I’ve been watching NBA basketball for four decades, which at first sounds like it gives me some sort of basketball wisdom or hoops street cred, but really is just depressing. Realization of my mortality aside, my love of ball started with Bernard King and the 1983-84 New York Knicks, and since then I’ve watched a lot of basketball.
So, as an exercise to keep my mind sharp and my ability to recall up to par, I’ll be looking back at the top 10 players at each position during the last three decades — 1980s, 1990s and 2000s — over the next several weeks. So, fire up the DeLorean and make sure the flux capacitor is working!
Here are the factors, in varying degrees, taken into account in making this ranking — statistics, impact on the game, awards and honors, longevity, playoff performance and my own gut instincts. Feel free to disagree and make cases for others in the comments.
10. Chris Paul, New Orleans Hornets (2005-Present)
425 G; 18.7 PPG; 9.9 APG; 4.6 RPG; 0.9 3PTM; 47.1 FG%; 85.3 FT%; 2.4 SPG
This is sort of cheating here since Paul has only played six seasons compared to considerably more from the players below, but during his relatively short time, he’s been considered the best point guard in the game. So, with apologies to Mark Jackson and Mark Price, I had to include him in the top 10.
There was a bit of a dip in production last season that had many shifting gears and proclaiming the New Jersey Nets’ Deron Williams as the best lead guard in the L, but over their careers, CP3 has been better, particularly on the defensive end where he averages 2.4 acts of theft per contest. Also, considering CP3’s 22.0 points, 11.5 assists and 6.7 rebounds in a closely-contested first round match-up versus the Los Angeles Lakers in 2011, there is obviously a chance that Paul will see his 20/10 production come back soon.
Paul has led the league in total assists twice, total steals four times, been named to an All-NBA and All-Defensive team three times each and is the active leader in Offensive Rating (ORtg) at 121.0 and eighth in career Player Efficiency Rating (PER) at 25.22, the only point guard in the top 10. CP3 belongs on the list and will surely climb the rankings with several productive seasons ahead of him.
9. Tim Hardaway, Golden State Warriors (1989-1996), Miami Heat (1996-2001), Dallas Mavericks (2001-02), Denver Nuggets (2002), Indiana Pacers (2002-03)
867 G; 17.7 PPG; 8.2 APG; 3.3 RPG; 1.8 3PTM; 43.1 FG%; 78.2 FT%; 1.6 SPG
Hardaway came running out of the gates his rookie season, averaging 14.7 points, 8.7 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 2.1 steals. If it wasn’t for the San Antonio Spurs’ David Robinson, Hardaway surely would have been the NBA Rookie of the Year. In his following seasons with the Warriors, Hardaway was part of Run TMC along with Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin, a trio of scorers that hit a defense from many different directions.
Hardaway averaged 20 or more points per game in five of his 13 seasons and at least eight assists in eight seasons. He achieved the magical 20/10 twice and came close two other seasons when he averaged 9.7 and 9.3 assists, respectively. He was a five-time All-Star and named to an All-NBA team five times as well. He finished with an excellent 18.6 PER and 110 ORtg.
Hardaway also had a ridiculous knuckleball jumper that had you wondering how the ball ever went through the net consistently. Sort of the wonder one has when you see Shawn Marion shoot. Oh, and if you didn’t know, Hardaway had “skeelz.”
8. Kevin Johnson, Cleveland Cavaliers (1987-88), Phoenix Suns (1988-2000; missed 1998-99 season)
735 G; 17.9 PPG; 9.1 APG; 3.3 RPG; 0.2 3PTM; 49.3 FG%; 84.1 FT%; 1.5 SPG
Johnson is one of those players that you say, “If he was ever completely healthy…” In the twelve seasons that he played, Johnson only averaged 61.3 games per season, which was truly unfortunate because KJ was electric when he took the court. He didn’t get the proper respect that he should have and he would have been higher on this list if he were more durable.
Johnson never led the league in any category, but was in the top five of assists per game for six seasons. He averaged 20+ points in five seasons and 10+ assists in four. He achieved the 20/10 mark in three seasons, but came close three other seasons when he fell short by averaging 19.7 points, 9.5 assists and 9.3 assists, respectively. Johnson played in three All-Star games and made an All-NBA team five times in his career. He finished his career with a sterling 20.7 PER and 118 ORtg.
For me, KJ was the first little man that could play above the rim and throw down hard during a game against legit shot-blocking big men. Need proof? Here’s KJ skying on 6-foot-11 John “Hot Rod” Williams. And here versus 7-foot-4 Mark Eaton. And finally against one of the best centers ever, 7-foot Hakeem Olajuwon. KJ had no fear. Now, if he was ever completely healthy…
7. Steve Nash, Phoenix Suns (1996-98; 2004-Present), Dallas Mavericks (1998-2004)
1090 G; 14.6 PPG; 8.5 APG; 3.0 RPG; 1.4 3PTM; 48.9 FG%; 90.4 FT%; 0.8 SPG
Nash is still in the debate for best point guard in the league, especially considering his ability to drop dimes and his excellent shooting touch from both the field and foul line. However, the major drawback for Nash is his lack of defense, which dilutes any argument for him as the best PG in the Association.
