20: Terrell Brandon. I know what you're thinking. Of the two talented, but often injured, point guards from the mid-nineties, you choose Brandon over Penny Hardaway? Terrell Brandon may have been less memorable, but he was just as effective. At his best, Brandon was recognized as one of the top guards in the game, making back to back All-Star Game appearances in 1996-1997, and starring on this memorable SI cover.
Brandon's 1996 is a great example of how conventional stats can understate a player's contributions. His numbers, 19 points on 47% shooting, 7 assists, 2 steals per game, are very good, but hardly "best point guard in the game" material. However, he put up those numbers on uncannily mistake-free play. He almost never missed a free throw, played good defense while never fouling, and had an extremely low turnover rate. The other major factor to consider is team context. The Cavs were the slowest team in the league with a pace factor of 82.3. The difference between the Cavs and the next slowest team in the league (Detroit), was the same as difference between Detroit (28th) and the 12th fastest team in the league (Houston).
To put it in other words, in 1996 Penny Hardaway scored more points and had more assists per game than Brandon. However, Brandon scored on a higher percentage of his team's possessions, and assisted his teammates on a higher percentage of his team's possessions, than Hardaway. Looking at his statistics this way shows how good Brandon was.
19: Sam Cassell. Sam Cassell's teams made the playoffs in 10 out of 13 seasons from 1994 through 2006. The only exceptions were a year he got traded twice, a 41 win team, and a 44 win team. Cassell has never been viewed as a star, only making one All-Star game, but he's been a consistent scorer and passer for some very good offenses for more than a decade.
As for the very good offenses, consider the 1998 Nets. Featuring a starting lineup of Cassell, Kendall Gill, Kerry Kittles, Keith Van Horn, and Jayson Williams, they finished 5th in the league in offense. Cassell also starred for the Ray Allen-Glenn Robinson Bucks, who were consistently one of the top offenses in the leagues. Cassell had his finest season in the coveted "only good player other than Kevin Garnett*" role. The Wolves won 58 games riding a MVP caliber season from Garnett and an excellent season from Cassell, before being derailed by an injury to Cassell in the playoffs.
*The magic of Fred Hoiberg notwithstanding.
18: Tim Hardaway. The "T" in TMC (and "Tim" in TimZo), Hardaway was everything a good point guard should be. He could run an offense, piled up assists, and scored from beyond the arc and in the lane. As a key component of some of the most exciting offenses of the nineties and some of the most effective grind it out defensive-minded teams of the nineties, he showed that he could be effective in a wide variety of situations.
If he's everything a point guard should be, why isn't he ranked with the elite point guards? Despite his success with the Heat, Hardaway was a mediocre defender, a mediocre rebounder, and he posted mediocre efficiencies. For me, this spot on the list is the Hall of Fame "bubble" (to use college basketball terminology).
17: Bob Davies. The first great point guard. Trying to evaluate him statistically is very difficult, so this ranking is based on his reputation, what statistics we have (which are good), and his status as the best player on the only team to beat Mikan's Lakers in their prime. Davies is famous for being the first pro guard to feature the behind the back dribble, and other "flashy" moves, several years before Bob Cousy.
One reason that Davies is hard to evaluate is that we don't have any statistics for him until he was 29, when he joined the BAA (which was to become the NBA the following season), which he led in assists. We know that he was a two time All-American at Seton Hall, and he was the NBL MVP in 1947. When compared to his peers, Davies probably deserves to be a little higher on this list, but I bumped him down a little bit due to uncertainty.
16: Tiny Archibald. Best known for leading the league in points and assists in 1973, Archibald put up big numbers for mediocre Kings teams and smaller numbers for much better Celtics teams. One of the most entertaining players in the league, the creative Archibald was a one man offense for a series of mediocre teams. As might be expected from a player nicknamed "Tiny", Archibald struggled with defense and rebounding, but he made up for it with sheer offensive production.
The quintessential NYC point guard, Archibald was what NBA fans hoped Starbury would become. Maybe not a great defender, but dominant on offense, electric in transition, and able to run a great team when circumstances demanded it. Unfortunately, Marbury never reached that level, further confirming the theory that the original is better than the sequel.