Is Tony Parker the best point guard? The system matters

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The two best point guards on the planet competed before a national audience in Los Angeles, though anyone tuning in to an NBA game for the first time would find it difficult to tell. Tony Parker and the San Antonio Spurs dominated the Los Angeles Clippers for a 116-90 victory in perhaps the worst game of Chris Paul’s NBA career.

Of course, any reasonable debate over the best point guard in the NBA begins and ends with Paul. This is fact and not up for discussion. The gap, however, is closing.

If Paul remains the better player, Parker is having the better season. The argument can even be made that no point guard is playing the position better than Parker is this season. Though the MVP will come down to LeBron James or Kevin Durant, Parker deserves mention as a bronze medal finalist. He is, by my estimation, the First Team All-NBA point guard up to this point of the season.

Much of Parker’s success if often dismissed as a product of the Spurs system. Parker didn’t burst on the scene almost a fully-formed superstar as Paul did. It was a gradual evolution undertaken in the shadow of Tim Duncan.

In this there is some truth to Parker being a product of the Spurs system. Gregg Popovich initially tailored his offense to simplify Parker’s role, focusing on his strengths (dribble penetration, finishing) and tasking him with the most basic of passes. It nurtured him, providing responsibilities without the full brunt of accountability because, quite frankly, he wasn’t ready.

“When Tony started out he played on talent,” Popovich said. “He wasn’t big on the weight room, he wasn’t big about practice. That developed over time, and a lot of that was watching Timmy and how he conducts himself, and that’s rubbed off on Tony.”

The argument persists that Parker is a system point guard, and if there remains some truth to that, it fails to acknowledge that it is a system now built primarily around the constant pressure Parker places on a defense.

No longer just a talented scorer at the point guard position, Parker is a true point guard in every sense of the word. He probes for weaknesses, manipulating defenses like chess pieces with a look here or step there, creating open passing lanes for teammates to step into.

On their first two possessions of the game the Spurs ran some action to get Parker the ball near the top of the key, where Parker was enough of a threat to draw the entire defense’s attention while Duncan and Tiago Splitter cut in along the baseline for easy passes at the rim.

Parker was able to draw that attention because he has transformed himself into a reliable scoring threat from anywhere inside the 3-point line and extending beyond it in the corners, as he proved time and time again, hitting 5-of-7 from outside the paint.

Defensively, the Spurs put a shell around Paul, bringing three defensive players in his vicinity without overtly pressuring the ball handler. It was a similar design to what the Spurs did against the Cleveland Cavaliers in limiting Kyrie Irving to single digits.

By shadowing Paul with a triangle of defenders, the Spurs limited the most basic drive, dive, and pop options out of the pick-and-roll, conceding the crosscourt pass to the corner. From there, the weak side defender, usually Danny Green, did a fantastic job of running shooters off the corner 3 while a perfectly positioned Duncan discouraged penetration. Any resulting long 2-pointer by a player not named Chris Paul could be described as a victory for the Spurs defense as the percentages played into their favor over the long haul.

There are counters to these tactics, of course. And Paul wouldn’t be the best point guard on the planet if he didn’t have answers for this strategy. There is another gear that Paul can tap into, individual plays that can break the Spurs defense down further. But it’s a gear that’s hard to sustain over the course of an entire game, let alone a best-of-seven series. And this is where the Spurs system comes into play.

The Spurs offense doesn’t rely on Parker’s individual brilliance throughout the game, merely that he executes the offense ably. In this he does a better job than Chris Paul himself, though to be fair the Clippers’ sets are not nearly as intricate as those the Spurs run. To be clear, there isn’t a single point guard in the NBA that executes his team’s offense with the precision that Parker does.

If Parker still lacks the otherworldly vision and creativity (and this is debatable) that Paul, Irving, or Steve Nash before them, have, he’s mastered the Spurs system to a degree it hardly matters. Parker knows every release valve in his offense for every action a defense might take against him.

As the Clippers overloaded the strong side, he simply found Green or Gary Neal in the corner. When they crowded the baseline, it was a kick out to Duncan popping out to the top of the key. Trying to trap and hedge on high pick-and-rolls left Matt Bonner open for 3 at the top of the key with multiple options to swing the ball to along the perimeter.

When the Clippers managed to clog up driving lanes, the Spurs simply ran Parker off a series of screens where Parker is the best cutting point guard in the NBA, shaking free for several open layups.

Sans Parker, the Spurs system can still operate efficiently in small windows. In a second quarter lineup without the Big Three the Spurs managed to hold off the Clippers despite lacking a primary offensive playmaker. Without a player capable of creating driving lanes, the Spurs simply moved bodies and the ball, swinging passes from side-to-side patiently until it caught the defense in a compromised position to initiate their drive-and-kick game.

The Clippers offensive schemes offer no such reprieves for Paul. By and large they find different ways to initiate the action through Paul and let his brilliance guide them. Remove transition and second chance points, however, and such an approach can prove too daunting a burden for even the best point guard unless another player can step up with great individual plays.

