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It was December of last season and Toronto Raptors point guard Damon Stoudamire, then a rookie, was about to begin the most challenging week of his young NBA career, a week that would feature consecutive road games against three of the league's best at his position: the Seattle SuperSonics' Gary Payton, the Portland Trail Blazers' Rod Strickland (since traded to the Washington Bullets) and the Los Angeles Lakers' Nick Van Exel. But Brendan Malone, Toronto's coach at the time, was not particularly worried. "Listen, Damon's only been in the league a month, and he's already been matched up against Payton, [John] Stockton, Mookie Blaylock and Terrell Brandon, so this is nothing new," Malone said. "If you play point guard in this league, you're going to face somebody who's All-Star caliber, or close to it, just about every game. Every night it's a different gunslinger."
Stoudamire, of course, won enough duels to become Rookie of the Year and earn his place among the NBAs rapidly expanding group of elite point guards, who this year are initiating into their fraternity the newest young guns, rookies Allen Iverson of the Philadelphia 76ers and Stephon Marbury of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Point guard has become the deepest position in the league—deeper, perhaps, than any position at any previous time in the league's 50-year history. And as Malone suggested, it's the spot at which high-caliber confrontations can most consistently be found. The NBAs handful of top-level centers can go weeks without facing each other, but check the schedule on almost any night and you're likely to find at least one marquee matchup at the point. "You better bring your A game every night," says Denver Nuggets point guard Mark Jackson, at week's end the league leader in assists. "There aren't many breathers."
Five point guards—Payton, the Cleveland Cavaliers' Brandon (page 28), the Utah Jazz's Stockton, the Orlando Magic's Anfernee (Penny) Hardaway and the Miami Heat's Tim Hardaway—were chosen to play in this Sunday's All-Star Game at Cleveland's Gund Arena. But the position is so well stocked that you could substitute any of several other playmakers who didn't make the cut: Stoudamire, who carries the Raptors' offense; Iverson, whose 22.9 scoring average through Sunday led all point guards and ranked eighth in the league overall; the Atlanta Hawks' Blaylock, who is as dangerous on defense—at week's end he ranked sixth in the NBA in steals with a 2.15 average—as he is bombing away from behind the three-point arc; and Kenny Anderson, who is quietly having an outstanding all-around year for the Trail Blazers.
The NBAs best point guards come in a variety of sizes and styles. There are the undersized, lightning-quick types who have become fashionable lately, including the 5'10" Stoudamire, the 6-foot Iverson, the 6'1" Van Exel and the 6'2" Marbury. There are the older, craftier types, who rely as much on the quickness of their minds as of their bodies, such as Stockton, 34, and the Phoenix Suns' Kevin Johnson, 30. There are those whose strongest attribute is defense (Payton) or passing (the Suns' Jason Kidd). And there is the 6'7" Penny Hardaway, whose combination of size and skills make him a serious threat at both ends of the floor.
But even as the variety of outstanding players at the position grows, the number who fit the traditional playmaking mold is contracting. There was a time when the model point guard was like a good host at a dinner party, unselfishly serving the ball to his teammates, making sure they had their fill of shots and points, before sitting down to the table himself. Many of the top point guards of the 1970s and '80s—Maurice Cheeks, Stockton, even Nate Archibald and Magic Johnson—were passers first, shooters second. "I don't think there are very many good point guards in the league today," says Bob Cousy, who helped define the position in the 1950s and '60s with the Boston Celtics. "I don't think there are very many point guards, period, not in the traditional sense. What you have now [on the court] are five guys looking for their shot. I'm not saying it's completely their fault, because I think coaches have slowed the game down to where they've taken away the chance for the point guard to be creative and do the things he used to do. But whatever the reason, the traditional playmaker is getting to be a thing of the past."
But he is not gone completely. In an attempt to determine which of today's players comes the closest to being the ideal point guard, SI chose 16: ten who have played in at least one All-Star game and six others we deemed most likely to be future All-Stars. According to their statistics through Jan. 26—the day the All-Star Game starters were announced—the point guards were ranked in nine categories, with some categories being given more weight than others, depending on their relative importance for a traditional point guard. The goal was to determine who has been the best point guard in the league this season, and the answer the point totals revealed is probably a surprise to anyone who doesn't watch Cavaliers games regularly. According to our method of evaluation, the best point guard in the NBA is Terrell Brandon.
The 26-year-old, 5'11" Brandon is a pure point guard at the top of his game. His greatest strength is that he has no major weakness. He finished in the top 6 in seven of the nine categories, and his statistics are a paint-by-numbers picture of a pure point. He takes care of the ball as if it were a newborn, as indicated by his average of 2.15 turnovers per game, the second-lowest among the guards in the survey behind Anderson's 1.88. He has the shooting range to stretch a defense—only Stockton had a higher three-point field goal percentage—but he is quick enough to penetrate and get to the foul line, where he is lethal. Through Sunday, Brandon's free throw percentage was 90.1, best among the guards measured and second best in the league, behind only the 90.6% of the Golden State Warriors' Mark Price, another fine point guard. The lone category in which Brandon ranked below 10th, surprisingly, was assists, in which he was only 14th. But his relatively low average of 6.6 per game is due at least in part to the Cavaliers' methodical offense, which keeps point totals down. There may be no team in the NBA to whom tempo is more important than it is to Cleveland, and Brandon controls that tempo. It is frightening to think of how his production might rise (though his turnovers might increase as well) if he ran a faster-paced offense.
Brandon is athletic enough that, despite his modest height, he had blocked 23 shots through Jan. 26, more than any other point guard measured. He creates scoring opportunities for his teammates while maintaining his own status as a scoring threat. He is the kind of point guard to whom every team would like to entrust its fate down the stretch, because he doesn't turn the ball over and he makes his foul shots. For a point guard, what else is there?
A few caveats: Statistics can tell only part of the story, of course—largely the offensive part. A point guard like Payton, the league's Defensive Player of the Year last season, suffers in this kind of analysis because most of what he does on defense is not quantifiable. Numbers also can't measure intangible qualities such as leadership or the capacity to perform in the clutch, the sorts of things coaches consider when evaluating a player. In this regard, Payton convinced many observers that he was Stockton's heir apparent with his playoff performance last season. And such intangibles no doubt helped Stockton, who finished second to Brandon in this analysis, to emerge as the overwhelming choice as the NBA's top point guard when SI polled 24 of the league's coaches last season. (Fourteen of the coaches chose Stockton, five picked Penny Hardaway, three selected Kidd and two named Payton.) It's also worth noting that Penny Hardaway, who may be the most versatile player at the position, missed most of the first half of this season with injuries and would surely have finished higher than ninth on the list had he been healthier.
Still, there have been rumblings that Stockton is slowing a bit on defense, and he was hurt in the statistical evaluation by his surprisingly high turnover number, 3.14 per game, which ranked him 12th, ahead of only Strickland, Jackson, Stoudamire and Iverson. As for Payton and Penny Hardaway, it's hard to argue that they are the best traditional point guards when their teams ask them to spend part of their time at shooting guard.