In many ways, the core of my basketball knowledge came from my first writing experience dealing with basketball. From 2004 to 2007, I was the “hometown correspondent” for ESPN Fantasy Basketball for the Milwaukee Bucks. I watched 75+ Bucks games and enjoyed it, even though we didn’t yet have access to DVR technology. I don’t know how I managed. The Bucks were (as they have been fairly consistently) mediocre. They were led by Michael Redd during those years and had miserable coaches like Terry Stotts (who is reborn in Portland) and Larry Krystkowiak. From those years, I learned of my two least favorite player archetypes: the Tim Thomas and the Mo Williams. Thomas had an amazing array of skills, but preferred to take 3-pointers (which wasn’t really one of those skills). Williams is a shooting guard disguised as a point guard. Fortunately, the Bucks sometimes had an aging Toni Kukoc to facilitate the offense smoothly. Williams’s idea of running the offense was standing 35 feet away from the basket, twirling his left hand in the air, and waiting for something to magically happen. This drove me crazy, but neither coach could stop it.
Williams was regarded as a decent point guard because he averaged 17.3 points and 6.3 assists, but he did not really facilitate the offense and was a sieve on defense. He simply wasn’t interested in defense. It did make me wonder if the Bucks really needed a point guard. Recent NBA history would indicate that the point guard may be the most overrated position. College basketball has also not been overly kind to the pass-first point guard. Teams do need a person to set up the offense, but there is no reason it has to be the same player on every play. And no team should have to put up with a poor perimeter defender in exchange for offense. Jose Calderon, I am looking at you. Point guards, in general, may be overrated.
If you don’t believe me, look at this link of NBA champions. For some reason, it doesn’t include last year’s Heat championship. Perhaps it is still under review. In the last 20 years, there have only been a couple of teams that had a point guard among their three best players. Tony Parker in 2006-07 won the Finals MVP and he is the closest thing since Isiah Thomas to be the best player on his team to win a championship. You could argue (as I would ) that Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili were more important to the 06-07 Spurs, but you’d also have to allow that Parker was at least one the team’s best three players. Other than that, the top point guards have been shut out of championships. Rajon Rondo was clearly the Celtics’ fourth best player when they won the championship. There have been great college point guards who have led their team to a championship, including Kemba Walker and Ty Lawson, but the same rule generally holds true for college hoops.
There have been some great point guards over the last 20 years, but they only win championships when they are complementary parts (i.e. elder statesmen like Jason Kidd with the Mavs and Gary Payton with the Heat). Some of this has to do with bad luck (like Derrick Rose’s injury and the suspension of Suns in the 2006-07 playoffs), but I don’t think one can look at a 20-year post-Isiah trend and dismiss it. Other than the Isiah-led Pistons, one could look even further back into NBA history and see the poor returns of point guard-led teams. Magic’s Lakers and Bird’s Celtics did not have traditional point guards. I think this is the case for two reasons: traditional point guards tend to put a team at a defensive disadvantage and they limit the offense’s avenues of attack.
On the first point, one of the interesting things from college basketball has been Kentucky’s use of the dribble-drive-motion offense. This offense seems best with numerous tall guards, but it tends to relegate the effect of its top point guards. Players like Rose and Brandon Knight have not put up big assist totals under John Calipari because they are too busy sharing the ball. Meanwhile, it has helped Kentucky to have huge guards like Darius Miller, Chris Douglas-Roberts, and DeAndre Liggins patrolling the perimeter. You can see the same effect on the Bulls and Lakers under Phil Jackson. Those teams had Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, so they did not need a traditional point guard. They also had defensive guards such as Derek Harper and Derek Fisher who checked the opposing point guard. It is more important to have a guard to disrupt the opposing offense than initiate the offense.
Another part of Jackson’s coaching has been the Triangle offense. This offensive attack also minimizes the effect of a traditional point guard by using a three-player offense to create better angles for an offensive attack. I think if a team tried to run the Triangle with a conventional point guard, it would not be as effective because the smallish guard would have to play out of position. By having one or more offensive facilitators, it is much more difficult to set up a defense.
I don’t think this entire argument means that a team can not win with a top point guard, but I would guard against thinking that the acquisition of a Chris Paul, Steve Nash, or Deron Williams is going to lead to championship glory. They are great players and fun to watch, but none of them have a championship ring. Overrating of point guards has something to do with the assist statistic. I will take a look at that next week.
What's kind of interesting is that Rondo and Parker were both selected in the 20s. Paul, Rose, and Wall were top three picks. I an still holding out hope for Wall who hasn't had a decent teammate yet. Okafor and Nene are steps up for him. Nash was selected 15th. Top forwards and centers don't slip too much, but guards can in the draft where size is king.
@Perry Missner I remember writing (and stating during radio interviews) leading up to the 2010 draft that I expected Wall to be a better version of Rose - more athletic and explosive.
@Jeff Fox It could be an interesting contrast and comparison between Rose and Wall for a future Manifesto. Or, "how not to help your top pick by an organization." Wall is faster, but Rose is just an incredible force in halfcourt play.
@Jeff Fox @CollegeWolf In college, at least, Wall was one of the fastest and most athletic players with the ball that I have seen. Washington has been a cesspool around Wall and no one player could rise above that. Meanwhile, Chicago has hit on Tom Thibodeau and has excellent frontcourt players who are winning even without Rose. Rose and Wall do have different skill sets and it looks like Rose's is more set for the pro game.
@Perry Missner @Jeff Fox With all due respect to your substantial basketball knowledge, there is just no way whatsoever that Wall is the best PG in that situation. He wouldn't be in the top 5, maybe not even top 10.
@Jeff Fox @CollegeWolf I think Paul is the best passing point guard, but Westbrook and Rose are more devastating individual players. They can take over a game single-handedly for longer bursts than Paul. Wall needs to improve at halfcourt basketball. I think he can eventually. He needs some organizational stability (or go to a new team), but I think I'd want him leading a fastbreak over almost anyone else.
@Jeff Fox @Perry Missner Rose isn't the best PG in the league, but he has waaaay more facets to his game than Wall.
@Jeff Fox You must have a fairly narrow definition of elite. Perhaps a category of one: LeBron James. Rose doesn't have Paul's court vision, but he may the most unstoppable player in the NBA with the ball in his hands.
@Perry Missner Ya, that would be good. Rose has ended up much better than I expected him to. Still don't consider him an "elite" player, though.
I would tend to agree with you here, sir. Of course, you have to take the top tier guys like Parker, Rondo, CP3, etc... but good points.
@CollegeWolf Ya, you don't pass on the chance to get an elite point guard, but you also can't reasonably expect that player to be your lead horse pulling you to a title (I'm looking at you, Brooklyn).