I’ve gone through the best big men and wings of all time, so now it’s time for the point guards. Back before the three-point line was installed and double-teaming legalized, the primary duty of point guards was to initiate the offense. Indeed, it was axiomatic that teams whose leading scorer played the point rarely won championships.
So, with a few notable exceptions, most of the players ranked below were playmakers rather than scorers.
1. OSCAR ROBERTSON
“The Big O” excelled in every aspect of the game — shooting, passing, scoring in the low post, handling, setting screens, boxing out, running, jumping, rebounding and playing lockdown defense. He averaged a triple-double in 1961-62 — 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists. Two years later, he just missed equaling this when he “only” averaged 9.9 assists. After his retirement, he said this: “If I had known it was such a big deal, I would have averaged a triple-double for my entire career.”
At least one of his peers swore that Oscar was the best non-big in the history of the NBA. “Oscar couldn’t fly,” said Hall of Famer Nate Thurmond, “but he did everything else better than Michael Jordan.”
2. MAGIC JOHNSON
Nobody was a better passer on the run than Magic. Nor could any point guard finish better than he did. At 6’9” and 235 pounds, Magic was a freak at his position. Because of his size he could see over any defender and make unobstructed pinpoint passes. Yet with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar perpetually stationed in the pivot, Magic’s opportunities to drive-and-dish were severely restricted. When he had his own opportunity to duck into the low post, Magic’s sweeping hook shots also made him a dynamic scorer.
Magic ranks second to Robertson only because his defense was awful and, until he developed a retrograde one-handed push shot in his later years, he was a sub-par shooter.
3. JERRY WEST
His pet move was virtually unstoppable. West would dribble hard right, stop on a dime, then bounce high off the floorboards to release his deadly jumper. If he seldom went left, it was only because he didn’t need to. West was an excellent defender, as well as a good, if not great passer — although he did lead the league with 9.7 assists per game in 1971-72. West was also a perfectionist who was never satisfied with his teammates’ game no matter what the outcome. Even so, “Mr. Clutch” always wanted the ball when a game was up for grabs.
4. JOHN STOCKTON
He was the epitome of the classic point guard — shoot only when necessary and always look to pass. Stockton’s decision-making was flawless, as were his change-of-pace dribbles and screen-setting. When big men set screens against him, Stockton would relish the chance to bang into their knees — a tactic that moved some opponents to call him a dirty player. In any event, Stockton’s defense was excellent, even though he’d often gamble for steals, and sometimes turn his head to follow the bouncing ball. The best aspect of Stockton’s game was to make a Hall of Fame player out of Karl Malone.
5. WALT FRAZIER
“Clyde” was a super-cool dude whose skills covered the entire game. He rebounded like a big man, rarely missed passing to the open man and was a stopper on defense. Indeed, one of the reasons why the Knicks had so much postseason success against the Lakers was Frazier’s ability to lock up Jerry West and throw away the key.
6. DENNIS JOHNSON
DJ scored when he had to, but was most noted for his defense. So good was his D that Johnson was the only opponent who could force Magic to turn his back away from the Lakers’ attack zone to prevent his dribble from being ripped. Although he’s been grossly underrated over the course of his 14-year career, DJ won three gold rings — one with Seattle and a pair with Boston.
7. LENNY WILKENS
He was a smooth operator who could come up with whatever was necessary to win a close game. A neat lefty drive, a pull-and-pop, a slick pass, a steal, an unexpected rebound…whenever Wilkens happened to make a bad decision with the ball, both his teammates and his opponents gasped in disbelief.
8. ISIAH THOMAS
For sure, he could score and play pesky defense, but only Detroit’s opponents knew that “Zeke” was the baddest of the “Bad Boys.” That’s because one of his favorite ploys on defense was to step on an opponent’s take-off foot when the player was about to jump to the rim.
9. JASON KIDD
A truly great passer with an Einsteinian basketball IQ, Kidd could also play lockdown defense. Ah, but if he could only shoot he’d have been much closer to the top of the list.
10. BOB COUSY
Another superb passer who orchestrated the offense for six Celtics championships. He was only a so-so shooter and poor defender, but the “Cooz” was always a winner.
OTHER NOTABLE CANDIDATES — Slater Martin, Guy Rodgers, Dick McGuire, Ralph Beard and Mo Cheeks.