Missing the Point: Can a shoot-first point guard really win your team a NBA title?
Teams are going for skilled point guards
Welcome to the point guard (PG) gold rush. Across the NBA, almost every team in the league is blessed with a great PG. And in the new era of different hand-check rules and elite athleticism, uber-talented point guards have revolutionized the one-spot. Players like Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, John Wall, Rajon Rondo, Tony Parker, Kyrie Irving, Derrick Rose, Damian Lillard, Kyle Lowry, and many more bring a variety of dangerous skill-sets to the deepest position in the league. While they are traditionally expected to be playmakers, today’s top point guards are also high-scorers – in many cases, among the leading scorers on their team.
Predictably, franchises have responded with enthusiasm to the availability of so many talented PGs across the NBA, making sure to stock up with a skilled leader in the backcourt to lead their offense. Giving the keys of your team’s scoring needs to the hands of the point guard has usually resulted in more spectacular results.
But can a point guard who becomes the system itself – instead of being a part of the system – truly lead your team to an NBA championship? Recent history has shown that despite their growing star power, high-scoring point guards have rarely been a successful formula behind title-winners.
Tony Parker instance
Let’s first talk about the obvious exception to this theory: Tony Parker. Parker has won four NBA titles with the Spurs over the last 11 years, including getting the honor of Finals MVP in the 2007 championship team. Parker has led the team in scoring in six of the last nine years, including their 2014 title season.
But there is something special about the Parker-Spurs relationship. Super-coach Gregg Popovich has built a perfect offensive system to complement Parker’s style. Although the offense starts with Parker, the Spurs are team-oriented and use exceptional ball movement to involve as many players on each offensive possession as possible. The point guard controls the ball, but doesn’t dominate it. This is why, despite being a usual scoring leader for his team, Parker has only averaged around 17 points per game for his career; in San Antonio, there are always multiple players scoring in double figures instead of over-reliance on one or two players.
Aside from the Parker exception, take a look back at each NBA champion and the starting point guard leading the offense and you’ll see a curious lack of star-power in the position. We can use the beginning of the 90s as a neat starting point to test this in the modern version of the game, right after the Thomas-Dumars era in Detroit brought three Finals’ appearances and two titles to Detroit.
Role of point guards over the last few years
Championship-winning starting point guards, minus Tony Parker: John Paxson (Bulls 91-92), BJ Armstrong (Bulls 93), Kenny Smith (Rockets 94-95), Ron Harper (Bulls 96-98), Avery Johnson (Spurs 99), Ron Harper (Lakers 00), Derek Fisher (Lakers 01-02), Chauncey Billups (Pistons 04), Jason Williams (Heat 06), Rajon Rondo (Celtics 08), Derek Fisher (Lakers 09-10), Jason Kidd (Mavericks 11), Mario Chalmers (Heat 12-13).
Look at that list again. Every point guard – even big names like Rajon Rondo or Jason Kidd who were either too young or too old to be stars at the time – had a smaller role compared to their other teammates for the champs. In the past 24 years, only Chauncey Billups in 2004 and Tony Parker in 2007 have been the only Finals MVPs from the point guard position, and both played in teams where the scoring balance was evenly shouldered by several players.
Meanwhile, point guards who enjoyed individual success in the same 24-year span, such as Mark Price, Sam Cassell, Penny Hardaway, Kevin Johnson, Gary Payton, Tim Hardaway, Stephon Marbury, and Steve Nash (who won two MVP awards and a half-dozen assists titles) in the past never crossed the final hurdle whenever their teams relied on their ball-dominating services too much.
Reasons for PGs not winning more titles
There are many reasons why, despite all the talent spread across the league in the position, most superstar PGs are still missing the point when it comes to championship success. As the playoffs get deeper, NBA offenses slow down and defensive prowess, team depth, and half-court sets begin to matter more than ever. Point guards who rely on penetration and outside shooting too much to score begin to face smarter and more complicated defensive tactics. It becomes harder for one man – especially if he’s the smallest man on the court – to win games by taking over the offense all by himself. The ball has to keep moving and get out of the PGs hands. Size, and in recent years the ability to spread the floor with the three-point shot, begins to matter a lot more.
It’s in these cases when point guards who find a niche place for themselves in the system and focus on creating the offense – instead of padding up their scoring or assists stats – eventually end up tasting success.
Let’s revisit our present day star PGs again. Russell Westbrook is one of the league’s deadliest scorers and most athletic players, yet OKC’s recent shortcomings have often been blamed on his inability to run a more coherent offense. Playing alongside Kevin Durant helps of course, who is a once-in-a-generation talent and makes the Thunder one of the favorites every year he’s healthy.
The trio at Cleveland
Chris Paul is considered by many to be the best point guard of the past decade, and the Clippers PG has averaged close to 19-10 his whole career. With a high usage rate, Paul always has complete command of whichever team he plays for. But his individual brilliance haven’t translated to greater team success, and Paul has never been able to make it past the second round of the playoffs.
Derrick Rose was on the road to greatness, with a memorable 2011 MVP season and finding himself among the league’s leading scorers during that period. Unfortunately, his chronic injuries have stunted his career growth. One gets the feeling that if Chicago are to enjoy championship success, it will come with credit to the team’s defensive intensity, depth, and ball-movement, instead of 25 points a night by Rose.
Before LeBron showed up in Cleveland, Kyrie Irving was already an All-Star MVP and 20.7 points per game scorer through his first three NBA seasons. And yet, his team won less than one-third of their games in this period and never made the playoffs. Hopes are higher for the Cavaliers now that James and Kevin Love have joined Irving, but playoff success will follow only if Irving continues to evolve into a more selfless player.
PGs role in team’s success
The lesson, as almost always, is: try to do what the Spurs are doing. If his career would’ve unfolded for any other team, Parker may have easily averaged around 22 points per game every season and earned All-Star votes from a stat-obsessed fan base like many of his peers do. But he sacrificed some personal glory to play within the system in San Antonio, and has been rewarded with ultimate glory more than any All-Star point guard since Magic Johnson.
Other NBA teams need to follow this example: Point guards need to generate ball-movement, instead of taking too many shots themselves or hunting only for the pass that brings them an assist. A whole team that leads the league in assists says much more about its starting PG than a PG that leads the league in assists. Most high-scoring PGs with a high usage rate have taken away from the development of a winning system instead of contributing to it.
With Stephen Curry, John Wall, Damian Lillard, and more coming up the ranks, the point guard gold rush is going to continue, providing tantalizing aspects for nearly every team across the league. But to win trophies, teams have to realize that they have to use their talented point guard as a part of the system, not the system itself.