Let's review my list, and then I'll try to explain why Irving does not (yet) belong with these accomplished players:
Irving will miss the next four weeks with a fractured finger, but he is going to be on this list sooner than later. Maybe he'll make it this spring or next season; maybe someday he'll be at the top.
I was at the Las Vegas practices last summer when Irving was tearing up the Olympic team, and I saw the highlights of him spinning and burning through the defense of the eventual gold medalists. Irving's talent is outrageous and undeniable and inspiring. However, as I tried to point out last week, a list of the best NBA point guards has to reflect qualities that transcend outright talent.
The whole point of my list was to define point guard as a position of leadership that should be held to the same ultimate standard as the MVP. A point guard should be held accountable for wins and losses. It's like being a quarterback in the NFL. Think about all of the highly talented young QBs who have been unable to fulfill their potential. They can make highlight plays, but they can't provide the necessary leadership to win games.
Am I saying Irving is the next Michael Vick? No, I'm not saying that. I think Irving is going to be a great player. But let's give him the time to prove it.
The nine point guards on my list are highly accomplished. They've achieved a lot for their teams over the years. They know how to exert their talent to help teammates win games, and they do it in different ways. One thing they all have in common is that they're winners.
In terms of physical talent and his ability to beat his man off the dribble and create at the basket, Irving ranks among the best in the NBA. If I were rating Irving's position based solely on his highlights, then I could rate him ahead of Kidd and Miller
But he's also 20. He has played 61 NBA games. His team is 19-42 in those games. He has never experienced the playoffs. He has a career assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.65 to 1.
Let's be fair: Those turnover numbers (3.3 per game) and his team's losing record don't make him a bad player. Irving is not the reason the Cavaliers are 2-8 this year. Just the opposite: He gives them hope of winning every night in spite of his young teammates as the Cavaliers patiently rebuild their roster.
To Brandon, Andrew, Quinton and everyone else who believes Irving has already earned his place among the best point guards in the NBA, I think the difference between your opinions and mine is that we're discussing two different lists. You are rating the position by talent. I am rating point guards by their achievements on behalf of their teams, which is the ultimate standard for any quarterback who has earned the opportunity to lead his franchise.
I love Irving's talent, but we all know that talent isn't everything. People in Cleveland know this better than anybody.
For years we heard talk out of Cleveland that young LeBron James was the best player in the NBA. That rating was premature. LeBron won two MVP awards in Cleveland during the regular season, but he hadn't earned the right to be rated ahead of a champion like Kobe Bryant.
A lot of people in Cleveland changed their view of LeBron when he moved to Miami. All of a sudden they were accusing him of being all-potential and no-substance. He hadn't lived up to his talent, they said, because he hadn't delivered a championship for his team.
LeBron realized this in some way, too. He didn't win the championship last June because he got better at making defenders look silly. He won because he learned to play in the post and make other contributions that aren't obvious. He won because he learned how to win, and it was something the NBA's most talented player needed nine seasons to learn.
The reason the Cavaliers are rebuilding their roster patiently and wisely with young talent is because owner Dan Gilbert has promised to learn from the mistakes they made during LeBron's seven years in Cleveland. The Cavaliers treated James like a champion instead of creating an environment that helped him by pushing and driving him to the championship. I'm pretty sure that coach Byron Scott isn't enabling Irving to feel entitled.
Can't we let these guys earn it on the floor before we tell them they're the greatest? There is a big difference between being a great talent and being a great player. The nine point guards on my list understand the difference because they went through that transition and turned their talent into successful leadership. Irving is just beginning to make that transition. I'm convinced he's going to succeed. In the meantime, I just can't see how a 20-year-old who has yet to celebrate his 20th NBA win can be rated as superior to Jason Kidd.
Thanks, Bryan. Here are the teams with the smallest salary commitments for next season, if they were to renounce their own free agents (and not accounting for the salaries of the picks that will be made in the upcoming draft):
Based on this year's $58 million salary cap, the Hawks could enter free agency with as much as $36.5 million in cap space -- provided they have no draft picks and renounce all of their free agents, including Josh Smith, Devin Harris and Jeff Teague. In other words, they're not going to be accessing all $36.5 million of that potential space, but they'll have money with which to play. Utah is in a similar position with Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Mo Williams and several others set to come off the books. Instead of renouncing Manu Ginobili, the Spurs are likely to re-sign him. Cleveland, Dallas, Houston and Detroit could also be players in free agency.
As far as potential free agents for next summer, I'm guessing Dwight Howard is going to love playing in Los Angeles for Mike D'Antoni and will wind up staying with the Lakers for as long as they'll have him. Chris Paul sounds like he wants to remain in L.A. as well, with the Clippers.
The free agents likely to generate the most activity on the market are going to be Smith, David West, Ray Allen, Millsap (or Jefferson -- I'm guessing the Jazz will re-sign one of them) and Milwaukee's Monta Ellis. Denver's Andre Iguodala could join that list if he opts out of his $16.2 million salary for next season. Andrew Bynum's value as a free agent next summer is nearly impossible to predict.
In terms of the trading deadline? Smith, Millsap and Jefferson will be generating the most rumors while their teams attempt to maintain leverage with their impending free agents.
This is one of those deals decided entirely by the players. They feel that an unnecessary dunk at the end of a win is disrespectful. Everyone who has been around the NBA knows this intuitively. The Bulls made certain that Lillard understood his mistake, and Lillard said he was in the wrong and wouldn't make the mistake again.
The good thing about the incident is that it brought attention to Lillard, who has led the surprising Blazers to a 5-5 start. He's quickly becoming a smaller version of Brandon Roy for Portland. But I am not going to be rating him among the top nine point guards in the NBA anytime soon.
Talk about a setup, Gregory! You're from New York and any question about the Sixth Man Award has to include J.R. Smith, who has been strong for the impressive Knicks. But anyone who has watched Smith over the years knows it's too early to hand him the award based on a few weeks.
The early favorite is Jamal Crawford, who has led the 8-2 Clippers with 19.7 points. JaVale McGee, Derrick Favors and Ray Allen could contend for the Sixth Man Award, and don't rule out a run by Jason Terry as the Celtics coalesce throughout the season.
I'm interested in seeing how well Kevin Martin can fill the role he inherited from Harden. He won't come close to doing everything Harden used to do, but if the Thunder are able to fill in around Martin, then the 17.6 points he is averaging off the bench may turn out to be a big deal.