On the first full week of each month this season, I’m going to rank the top 10 NBA players at each position based on how I expect them to perform in the coming month. If a player is injured and is expected to miss most of the month, then they probably won’t make the list regardless of his value when healthy. I’ll rank the point guards on Monday, the shooting guards on Tuesday … you get the picture. Your feedback is welcome, even if you want to tell me how incredibly, irredeemably clueless I am.
10. Brandon Jennings, Milwaukee Bucks — 2009-10 stats: 82 GP, 32.6 MPG, 15.5 PPG, 5.7 APG, 3.4 RPG, 1.3 SPG, .371 FG%, .374 3P%, .817 FT%, 14.5 PER
Jennings surprised a lot of people by finishing third in Rookie of the Year voting thanks to the role he played in the Bucks’ 14-win improvement last season. With the exception of his weak mid-range game, 21-year-old Jennings is already a fully-formed point guard. He’s quick, a creative playmaker, and proved to be a surprisingly tenacious defender. The influence of coach Scott Skiles has clearly rubbed off on this one. If he can improve on his accuracy from two-point range, he should be moving up this list in his sophomore season. Note: I’m aware that Jennings finished behind Curry in R.O.Y. voting, but Jennings gets the edge here because I think he’s more likely to improve his shooting than Curry is capable of improving his defense.
9. Baron Davis, Los Angeles Clippers — 2009-10 stats: 75 GP, 33.6 MPG, 15.3 PPG, 8.0 APG, 3.5 RPG, 1.7 SPG, .406 FG%, .277 3P%, .821 FT%, 17.4 PER
Toiling away on a typically crappy Clippers team, Baron Davis quietly had a nice little comeback season after his uninspired performance in 2008-09. His days of averaging 20 points per game are likely behind him, but he scored in double-figures in his last 15 games of the season so he’s still a reliable source of offense. If he keeps his weight under control, he’s a savvy defender who can average a couple of takeaways per game. Unfortunately, he still hasn’t figured out that the three-pointer just isn’t his shot — 27.7 percent accuracy on four trey attempts per game makes that pretty clear.
8. Devin Harris, New Jersey Nets — 2009-10 stats: 64 GP, 34.7 MPG, 16.9 PPG, 6.6 APG, 3.2 RPG, 1.2 SPG, .403 FG%, .276 3P%, .798 FT%, 16.2 PER
No Nets player was affected more by the nightmarish 2009-10 season than Devin Harris. His shots went increasingly awry and his previously stellar defensive effort was left somewhere on the Jersey Turnpike. Luckily, he’s been reunited with former Mavericks coach Avery Johnson , who I expect to help him return to his 2008-09 All-Star level or something close to it.
7. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder — 2009-10 stats: 82 GP, 34.3 MPG, 16.1 PPG, 8.0 APG, 4.9 RPG, 1.3 SPG, .418 FG%, .221 3P%, .780 FT%, 17.8 PER
After his 2008-09 rookie season, a lot of people wondered whether Westbrook would be better-suited as a two-guard in the NBA. Nobody is wondering about that after he increased his assists per game from 5.3 to 8.0 last season. Westbrook is big and fast and uses those attributes to drive aggressively and get to the free throw line five times per game. He’s smart to do that because he still has a lot of work to do on hitting outside shots. He also needs to focus more on the defensive end, where his play doesn’t quite live up to his reputation just yet.
6. Chauncey Billups, Denver Nuggets — 2009-10 stats: 73 GP, 34.1 MPG, 19.5 PPG, 5.6 APG, 3.1 RPG, 1.1 SPG, .418 FG%, .386 3P%, .910 FT%, 20.2 PER
At 34 years of age, you might expect to see signs of decline but aside from a slight loss of quickness, he’s still the same dangerous offensive player he’s been for the past decade. He actually averaged a career high in scoring last season and most of that added production came from his accuracy on his career-high 5.6 three-point attempts per game and the fact that he’s automatic at the free throw line and he gets there frequently. We should expect his playing time to be dialed back this season in order to preserve his legs and give sophomore backup Ty Lawson more burn.
5. Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls — 2009-10 stats: 78 GP, 36.8 MPG, 20.8 PPG, 6.0 APG, 3.8 RPG, 0.7 SPG, .489 FG%, .267 3P%, .766 FT%, 18.6 PER
As impressive as it is to be considered a top-five point guard when you just turned 22 today (celebratory Skittles, anyone?), I can’t help but feel that D-Rose is just a little bit overrated right now. He has amazing quickness and could easily crack the top 10 in scoring next season (particularly now that new teammate Carlos Boozer is expected to miss eight weeks with a broken hand) but there are holes in his game that some people choose to ignore. If he’s going to enter the MVP discussion at some point in his career, he probably needs to become more of a threat beyond the arc and start using his quickness a lot more on the defensive end — there really isn’t a good reason why he averages under a steal per game so far in his career.
4. Steve Nash, Phoenix Suns — 2009-10 stats: 81 GP, 32.8 MPG, 16.5 PPG, 11.0 APG, 3.3 RPG, 0.5 SPG, .507 FG%, .426 3P%, .938 FT%, 21.6 PER
Are we sure this guy is 100 percent human? I’m well-aware of his intensely dedicated diet and conditioning, but it’s a little ridiculous that he continues to perform at this level at 36 years old. The Suns’ addition of Hedo Turkoglu and the surprising ascendance of Goran Dragic in the 2010 playoffs could mean a slightly reduced and altered role for Nash this season, but I’m not going to bump him down in the rankings until he proves that the standard laws of human aging actually apply to him.
3. Chris Paul, New Orleans Hornets — 2009-10 stats: 45 GP, 38.0 MPG, 18.7 PPG, 10.7 APG, 4.2 RPG, 2.1 SPG, .493 FG%, .409 3P%, .847 FT%, 23.7 PER
I fully expect Chris Paul to be back on top of this list at some point this season, possibly as early as next month. Pretty much everyone outside of Boston and Utah considers him to be the best point guard in the NBA, and with good reason. When healthy, he’s pretty much unstoppable on offense and he’s a disruptive ballhawk on defense. It remains to be seen how much his quickness will be affected by his February knee surgery, since he didn’t look like himself in the seven post-surgery games he played last season.
2. Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics — 2009-10 stats: 81 GP, 36.6 MPG, 13.7 PPG, 9.8 APG, 4.4 RPG, 2.3 SPG, .508 FG%, .213 3P%, .621 FT%, 19.1 PER
If Rajon Rondo could shoot worth a damn, you’d be hard-pressed to name a better point guard on this planet. He’s easily the best defender and one of the best playmaking and rebounding point guards around. Plus, he has a knack for raising his game in the playoffs like all the true greats do. Unfortunately, his long-range and free throw shooting are awful for his position. After an embarrassing five-for-19 performance at the line in the 2010 Finals, one can only hope he figures out that he has to improve to at least average in this area to be truly considered the best at his position.
1. Deron Williams, Utah Jazz — 2009-10 stats: 76 GP, 36.9 MPG, 18.7 PPG, 10.5 APG, 4.0 RPG, 1.3 SPG, .469 FG%, .371 3P%, .801 FT%, 20.6 PER
Ah, sweet vindication for Jazz fans! They’ve been screaming for years that D-Will is the best PG around, and he claims the top spot in the TBJ rankings to open the 2010-11 season. He doesn’t do any one thing better than anyone, but his all-around game is extremely solid and perfectly suited to the Jazz and Jerry Sloan’s system. Whether or not he can hang on to the top spot will likely depend on Chris Paul’s health and Williams’ chemistry with Al Jefferson — his pick-and-roll replacement for Carlos Boozer.