Handle with Care - The Most Effective (and fun) Ball Handlers in the NBA

Who is the most effective ball handler in the NBA, and why?

The golden age of point guards in the NBA is upon us; never before have fans around the globe had so much ammo for barbershop arguments. Who’s the best scorer at the position? Who’s the best defender? Rebounder? Passer? Each category has its fair share of competitors, and each category is convoluted by silly, complicated things like team context and role - things that aren’t welcome when arguing with your friend on the street corner about Damian Lillard’s shooting vs. John Wall’s playmaking.

There’s only one category that we can look at individually to determine who is truly the best, and it also happens to be the most fun to watch - handles. There’s a flashy side of ball handling - a nasty crossover leaving a defender with sore ankles and what little is left of his dignity. But there is also a subtler side of ball handling - the calm fluidity and patience of a guard probing a defense and drawing defenders with scientific precision, all while remaining prepared for the perfect opportunity to throw an ally-oop or hit a nasty stepback. Today, there’s a veritable ton of players with incredible handles, especially with bigger players like Kevin Durant or Lebron James - guys who really shouldn’t be able to handle the ball, but choose to flip off God and do it anyway.

Among the point guards, however, there are three main contenders for the title of the most effective ball handler; Kyrie Irving, Steph Curry, and Chris Paul. 

For the purposes of this discussion, effectiveness will be loosely defined as ball handling that is conducive to both individual success and team success at a high level. Flashiness, for lack of a better word, is also considered.

Please note that this ranking is ultimately picking at flaws that don’t really matter in an actual NBA game. These three are the best ball handlers in the league - if we don’t find differences in their style of ball handling and analyze them, then what’s the point?

#3 - Stephen Curry

The two-time league MVP and unconscious 3 point rainer is ranked third on our list, and this exercise already seems unfair - especially considering that the two most impressive plays on his highlight reel are against the higher ranked Chris Paul.

Steph will use his shooting to accentuate his ball handling skills and draw defenders off-balance; his signature behind-the-back dribble, for example, wouldn’t be nearly as deadly if it didn’t immediately generate the space needed for his split-second shot release. This allows Curry to chain together moves that put even more pressure on defenders to stop a near instantaneous, ridiculously accurate pull-up jumper.

Here, CP3 picks up Steph in semi-transition, but the slightest hint of a pull-up shot has him jumping out of his shoes 28 feet from the basket. Steph doesn’t even have to pick up his dribble. This is a regular occurrence, especially for the poor big men who get stuck guarding him on the perimeter.

The only reason Curry is third on this list is because of a massive advantage he has over both Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving - literally unbelievable shooting ability off the dribble. This allows Curry to use his insane handles defensively rather than offensively - note how many of the highlights above show Steph moving the ball backwards or laterally before attacking or shooting. Kyrie and CP3 are both great shooters in their own right, but Curry is a never-before-seen force in that regard.

Also factored into Curry’s ranking is his somewhat maddening propensity to seek out flashy plays over winning plays - an oft-criticized tendency that took center stage during Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals. The indescribable highlight plays are truly awe inspiring, but the boneheaded turnovers that don’t show up on the highlight reels cause your team to blow a 3-1 series lead for the first time in NBA Finals history. Mandatory ankle braces for opposing players is fun, but ultimately LeBron James would get crossed up on national TV six hundred times if it meant he could add another championship ring to his collection.

Since we can’t see how well Curry would handle the ball without his shooting ability, we can’t separate his handle from his historical shooting - as a result, he’s stuck with the bronze medal in this competition. Curry will surely be disappointed to hear this, but he’ll be able to wipe his tears with approximately 50 billion dollars when he becomes a free agent next offseason.

#2 - Kyrie Irving

This is likely the most controversial placement of all three of our contestants. Irving is a special talent, a unique ballhandler that Mr. Crossover himself, Allen Iverson, wishes he could play against. It's no secret that Kyrie probably has the best mixtape of any point guard in the league, but unfortunately, mixtapes aren't everything (as fans of OJ Mayo and Perry Jones III can tell you).

