Saturday Starting 5: Revel in the Great Point Guard Era

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Hey, so, you’re stuck with me on the weekends, so I thought we’d put together something you can count on. Every weekend here at PBT we’ll have the Saturday Starting Five. Five elements, chosen thematically (so I’m not just basically vomiting words onto a screen for you) and brought for discussion about the NBA. Today’s topic? The era of point guards we live in.

Chris Paul Runs The Game… Right?

Chris Paul’s the best point guard in the league. You’re going to be hearing that out of about a hundred thousand pundits, columnists, bloggers, and fans this season, once more. Regardless of stats, nationally televised games, or highlight reels, Paul has “it.” His play has of course been the biggest part of the Hornets’ early season success. The floater is his offensive weapon of choice, but that pull-up jumper is nothing to sneeze at. Now, most people will want to tell you Chris Paul is undoubtedly, 100%, no questions asked the best point guard in the league. Hold up on that. But saying that has nothing to do with Chris Paul and everything to do with the incredible quality of point guards we get to watch every single night. Chris Paul is barely human, he’s so good. But that doesn’t make the other guys any less the last sons of Krypton. Oh, yeah, and there is one area Paul isn’t well-rounded. Drop him the post on defense and watch him slump. But given the fact that he could throw a ball fast enough to knock the dust off a twelve foot high bookshelf and not ruffle a page, we’ll let it slide. Paul leads among point guards playing at least 20 minutes a game in PER. Paul also needs to improve his free throw shooting by 2% to hit the 40-50-90 mark.

Jazz Hands

You know what happens if you attempt to roll a boulder into a mountain? It just kind of bumps against it and then stops. That’s your average point guard trying to roll down Deron Williams in the post. Oh, and when the Jazz need that shot? That one big shot? Deron Williams is the guy. He works the pick and roll as well as any point guard outside of Steve Nash and with Al Jefferson now on board, odds are his proficiency in the set will only improve. Williams has tremendous leadership and while he doesn’t have the soft touch that Paul has on his float-passes, he can jet with the best of them. Williams leapt to the top dog spot last season with Paul on the shelf and all he’s done this season is lead his team to wins over the Heat, Magic, and Hawks. You know, not bad.

Rondo-A-Go-Go

I get it. He has more talent around him than anyone else. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, even Glen Davis the Drunken Seal, that’s a wealth of options for Rondo to dish to. But let’s face it, if you need proof of how a loaded team of offensive weapons can go down the tubes without a maestro to make the strings sing, look no further than the current unfolding disappointment in Miami. So while teams with phenomenal talent cry out for a savior, the Celtics employ the league leader in the following categories: assists, weighted assists, and assists-at-rim. He’s second in Assist Ratio (percentage of all possessions he dishes dimes on) behind Jason Kidd, and that’s on a team with some pretty good passers (Nate Robinson not withstanding). Rondo’s a defensive leader, a steal whiz, blocks shots, can post up, can guard elite guys like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, and has the sickest ball-fake in the business. Oh, yeah, and he’s a championship point guard that was 12 minutes away from a second ring. That sound like the best point guard in the NBA to you? His jumper is a nightmare, always has been, always will be. But when you look at his poise, leadership and God-given speed and vision, you can let that slide. It’s not just that Rondo’s been the most dominant point guard on the floor this year, and he has, it’s that he’s done it against some pretty stiff competition in key games. If Chris Paul is the best point guard in the league, Rondo has arguably been the Most Valuable Point Guard so far.

Speed Kills. Well, Mostly Just Russell Westbrook Kills

Russell Westbrook is second among point guards playing 20 minutes a game in PER. Which is interesting, so I thought I’d take a look as to why. He’s the leading rebounder among that group snaring nearly 10% of all available boards from that position. He hasn’t been a great passer this season, nor is he shooting at a ridiculous clip. What he is doing is getting a ton of rebounds and getting to the line. There may be no more fearless point guard than Westbrook, who always seems to be a step faster than his opponents, even when they’re ready to clobber him. Westbrook explodes like nearly no other point guard and has established himself as Alpha 1B to Durant’s 1A. And when the opponent doubles Durant, as the Blazers chose to last night on a key possession, Westbrook takes advantage, getting to the rim with ease and drawing fouls.

