of the league.
Taking skills, teams, eras and accomplishments into account, here’s what we came up with.
JOE MANGANIELLO (@thatjoemags)
5 – STEPH CURRY
The reigning MVP and NBA champion has a whole lot of career left. John Stockton, Kidd, Payton, Cousy — There is a laundry list of retired players who have done more. But a strange thing happened this year: “Curry is the greatest shooter ever” is officially a thing.
Whenever you see the greatest at something, you know it right away. I’m not sure I ever heard a guitar before hearing Jimi Hendrix play the National Anthem. One doesn’t need to be a tennis aficionado to appreciate what Rafael Nadal does on clay. Watch Robert De Niro and bask in his glory.
We knew seven years ago. Basketball is a sport where one team attempts to score more points than the other. Curry is a prodigious, miraculous, balancing act who could probably squeeze a hockey puck through a crack window if you gave him enough tries. In addition to being a marksman on the hardwood — he’s shot at least 42 percent on no less than 7.7 3PA/game the past three seasons — Curry can hang with professional golfers. I’m sure if his moral compass was off center, Curry could be a million-dollar sniper.
Curry is currently rewriting the offensive record book with an avalanche of 3s on insanity clips. But he also quarterbacks the world’s best team, and averaged 8.5 and 7.9 assists the last two seasons. It was never a question of if Stephen Curry was the greatest shooter ever, but when the evidence would pile too high to say otherwise. A Larry O’Brien Trophy confirms it, and his mastery of the modern point guard position suggests he might rise even higher on this list before it’s all said and done.
4 – CHRIS PAUL
I’ve written a lot about Chris Paul here and here. Anybody whose face is puffy because I left Stockton off my Top 5 should rest easy knowing Paul grabbed the baton from Stockton — ala Larry Bird and LeBron James — a long time ago.
3 – OSCAR ROBERTSON
Watching what Russell Westbrook was asked to do in Oklahoma City this past year evoked the name of Oscar Robertson and his first 10 seasons in Cincinnati.
Westbrook, 2014-’15: 28.1 points, 7.3 rebounds, 8.6 assists, 8.1 for 9.8 FTA (83.5 percent)
Robertson, 1960-’71: 29.3 points, 10.5 rebounds, 8.3 assists, 8.8 for 10.5 FTA (83.7 percent)
There’s a positional ambiguity with Robertson — he wasn’t a point guard for the Royals as much as he was their entire offense. In a 14-team or less league, having Robertson in his prime alone was enough to guarantee a playoff berth, but without help he’d never win a championship. It’s why Westbrook and Kevin Durant are so captivating together: they’d still be stars apart, but there best chance to win a title is with each other.
Robertson learned on Lew Alcindor to finally win a championship. But Robertson’s legacy transcends his “Mr. Triple-Double” moniker. His physicality and athleticism changed the way teams could use the point guard position. Can you imagine him in this pick-and-roll era?
2 – ISIAH THOMAS
The best player on an iconic team, and a 2-time champion smack dab between the Magic/Bird wars and Michael Jordan’s reign, Thomas was the real deal. The Pistons overachieved during Thomas’ younger years: Detroit pushed Boston to six games in the 1985 second round, a year where Thomas averaged 21.2 points and 13.9 assists. And it was Thomas’ embrace of the secrets of basketball that united Chuck Daly’s stacked Bad Boys roster in 1989 and 1990.
1 – MAGIC JOHNSON
I’ll let Matt splurge on this all-time great.
MATT ZEMEK (@mzemek )
Life is not fair, and it hasn’t been for most NBA franchises, because they’ve had to cope with the Boston Celtics (especially in the late 1950s and early 1960s) or the Los Angeles Lakers (especially in the 1980s). In many ways, the story of the five best NBA point guards of all time is a story of players who either led those great Celtic and Laker teams… or who broke through when Boston and Los Angeles saw their dynastic runs come to an end.
5 – BOB COUSY
Red Auerbach is one of a handful of America’s greatest basketball coaches (that’s not anything you didn’t know already, in advance of our Sunday piece on the five best NBA head coaches of all time). What could be his greatest legacy — though it’s certainly up for debate — is that he cultivated two extensions of himself on the floor, two players who essentially coached the Boston Celtics at their highest point as a franchise.