Gregg Popovich’s system keeps the Spurs the better team, and gives Parker the tools to have the steadier season between he and Paul. But as beneficial as it is to Parker, it’s ultimately smoke and mirrors in a drawn out playoff series against a locked in, disciplined defense without him.

The Spurs second unit offense works for open shots, and when left to their own devices, can find themselves working too hard for easy shots. Parker’s ability to create the easy play drives everything else the Spurs do offensively.

Is he the best point guard in the NBA? No, and he likely never will be. But he executes the NBA’s best system as flawlessly as possible while creating enough plays outside of it that the difference in head-to-head matchups is negligible.

  • Andrew G

    “But he executes the NBA’s best system as flawlessly as possible”, is a good way to sum it up.

  • Justin

    remember when very few liked him 11 years ago. he was too “hollywood”. love how the times have changed

  • DorieStreet

    The Paul v. Parker comparisons remind me of one 2 decades ago in the NFL – Barry Sanders (Paul) v. Emmitt Smith (Parker). Many football fans opine that although Smith was great, it was because of his offensive line. Sanders was better than Smith, playing for the Lions instead of the Cowboys.

  • http://twitter.com/sstewart1617 Sam Stewart

    I still don’t like his personality. And 11 years ago he was a pretty terrible point guard. But he is about 12,000x better in the last 3 years. He no longer just dribbles to deep in the paint without any option, and the aimless hero ball is almost non-existent. He is truly a balanced PG now, knowing exactly when to pass, shoot, drive, or dominate the offense. Its pretty impressive.

  • Coyote

    This is Ridiculous, this guy is not giving Tony enough credit. Theres a reason Spurs won and the Clippers lost. Tony is the better point guard.

  • Paul Landa

    You know what i think this Chris Paul best point Guard thing needs to be put to rest who has the best team in the NBA, not Lebron James and the Heat let see if he can handle the core injured like the SPURS, not Kevin Durant and the Thunder if one or two payers go down there done as well Kevin cant do it by himself and after last night the Clippers got a dose of the machine just begging to peak at the best time look out. Also one reminder, the best barely on their own floor just squeeked by the Spurs without the starting 5 not even in the building. Your wrong, even the hall of fame Reggie Miller said and i quote” C3 is the best leader but he in not the best Point Guard, Parker is. Anyone just as always we will be under the radar, and see CP3 and the clippers let behind when we reach the finals…. So have some respect for the best team in the NBA and know what your talking about Jesse Blanchard…GO SPURS GO

  • Cr0w

    Agreed, it’s hilarious to see the Spurs fans who were long time TP haters make a point to write about him to try to diminish what he’s accomplishing with backhanded compliments and the likes… They come across as bitter and quite dishonest. He has been the best point guard since last year, it’s obvious to anyone paying attention tbh, lol at bringing up the system, the system makes it impossible for him to win any individual awards when he easily could make an argument twice as strong by statpadding in garbage time like the other stars instead of playing 30min… The whole system is Tony drawing double teams, he makes it easier for everyone else, not the other way around.

    Also Irving has better vision? Wtf am I reading? The All Star game proved his inferiority? Dude way to embarass yourself.

  • dillon

    i read the first paragraph and stopped. you are an idiot. CP3 is unarguably better? Umm last I checked, Parker is having a better season, and the main part…HAS MORE HARDWARE homeboy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mrbtbrown Brandon Brown

    CP3 is better against every other PG in the league that is not named Tony Parker!! TP has owned him from day 1 check the numbers

  • teddygreen

    Hey Jesse, as a Clipper fan, i wonder would the Clippers fare better against the Spur if they inserted Eric Bledsoe in the starting lineup. Eric Bledsoe could hound Tony Parker. Phil Jackson did something similar to this when he had Tyrone Lue hound Allen Iverson. The Clippers could have Chauncey Billups be the backup and lead the second unit. Perhaps VDN needs to change his lineups. gregg popovich does this when he inserts Manu in and out of lineups depending on the matchups in the playoffs…

  • VA Spurs Fan

    More hardware??? Griffen, Billups, Crawford vs. Duncan, Green, and Ginobli. The Spurs have a bit of an edge there. Take into account the injuries this season to Duncan and Ginobli and you have absolutely no arguement.

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  • Titletown99030507d

    Tony is the best point guard in the NBA peroid! And he should be the MVP of the season as the TNT crew has said based on the best record and his performance prooves it. He is the most valuable to his team and the reason why they have the best record in the association is enough to make the argument. The MVP is not about who’s the best athlete but who’s the most v-a-l-u-a-b-l-e! This award is slowly creeping into a cheesy rigged award like the all-star MVP. Do away with the all-star MVP altogether.That award is nonsense! and find a better way to score the MVP candidates.

  • Titletown99030507d

    And I still don’t know why CP gets all the burn when his team is 3rd in the conference and 4th overall. Being in LA gives you that undeserved special treatment from the media.

  • Titletown99030507d

    Ya he could but that would open up a can of dessention worms amongst the team. That would be good heading into the playoffs. Those NBA players are spoiled with big egos and he would have tantrum if was told to sit out the Spurs – Clippers series. Im all for it.

