Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Sportsline: Young Point Guards Conducting Sweet Symphonies

By Tim Povtak

Point guards are like orchestra conductors. Even the great ones can't fully shine without the right people around them, but they sure make things run a lot more smoothly.

There may have been two average point guards starting in the NBA Finals last summer, but the best ones still led their teams to outstanding seasons.

Four of the top five points orchestrated their teams to at least 54 victories during the regular season. The only one who didn't win big was the enigmatic and often-injured Gilbert Arenas.

If you were starting an expansion team today, most general managers would make young center Dwight Howard, 22, their first pick. The second, though, would be young Chris Paul, 23, the No. 1 point guard in the league.

Here are the top 20 point guards in the NBA:

1. Chris Paul, New Orleans: Because he is on the short side, there was criticism originally when the Hornets took the 6-foot Paul with the fourth pick of the 2005 draft. How foolish that was. Remember Isiah Thomas? There is only praise now for the best point in the league. More than anyone, Paul is the reason the Hornets have gone from a mediocre team to a contending team.

2. Steve Nash, Phoenix: The two-time MVP may just be starting his downside, but there still is no other point guard in the league who can set up his teammates like he does. Despite the bad hair and weak defense, he makes up for it in leadership and the ability to run an offense.

3. Gilbert Arenas, Washington: Yes, he's an oddball at times, but he sure is fun to be around. His unpredictability is endearing, unless you are trying to coach him or play with him, and your future is tied to him. Another knee surgery this summer has everyone concerned, but if he returns healthy, he can lead the league in scoring because no one really can slow him.

4. Deron Williams, Utah: Taken one spot ahead of Paul in that 2005 draft, mainly because he was bigger. Although he may never score as much as Paul, he is a better defender and also distributes the ball well. Both were excellent picks, and both have potential to be point guards with great teams.

5. Tony Parker, San Antonio: It sure is easier to be a great point guard if you have a dominating player like Tim Duncan in the frontcourt. It makes Parker look even quicker than he is and more able to get where he wants on the floor. He is cool under pressure, which helped to make him so appealing to his high-profile wife.

6. Baron Davis, Los Angeles Clippers: Took the money and scooted out of Golden State so fast that his own head was spinning. The move assured that he'll finish as one of those big-number players who never was on a serious contender. Thought he would have been smart enough to talk with Elton Brand before he made the move.

7. Chauncey Billups, Detroit: Some of the luster he once had is eroding. His contract makes him untradeable, or the Pistons might have dealt him this summer. He peaked during those back-to-back trips to the Finals and just doesn't seem to have the hunger he once did.

8. Monta Ellis, Golden State: The departure of Baron Davis means this is Ellis' team now. Without Davis beside him, his statistics either will soar, or he will be exposed for his weaknesses, which is a possibility, too. Great opportunity for Ellis, but it's hard to see the Warriors winning -- especially now that he's going to miss the first two months of the season because of a severe ankle injury.

9. Jason Kidd, Dallas: For the starting point guard on the USA Olympic team, he is fading, long having passed his best years. Dallas gave up its future to get him last season, which is looking like a big mistake even though he is one of the all-time greats. Kidd still can deliver the ball, but he doesn't scare the defenses anymore. Never did learn to shoot.

10. Kirk Hinrich, Chicago: Watch for a comeback season after he struggled throughout the year of turmoil in Chicago. A happier team around him should make him shine because he didn't forget how to deliver the ball. He can be a really good point guard if he has productive people around him.

11. Jose Calderon, Toronto: He is looking for a big year now that often-sour T.J. Ford is in Indiana, clearing the way for Calderon to get more playing time with the Raptors. The addition of Jermaine O'Neal also will help him. If Calderon has a big year, the Raptors could be the surprise team in the East.

12. Mo Williams, Cleveland: Had a nice season when he averaged 17.2 points and 6.3 assists for Milwaukee. Is looked to as the guard who can finally help LeBron James.

13. Andre Miller, Philadelphia: Always a high-assist guy but has never had any playoff success. The addition of Brand really gives Miller someone who can score off his passes. Miller, 32, is slowing, but he might be one of those point guards who can adjust his game and continue to show his leadership.

14. Devin Harris, New Jersey: Came in the trade for Kidd, and the Mavs already regret letting him get away. At age 25, he is just beginning to start his best years. Should develop into one of the best points in the East.

15. Raymond Felton, Charlotte: Was confused about what position he played in the past, but he has shown progress. New coach Larry Brown will drive him nuts, like he does every point guard he coaches. Brown also will make him better. Felton's scoring will dip, and his head might explode.

16. Mike Bibby, Atlanta: Became a stabilizing influence once he joined the Hawks, putting them into the playoffs. The team that passed on taking Paul and Williams in that 2005 draft has a guy good enough to help its young, athletic players succeed. Expectations for this team are rising.

17. Derek Fisher, Los Angeles Lakers: Has seen better days and his numbers don't reflect much, but considering how often he has been to the NBA Finals, he must be doing something right.

18. Leandro Barbosa, Phoenix: Not a true point guard. He doesn't get many minutes there behind Nash, but if Barbosa was a starting point somewhere else people really would enjoy him. So explosive, he can dazzle you. We'd love to see what would happen if he was given the ball for an extended period.

19. Rajon Rondo, Boston: Point guard for the champs has come a long way in his two seasons. He was helped considerably by coach Doc Rivers, a former point guard himself who taught Rondo to stay out of the way of the Big Three. Rivers' confidence in Rondo paid off.

20. Jameer Nelson, Orlando: Smart enough to know that Howard should be his focus, but also is learning his two forwards also want the ball. Nelson's problem will be keeping all three happy as a low-profile point guard.

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