Player Capsule (Plus): The Cubist Stylings of Tony Parker
Hey, all. Aaron McGuire here, the 48 Minutes of Hell stat guy. I have my own NBA blog, called Gothic Ginobili, at which I’m currently writing a 370 part series profiling (almost) every player in the NBA. As part of a cross-posting effort, when a capsule goes long, I’ll post the extended version elsewhere. Today we’ve got a reflection on Tony Parker, the San Antonio offense, and Pablo Picasso.
The artist Pablo Ruiz y Picasso was born to be an artist. Quite literally. His mother would — perhaps falsely — later relate that Picasso’s first word was “pencil”. Pretty funny, even if it isn’t true, but it’s not the best one — one of my favorite apocryphal stories ever told comes from Picasso’s brush, actually. His father was an artist as well, serving as the curator of a museum and a professor of fine arts for much of young Pablo’s life. He painted pictures of birds, and other fine game.
The story goes that in 1894, at the age of 13, Picasso was caught by his father in the master’s study painting over one of his father’s unfinished sketches. Instead of immediately wresting him from the work, however, his father watched — the child’s precision and brushstrokes were immaculate and, upon finishing, his son calmly left the father to examine the work. To the father’s shock, the final work was better than anything the father had ever produced. Realizing that his 13-year-old son had somehow surpassed him, Picasso’s father balked. He vowed never to paint again, and to put the sum of his efforts into bringing his son’s work into the world. Why make work of your own when you’ve got a prodigy to raise?
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If you’re ever in the mood to cause a vicious confrontation in a group of Spurs fans, try to establish Tony Parker’s credentials — figure out where he stands in the NBA today. In any random group of fans, you’re as likely to find three who think he played MVP-caliber ball last season as you are three who thinks he’s little more than overrated trade bait. Perhaps you’ll even find one person who thinks he’s a puppet for Richard Jefferson. (Well, okay, the last person is always Alex Dewey, but bear with me.) Opinions on Parker’s play range the full spectrum. There’s no real consensus. The arguments tend to go to one of two extremes and stick there, like friends talking politics or family talking morality.
I will now attempt to describe these extremes, as told by their advocates.
“Look, Tony Parker is an MVP-caliber point guard. Parker may not have the athletic dominance of Russell Westbrook or the shooting stroke of Steve Nash, but his overall game is unparalleled. Parker is the primary catalyst at the helm of two seasons straight of the best offense in the league. He won a Finals MVP, and while you may think Tim Duncan deserved it more, he played his heart out and was one of the main reasons the Spurs won that series. Parker is perhaps the greatest finishing guard in the history of the game, and perhaps the quickest with the ball of any player that ever lived. He’s no great shakes defensively, but then, who is at his position? He does his job and he does it well. Parker doesn’t need a gaudy statline to convince me that he’s the one who drives the Spurs. He’s their general, and half the dang playbook is built around his threats to score. He’s at the center of every action. He’s essential. ALSO! He’s way better than Westbrook, and nobody will tell me otherwise.”
“I did my best to let you finish, but man, that’s crap. Tony Parker is basically trade bait. His contribution is hardly that outsized — Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan are clearly more important than he is, and statistically, his contribution to the team is dwarfed by just about everyone. He puts up points, yeah, but how efficient are they? How much are we really getting from Parker scoring that we wouldn’t get if we put up Patty Mills or George Hill or Steve Nash and traded the Frenchman away for a solid defensive center? You’re really going to tell me that those guys couldn’t produce 15-2-7 type numbers that fill in the blanks our point guard left behind? Get out of here. Flip Parker for Roy Hibbert, or LaMarcus Aldridge, or someone good like that. Let him go and fill out the big man rotation. We aren’t winning a title with a decent offense that shuts down when Parker’s down, and that’s all that Tony really gives us. No D, no creativity, nothing next level. He’s just Tony P, and he’ll be what he’ll be. That’s it.”
