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For Today’s Star Point Guards, Simply Being Good Isn’t Good Enough

Tuesday night was a perfect example of just how deep the NBA’s deepest position has become

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

Welcome to King of the Court, our daily celebration of the best performances in basketball from the night that was. We’ll be keeping track of the best player of every night of the NBA season, and tallying the results as we go along.

King of the Court: Point Guards

Bradley Beal had missed just one of his first seven shots when he sat down for a breather with just over two minutes left in the first quarter on Tuesday night — a quarter in which Washington scored a season-high 40 points on Golden State. Their total hovered at 39 for most of those final two minutes, as the Wizards pissed away a few three-on-ones with adrenaline passes; it wouldn’t become a round number until Ian Mahinmi split his free throws with a little over a minute left to give the Wizards a 40–24 lead after one quarter, but that’s neither here nor there.

Beal finished with 25 points total and the Wizards beat the Warriors for the first time since January 2014, 112–108, snapping a two-game slump. Beal was not the star of the game.

Markieff Morris, who drew a foul on a game-sealing rebound and iced the contest with free throws, is a star in our hearts, but not of the game.

Steph Curry, who tied Beal’s game high in scoring with a quiet, muted, discreet, reserved, unfussy 25 points — some of which came on 3s from LaMelo Ball’s zip code — was also not the star of the game.

That would be John Wall, who recorded his 12th straight double-double with 12 points and a career-high 19 assists. Wall’s performance was dripping with subtext. It seemed at times — slashing to the basket or reversing behind his back at the top of the key once or twice more than he needed to — that Wall was playing at Steph, even when Steph wasn’t actually on the floor. I like to think that as Wall torched Shaun Livingston and exploded to the rim on this play, he was thinking, fuck a “unanimous MVP,” I’m MVP in these STREETS.

I understand Wall’s Highlander mentality and I support it. It’s a necessary trait that keeps a player in the shop discussion of who is or isn’t in that cut above. We have only so much attention to give things, and if one guard is just being good, there’s always another around the corner being great. It’s too many guards.

Suppose I asked you where John Wall slots in your NBA point guard rankings, and you had 10 seconds to answer. What would you say? Wall has pulled Washington out of the Eastern Conference’s impossibly deep middle and pushed the Wizards into playoff certainty and possible home-court advantage, by averaging 22.7 points and 10.8 assists per game. But you could probably name four or five better guards. Maybe eight or nine if your feet were held to the flame. Would you take Kyle Lowry over Wall if Lowry didn’t have “loose bodies” removed from his wrist? Mike Conley if you could remember that he exists and puts up 19 and 6 every night? Isaiah “Odysseus” Thomas saw his 20-points-or-more-a-game streak broken with an off shooting night against the Hawks on Monday, but he was on a grainy tube screen in an Oscar-winning film for about three seconds, and nobody else in this discussion has that going for them. I saw Nikola Jokic make a no-look scoop pass in the Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star Weekend, and on Tuesday, he logged his third triple-double this month. Jokic is basically a point guard now. Where does he go?

In a 34-point performance that came up just one assist shy of a triple-double, Damian Lillard forced overtime by going coast-to-coast on the whole Detroit team as if their feet were glued to the hardwood. Portland ultimately lost 120–113, but that doesn’t mean Dame isn’t the Vash the Stampede of this.

And some nights — not Tuesday night, not most nights, but enough to make it a topic of discussion — Lillard’s not even the best guard on his own team.

There are all sorts of confounding factors baked into this point guard debate to ensure there’ll never be an end to it, by the way. Efficiency, usage rate, field goal percentages, true shooting percentages, plus-minus, moxy, hair, tattoos, Instagram. There are statistics, and there’s also a player’s ability to grind the muddy heel of his boot into statistics’ couch. But I think we can, all of us, agree that there is one guard, and then there’s everybody else.

The Thunder were trailing the Jazz by four with 42 seconds left and these things happened, in quick succession:

  • Russell Westbrook brought the ball up, drifted to the left side of the court in an iso, and drained a 3 on George Hill’s head. (Omg.)
  • Russell Westbrook grabbed a rebound over Human California Redwood Rudy Gobert. (OMG.)
  • Russell Westbrook galloped into a three-on-one, went through Hill this time, got a layup to go, and finished the three-point play to seal a 109–106 victory. (ALDSJKFALDSFJADLSKFJ.)

These were the last six of 14 straight points for Russ in the final frame, bringing his line to 43–11–10, his fifth 40-point triple-double this season.

Russell Westbrook has 30 triple-doubles, and is still averaging one overall. Russell Westbrook did not start for the Western Conference All-Stars. But who would I have bumped? Kawhi Leonard? Steph? It’s too many guards.