Nash never averaged better than 18.8 points in a season, but led the league in assists (both total and per game) in five of the last seven seasons with the Phoenix Suns, where Nash augmented his production in a high-octane offensive scheme. He led the league in free-throw percentage twice and has an impressive career field-goal percentage for a guard. Nash currently owns a 20.2 PER and 119 ORtg, played in seven All-Star games, made seven All-NBA teams and more importantly, won back-to-back MVP awards for the 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons.
Nash is 636 assists away from passing Oscar Robertson to place fifth on the all-time NBA assists record and should pass the Big O if there’s a full season of NBA action after the lockout (Boo! Hiss!). There’s also a small chance he passes Magic Johnson on the list for fourth as Nash is 889 assists away. At the rate Nash is going, despite his age, he should replace both Hall of Famers in the next couple of seasons, but on this list, Nashty remains outside of the top five. Don’t hate me, Canada.
6. Allen Iverson, Philadelphia 76ers (1996-2006; 2009-10), Denver Nuggets (2006-08), Detroit Pistons (2008-09), Memphis Grizzlies (2009)
914 G; 26.7 PPG; 6.2 APG; 3.7 RPG; 1.2 3PTM; 42.5 FG%; 78.0 FT%; 2.2 SPG
Can we all agree that Iverson is the greatest scoring little man to ever play the game? Yes, he was a high-volume scorer, but it’s hard to deny he went all-in when he played, on both ends of the court. Iverson was never the prototypical point guard, but look at the top point guards in the league now and most of them are high scorers like AI. Plus, 6.2 dimes a contest is nothing to sneeze at, although we’ll cover the 3.6 turnovers per game with a tissue.
Iverson led the league in scoring in four seasons and during his career-best 33.0 PPG during the 2005-06 season, lost out to Kobe Bryant’s career-best 35.4 PPG. He led the league in steals per game for three seasons, appeared in 11 consecutive All-Star games (2000-10), winning the All-Star MVP award in 2001 and 2005. Iverson made seven All-NBA teams, thrice on the first team and won the MVP award once. He finished with a 20.9 PER and 105 ORtg.
Iverson has the stigma of being a ball-hog, a chucker and having tunnel vision. It’s all true. However, during his prime, he took teams squarely on his back and lifted them higher. AI is both loved and hated, but how many other players had his heart to play the game? There aren’t many. And who could ever forget this? Iverson was special from the start.
5. Gary Payton, Seattle SuperSonics (1990-2003), Milwaukee Bucks (2003), Los Angeles Lakers (2003-04), Boston Celtics (2004-05), Miami Heat (2005-07)
1335 G; 16.7 PPG; 6.9 APG; 4.0 RPG; 0.9 3PTM; 46.6 FG%; 72.9 FT%; 1.9 SPG
Payton is arguably the best defensive point guard ever, which is why he’s placed in the top five. His career offensive numbers don’t necessarily stand out and honestly, neither do his career defensive numbers, particularly steals. However, The Glove was like a great cornerback in football that doesn’t have gaudy interception statistics because quarterbacks never threw their way for fear of throwing a pick. Payton was excellent in denying the ball and making whomever he was defending pass the ball away, and in his first nine seasons, he averaged two-plus steals each year.
Payton was durable, only missing 27 total games in his 17 seasons. He never averaged more than 9.0 assists per game, but has nine seasons of at least seven assists. Payton averaged 20+ points in seven seasons, coming close two other times when he averaged 19.2 and 19.3 points, respectively. He only led the league in steals once despite some gaudy numbers at the peak of his career. Payton played in nine All-Star games, made nine All-Defensive first teams and won a Defensive Player of the Year award. He also made nine All-NBA teams and finally won that elusive NBA championship at the twilight of his career with the Miami Heat in 2006. He finished with an 18.9 PER and 111 ORtg.
I first heard of Payton while he was at Oregon State and I will never forget his Sports Illustrated cover during his senior season. He came out of college with a big bark that continued into the NBA, although some would call it whining. However, that was part of Payton’s charm because while he talked a lot smack, he was able to back it up.
4. Jason Kidd, Dallas Mavericks (1994-96; 2008-Present), Phoenix Suns (1996-2001), New Jersey Nets (2001-08)
1267 G; 13.2 PPG; 9.1 APG; 6.5 RPG; 1.4 3PTM; 40.1 FG%; 78.4 FT%; 2.0 SPG
Despite his late career renaissance, Jason Kidd was a horrible shooter and someone you could never rely on for points, well at least efficiently, as a scorer. However, Kidd is one of those players that can affect the outcome of the game without scoring one bucket because he does so other many things on the court. Part of the proof is the fact that he is one of three players with 100+ triple-double games in their career (107). The other two are Hall of Famers Oscar Robertson (181) and Magic Johnson (138). Kidd was also one of the top defenders in the game during his prime, although he and his old knees did a relatively decent job versus the Miami Heat in this year’s NBA Finals where J-Kidd received his first NBA title.