Kyrie is the basketball equivalent of a fly that’s been distracting you all day. A cursory look gives the assumption that you are well equipped to take out the threat, but soon after, the realization hits - you can’t kill it if you can’t get your hands on it. Defenders trying to impede Irving have trouble slowing him down thanks to his aggressive nature combined with his strength and stop-and-go quickness. This allowing Irving to leisurely access his full arsenal: an array of hesitations, crossovers, unorthodox dribbles, and blindingly fast footwork that leave defenders befuddled. Kyrie Irving’s handle is the polar opposite of Steph Curry’s; he is at his best aggressively attacking with his handle rather than sitting back. He also boasts an absurd selection of Eurosteps and shimmies that complement his ball handling perfectly, allowing him to be one of the best finishers in the league despite his size.

Kyrie’s best ball handling asset, though, is undoubtedly his nasty crossover - a move he has perfected, and a move he likes to break out as soon as a defender is even remotely off balance. Combined with his light touch and ability to stay low with the ball on a string, Kyrie is virtually unguardable in one on one situations.

The sole criticism of Irving’s effectiveness as a ball handler is that he is generally focused on attacking the rim or generating space for a pull-up jumper. While the cliched criticism of Irving’s “ball hogging” is overblown, he can still slip into old tendencies at times by overdribbling or trying to create his own shot early in the shot clock. Kyrie had the highest average time with the ball per touch on the Cavaliers, holding the ball for an average of 4.71 seconds compared to LeBron’s 3.88; on top of that, Kyrie dribbled an average of 4.68 times with each touch, while LeBron averaged 2.99 dribbles per touch. The vast majority of Irving’s touches were not in the post, elbow, or paint, meaning most of those dribbles were out on the perimeter. Kyrie is the prototypical scoring point guard and a player who loves to put on a show - his handles are an extension of that profile.

#1 - Chris Paul

The beauty and pure ability of Chris Paul’s handle is difficult to describe; CP3 deals in the subtlety of point guard play, and just like his compatriots, his handle reflects his inclinations as a player. He is the most effective true point guard on the planet, the last of a dying breed - a player who consistently uses his handle and IQ to bring chaos to an opposing defense regardless of which player takes the shot at the end of the possession. Watching Chris Paul go to work in the pick and roll is the closest thing to watching basketball perfection on an individual level.

It goes without saying that CP3 keeps the ball on a string, but even that is an understatement - Chris Paul is the string, the marionette, and the puppeteer. He prefers functionality over style, which results in a handle that is tighter and more compact than Kyrie Irving and Steph Curry. Combined with his formidable basketball IQ and vision, CP3 can throw a cornucopia of no-look, one-handed passes during the split second that a defense is vulnerable - an opening almost nobody else in the league can exploit.

Chris is the ultimate ball handler because he is the best example of using handles to patiently take what a defense gives you. The best description of Chris Paul’s handle is under control, which, sadly, isn’t exactly something that jumps off the screen. He expertly uses his dribble to manipulate defenders into screens, an underrated aspect of point guard play. He probes a defense, adding stress to the perfect spots at the perfect time. With his tight handle keeping the ball close at hand (and protected - more on that later) at all times, CP3 can put the exact amount of pressure necessary to break down a defense - even a diamond can be broken with the right pressure in the right spot.

With this style of play, CP3 is able to maintain the most efficient methodology of point guard play in the entire league. Change of pace dribbles, inside-outs, hesitations, fakes, and crossovers make up the bulk of Chris Paul’s moves, but he only uses them when necessary - you’ll rarely catch CP3 spending half a possession trying to cross up a defender in isolation.

This description is still selling CP3 short (no pun intended) because of a tremendous size disadvantage that he’s faced since entering the league. Among a host of other issues this usually presents, smaller stature makes players more prone to turnovers due to the increased effectiveness on-ball pressure from much larger and stronger defenders. But this is where Chris Paul truly shines. He is historically good at protecting the ball - his assist/turnover ratio is a staggering 3.8, the second highest figure in the league among guards (despite having twice as many assists as the leader, Mike Conley). He does that while holding the ball for eight minutes a game, third in the league.

Steph Curry may be the better player. Kyrie Irving may have the best NBA mixtape of this generation. But Chris Paul, over the course of his career, has been a staggering model of basketball efficiency, consistency, and beauty. For that reason, he is the most effective ball handler in the NBA.

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