  • Titletown99030507d

    I think he meant ringzzz.

  • Titletown99030507d

    He’s been better since 07′

  • http://twitter.com/blanchard48moh Jesse Blanchard

    I’m not sure Bledsoe would have much effect. The Spurs rarely just put Parker in isolation plays. They get him the ball on the move, off curls, handoffs, and traditional pick and roll sets. More often than not it’s the big man hedging and the backline of the defense that Parker is attacking, not his individual defender.

    It should be noted that Rondo and Bradley haven’t had much effect on Parker (off the top of my head). Where Parker struggles, at times, is sticking a quality, lengthy defensive player like the Thunder did in the Western Conference Finals. Parker can still score, but his efficiency can be dragged down some and the defense doesn’t have to collapse as hard. I’m not sure the Clippers have that option, however.

  • http://twitter.com/blanchard48moh Jesse Blanchard

    “I didn’t read the post, but you’re stupid.” is rarely an argument worth countering. Read the rest of the article. Most of it is high praise for Parker. Actually, all of it.

  • http://twitter.com/blanchard48moh Jesse Blanchard

    I love this.

  • http://twitter.com/blanchard48moh Jesse Blanchard

    Reggie Miller isn’t exactly the beacon of knowledge to build a basis around. He also implied Griffin is mostly dunks, which is simply not true. Look, I’m as big a Parker fan as anyone, most of the article was a glowing review of Parker’s game. I’m not sure where the backlash is coming from.

  • http://twitter.com/blanchard48moh Jesse Blanchard

    I never understood how someone that could put up with the way Pop treated him–and not just put up, but thrive under it–could be considered soft. Parker is one of the more underrated “tough guys” in the league. He has bad games from time-to-time, but I’ve never seen him just freeze up. Guy keeps coming.

  • Tyler

    Listen, I love me some TP, but the MVP is clearly Lebron. As good a run as Tony has been on, Lebron does it night in, night out, in addition to being one of (if not the) best perimeter defenders in the league. TP also has a guy named Tim Duncan defending the paint behind him, a guy who has a legit chance at defensive player of the year this year.

    I love TP (can’t stress this enough). In my mind, he’s still underrated and doesn’t get enough credit for improving his game like he has. Having said that, he’s definitely behind Lebron for MVP.

  • wes89horns

    Yeah, I get extremely confused when I hear Sean Elliott get ripped in favor of Reggie’s commentary. I love the guy, but I’m not sure Reggie even watches games he doesn’t attend. I think the backlash is that it seems like you’re saying the system makes the man, it’s like putting an asterisk on his skills, but isn’t his Euro play the whole reason he got the keys to the convertible in the first place? (BTW, I’m not saying that’s precisely what you said, but I think that’s what is being interpreted.) Sidenote: some typos in these last couple writeups, but I think it’s due to an abundance of awesomesauce. Keep up the excellent work guys, there is no better Spurs commentary out there.

  • Sir Timothy

    Chris Paul is not even in the top 5 point guards. He commits offensive fouls on many of this drives (often using the ball itself) he is as emotional as Westbrook and Chris Paul fades away under the biggest of spotlights. I am sorry but I would not trade Parker for any three players on the Clippers team.

    They simply are not a good basketball team and they do not have good, mature players. Going into last night, with no Kawhi and limited minutes for Tim and Manu I thought we would have a rough time. I wrote as much, but now I see that the sweep last year was the real thing. The Spurs could spot the Clippers 10 points a game and win.

    Paul has never won anything and never will. Anyone who gives this much praise to Paul does not know basketball. Strange to say this about Jesse who does know basketball. Maybe a ghost writer on this one? Maybe written by ESPN — a network that desperately wants the Clippers to be contenders…

  • bento

    Why is it so hard for NBA analysts to simply admit the fact that TP’s an amazing player “at least” as good as Chris Paul
    The guy won 3 championship and 2007 Finals MVP! Since then, he’s the best player and leader of a team who’s gonna win the western conference for a 3rd time in a row!!!
    With the best FG% for a Point Guard! Ok CP3 is an great player, but how! wtf!!! could anyone say that CP is obviously better than TP?!? ridiculous

  • bento

    can’t agree more, but if (this is not the case) the heat ranking was sensitively lower than the spurs one at the end of the season (even though the regular season is “BS”) then TP could deserve the MVP title…

    Nevertheless, Lebron the non-human superstar of the league, the heat dominate completely the softer East Conference, and will i think easily realize the back to back, so case closed… Lebron deserve to be MVP, much more than Durant or TP

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  • Andrew K

    Jesse, as a spurs fan it’s upsetting to speak for the general spurs population about how we “hated parker”, that is the biggest assumption I’ve ever heard with no statistics to back this. What’s also troubling is your assumptions about how badly “pop treated” parker, another horrible assumption made by a couple of instances probably. Parker is an adult, there has to be some really good reason why he wanted to stay with San Antonio and with Pop, and it shouldn’t be to hard to figure that out.

  • Juntian Si

    Tony Parker,”I don’t care. I just want to be the best point guard of Popovich.”