Where Do Gilbert Arenas and Baron Davis Rank Among Elite NBA Point Guards?Baron Davis led the Golden State Warriors to one playoff appearance in three seasons and he has been injury-prone for most of his career, so the Warriors understandably declined to offer him a long term contract extension--but they inexplicably are reportedly willing to pay more than $100 million to pry Gilbert Arenas away from the Washington Wizards. Fortunately for Golden State fans, the Warriors apparently will not have a chance to overpay Arenas because the Wizards and Arenas have reached a verbal agreement for $111 million over six years (contracts cannot be signed until July 9 when the precise amount of next season's salary cap is calculated). If that deal goes through it will be the sixth largest NBA contract signed since the implementation of the 1999 Collective Bargaining Agreement. While the L.A. Lakers--who signed Kobe Bryant for $136.4 million in 2004--and the San Antonio Spurs--who signed Tim Duncan for $122 million in 2003--are undoubtedly pleased with the return they have received on their sizable investments, the Indiana Pacers (Jermaine O'Neal, $126.6 million in 2003) and Sacramento Kings (Chris Webber, $122.7 million in 2001) surely have experienced serious buyers' remorse. It remains to be seen what the Orlando Magic will think of the $126 million investment they made in Rashard Lewis in 2007 but that seems to be an awfully steep price for a player who has made one All-Star appearance in 10 NBA seasons.
Arenas missed 69 games due to injury last season, was a shell of his former self during the playoffs and missed the entire 2007 postseason due to injury. He has led the Wizards past the first round of the playoffs once in five seasons. The word "elite" is poorly defined in reference to NBA players and it is thrown around far too casually. Bottom line: if you are not on one of the three All-NBA Teams--or a player who deserved to be there but clearly got snubbed--then you are not an elite player. An All-Star is not an elite player; every year there are 24 All-Stars plus another 5-10 players who could just as easily have made the cut. An elite player must be no worse than one of the top five players at his position and one of the top 15 players in the NBA. Even when fully healthy, Davis and Arenas operate at the fringes of elite territory: Arenas made the All-NBA Second Team in 2007 and the All-NBA Third Team in 2005 and 2006, while Davis made the All-NBA Third Team in 2004. Of course, the most relevant issue is the likelihood that they will be elite players in the future. Let's compare Arenas and Davis to the truly elite NBA point guards.
1) Chris Paul is the gold standard for current NBA point guards. He scores, passes, rebounds and defends. His main weakness is that because he is only 6-0, 175 he can be posted up by bigger point guards and in certain situations he can be taken advantage of defensively when switching pick and roll plays. His shooting touch was a bit suspect prior to this season but Paul largely put those concerns to rest by putting up career high numbers in field goal percentage (.488), three point field goal percentage (.369) and free throw percentage (.851); however, in the playoffs he shot poorly from three point range (.238).
Key 2007-08 numbers: 21.1 ppg, 11.6 apg (first in the NBA), 4.0 rpg, 2.7 spg (first in the NBA), .488 FG%, .369 3FG%, .851 FT% in the regular season; 24.1 ppg, 11.3 apg, 4.9 rpg, 2.3 spg, .502 FG%, .238 3FG%, .785 FT% in the playoffs while leading Hornets to the second round.
Finished second in MVP voting, made the All-NBA First Team.
2) Steve Nash won the 2005 and 2006 MVPs. It should be obvious that he was not in fact the best all-around player in the NBA during those seasons but it is equally obvious that he was the best point guard in the league during that time and that is all that is relevant in this discussion. Nash finished second to Dirk Nowitzki in the 2007 MVP voting but was still the best point guard in the NBA. Last season, Paul ended Nash's three year reign as the assist champion and Paul also took the crown as the best point guard. Nash is the best pure shooter among NBA point guards and he is a tremendous passer, particularly in pick and roll situations. Nash is a poor one on one defender and his weakness in that area has really hurt Phoenix during the playoffs.
Key 2007-08 numbers: 16.9 ppg, 11.1 apg (second in the NBA), 3.5 rpg, .7 spg, .504 FG%, .470 3FG% (second in the NBA), .906 FT% (fifth in the NBA) in the regular season; 16.2 ppg, 7.8 apg, 2.8 rpg, .4 spg, .457 FG%, .300 3FG%, .917 FT% in the playoffs during a 4-1 first round loss.
Finished ninth in MVP voting, made the All-NBA Second Team.
3) Deron Williams will likely be battling with Paul for many years to earn recognition as the NBA's best point guard. The 6-3, 210 Williams is significantly bigger and more physically powerful than Paul but he is not as explosively quick and is a surprisingly poor rebounder considering his size and strength. I'd give Nash a slight edge over Williams in 2008 based on Nash's shooting prowess and his greater amount of experience but I expect Williams to be the superior player starting next season.
