Editor’s note: This column on the greatest point guards of all time was pulled from a larger mailbag column.
Q: How do you leave Gary Payton off your list of 10 best point guards of the last 60 years (in the last mailbag)? You put Kidd and Nash ahead of him on your little list! How can you justify your omission?
–Ta Ron Barnes, Chicago
SG: You’re right, that was an egregious oversight — I apologize to Sonics fans everywhere, as well as GP, Don Cheadle and President Palmer’s brother on “24.” We need to rectify this immediately. The problem is that I have 12 guys for 10 spots, forcing me to bump Lenny Wilkens (who snuck onto the NBA’s “50 at 50” list over Dominique Wilkins and Bob McAdoo for reasons nobody can adequately explain) and Kevin Johnson (who I mistakenly included on my previous list, which was dumb because he doesn’t have the resume of the other guys, he didn’t play long enough and he didn’t show up for the 1993 Finals until Game 5). But it had to be done.
So here’s my official top-10 “Greatest Point Guards of the Last 60 Years” list (in reverse order):
10. Tiny Archibald
Positives: Three first-team All-NBAs, two second teams … only player to lead the league in scoring and assists in the same season (1974) … blew out his Achilles in 1977, then rejuvenated his career in Boston and helped them win the ’81 title (note: the ’82 team was even better, but Tiny separated his shoulder in the Philly series) … the last great New York City point guard who actually delivered the goods in the NBA: he could always beat his guy off the dribble and knew exactly how to run a team … don’t you miss the days where point guards were named “Magic” and “Tiny?”
Negatives: Played on five teams in all (never a good sign) … put up his biggest stats during some weak NBA years (1972-76, when the ABA was stealing young talent from college and high school) … only played 47 playoff games total … a hero to New York point guards like Kenny Anderson, Stephon Marbury and Sebastian Telfair, and that sentence is scary enough in itself.
9. Steve Nash
Positives: Has an excellent chance to win back-to-back MVP’s, a sentence that looks so unbelievable in print, my eyeballs just popped out of my head Allan Ray-style … exceptionally fun to watch on the offensive end … helped bring back three dying art forms this decade: passing, fast breaks and crappy hair … following the Janet Jones betting scandal, replaced Wayne Gretzky as the most popular athlete in Canada … this ranking could go up or down depending on how the next few years pan out, but the bottom line is this: not only are Cousy, Oscar, Magic and Nash the only point guards that ever won MVP’s, but Bird, Magic, MJ, Russell, Wilt, Duncan, Moses and Kareem were the only ones that went back-to-back. Yikes.
Negatives: Only made two third-team All-NBAs and two All-Star teams before last season … struggled with injuries for his first five years (missing 73 games) … an atrocious, ATROCIOUS defensive player … looks like Jackie Earle Haley and James Blunt … everyone forgets this now, but the Suns were ridiculed by nearly everyone (not me) for spending $60 million two summers ago on a guy with a bad back who couldn’t play D … definitely lucked out by peaking for consecutive seasons without a true dominant player in the league.
8. Jason Kidd
Positives: Five All-NBA first teams (1999-2002, 2004), one second team (2003) … easily could have won the 2002 MVP (he finished second to Duncan) … still playing well, which will move him up on this list if he can keep it going for 3-4 more years … turned flawed guys like Rex Chapman, Keith Van Horn, Kerry Kittles, Todd MacCulluch and others into assets … single-handedly dragged a ho-hum Nets team into the Finals for two straight years … averaged an Oscar-esque 20-9-8 in the 2002 playoffs … maybe the only person alive who could have salvaged Vince Carter’s career … made every All-Star Game 30 percent more watchable … with the notable exception of Magic, nobody grabbed a rebound, turned on the jets, went coast to coast and got to the rim like J-Kidd.