The Calipari Trifecta

This should actually be the Saturday Starting 8, because to me, the next level here is the trifecta  of Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, and John Wall. Rose is the best pure scorer among all of these players, averaging 25 points per 40 minutes on 46% shooting. He hits some of the most daring, amazing shots you’ll see. That mid-range jumper? It’s actually taken as step back this season at 36%. But he’s still attacking, finding angles you shouldn’t be able to. Tyreke Evans? No big deal, just doing what he does. Less than a point (.6) off of his average of 20-5-5 last year, with a hobbled ankle, and still one of the most dangerous players in the game. He may not be considered a point guard by some at this point, but with as much as he handles the ball, it’s hard to argue he’s not the point of the offense. And Wall? Well consider that he’s 8th among point guards playing 25 minutes a game in assist ratio. He also leads that group in steals per 40 minutes. Don’t look now, but while you’re fawning over Blake Griffin, Wall’s putting together a spectacular rookie season so far.

The point of all this? We are blessed. This is an era of unparalleled talent at the point guard position. Oh, yeah, and that Steve Nash guy? He’s pretty good too.

Three things to know: Luka Doncic looks like an MVP, but can he keep this up?

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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Luka Doncic looks like an MVP, but can he keep this up?

Luka Doncic vs. Stephen Curry.

The schedule makers gave us a showdown of early-season MVP candidates but also two guys who have had to carry a massive load this season, waiting for their teams to come together around them. Curry has gotten more of that lately as Klay Thompson has started to find his legs and some rotation shifts have improved play off the bench.

Luka is still on a Brunson-sized island waiting for help. Tuesday night that island got smaller when Spencer Dinwiddie got ejected for an elbow to the face of the Warriors’ Jordan Poole.

That just meant more Doncic, and he reminded everyone why nobody wants to play the Mavericks in the playoffs with a 41-point triple-double (12 rebounds, 12 assists).

Doncic was a force of nature, although Curry had his chance in the final 10 seconds but got called for traveling (a call the Warriors disputed).

The Mavericks got the 116-113 win. Tim Hardaway Jr. pitched in 25 points, including five 3-pointers for Dallas, but this was the Luka Doncic show.

Doncic has been asked to carry a massive load for Dallas this season. He has a usage rate of 38 through the first quarter of the season, a number that would rank in the top-10 all time (right around 1987 Michael Jordan and 2006 Kobe Bryant).

How long can Doncic do this without starting to wear down? Without risking injury? Sure those other players like Jordan and Kobe got through the entire season, but they also didn’t make the kind of playoff runs Dallas is hoping for. Coming off EuroBasket, Doncic entered this season in the best shape he has ever been in to tip-off an NBA campaign, but there have already been stretches where he has started to look worn down. Then there are nights like Tuesday when he carries the Mavericks to a win and looks unstoppable.

Doncic is young, but asking him to carry this load also puts a ceiling on how good this team can be. Curry is getting that help. Giannis Antetokounmpo is also putting up historic usage percentage numbers this season, but Khris Middleton will return to the Bucks and take on some of that load. The cavalry isn’t coming for Doncic, not in the short term.

If the Mavs want to win in the postseason, it can’t just be the Luka show. But during the regular season, some nights that is enough. At least until he wears down.

2) Damian Lillard to return Sunday, not soon enough for Trail Blazers

The Portland Trail Blazers miss Damian Lillard (calf strain, his second this season) — they are 1-4 in the current five-game stretch without him, playing their worst defense of the season. The latest of those losses — a come-from-ahead loss to a Clippers team without Kawhi Leonard or Paul George — was maybe the team’s worst loss of the season. Anfernee Simons put up 37, the Trail Blazers led by 18 in the second half, and yet they collapsed against a team whose best offensive weapon was Nicholas Batum (32 points).

The good news for the Blazers is Lillard is due back on Sunday, reports Chris Haynes of TNT.

If you didn’t watch the late game on TNT, you missed a battle of two teams trying to keep their heads above water while their star (or stars) sit out injured.

Portland is still 11-10 on the season but has struggled this past week. What was ugly about Tuesday’s loss was the team just let go of the rope. This was a winnable game, but when it got tight they let go.