How do you synthesize the two? Good question. Honestly, whoever actually figures that out deserves a Nobel Peace Prize.
• • •
Remember that apocryphal story about Picasso and his dad’s painting? Funny thing about that. Far before the cubism, far before Picasso broke new ground and became the greatest painter of the 20th century, Picasso was much like his father was — a painter of realism. As I said before — Picasso’s father painted small game, particularly birds. Picasso grew up resembling his father, for a time. And as the story demonstrates, quite literally could paint over his father’s sketches. This lasted for a while, and Picasso excelled at it. In fact, some of the pieces he produced in this young period of his life rank among some of the best to ever be produced — in particular, 14-year-old Picasso’s Portrait of Aunt Pepa was said to be “one of the greatest in the history of Spanish painting” by art historian Juan-Eduardo Cirlot. He was an incredible artist, even before he started pushing the bar. But artists rarely do the same thing forever, even when they’re that good — they grow, expand, evolve. And Picasso obliged. He began to tire of convention, entering a series of mood-colored work with a heavy symbolic bent.
Then came the cubism. Even in his mood period, while features were often exaggerated, they were never outright ignored or approached in a completely unconventional way. Picasso produced beautiful, beautiful work. But they weren’t necessarily groundbreaking, not in the way he’d embrace post-Cubism. Many art movements can trace their precursor to well before their first piece of known art — not Cubism, at least not as Picasso exemplified it. The first “true” Cubist work — even as a prototype — was painted in 1907 by Pablo Picasso, as Picasso made to examine a scene from multiple angles for the first time in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. He continued experimenting as the years went on, building up the art form from a curiosity of his brush into a groundbreaking discipline of new perspectives and new ways to create insightful and incisive paintings. Picasso was a genius before he and Braque blazed the Cubist trail. But it was the stark originality of his Cubist stylings that make him so ubiquitous and memorable among all others. Picasso’s been buried for almost 40 years, but his name has (and will) live on far into the future. He needs no other introduction, and his name’s become its own descriptor of brilliance and new ground broken– a “Picasso” represents genius in a distilled form no matter the discipline, and it probably always will.
It may sound funny, looking back, but the general tenor of Picasso’s career actually mirrors quite well the gradual transformation that Gregg Popovich enacted throughout the Duncan regency. Not to quite the Picasso’s level of genius, obviously, but the general path that Picasso followed — that all great artists follow — is hardly ill-fitting to Duncan’s crew. Examine the evolution of the teams, offensively. The late 90s Spurs were hardly a bastion of offensive creativity. They got along just fine without a massive playbook or a complicated offensive scheme. They ran the 4-down and destroyed teams with the collective talent of a prime Tim Duncan and a just-sub-prime David Robinson. Rather simple. But as Kobe and Shaq ran roughshod on the league, it slowly became clear that simply coasting on talent wasn’t going to lead them back. It was easy, and quite justifiable (see: Kevin Garnett’s Minnesota Timberwolves), but it wasn’t the way the Spurs needed to do things if they really wanted to leave a mark. So Popovich adjusted. He changed the offense. He expanded the playbook. And the Spurs — running a slightly more creative offense, but hardly a brilliant one — won it all again, once again around the singular talents of a Hall of Fame player and a cobbled together cast of the far too old and the far too young. And then the evolution really began in earnest, behind the talents of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili coming into their own. The structure changed — imperceptibly, but enough — to allow for more freewheeling, more creativity, more set plays that allowed the Spurs’ pieces to thrive. And the Spurs won again — behind their defense, primarily, but backed by a more aesthetically creative “Rose period” offense than they’d had when they won before.