Negatives: Traded an astonishing three times before he turned 29 … a career 40-percent shooter (39 percent in the playoffs) … failed to stick his wife and son in a suite during the 2002 and 2003 playoffs, leading to roughly 300,000 shots of them in the crowd during that time … involved in the famous Toni Braxton Love Triangle with Mavs teammate Jimmy Jackson that ended up leading to the dissolution of that roster (although it did lead to countless Brandon/Dylan/Kelly jokes) … once traded straight up for Stephon Marbury … you could argue that the “J-Kidd” moniker was partly responsible for the whole sports/acronym craze that spiralled out of control and eventually led to Linda Cohn calling Pudge Rodriguez “I-Rod.”
7. Walt Frazier
Positives: Two All-NBA first teams, four All-NBA second teams, two rings … one of the great big-game players of his generation, as well as one of the best defensive players ever … played one of the single greatest games ever (Game 7, 1970 Finals — 36 points, 19 assists, 5 steals) and was totally overshadowed by Willis Reed (justifiably, but still) … pulled off mutton-chop sideburns, mink coats, Rolls Royces and everything else in the ’70s and probably had more sex than any New York athlete short of Joe Namath … had one of the great nicknames ever (“Clyde”) … none other than my father (a 33-year Celtics season-ticket holder) believes that Frazier and MJ were the two best guards he’s ever seen in person.
Negatives: Surprisingly short career (only nine quality years) … gave up 68 points to Pete Maravich during the ’77 season … it’s tough to know how great he was in the ’70s because of the ABA factor … also tough to evaluate former Knicks because old-school New York fans continue to brainwash everyone into believing that A) the ’70 Knicks were the greatest team ever (even though they followed a Celtics team that had won 11 out of 13 titles and beat them the previous season); and B) Monroe, Frazier, Reed, DeBusschere and Bradley were five of the greatest 15 players ever … seems to be intentionally trying to shatter the Unintentional Comedy Scale with his announcing (which I can’t condone).
6. Gary Payton
Positives: Two All-NBA first teams, six All-NBA second teams, five top-six finishes in the MVP voting … one of the best defensive players ever (nine straight All-Defensive first teams) … best player on a ’96 Sonics team that won 64 games and took two in the Finals from the 72-win Bulls … legendary trash-talker … helped make the “shaved head” thing popular in the early ’90s, then stuck with it through thick and thin … should have been nominated for an Oscar for his turn in “Eddie” … on a personal note, I watched Kidd, Stockton and GP in their absolute primes and thought GP was the best player of the three (he just had no holes as a player) … if Shawn Kemp hadn’t self-destructed, GP would have won at least one ring.
Negatives: Only played at a high level for 12 years (not as long as Stockton) … shockingly traded by Seattle in 2002, which was strange because franchises normally don’t trade signature guys … his last three seasons (Los Angeles, Boston and Miami) have been shockingly bad, to the point that I suggested changing the name of “jumping the shark” to “pulling a GP” after the 2004 Finals … the Celtics once turned down a “GP for Dee Brown” offer in 1992, which continues to bum me out 14 years later.
5. John Stockton
Positives: Astounding durable and prolific … almost Ripken-esque in that he played every regular-season game in 17 of 19 seasons (and missed a total of 22 in the other two seasons) … one of the underrated clutch players of his era … affected Karl Malone’s career to the point that it’s almost impossible to evaluate Malone’s career accurately …. looked like David Duchovny … made a valiant attempt to keep the whole Tight Shorts thing going in the mid-’90s despite mounting opposition.
Negatives: Only made two All-NBA first teams and never placed higher than eighth in MVP voting … was only the undisputed “best point guard alive” for two seasons (’94 and ’95) … one of the dirtiest players of his era; everyone was thrown off by his Lego Man haircut … never won a title … couldn’t guard anyone in the league during the last 5-6 years of his career … gets partial blame for all those Jazz teams that were so methodical and appalling to watch.
