HIGH POINTS OUR RATINGS OF THE PLAYERS AT THE NBA'S DEEPEST POSITION PRODUCED SOME SURPRISES--INCLUDING A CHANGING OF THE GUARD AT THE VERY TOP

February 10, 1997

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 NBA's 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 NBA's 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 NBA's 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.

Anderson's third-place finish is almost as surprising as
Brandon's top ranking. The consistency of the Trail Blazers'
floor leader this season has gone largely unnoticed,
overshadowed by the play of some of his flashier colleagues at
the point, but Anderson--who was traded from the New Jersey Nets
to the Charlotte Hornets last season and then signed with
Portland as a free agent--has gone a long way toward
reestablishing his place among the game's top playmakers. The
other major surprise is the disappointing showing of the highly
regarded Kidd. He finished 14th, due mostly to his abysmal
shooting (37.5% from the field, 64.8% from the foul line),
suggesting that despite his remarkable talents in other areas,
Kidd's ineffectiveness as a scoring threat badly hinders his
game. "You cannot have a point guard anymore who can't shoot the
ball," says Trail Blazers president and general manager Bob
Whitsitt. "It's a more challenging role now because he has to
dial himself into the equation too."

The question is, Are a majority of today's point guards dialing
their own number too often? Stoudamire is an example of the new
"scoring point." He has a high scoring average (19.9 through
Sunday) and low field goal percentage (39.0), and he takes more
shots than any other Raptor. "But that's not because of
selfishness," says Atlanta vice president and general manager
Pete Babcock. "It's because he's playing the way they encourage
him to play. But I think he would be a more typical point guard
if [Toronto] wanted." Iverson has a style similar to
Stoudamire's--shoot first, pass second--but for apparently
different reasons. "Iverson's mentality is to be a point
producer, not necessarily to make the offense run a little
better," Dallas Mavericks assistant coach Lanny Van Eman says of
the 76ers rookie. "The good point guards, the smart ones, get
their points, but they realize that getting their teammates
involved is their responsibility too. Iverson doesn't seem to
have really learned that yet, but in time he probably will."

He had better. In fact, anyone who hopes to play the point
successfully in today's NBA had better be a fast learner,
because he will be tested every night.

COLOR PHOTO: BARRY GOSSAGE/NBA PHOTOS Breaking with tradition Stoudamire (with ball) and other up-and-comers look to score first, not pass. [Damon Stoudamire in game against Indiana Pacers] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Stockton (left) ranked high in assists and shooting: Tim Hardaway's forte was scoring [John Stockton and Tim Hardaway in game] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH The value of Anderson (left, 7) rises as his turnovers drop, Blaylock (below) poses a two-way threat, Marbury (opposite, 3) is a small wonder, and Payton thrives at crunch time. [Kenny Anderson and Shaquille O'Neal in game] COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE [See caption above--Mookie Blaylock in game against Cleveland Cavaliers] COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER [See caption above--Stephon Marbury in game against Sacramento Kings] COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO [See caption above--Gary Payton in game against Miami Heat]

MAKING POINTS

To rate NBA point guards, SI senior writer Phil Taylor selected
16 whom he considers the cream: ten who are or have been
All-Stars, and six who have All-Star potential. (The New York
Knicks' Chris Childs and the Boston Celtics' David Wesley, among
other capable backcourtmen, didn't make the cut.) SI took their
standings through Jan. 26 in nine statistical categories and
ranked the players in descending order in each. (An asterisk
denotes a tie.) The top player received a 16 rating; the No. 2
player, a 15 rating; and so on. The categories were weighted
according to their presumed importance to the position. So, for
example, each rank in the assists category was worth two
points--leader Mark Jackson earned 32 points--but each rank in
rebounds was worth only half a point. (Sources: NBA and Elias
Sports Bureau.)

Overall Player,
Ranking Team 2PTS [2PTS] 1PT [1PT] [1PT]
Assists Turnovers Points Steals FG%
1 TERRELL BRANDON,
Cavaliers 3 15 14 11 12*
2 JOHN STOCKTON,
Jazz 15 5 4 13 16
3 KENNY ANDERSON,
Trail Blazers 7* 16 10* 10 9
4 GARY PAYTON,
SuperSonics 8 11 15 16 15
5 MOOKIE BLAYLOCK,
Hawks 2 13 10* 14 10
6 KEVIN JOHNSON,
Suns 13 6 8 5 13
7 MARK JACKSON,
Nuggets 16 3 2 3 7
8 TIM HARDAWAY,
Heat 9 9 12 8 8
9 NICK VAN EXEL,
Lakers 12 10 5 1 4
10 ANFERNEE HARDAWAY,
Magic 1 12 11 4 5
11 ROD STRICKLAND,
Bullets 11 4 7* 9 12*
12 AVERY JOHNSON,
Spurs 7* 14 3 6 14
13 DAMON STOUDAMIRE,
Raptors 10 2 13 7 2
14 JASON KIDD,
Suns 14 7 1 12 1
15 STEPHON MARBURY,
Timberwolves 7* 8 7* 2 6
16 ALLEN IVERSON,
76ers 4 1 16 15 3

[1PT] [1PT] 1/2PT [1/2PT] Point
3PT% FT% Rebounds Blocks Totals
[1 TERRELL BRANDON] 15 16 7 16 115.5
[2 JOHN STOCKTON] 16 15 3 6 108.5
[3 KENNY ANDERSON] 9 9 13 5* 102.0
[4 GARY PAYTON] 3 3 10* 5* 97.5
[5 MOOKIE BLAYLOCK] 12 5 14 14* 95.0
[6 KEVIN JOHNSON] 14* 12 5 1 93.0
[7 MARK JACKSON] 14* 11 15 10* 87.5
[8 TIM HARDAWAY] 7 8 6 3* 83.5
[9 NICK VAN EXEL] 11 13 4 3* 81.5
[10 ANFERNEE HARDAWAY] 5 14 16 14* 80.0
[11 ROD STRICKLAND] 1 7 12 10* 77.0
[12 AVERY JOHNSON] 2 2 1 11 75.0
[13 DAMON STOUDAMIRE] 8 10 8 10* 73.0
[14 JASON KIDD] 4 1 10* 10* 71.0
[15 STEPHON MARBURY] 10 6 2 14* 69.0
[16 ALLEN IVERSON] 6 4 11 15 67.0

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)