Welcome to the first edition of a weekly column I'll be writing looking beyond the Valley of the Sun to highlight the best of the best in the NBA. Let's take a stroll around the Association.
*Editor's Note: This column will regularly run every Friday; I looked up the numbers and did most of the writing on Thursday and Friday, but ran out of time before I finished it, and therefore most of the numbers do not include games played on Friday or Saturday
First off, I'd just like to say how great it is to have basketball back on our televisions. We finally get to watch and discuss real basketball. We're now eight or nine games into the season for most teams, and thus far we have seen some phenomenal games and some outstanding performances.
One thing that has stood out to me thus far is the play of the point guards across the league. A disclaimer is necessary here as it is still too early to draw long-term, legitimate comparisons. But that doesn't mean we can't get excited.
The Point God Chris Paul is playing as well as he ever has and is showing why he is clearly the best player at his position in the league. Paul has recorded a double-double in every game he's played in thus far. He's nearly putting up a 20-13-5-3 stat-line on good shooting percentages, and is making it look easy in the process. He's 5th in the league among regular rotation players in win shares per 48 minutes, trailing only Kevin Love, Paul George, Markieff Morris (!!!!!) and Carlos Boozer.
Paul also put up one of if not the best game anyone will have all season long in an early season showdown with the Golden State Warriors. Paul finished with 42 points on 12-20 shooting, 15 assists and six steals while out-dueling another phenomenal point guard in GSW's Stephen Curry. Forget Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Lob City; Chris Paul is the reason to tune in any time the Los Angeles Clippers are on TV.
Speaking of the Warriors, they might be the most fun team in the entire NBA an are led by a pretty spectacular point guard in Curry. The best shooter in the NBA is scoring just over 20 points per game on a nearly 60 percent effective field goal percentage. He's also dropping a career-high 8.5 assists per game (he's turning it over at a high rate too, but 18 of his 29 give-aways came in two games). Curry is definitely a point guard despite some people still believing otherwise.
In that early season game against the Clippers, Curry hit nine threes on his way to 38 points and nine assists. Explosions like this from Curry are not all that uncommon, either. The sharpshooter had games of 38, 39, 44, 47 and 54 last season for the Warriors. Curry is one of the most entertaining players in the league, and the rest of the Golden State starters (Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, David Lee and Andrew Bogut) complement him perfectly. This year's Warriors squad is must-see TV.
We can't forget about Tony Parker. San Antonio is the best executing team in the NBA and Parker is a master of how to play within that system. He's putting up an easy 18.1 points per game on over 50 percent from the field, and he isn't even playing his best ball yet.
Although their teams haven't gotten off to the best of starts, Mike Conley and Ty Lawson have played tremendously. Conley is putting up 20 and five on over 50 percent from the field, which isn't easy on a team with as little spacing as the Grizzlies. And Lawson is playing even better, putting up 21, seven and almost five rebounds per game with a 54.4 true shooting percentage.
In addition to the bigger names, we have some younger floor generals putting up big numbers as well. Atlanta's Jeff Teague (18 and 10), Sacramento's Isaiah Thomas (18 and five in just 28 minutes per game), Minnesota's Ricky Rubio (10 and 10 and the driving force behind a really fun Timberwolves team), Portland's Damian Lillard (20, five and five) and even Houston's Jeremy Lin (18 and five on a ridiculous 61.6 effective field goal percentage) have all played remarkably well so far.
Unfortunately, it's not all puppies and sunshine. Some of the best point guards in the game have struggled mightily in the early going. Some are returning from injury, while the others for reasons I don't quite understand just aren't getting it done. Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook, two of the ten or so best players in the game, have both been pretty bad after returning from significant injuries. Kyrie Irving, John Wall, Jrue Holiday and Deron Williams have all struggled to different degrees as well. Take a look at the numbers for yourself.
Not pretty. Rose's struggles are understandable considering how long he was off the court. The same is true for Westbrook to a lesser extent. The more they play, the closer they get to 100 percent.
Irving, Wall and Holiday are not coming off of major injuries like the first two, and their struggles have been more perplexing.
One of the things that made Irving so great was his terrific shooting percentages from the field, deep and charity stripe, yet he's struggling from all three right now.
Wall's struggles lie almost exclusively with his 2-point field goal percentage as the rest of his numbers are more or less fine. Again, looking at his career numbers, I expect him to sort this out and get back to around 45 percent from inside the arc.
Holiday's entire game has been erratic thus far. He had a truly All-Star caliber first half of last season, but after the break his efficiency took a nose-dive and this year it's been even worse. He's adjusting to a new team but that doesn't excuse the poor play. I'm not really sure who Holiday is.
Finally, Deron Williams has been a shadow of himself this season. He got off to a slow start last year while dealing with injuries before bouncing back and closing out the year strong. However, just like the other All-Star vets on the Nets he has struggled early on. I'm not so sure his issues are as fixable as the younger players, though. We've probably seen the last of 20 and 10 Deron Williams.
Now hold, you may be saying to yourself. 1,100 words and you haven't even mentioned new Phoenix Suns player Eric Bledsoe? Haven't you ever heard of saving (one of) the best for last? Bledsoe's early season performance definitely compares favorably to the other point guards mentioned above.
Bledsoe is averaging 20.4 points on 50 percent shooting, 6.8 assists and 4.6 rebounds through nine games. That stat line puts him in pretty elite company (and by company I mean only one other player is putting up those kinds of numbers). See for yourself.
Bledsoe's overall performance has been outstanding and has driven the Suns to this unexpected success. He is third among starting point guards in points per game, ninth in assists per game, sixth in rebounds per game, ninth in steals per game and third in field goal percentage. His game still has its flaws (too many 3-pointers at a low percentage, turnovers), but the positive has far outweighed the negative. The only question that remains is whether or not he can keep this up, as this season's line is drastically different than his career numbers suggest.
And don't forget Goran Dragic. Dragic has had unbelievably bad luck so far this season, missing three games and leaving three others early with injuries. Yet when he has been at full strength, he has been a force. Dragic posted 26 points and nine assists in the season opener against Portland, and celebrated his return to the starting lineup after a game coming off the bench with 19 points and 10 assists. I'm expecting a big year from Dragic as soon as he can find a way to stay on the court for an entire game.
This is a glorious age in the NBA for point guards, and the Suns have two of the better ones in the league on their roster in DragonBlade.