Bill Russell and Bob Cousy came by their basketball IQ quite naturally, but they did have Auerbach to shape their skills into the NBA’s most dominant team — not just of the late 1950s and 1960s, but of all time, in terms of being able to maintain superiority. Not the Jordan Bulls or the Magic-and-Kareem Lakers reigned over the whole of the NBA as long as the Auerbach Celtics did. Cousy was there for most of it, and Russell carried the team through the rest of it.
That the Celtics were so integrated as a team speaks to how well these two nerve centers — Cousy in the backcourt, Russell in the frontcourt — knitted together everyone (and everything) else.
Life isn’t fair, especially not to the Utah Jazz, Seattle Sonics, New Jersey Nets, and Dallas Mavericks: John Stockton, Gary Payton, and Jason Kidd do not make the cut as top-5 point guards. Maybe we could save that No. 5 shooting guard spot for Stockton, but that would bend the rules.
4 – ISIAH THOMAS
No words, just this:
3 – JERRY WEST
The Logo, slotted as a 2-guard by many (his style of play really was more consistent with a 2-guard), is nevertheless officially listed as a point guard. Gail Goodrich technically filled the shooting guard position on the late-1960s and early-1970s Los Angeles Lakers.
Joe Manganiello and I have been discussing great NBA players all week. Here’s what Joe had to say about Jerry West in our best shooting guards piece, published Thursday.
My one comment about West: Just imagine what he could have done in an NBA with a three-point line. The trey was put in place at the start of the 1979-1980 season, after West retired.
2 – OSCAR ROBERTSON
The Big O was stuck in Cincinnati with the Royals, which works against him and yet is a reality he could not control. Had he played for the Lakers in the 1960s, we might be sitting here anointing him as the best point guard and player of all time. As it is, he is still one of the 10 best players ever. I feel safe in making that assertion.
Do the younger fans and students of basketball in the crowd realize how video-game absurd Oscar Robertson was? If you round up to the nearest whole number (he posted a number of 9.5 to 9.9 figures for multiple stats), Robertson AVERAGED a triple-double in EACH of the first FOUR seasons of his career. That’s LeBron-level stuff. The Big O also averaged at least 43.8 minutes per game in seven seasons, six of them consecutively.
He was a horse, and in Cincinnati, he had to be. Imagine what he could have done with “only” 38 to 40 minutes per game, a deeper roster during his prime, and all the physical freshness that would have given him for playoff runs.
Robertson was a comparatively tall and physical point guard, someone who set the table for the next man on this list:
1 – MAGIC JOHNSON
Magic Johnson’s physical attributes — which enabled him to do THIS as a rookie when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar couldn’t play — were always evident. From the start, the NBA realized he could do things as a point guard that predecessors other than Oscar Robertson (and perhaps a few additional exceptions) simply weren’t capable of.
The court vision, the eyes in the back of his head, the sixth sense of how the game moved and flowed — Magic possessed untaught gifts in abundance.
What’s important to note about Magic is that he entered the league with a deficient jump shot, and still didn’t hit jumpers as well as he needed to. Magic knew, entering the 1984-’85 season, that he’d have to be better.
He made himself better.
Magic also knew, entering that same 1984-’85 season, that he had choked in the 1984 NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics. No player’s reputation was more squarely on the line in the 1985 campaign and its NBA Finals than the Magic man. The orchestrator of Showtime, for all his charm and flash and flair, developed a steel interior of competitive toughness that season. Kareem helped him to learn how to compete, but Magic had to find that strength within.
Though associated with glitz and glamor in so many ways, Magic was a competitor and achiever of tremendous substance. James Worthy won Game 7 of the 1988 NBA Finals, and Kareem was the trusty anchor in the paint, but Magic was the central engine behind the Lakers’ successful repeat quest, the primary reason the Lake Show became the first team and franchise to repeat as champions since the 1968 and 1969 Boston Celtics.
It’s that part of Magic Johnson — not the skill or the sizzle, but the will of the competitor and the soul of a man driven to improve, despite all the wealth and fame he already accumulated in 1984 — which makes him the best point guard ever.