Top of the Class: Point Guards

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Starting this week, the Basketball Insiders team is going to look at the best players at each position heading into the 2015-16 NBA season and rate them based on how they look at the midway point of the offseason. We start, of course, with point guards. This is a position experiencing such a glut of talent at the moment that a player named MVP of the league just five years ago didn’t even make the top 10.

Considering that embarrassment of riches, here’s a look at the top point guards in the NBA heading into the upcoming season:

# 6 – Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers – It’s easy to forget how good Irving is since he had such a hard time staying healthy for Cleveland’s failed title run last year, but there are few players in the league quite as exciting at full speed. Irving is a blur offensively and really does have the ability to shoot layups pretty much anytime he wants. He’s also a strong three-point shooter, and that offensive versatility is a huge part of what makes him so valuable. There are not, after all, many current NBA players with the ability to drop 57 points in a game. He’s still figuring things out defensively but he is getting better, and his health continues to be a concern. But despite all of that, he’s a thrill to watch and is still so young that his potential for growth is staggering.

#5 – Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers – As a huge part of back-to-back 50-win seasons in Portland, Lillard is a cutthroat shoot-first point guard who might have more impressive crunch-time chops than anybody else on the list. He’s an assassin offensively, doing a little bit of everything to score the ball (he was third among point guards in scoring last year), but he drops to fifth overall here because his defense leaves a lot to be desired and it has yet to be seen how he’ll respond to playing without LaMarcus Aldridge (and Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum) for the first time next season. His numbers and usage rate will probably shoot northward, but the wins are likely to take a hit.

#4 – John Wall, Washington Wizards – He may make the same money as Reggie Jackson now, but Wall doesn’t have to worry about being compared to lesser point guards in any other category. For the first time in his career, Wall has been consistently healthy and has looked like one of the league’s top distributors. He was the league-leader in assists last season and actually got even better in the Wizards’ stunted postseason run. He’s a young point guard just now coming into his own, and it’s certainly nice to see his decision-making and maturity catch up to his athleticism. Wall had a breakout year in 2014-15, and he should only get better in the coming season.

#3 – Chris Paul, L.A. Clippers – Point guards are kind of like quarterbacks in that they are tasked with knowing how the game is supposed to flow, which plays to call and how to get the right teammates involved at the right time. Paul is the consummate leader in these terms, and while he’s starting to show his age a bit in terms of speed and athleticism (at least compared to the other five younger point guards on this list), he still is one of the most complete, and certainly the most heady, point guards in the game. Nobody in the league sees the floor better than Paul, and he’s also one of the best defenders at the position in the NBA. Despite his diminutive frame, he does have the ability to take over games offensively pretty much whenever he wants to, but his forte still centers around leadership and making his teammates better.

#2 – Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder – There’s a perfectly good argument for Paul ahead of Westbrook, but Westbrook’s play last year in Kevin Durant’s absence was both legendary and historic. There are plenty of players in league history who would have loved to put up one 40-point triple-double in his career, but Westbrook had three of them just last season (the only player other than Michael Jordan or Oscar Robertson to achieve such a feat). He also led the league in 40-point games (10), and the second-place player in that category topped out at three. His usage rate is through the roof, and there’s an argument that he’s probably going to be a little less effective next year with Durant back in the fold, but when Westbrook makes a conscious decision to take over a game there’s nothing quite like it in the NBA.

#1 – Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors – It shouldn’t take a ton of persuading that Stephen Curry is the greatest point guard alive right now considering he just won the MVP award and his first NBA championship. But in case those things aren’t enough, the story with Curry pretty much starts and ends with his otherworldly offensive abilities. He’s not only the greatest shooter of his generation, he might be the greatest shooter ever. And the fact that he pulls in so much attention from defenders and knows how to get his teammates involved offensively makes him the league’s most dangerous weapon. His defense has improved, he’s a really good rebounder at his position and he plays for a coach who knows how to use him. What’s even scarier is that his best years may still be ahead of him, though it’s hard to imagine how he could get much better.

Honorable Mention:

Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors – Perennially one of the most underrated point guards in the NBA, Lowry is a well-rounded player who means everything to what the Raptors do offensively.

Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies – Maybe even more underrated than Lowry, Conley has moved beyond just a niche defender and has become a reliable three-point shooter and great leader as well.

Jeff Teague, Atlanta Hawks – He’s small, but he packs a punch offensively and is one of the league’s craftiest point guards in terms of creating his own shot. He’s not quite as dominant as others on the list, but he doesn’t have to be on a team as good as Atlanta’s.

Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs – It’s amazing how many times Parker has shot 50 percent from the field in a season over the course of his career. He’s a smart, efficient point guard with rings galore, so even though he’s getting older, he’s still dangerous enough to be among the league’s top 10 point guards.

Just Missed the Cut: Derrick Rose, Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, Ty Lawson

Who do you think deserved to make this cut but didn’t? Hit up the comments below or keep the conversation going on Twitter. Also, stay tuned this week for similar articles about the other positions.