This is the golden age of NBA point guards.
And in this age, with so many dynamic floor generals, it can be difficult to determine where each one ranks. Somewhere near the top, though, are Damian Lillard and John Wall.
That brings us to today’s “Who You Got?” Or more specifically, who would you rather have as your point guard for the 2016-17 season?
Before getting into specific aspects of the game, a basic head-to-head comparison of each player’s 2015-16 sets the stage well.
Wall was 21st in the league in scoring last season and came in at just under 20 points a game. That’s not too shabby, but Lillard is one of the best scorers in the game.
Lillard ranked sixth in the NBA in points per game and was more efficient than Wall in nearly every significant play type:
The only edge Wall has is in finishing inside. On shots within three feet of the rim, he shot 59.8 percent (61.9 percent for his career). Lillard shot 54.6 percent from that range last season (down from 64.2 percent the year before). Based on the number of shots they took from there, though, that’s a difference of less than a point per game over the course of a season.
Lillard has the clear edge from downtown, which is more important in today’s game. The best scorers have discovered that if you can hit threes at or above a league-average rate, the more you take, the better. Obviously, that shouldn’t be a free pass to take bad shots, and opportunity often has a lot to do with schemes, but Lillard is the smarter and more efficient scorer.
Dame takes the lead, 1-0.
As lopsided as scoring was, this category could go just as far the other way. Again, scheme plays a role — Wall is asked to do more as a playmaker — but the raw numbers are tough to ignore.
Wall was third in assists, second in secondary assists, second in potential assists and second in points created through assists per game. Lillard was no slouch, either, ranking 10th, 22nd, 10th and ninth in those categories, respectively.
But again, we’re dealing with a situation where one is really good and the other is one of the very best in the NBA. Advantage Wall.
Things are even at 1-1.
ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus ranks Damian Lillard 79th out of 81 points guards. The only two who are worse are Zach LaVine (who ESPN incorrectly classified as a point guard) and J.J. Barea.
In case you still need much convincing on this category, we can talk about what Wall does defensively. He ranked 10th in steals per game and was second among players 6’4″ or shorter in blocks per game.
Wall’s athleticism and length make him one of the league’s best options to navigate an opponent’s pick-and-roll, while Lillard is often put there in an effort to exploit Portland’s D.
Reputations here clearly favor Lillard, and for good reason. He’s hit some huge shots in pressure situations, while Wall has struggled to perform in his two playoff appearances.
But actual numbers in the clutch (when the game is in the last five minutes and the score’s within five points) show a tighter race.
Lillard played 131 minutes in the clutch last season and averaged 34.4 points, five rebounds and 3.6 assists per 36 minutes. He shot 37.4 percent from the field and 30.8 percent from three. And the Blazers were minus-4.1 points per 36 minutes with Lillard on the floor in the clutch.
As for Wall, he played 129 clutch minutes. He went for 31.9 points, 8.4 assists and 5.6 rebounds per 36. He shot 34.6 percent from the field and 29.6 percent from deep. Washington was plus-0.8 per 36 minutes with Wall on the floor in the clutch.
While the latter’s team performed better in tight situations last season, Lillard has his reputation for a reason and you need the guy who can get his own shot down the stretch. The slight edge in scoring gives Lillard the slight edge in clutch.
Back to a tie, 2-2.
This is about as tight a call as we’ve had in “Who You Got?” It ultimately comes down to what you want out of your point guard and how much more important you think offense is than defense.
For what it’s worth, the fans took Lillard in a landslide:
— Andy Bailey (@AndrewDBailey) August 25, 2016
The fact that he plays a more modern game and took his stripped-down Blazers to the playoffs in the grueling Western Conference helps, but Wall does more overall.
He’s hit threes at a league-average rate in two of the last three seasons, is a vastly superior defender and does more to get his teammates involved.
And while Scott Brooks was never the most inventive coach with the Oklahoma City Thunder, he did help mold Russell Westbrook into one of the most productive all-around players the league has ever seen. His impact on Wall this season will be a positive one.
The argument is strong for either player, but combining the above with Wall’s size and athleticism gives him the win.
Andy Bailey is on Twitter @AndrewDBailey.