With Steve Nash entering the twilight years of his career and Jason Kidd nearing the end of his, the point guard torch is up for grabs. Although Nash and Kidd both remain effective in their old age, at 36 and 37 respectively, and seem almost able to average 10 assists in their sleep, they are no longer the MVP caliber players they once were. Kidd is a step or two slower on defense and has drastically declined from his days of dribble penetration, as he mostly camps out on the perimeter to throw nice dimes inside or catches and shoots from three, while Nash is still unstoppable in the paint and on the fast break but nonetheless a bit slower and with his ailing back, in desperate need of more rest.
With these two legends on the downsides of their career, the search for the next great point guard has begun, and eventually narrowed down to a debate between Deron Williams and Chris Paul. Sure, there are other great point guards around, like Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose, John Wall, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, or Tyreke Evans, but each has a fatal flaw that can’t be overlooked, rendering them disqualified from the list. Rondo is averaging an insane number of assists in the early season, but he just can’t shoot or score well enough to be a top all around point – especially with his atrocious free throw shooting; Rose is so great at scoring and slashing and dribble penetration, but can he pass it and distribute to his teammates, besides the occasional kick out or drop down into the paint for Noah? He is built more in the mold of a scorer than a passer; Wall is explosive and athletic, but he is young and turnover prone, and just not there yet; Westbrook has the potential to be great, but he hasn’t been doing it long enough and doesn’t have as pure of a point guard skill set either; Curry is a sharpshooter and a younger version of Nash with his ambidextrous passing, but his natural position is at shooting guard, and only converted to the point recently; and Evans is a small forward who just wants to pound the rock.
As a result, the only two players left standing who combine the efficiency and willingness of their passing with an ability to shoot from the outside or drive it into the paint to score are Williams and Paul, both of whom, like Nash and Kidd, will forever be linked.
Both drafted in 2005 as highly regarded lottery picks, Paul had the early success with a Rookie of the Year trophy and record breaking efficiency rankings, but Williams has been coming on strong of late with a dominating Playoffs in 2010 while Paul was injured, narrowing the gap and making the discussion for “best point guard” closer than it has ever been. So how do these two match up?
Williams is a bigger, more physically imposing player, with his 6’3, 205 pound frame. Although he has a pretty sick crossover, his main attribute is his strength in attacking the rim and fending off defenders. He isn’t as quick or slithery as Paul, but is equally effective at driving to the basket and has a great feel for playing a pure point guard game in Jerry Sloan’s very structure-oriented offense. Like Stockton before him, Williams is excellent at the pick and roll and adept at running offensive sets which exploit precise execution, with lots of down screens, ball movement, and crisp passes.
On offense, he is the go-to guy, to either set up a shot for his teammates or get a good one for himself. He utilizes lots of screens to run those famed pick and rolls, but he isn’t limited by the austerity of the offense, and still finds a way to be creative without breaking the flow of the game. He doesn’t get as many fast break opportunities because of the scope of the team as a half-court scoring group, but he still finds a way to average around 10 assists, without being the absolute ball handler for 20 seconds of the shot clock every possession. Passing-wise, he is probably just as good as, if not better than, Paul, although he is more effective than flashy with his delivery.
In the scoring phase, Williams is often held back by his point guard duties, and has the potential for a 25 point average, with his ability to muscle his way into the paint, finish well among the bigs, or shoot jumpers. He has an excellent three point shooting percentage and a great outside game, which isn’t a surprise considering his very technically sound jumpshooting stroke, in which he keeps the ball high, squares himself up, and puts his legs onto his shot, which results in good rotation and arch. And when he drives to the rim, he has shown some unexpected athleticism and displayed a few pretty impressive dunks as well.
Defensively and in rebounding, however, Williams is lacking. Although he can dominate the opposing point guard with his strength, he often has trouble containing the quicker guards, and were it not for Chauncey Billups’ old age last year, he wouldn’t have been able to dominate in the Playoffs. Usually Williams doesn’t seem like he is putting his full efforts or committing strongly to the defensive end, and is by no means a shutdown defender although he has the physical attributes to be one; he is mediocre at best at on-ball defense, and doesn’t really play the passing lanes much either. As a result, he doesn’t get many steals – or many rebounds for that matter, although the latter may be attributed to his lack of freedom to roam in Sloan’s system.
On the other side, Chris Paul is a 6’1, small and slithery guard whose main attributes are his quickness, ball handling, and unstoppable open court offense. He is great at using screens or blowing by defenders to get into the paint, where he does his most damage setting up his teammates for open jumpers or finishing around slow footed bigs who can’t keep up.
Offensively, Paul plays in an extremely loose system, which is based completely around him. He, like Williams, is a go-to guy on offense, but instead of running a pinpoint set based on execution, the team often roams around based off Paul’s whims and direction, playing off his decisions. He gets the ball for a majority of the shot clock, either dribbling it around, probing through the defense, or driving to score, and often doesn’t give it up until near the end of the clock, leading directly to a shot which he has dictated or created. As a result, he has more freedom to operate and play how he wants to in the playground style offense which he basks in. Another byproduct of this freedom is his high assist numbers, because of his constant possession of the ball and decisions on who gets to shoot for each possession.
Scoring wise, Paul has a much less fundamental background, and instead is much more creative and loose in his play – his jumpshot is less technically sound and a bit less effective, with a long, dragged out release with a stand-still element, while his forays to the rim often consist of the use of guile and quickness to avoid defenders, rather than the strength shown by Williams. But nonetheless, he shows a great feel for finishing and scoring, especially around bigs when he uses his floater. But like Williams, because of his point guard duties, Paul is also a bit limited in his scoring opportunities, although he does demonstrate the potential for a 25 point average, albeit through different means than Williams.
In defense and rebounding, Paul dominates Williams, mostly because he crashes the boards much more effectively and also plays the passing lanes much better, although he isn’t a great on-ball defender himself. Instead, he uses his quickness and anticipation to jump passes and gets a high number of steals every game, which in turn also contributes to his ability to run out on the fast break. And Paul has always been one of the top point guards in the rebouding respect, with a very gaudy 5 rebounds a game, which is very impressive, especially when considering his small stature.
As a result, Paul seems to have the edge on Williams, because of his superior defense, slightly inferior offense, but equal pure point guard abilities, which is all supported by the numbers, which show Paul to have the highest efficiency rankings since a guy named Jordan. He is better by the numbers and better by the comparisons, and looks to have the title of “best point guard” locked up.
But for me, maybe because of Deron Williams’ desire, maybe because I’ve seen him shred the Lakers over and over again, maybe because I’m a sucker for tough Jazz players, I’d actually rather have Williams.