San Antonio Spurs vs Phoenix Suns preview: Point guard defense is overrated

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Steve Nash is a championship caliber point guard; do not let the non-realization of that fact fool you. For the better part of the past decade Nash has been at, or near, the top of the point guard list.

He is a surefire Hall of Famer and a two-time MVP—and despite protests to the latter, at least one is wholeheartedly deserved. Nash is a franchise player.

Tony Parker is a championship caliber point guard, as the number of championship rings in his collection can attest to. He is an NBA Finals MVP, a four-time All-Star and, depending on the direction his career takes in the NBA and internationally over the next few years, a borderline Hall of Famer.

Both have led elite offenses, paired with All-Star power forwards and a number of weapons at their disposal. Parker, however, is hardly the maestro Nash has been over the course of their respective careers.

So why then has one championship caliber point guard realized his ultimate goal while the other languishes near the end of his career ringless, with little help of rectifying that matter so long as he remains on a middling Suns team?

The easy answer is defense. It’s been the biggest knock on Nash his entire career, and often the biggest stone thrown by his critics.

Yet any difference between Nash and Parker on the defensive end would be overstated. You see, defense from the point guard position is overrated.

That’s not to say it’s unimportant. Coaches still expect their floor generals to put effort and attention into that end of the floor. But when push comes to shove, a point guard simply needs not be Mike Bibby or Derek Fisher-like turnstiles.

The following is a gross exaggeration to be sure, but often the largest gap defensively between a Steve Nash and a Rajon Rondo is the big man that defends directly behind them, and the schemes they play in.

Parker has been fortunate enough to have Tim Duncan. Through the best parts of his career, Nash has had the defensive albatross that is Amare Stoudemire—a defensive statistical black hole so devastating that he has even managed to bring down Tyson Chandler’s overall defensive numbers in New York this season.

As the Spurs defense has declined, they’ve proven more susceptible to pick and rolls, yet Parker is probably neither significantly better nor worse at defending it than he was when the Spurs were winning championships.

Point guards cannot guard point guards. At least not the good ones. While a terrible defensive point guard can get you torched by a mediocre one, in general, the effectiveness of defending quality point guards—the kind you will see in the playoffs—has little to do with the individual matchup.

I’ve had this argument with several people across the TrueHoop Network. Never more heated than with Zach Harper of Hoop Speak and ESPN’s DDL. But in support of my theory I’ll defer to Gilbert Arenas, a former scoring savant who has first-hand experience in torching the league’s best defensive players:

“When you watch tape, never watch your guy — the guy you’re sticking with. The guy that’s sticking you is basically nonexistent. You look at the defenders behind him. How good are they? How good they are lets you know the kind of night you’re going to have. Now, if you’ve got somebody like [Anderson] Varejao, who’s going to block shots and take charges and all that, you need to know you just can’t drive the lane. You might have to pull up, stay on the side and use the jumper. Or if you have a guy who likes to leave his feet a lot, you’ll have a great night at the free-throw line. Look at those guys. Don’t look at your guy, because in the NBA you can beat your guy any time you want because you can’t touch nobody in the NBA anymore.”

-Gilbert Arenas, via an article from Lee Eric Smith of Three Shades of Blue

The same set of rules that grants Steve Nash unlimited offensive freedom is also what limits him, or any point guard, from preventing it.

As much a luxury as a defensive presence like a Rondo is to have, don’t think for an instant that the Boston Celtics wouldn’t trade a bit of his defense for some semblance of a jump shot to fix their ailing offense.

It’s why the Spurs have upgraded by moving a defensive point guard, George Hill, for a defensive small forward, Kawhi Leonard.

So next time you are watching a point guard tear apart a team’s defense—and there is a good possibility of it happening tonight—never watch the guy that’s guarding him. That guy is “basically nonexistent.” To paraphrase Arenas, look at the defenders behind him.

“How good they are lets you know what kind of night you’re going to have.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • theghostofjh

    Nice post. Nash will certainly test a defense, and he does it with limited weapons. If you’re not disciplined and connected as a team on the defensive end the Suns with Nash can burn you. And as you stated, the challenge will be more for the wings and bigs. Parker just has to do his best to stay in Nash’s grill. Kawai probably has the tools to do a good job, but he’s probably not yet savvy enough. And even if Kawai could give it a go, can we afford to have Parker on Dudley, and Green on Hill? We better not take Phoenix too lightly tonight in their own building the way they’ve been playing lately. They’re actually a better defensive team than in years past. Hill, Dudley, and Gortat are pretty solid.

  • Bob

     The interesting thing is that Nash doesn’t do it with blazing speed. He
    does it with cleverness and misdirection. The best way to defend him
    has been to throw a long defender on him to try to disrupt his passing
    lanes. Bowen used to be an expert at frustrating him.

  • Colin

    I’ll be there tonight watching from the 2nd row.  Should be a good show to watch in terms of guard play.  

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Lee-Eric-Smith/6518606 Lee Eric Smith

    Lee Eric Smith here . . .  just to clarify, that quote from Gilbert Arenas came courtesy of the outstanding work of Sam Amick at SI.com. To read the full piece . . . 

    http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/writers/sam_amick/02/20/gilbert.arenas.qa2/index.html

  • Tyler

    Exactly. No one can guard elite perimeter players in today’s NBA. I think this is a big reason the Spurs (and others) are putting a greater premium on length (specifically on the perimeter). Green, Leonard, Jackson, etc. are great examples of trying to guard with length instead of quickness. You’re not going to out-quick any elite scorer, but you can “lock and trail” and bother a scorer with length. Not coincidentally, this is where Bruce Bowen’s defensive prowess was at its best. If you watched him at his apex, he didn’t always stay in front of his man, but he was great at staying in the offensive player’s hip pocket. That gave him the ability to contest the shot. Battier has always done a great job of this too.

    Somewhat related – Just imagine what MJ would do with today’s rules! 

  • KG

    “So why then has one championship caliber point guard realized his
    ultimate goal while the other languishes near the end of his career
    ringless, with little help of rectifying that matter so long as he
    remains on a middling Suns team?

    The easy answer is…”

    The franchise they play for. That’s how champions are made.

  • Colin

    Very impressed with Kawhi Leonard.  Watching him on TV doesn’t allow for full appreciation of his game. 

    ……and maybe I appreciate their game more now, but the offensive spacing of the Spurs is beautiful to watch as someone is always in the right place at the right time.  

  • Titletown99030507d

    Just for shits anybody here would have traded Manu for Nash. Just curious.

  • Titletown99030507d

    It’s a question. (?)

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