Is Tony Parker the best point guard? The system matters
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.