Kidd never averaged better than 18.7 points (while shooting 41.4 percent from the floor, which is ugly), but led the league in assists per game five times and finished in the top 10 every season that he’s played. He was a Co-Rookie of the Year with Grant Hill and played in 10 All-Star games. Kidd was named to six All-NBA teams, nine All-Defensive teams (four first team) and finally got that elusive NBA championship this past season. He owns a 18.2 PER, which undoubtedly suffers from Kidd’s shooting inefficiency and 107 ORtg.
Despite my harping on how utterly bad Kidd shoots the rock, he’s stil a winner and one of the most versatile players to ever lace them up. He’s 37 years old, but still an effective player and future Hall of Famer. It’s kind of sad that I’ve followed his career since his prep days in Oakland. We’re getting old, Kidd.
3. Isiah Thomas, Detroit Pistons (1981-1994)
979 G; 19.2 PPG; 9.3 APG; 3.6 RPG; 0.4 3PTM; 45.2 FG%; 75.9 FT%; 1.9 SPG
Thomas gets a lot of crap for destroying the New York Knicks and it’s a valid point. He and James Dolan combined is what pushed me over the edge to no longer being a Knicks fan, but that’s besides the point. As a basketball player, Zeke was amazing and one of my favorite players of all-time. He led the Bad Boys to two NBA titles, and despite his size, was the biggest player for those title teams.
Isiah averaged 20+ points for five seasons and had nine seasons of 18+ points. He averaged four seasons of 10+ assists, including a 13.9 assists per game campaign that led the league. Thomas played in a dozen straight All-Star games (1982-1993), winning the All-Star MVP award twice (1984 and 1986). He made five All-NBA teams, won two titles and one NBA Finals MVP award. He finished with a 18.1 PER and 106 ORtg.
Zeke was an artist on the court with an fanastic dribble and ability to get his shot off smoothly. He was a player to watch and one that you seemingly waited for some highlight from, which was amazing considering the likes of Dominique Wilkins and Michael Jordan were dunking everything during that time. In any case, here’s a small taste of Zeke.
2. John Stockton, Utah Jazz (1984- 2003)
1504 G; 13.1 PPG; 10.5 APG; 2.7 RPG; 0.6 3PTM; 51.5 FG%; 82.6 FT%; 2.2 SPG
It’s fitting that Stockton gets ranked second on this list because he was the second-best player on his team after Karl Malone. In my conversations about top point guards with other people, I think that Stockton is always underrated, which I blame on the aforementioned Mailman taking the spotlight (rightly so), playing in Utah versus some of the bigger markets and not winning a title, although coming close. Oddly enough, other than the last point, Stockton probably wouldn’t have it any other way.
Stockton never averaged more than 17.2 points in a season, but surely had the ability to score 20+ points if he wanted to. His excellent shooting percentage for a guard and his adeptness in penetrating would point to the fact that Stockton could have averaged more points, but that wasn’t him. In his 19 NBA seasons, Stockton played a full slate of games in 17 of them, which includes the 50 game strike-shortened 1998-99 season. He averaged double-digits in assists in 10 seasons, leading the league in nine of them. Stockton also led the league steals per game twice.
While Stockton won’t speak much about his achievements, the statistics do all the talking for him. He owns excellent rates in PER (21.8) and ORtg (121), but all you need to know that he is the NBA’s all-time leader in assists (15,806) and steals (3,265) and he owns those records by a lot. Don’t expect them to fall any time soon.
1. Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers (1979-1991; 1995-96)
906 G; 19.5 PPG; 11.2 APG; 7.2 RPG; 0.4 3PTM; 52.0 FG%; 84.8 FT%; 1.9 SPG
Magic is at the top for a few reasons — statistics, championships, lifting the NBA up with Larry Bird into the mainstream again and revolutionizing the point guard position at 6-foot-9. Also, he made it cool to have one-word nicknames. What better name could there be for a wizard on the hardwood than Magic?
In his last nine full seasons, Magic averaged a double-double, thrice hitting the 20/10 mark. He was a perennial triple-double threat and a big-time player, helping the Los Angeles Lakers win five NBA titles, while taking home the Finals MVP three times. Magic played in a dozen All-Star games and won the MVP twice (1990 and 1992). He made 10 All-NBA teams and won the MVP three times (’87, ’89 and ’90).
Next week, we hit the shooting guards. Feel free to let me know any snubs or call me a genius by getting at me on Twitter.