4. Isiah Thomas
Positives: Best pure point guard ever … three straight All-NBA first teams (1984-1986) … sacrificed his own stats (and probably a few records) to get everyone else on his team involved … unstoppable at the end of games … the best player on a team that won two titles in a row (and should have won three) … had an overcompetitive/nasty/tenacious side that was almost unparalleled … got the absolute best out of flawed players like Kelly Tripucka, Vinnie Johnson, James Edwards, John Salley, Rick Mahorn and others … along with Moses Malone, the most underrated superstar of the past 30 years … completely killed the Knicks as a GM to the point that their fans might start rioting soon … only player on this list to threaten me on a radio show.
Negatives: That overcompetitive/nasty/tenacious streak also made him the poorest sport of that era … disgraced the Pistons and their fans by leading the walkout before Game 4 ended in the 1991 Bulls series … inexplicably kissed Magic before every game in the 1988 Finals … one of the five worst color analysts of all time (in any sport) … once choked his own trainer during a game … destroyed the CBA to the point that he could have invited all the players and executives into one building, then dropped an atom bomb on that same building and not done as much damage.
3. Bob Cousy
Positives: The greatest pure point guard for the first 35 years of the sport … 10 All-NBA first teams, one MVP, three top-four finishes, six rings … revolutionized the game with his passing … got robbed with his career stats because, back in the ’50s and ’60s, you could only earn an assists on passes that directly led to a basket … Holy Cross grad … as an announcer, had a phenomenal French/New York accent in which he couldn’t pronounce “R’s,” leading to the outstanding scenario in 2002 when he had to call Rodney Rogers “Wodd-ney” for three months … broke down during Bill Russell’s “SportsCentury” episode, which remains the most emotional moment in ESPN history that didn’t involve Jim Valvano.
Negatives: As time passes, his statistical resume looks worse and worse because of the low field-goal percentages (even though everyone was in the 35-40 percent range back then) and the low assists (not his fault) … never won a title without Russell … born in France.
2. Oscar Robertson
Positives: Just about every relevant guy from the ’60s (Russell, West, Havlicek, Wilt, Baylor) maintained that Oscar was the best player of that decade … nine straight All-NBA first teams from 1961-1969 … the 1964 MVP … averaged a triple-double in 1961 … won a ring with the ’71 Bucks … cool nickname (“The Big O”) … called rebounds “ball boards.”
Negatives: The triple-double in 1961 was a little overrated because all the offensive stats were completely skewed that season (it was like a steroids year in baseball) … famously intense and rough on his teammates, almost to a fault (like a miniature version of KG) … by all accounts, he was about as fun to hang out with as a viper snake … was more of a guard than a point guard, much like Dwyane Wade now … traded by Cincy in 1970, which seems strange because teams don’t usually trade one of the greatest players of all time.
1. Magic Johnson
Positives: Nine straight first-team All-NBAs, five rings, three MVPs in four years (1987, 1989, 1990) … played one of the greatest single games ever (Game 6, 1980 Finals — 42 points, 15 rebounds, 7 assists) … cracks the starting five of any “Greatest Team Ever” discussion … along with Bird, helped bring back the art of passing in the early ’80s … shattered the Unintentional Comedy Scale with “The Magic Hour” … launched his own line of movie theaters … once said the quote, “There will nev-ah, ev-ah, ev-ah be another Larry Bird.”
Negatives: Magic’s HIV announcement in 1991 scared everyone in my generation from casual sex (which just happened to coincide with my senior year in college and my early 20s; thanks, Magic) … three embarrassing comebacks (two as a player, one as a coach) … inexplicably kissed Isiah before every game in the 1988 Finals … wasn’t even the best player on his own team until 1987 … you couldn’t hide him on defense … one of the five worst color analysts of all time (in any sport) … proudly held up a Three-Ball trophy three years ago.
Bill Simmons writes two columns per week for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. You can reach his Sports Guy’s World site here. His book “Now I Can Die In Peace” is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.