The summer of 2017 has brought about a massive migration of talent west in the NBA.
The Eastern Conference lost three All-Stars and three of the conference’s signature talents. Former Indiana Pacers superstar Paul George was dealt to the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Chicago Bulls dealt three-time All-Star Jimmy Butler to the Minnesota Timberwolves, and Atlanta Hawks star Paul Millsap signed with the Denver Nuggets. Heck, even Brook Lopez got dealt to the Los Angeles Lakers.
— ESPN (@espn) July 1, 2017
Once again, the Western Conference will dominate the league in the 2017-18 season. The West will have 12 teams legitimately eyeing a playoff spot, while the legitimate teams in the East tally up to somewhere in the region of five.
In short, it’s pretty ugly.
Alas, there is still one area where the Eastern Conference is stacked with talent: point guard. And the exciting thing about this very deep position isn’t just how good all of these guys are, but how different they all are. Who you think the best point guard in the East is really says more about you than it does about them.
That said, here’s my ranking of the great class of point guards in the Eastern Conference.
5. Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets
Kemba Walker belongs in the elite class of point guards in the NBA, but usually doesn’t get the credit.
The Hornets struggle with inconsistency, both on a year-to-year basis and throughout the course of the season. But the Hornets were legitimately good in Walker’s breakout season, 2015-16. And their struggles last year were in spite of Walker’s continuing improvement.
His statistical profile hangs with his contemporaries on this list. He scores with good efficiency, is a decent playmaker, and his defensive shortcomings have never held the Hornets back from being strong defensively as a team.
The former UConn guard deserves a spot in this conversation, and with continued improvement and a couple more playoff seasons for the Hornets, he could see himself moving up the list.
3. Kyrie Irving ‘The Shot’ (Game 7, 2016 NBA Finals) pic.twitter.com/Nc5PjCqEOA
— The Fuzz (@TheFuzzNBA) August 4, 2017
4. Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics
There is likely no player in the league with a bigger gap between his reputation and his actual impact than Kyrie Irving.
The former Duke guard hit one of the greatest shots in NBA history. He scores a lot of points, and looks extremely good doing it. At this point in time, we have virtually no evidence of whether or not he helps your team win.
The only successful teams he has ever been on were with the greatest player of a generation, maybe the greatest player of all-time. With the Celtics next year, he will have the chance to prove what he is really made of.
For now, he is a number two option who doesn’t play defense, a reluctant passer, and a mediocre play maker. He’s young, and he certainly looks like a great NBA player when he’s on the court. But for now, he is simply good, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.
— Park Street Sports (@ParkStreetSport) August 23, 2017
3. Isaiah Thomas, Cleveland Cavaliers
Despite being traded, The Little Guy had one of the most impressive offensive seasons in history last year. Thomas was second in the league in Offensive Win Shares (OWS), behind only MVP runner-up James Harden. Among players with a usage rate of 30 percent or higher, Thomas had the best True Shooting percentage (TS%) at 62.5 percent, beating Harden, Kawhi Leonard, and LeBron James. With their star point guard on the floor, the Celtics boasted an outstanding 113.5 offensive rating.
There are legitimate arguments to be made about whether Thomas’ glaring defensive flaws outweigh his excellent offensive production. A major issue was not just the Celtics feeling the need to hide Thomas on defense, but The Little Guy’s teammates trying to overcompensate for his defensive weakness, ultimately poking holes in the team’s overall defensive scheme.
There are also questions to be had about Thomas’ playmaking — his assist rate of 18.5 percent lagged way behind his colleagues, with Kyle Lowry clocking in at 25 percent and John Wall coming in at 29.5 percent.
These flaws put him a tier below the top two point guards in the conference, but are not enough to erase his extreme value.
2. Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
When it comes to Kyle Lowry, you probably don’t know what you’re talking about.
Lowry has become infamous over the past few years for his poor playoff performance. And it’s been real. Last year, Lowry’s averages of 22.4 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 7 assists per game during the regular season shrunk down to 15.8, 3.1, and 5.9 in the playoffs. His shooting splits went from 46.4 percent from the field and 41.2 from three during the regular season to a much weaker 46.2 percent and 34.2 percent during the playoffs.
But the issue isn’t Lowry being a choker, or too soft for the postseason. In reality, the problem runs much deeper through the Raptors roster, and possibly the organization. But there is one player in particular who is holding Lowry back. Because while Lowry is clearly Toronto’s best player, he is not the number one option, or the engine that runs the offense. Those titles belong to Raptors shooting guard DeMar DeRozan.
DeRozan is even worse than Lowry in the playoffs, exemplified by his 0 for 8 performance in Game 3 of Toronto’s 2017 series against the Milwaukee Bucks. Despite Lowry’s struggles, the team is still wildly better with him on the court during the playoffs. They post a minus-1.9 net rating with him on the floor, and a minus-14.5 with him on the bench.
DeRozan on the other hand produces opposite results. The Raptors posted a dreadful minus-10.6 net rating with their star shooting guard on the floor, and were phenomenal with him on the bench, posting a plus-7.3 net rating. In the 2017 playoffs, the Raptors star shooting guard shot 43.4 percent from the field while taking a ghastly 17.4 shots per game. If that wasn’t bad enough, he shot 6.7 percent from three.
Lowry and John Wall are the only point guards in the conference who can boast complete games. Perhaps if Lowry wasn’t being dragged down by the bloated carcass of DeRozan’s mid-1990s style of offense and was able to operate as Toronto’s engine, he could even surpass Wall, given his far superior three point shooting — Lowry shot 41.4 percent on pull-up threes last year, one of the best clips in the league.
But for now, Lowry will just have to settle for his elite defense, playmaking, and shooting earning him second place.
— Bullets Forever (@BulletsForever) June 16, 2017
1. John Wall, Washington Wizards
As I said before, much of these rankings are subjective, a coin flip, or a matter of splitting hairs. Guys two through five are agreeably interchangeable.
But the top spot is not up for debate. It’s time to put an end to this once and for all. Wall is the best point guard in the conference by a healthy margin.
He isn’t a perfect player — he’s a perfect passer, but not a perfect player. But he is completely well-rounded. He contributes in every facet of the game. He isn’t a strong shooter, but he is a dominant scorer.
Most importantly, he is the only point guard in the conference who is his team’s number one option, leads his squad to consistent success, and dominates on both ends of the floor. If you were building a team from the ground up and had to choose one of these point guards, Wall would be the obvious choice.
He will fit in any system, because he is the system — but not in a way that cannibalizes his teammates. Point guards like Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas create an offensive system that’s built around their dribbling, their shooting, their scoring, and their often reluctant play making. Wall creates a fully living, breathing, thriving offense, just by being on the floor and making all of his teammates better. The Wizards were more than eight points better per 100 possessions with Wall on the floor in 2016-17. He’s the class of the conference.