Powell scored 22 points in the fourth quarter and took over to get the 13-9 Clippers another win.

Los Angeles has done it against a soft schedule, but they keep finding ways to win until their stars return. Nobody is sure how good this team ultimately can be, but Tyronn Lue has got his squad defending and finding ways to win until everyone does get right. It’s an impressive coaching job.

3) Karl-Anthony Towns out weeks with calf strain (likely more than a month)

The MRI is in and Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns is out for weeks with a right calf strain, the team announced. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reports Towns likely will miss 4-6 weeks.

Not good, but it looked a lot worse when it happened.

Towns has averaged 21.4 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and while his stats are down this season — just 32.8% on 3-pointers — the team has struggled at times without him, particularly lineups with Rudy Gobert and Anthony Edwards together, an -11.8 net rating (in non-garbage time minutes, via Cleaning the Glass).

The Timberwolves are not off to the start they thought they would be, and if they don’t figure out a way to win without Towns the next month this season could get sideways on them.

Watch Dinwiddie get ejected for elbow to Poole’s face; Mavs still win behind Doncic 41 points

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Dallas has gotten in trouble this season because of a lack of secondary shot creation behind Luka Doncic, so when Spencer Dinwiddie got ejected for an elbow to the face of Golden State’s Jordan Poole, it seemed like the Mavericks might be in danger of falling to the Warriors.

Doncic had other plans — and a 41-point triple-double.

The ejection happened early in the fourth quarter, when Dinwiddie drove the lane on Poole and, bringing the ball up, elbowed Poole in the face.

That was reviewed by the referees who ruled it a Flagrant 2. The league has cracked down on blows to the face and head — intentional or not — the past couple of seasons.

Dinwiddie being out just meant more Luka — and that was bad news for the Warriors.

Despite Doncic and his triple-double, the Warriors had a couple of chances in the final seconds. First, Stephen Curry got called for a travel.

The Warriors argued that call but got nowhere with the referees. But they got one more chance on a Klay Thompson 3 to tie, but it was just not their night.

The Mavericks got the 116-113 win. Tim Hardaway Jr. pitched in 25 points, including five 3-pointers for Dallas. Curry led the Warriors with 32.

Timberwolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns out 4-6 weeks with calf strain

Minnesota Timberwolves v Washington Wizards
Rob Carr/Getty Images
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It’s not good news, but it looked like it could have been much worse.

Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns is out for weeks with a right calf strain, the team announced Tuesday following an MRI exam. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reports it is likely 4-6 weeks.

The injury occurred midway through the third quarter Monday when Towns started to run back upcourt and went to the ground without contact, grabbing his knee and calf. It looked scary — Achilles scary — and he had to be helped off the court.

Towns has averaged 21.4 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and while his numbers are down this season — just 32.8% on 3-pointers — the team has struggled at times without him, particularly lineups with Rudy Gobert and Anthony Edwards together, an -11.8 net rating (in non-garbage time minutes, via Cleaning the Glass).

Kevin Durant on chasing MVP: ‘Not really, I’ve been there, done that’

Orlando Magic v Brooklyn Nets
Mike Stobe/Getty Images
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Kevin Durant carried the Nets to another win Monday night, scoring 45 points on 19-of-24 shooting, plus seven rebounds and five assists.

If you’re having an MVP conversation a quarter of the way into the NBA season, Durant has to be part of it: 30 points per game on 54.8% shooting (and a ridiculous 65.9 true shooting percentage), 6.6 rebounds and 5.5 assists a game, plus playing solid defense and being the anchor of the Nets. After his 45-point outing to get Brooklyn a win over Orlando, Durant was asked about MVP chants and the chase for the award and was clearly not interested.

Durant has MVP numbers, but so do Stephen Curry, Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jayson Tatum and others. If Durant is going to move to the front of the conversation, the first thing that has to happen is Brooklyn has to win a lot more games — 11-11 is not going to cut it when Tatum’s Celtics and Antetokounmpo’s Bucks have the two best records in the NBA. Winning games and finishing on a top-three team in the conference matters to some voters (and traditionally is one measure of an MVP).