The growth of Tony Parker’s game this season may have moved him past the point of positional unorthodoxy and into the realm of traditional point guard, as true as any in the NBA.
But there was a time when this San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder matchup would’ve made great talking points for the outdated notions of traditional point guard values, seeing as how neither Tony Parker or Russell Westbrook have ever been described as such.
The dynamics of the Thunder and Spurs backcourts are striking similar in that they employ unconventional score-first point guards with dynamic playmaking shooting guards; symbiotic backcourts in which the passing abilities of Manu Ginobili and James Harden shore up whatever playmaking abilities their backcourt partners may lack, while freeing them to realize the full potential of their games.
If point guards are born and not created, neither Parker or Westbrook have the same inherent instincts of Chris Paul, Steve Nash, or Rajon Rondo. But they have instincts nonetheless.
Each have an innate ability to find, create, or exploit impossibly unique driving angles in the lane and a strong ability to finish once there–Parker through a variety of layups and floater, Westbrook through sheer athletic marvel.
Rather than shackle such explosive scoring ability to conventional positional roles, each team recognizes they function at their peak when allowing their point guards to be aggressive in their scoring pursuits. A notion punctuated on Feb. 4, when Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich’s demand for 30 shots from Parker produced a 42-point outburst and 107-96 win.
Parker and Westbrook share vaguely similar origins as lightning quick, shaky-jumper point guards discovered by Sam Presti who struggled to find a balance between their own scoring endeavors and their need to involve their respective future Hall of Fame teammates.
There was a time when Popovich tried to shoehorn Parker into a John Stockton-type role, before relenting and accepting Parker for the player he was.
To say that Parker had poor court vision would be wrong. Spotting open shooters has never been a problem. What he struggled with at times is that uncanny ability to see open shots before they became open in the way that Ginobili does when handed the reins of the pick and roll.
Still, years of experience in the same system have honed Parker’s abilities to new heights. His mastery of manipulating back line defenders have opened up a multitude of the kind of simple, available passes Parker has always been able to make.
But it’s been time afforded to him by the presence of Ginobili, who has helped shore up playmaking duties negated while Parker has flexed the strongest parts of his game. As always with Popovich, it’s about putting players in the best position for them to succeed individually within the broader context of the team.
Russell Westbrook has the ability to take over and win or lose games in ways that Tony Parker can only dream about, in part because his superior explosive ability and in part because of the freedom granted to Westbrook during the Thunder’s formative years.
In many ways Westbrook operates like an over-caffeinated, more explosive, younger version of Parker. The dynamics are different to be sure. Parker stepped into a Spurs team with a long-established pecking order that began with Tim Duncan while Westbrook and Kevin Durant have had to grow into their games together.
The process hasn’t always been smooth, but a solution has become available.
James Harden has emerged as a younger version of Manu Ginobili, providing a secondary playmaker to balance Westbrook out. His ability to operate as the primary ball handler in pick and roll sets allows the Thunder to exploit multiple options without losing the edge of one of their best weapons.
Westbrook as a scorer is a weapon of mass destruction, one unparalleled from the point guard position and from nearly the entire NBA. While he catches a lot of flak for all the things he cannot do from the point guard position, trying to confine him to what our perception of what his position should be would be a vast waste of resources for the Thunder. As it would be for the Spurs.
Especially when each team has a viable source of playmaking nutrients from their backcourts symbiotic partner.