Key 2007-08 numbers: 18.8 ppg, 10.5 apg (third in the NBA), 3.0 rpg, 1.1 spg, .507 FG%, .395 3FG%, .803 FT% in the regular season; 21.6 ppg, 10.0 apg, 3.6 rpg, .6 spg, .492 FG%, .500 3FG%, .773 FT% in the playoffs while leading the Jazz to the second round.
Finished 12th in the MVP voting, made the All-NBA Second Team.
4) Tony Parker has yet to make the All-NBA Team even once but he is worthy of being considered an elite point guard in light of his 2007 Finals MVP performance and the fact that he has been a vital contributor to three championship teams as the starting point guard. Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili divide the scoring load pretty evenly and Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich limits their regular season minutes to preserve them for the playoffs, which means that none of the Spurs' "Big Three" put up huge regular season statistics. Parker is not as good of a pure shooter as Paul, Nash or Williams, nor is Parker quite as adept as those guys in terms of playmaking, but Parker's blazing quickness and ability to finish strongly at the rim make him very difficult to contain. Parker has wisely slashed his three point attempts from a career-high 243 in 2002-03 (his second season) to 36, 38 and 66 the past three seasons. Nash had better regular season numbers than Parker but Parker completely outplayed Nash in the Spurs' win over the Suns in the first round.
Key 2007-08 numbers: 18.8 ppg, 6.0 apg, 3.2 rpg, .8 spg, .494 FG%, .258 3FG%, .715 FT% in the regular season; 22.4 ppg, 6.1 apg, 3.7 rpg, .9 spg, .497 FG%, .350 3FG%, .753 FT% while leading the Spurs to a 4-1 loss to the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.
Paul, Nash and Williams were the only point guards on this year's three All-NBA Teams. The other guards (Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady and Manu Ginobili) are shooting guards, as is Denver's Allen Iverson, who received the most points (116) in the voting of any player who did not make the team. Chauncey Billups and Baron Davis received slight consideration, amassing 38 and 32 points respectively; Ginobili, the last guard on the All-NBA Third Team, received 123 points, while Williams--who had the lowest total of the three point guards who made the cut--had 228 points.
Billups could perhaps be granted "elite emeritus" status based on his 2004 Finals MVP, his fifth place finish in the 2006 MVP voting and a pair of selections to the All-NBA Team (Second Team in 2006, Third Team in 2007), but he is a level below Paul, Nash, Williams and Parker now. In the 2007-08 regular season, Billups put up these numbers: 17.0 ppg, 6.8 apg, 2.7 rpg, 1.3 spg, .448 FG%, .401 3FG%, .918 FT%. His performance declined across the board in the playoffs.
Davis had an excellent season, perhaps the best all-around campaign of his career when you consider both production and durability, but I would not take him over Paul, Nash, Williams or Parker. Davis averaged 21.8 ppg, 7.6 apg (sixth in the NBA), 4.7 rpg, 2.3 spg (third in the NBA), .426 FG%, .330 3FG% and .750 FT% in 2007-08. Davis settles for jumpers and three pointers far too frequently, a flaw that he shares with Arenas, who played in just 13 regular season games and four playoff games in 2007-08.
At his best, Davis is an explosive talent who can physically dominate bigger players but his shot selection, subpar shooting ability and inconsistent defense render him a less reliable player than the truly elite point guards. Similarly, Arenas is a streak shooting talent who can be dazzling when he is hitting his shots but his shot selection is poor, his defense is worse than Davis' and he often seems to be more concerned about being the center of attention than winning games.
Davis and Arenas are not better than Paul, Nash, Williams or Parker and thus it is very difficult to objectively justify awarding a maximum contract to either of them. I say "objectively" because there are many other considerations that come into play: marketing, ticket sales, the reaction of the fan base of their respective teams, etc. However, purely on the basis of their individual skill sets and their ability to lead a championship contending team, neither Arenas nor Davis are worthy of receiving maximum contracts. Arenas is being lauded now for "giving back" $16 million instead of insisting on receiving the absolute maximum deal from the Wizards--I put "giving back" in quotation marks because you cannot really give something back that you never had in the first place; Arenas said, "You see players take max deals and they financially bind their teams. I don't wanna be one of those players and three years down the road your team is strapped and can't do anything about it." That is a laudable sentiment but even at this supposedly "discounted" rate Arenas is still vastly overpaid and it is questionable how much the Wizards will be able to do with that $16 million, an amount that could do a lot of good in the real world but does not necessarily give the team that much ability to significantly upgrade the roster. I commend Arenas for making that gesture but I still maintain that with him as the featured--and highest paid--player the Wizards will not get past the second round of the playoffs.
posted by David Friedman @ 3:14 AM