Positional Ranking Revolution: Primary Ballhandlers

The stretch run of the offseason is upon us. In an effort to make it to the start of the regular season with my sanity intact, I’m gonna be ranking the players at each position. However, in the spirit of the positional revolution, I won’t be ranking by orthodox positions. Today, we’ll look at the best primary ballhandlers in the league, by which I mean the players in charge of getting their teammates involved in the offense.

1. Chris Paul Paul is the consensus best point guard in the league for a reason. His skill with the ball is amazing, and his ability to control the offensive flow of the game is matched only by LeBron James and – for 30 minutes a game – Steve Nash. I put him above those 2 because of his ability at this point to play more minutes than Nash, and because he’s a much deadlier perimeter shooter (which gives him more room to operate), significantly better ball handler, and slightly better passer than LeBron, which makes him a bit more deadly with the ball in his hands. The biggest statistical point in Paul’s favor is his ridiculously low turnover rate. Despite handling the ball as much as he does, his A:TO ratio was second only to Jose Calderon’s. Chris Paul simply does not turn the ball over very often.

2. LeBron James James’ place here shouldn’t need any explanation. He’s the best player in the NBA, by a significant margin, and even in the area where he’s weakest, perimeter shooting, he’s at worse average. More importantly, his combination of stature, athleticism, and playmaking ability has never been seen before. LeBron does not possess the exquisite control Paul does. Where Paul is a tornado, directing his ability to a single point in order to wreak maximum damage, LeBron is a hurricane, spreading devastation across the entirety of a defense.

3. Steve Nash The argument can be made that Steve Nash is still the best passer in the league. His years of experience means his court vision is almost unparalleled. Nash is also still an elite shooter, although his ability to create shots for himself has diminished over the last few years, and he recorded his lowest USG% since his Dallas days last year. The main knock against him now is his durability, or lack thereof. Even with Phoenix’s magical training staff, Nash’s declined to just over 31 a game last year, his lowest since his first stretch with Phoenix as a backup. Playing with the talent he’ll have in LA will figure to lessen the load on his shoulders as far as creating goes, and he’ll have the opportunity to be just a spot up shooter a lot more. However, LA’s offensive success will still rely upon Nash’s ability to execute the pick and roll with Howard and Gasol and the opportunities that will present.

4. Rajon Rondo Rondo receives a lot of criticism, mainly due to his general lack of scoring ability. The three players ahead of him are all accomplished scorers when necessary. Rondo is the first player in the rankings with a truly busted shot. What puts him here is his ridiculous passing ability. Rondo is one of the five best pure passers in the league, and his ability to make passes literally all around the court make up for his inability to shoot with any consistency from the perimeter. Sagging off him and forcing him to shoot may seem like a viable option when he has the ball, but that strategy also creates passing lanes Rondo is more than capable of exploiting. All that said, Rondo is not without faults. He sometimes gets too caught up in racking up assists. It’s this overreliance on his teammates and his inability to consistently shoot that puts him down here.

5. Manu Ginobili Manu is a strange player, not least because of his playing style. Despite playing alongside an elite, ball dominant scoring point guard in Tony Parker, Manu is a good enough passer to lead all shooting guards in Assist Rate. The way he distributes these assists is also interesting. Those who read this blog know that I’m fascinated by Manu’s ability to take the most efficient shots in the game more than almost any other player. His passing is no different. Almost 80% of Manu’s assists resulted in baskets at the rim or behind the arc, also known as the most efficient shots in the game. The only real knock on Manu’s game is the aforementioned fact that he plays with another guy who has the ball in his hands a lot, and his own lack of durability.

6. Andre Miller Miller’s distribution of assists is even more extreme than Manu’s. Nearly 85% of Miller’s assists led to shots at the rim or from 3 point land. It’s no surprise that two guys playing under two of the smartest coaches in the league understand where to get shots from. Miller’s main flaws are that he’s not a particularly dynamic playmaker. You won’t often see him slash into the paint and make a dazzling pass for a bucket. Miller’s assists almost always come out of designed plays executed to perfection. This lack of dynamism extends to his inability to keep defenses honest from the perimeter. Although he’s not completely neutered as a scorer, his days of dropping 50 on the Mavericks are far behind him.

7. Jose Calderon Calderon meets the dictionary definition of pure point guard. He’s an impeccable ballhandler who almost never turns the ball over. In fact, last year he recorded a Turnover Rate lower than such luminaries as Steve Nash, Ricky Rubio, and Rajon Rondo. He also racks up assists at a prodigious rate. The combination of these attributes means his A:TO ratio is in legendary territory. And indeed, he led the league this year. Jose is also a competent shooter when healthy and rested, and he’s one of the best ballhandlers in the pick and roll in the league. Calderon’s statistical accolades are a tad misleading, however. Unlike the people ahead of him on this list, even more than Miller, Calderon isn’t a dynamic player. He almost never makes mistakes, but his risk averse play also means he’s not really capable of raising an inferior team to offensive greatness. Calderon is a player who’s greatest strength is his ability to get the ball to talented players in positions where they can make plays themselves.

8. Deron Williams Not two years ago, Deron Williams was competing for the title of “Best Point Guard In The NBA”. However, a trade to the moribund New Jersey Nets, and one and a half years of soul-sucking basketball ensued, and now Deron is at a crossroads in his career. There’s no question he’s talented, but after a season where he looked disinterested, he’s got to prove himself all over again. I don’t really believe he’s not as good as Calderon, but his play last season forced my hand.

9. Ricky Rubio Rubio is the most extreme version of Rondo. Whereas Rondo is merely lacking as a perimeter shooter, and can still score in other ways, Rubio is utterly unable to score. Rubio may be a game-changing passer, but there’s a reason his team performs marginally better on offense when he’s on the bench. Ricky’s main contribution to his team occurs on the defensive end, and until he becomes better at creating offense for himself, that’s where it will remain. Luckily for him, this was just his first year in the NBA. He can still improve.

10. Kyrie Irving I’m not quite sure what to make of Irving. His passing numbers don’t blow you away – his A:TO ratio in particular isn’t great. But then you realize something. Irving was a rookie. The fact that he was able to put up passing numbers that made me think he was a veteran star is a credit to his ability. It’s true that he’s a scorer first. However, now he has another year under his belt, and marginally more talented teammates to pass to. He could skyrocket up these rankings by next year. He’s certainly talented enough to do so.

All statistics courtesy of Hoopdata

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2 thoughts on “Positional Ranking Revolution: Primary Ballhandlers

  1. i really really like the concept of ranking guys based on their roles instead of pigeonholing them into obselete positions. i can’t complain with your analysis of the individual players, and i guess i would give honorable mentions to tony parker (whom you obviously mentioned along with manu), steph curry and derrick rose (if they’re healthy), and dwayne wade (who would probably make this list if he played on literally any other team). i might also move miller down a bit because i think he’s going to split a lot of playmaking duties with andre iguodala this year

    • Yeah, I was conflicted about where to put guys like Parker, Rose, Westbrook, etc. However, I concluded that those guys are scorers, and I’m planning on doing another ranking of the “wing scorers” which I may further stratify into “slashers” and “shooters”. Parker, Russ, Rose, Wade, they’d probably qualify for the former while Curry would be in the latter.

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