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