And now comes the Cubist stage. In the last few years, Gregg Popovich has put together a wholescale change-of-motive that rivals some of the greatest turns in history. The offense has become something the league’s never quite seen before. It’s Steve Nash by committee — a team of players who are all decent enough at passing that the collective pressure creates such a whip of ball movement that virtually every possession keys in on a defensive mistake that no reasonable defensive coach could ever predict. Leave one man open on a slow rotation? Triple. Don’t get back on defense immediately? Layup. Overcommit to the open 3-point shooter? Duncan’s got that long 2. The game of defending the Spurs used to be an exercise in shutting down three transcendent players and leaving a few open — Bruce Bowen, Fabricio Oberto, the Brent Barrys of the world. You can’t really do that anymore. Not when the Spurs offense has taken on the aesthetic qualities of a multidimensional game of Russian Roulette. You don’t know where the ball is going, you can’t find the trigger, and you can’t find the barrel. And then there’s Parker in the center, chug-chug-chugging along with his devious grin and his magical handle.
Bang. It’s a layup, this time.
• • •
Let’s draw back a bit. Isn’t it kind of funny that a point guard with such a conventional toolbox forms the basis of the Spurs’ current offense? This isn’t an insult — just consider Tony Parker’s game. No, he doesn’t have a 3-point shot. Yet. But Parker is, at his core, a pick-and-roll point guard with a strong slashing ability, an excellent floater, and a decent midrange shot to keep defenders honest. Parker’s archetype is hardly one without compare in the league’s annals — look at Andre Miller for a modern example. It’s a well-worn, conventional toolbox. Parker puts it in a blender with his unique fushion of speed and control, it’s true, and Parker’s finishing may be among the best in the history of the game from the guard position. Which is what makes the trade-bait stuff a bit too wild for my tastes. But nobody is going to argue that Parker plies his trade with a surfeit of insane athleticism or game-breaking shooting talent. We’ve come to expect this in this generation of point guards, and Parker subsists without.
But the Spurs offense doesn’t care about that, necessarily. Parker’s impact is outsized precisely because the offense is built around new ways to contextualize the things that Parker can do. The Spurs, collectively, have evolved as any great artist does — when an artist’s talent can’t stand up in a conventional manner, it’s the artist’s responsibility to adapt to their reality. And even when the talent CAN stand up, like Picasso’s, it’s often fool’s gold — Picasso would never be this ubiquitous or this renowned without the stark creativity of Cubism having wholly demonstrated Picasso’s true genius. He wouldn’t be the standard. He needed to evolve and change to take that next step, even if it wasn’t quite by necessity at all. The evolution of the Spurs, on the other hand? That was necessary. As constituted, this roster can’t really hope to win a title in the conventional way. Gone are the days when the Spurs’ big three could simply overwhelm teams with talent, much as the Heat or the Lakers do now. But the Spurs haven’t faded from the scene; they’ve simply evolved. They’ve found that they can’t say something conventional and hope to live in history, not with this roster — instead, they’ve determined the absolute limits of what an offense can say with the resources available and experience it possesses, and lived up to that standard night-in and night-out.
And no. Parker isn’t the greatest player on the planet — he probably isn’t even top-10. But he’s the grease that skids the wheel in a team among the best. He’s the conductor that leads the concerto. The painter that swings the brush. Parker’s presence looms large over the San Antonio offense — without his slashing drives, the defense wouldn’t have to adjust and leave the creases the offense lives on. Without Parker’s speed, the patented Duncan/Parker semi-transition drag screen wouldn’t be half as effective. Without Parker’s personal indifference to producing boatloads of assists in favor of smart, even, team-based passing, would the role-players keep the ball moving as magically as they do? Parker isn’t the best, but the Spurs don’t need him to be. They need him to do his job in a way he’s never quite had to do it before. And he has. As Parker’s adapted to his new reality, so too has the Spurs’ offense — it’s grown up with Parker, and Parker’s grown up with it. It’s a beautiful synthesis, a stunning growth, and the reason the team has been able to evolve.
Is Tony Parker perfect? Hardly. But I think he’s exactly what he needs to be. And that’s enough.
• • •
“Art is a lie that makes us realize a truth.”