Symbiotic Backcourts


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was a time when this San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder matchup would’ve made great talking points for the outdated notions of traditional point guard values, seeing as how neither Tony Parker or Russell Westbrook have ever been described as such.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.

  • Bob

    It’s interesting that Westbrook was more of a traditional point guard last season when he averaged 8.0 apg. This years he’s only at 5.5. I think part of that is Durant and Harden are now better play makers. That allows him to focus a little more on scoring.

  • Tyler

    I’m happy for Westbrook. I thought he took a lot of unwarranted flak last postseason, similar to the type of criticism Tony has received up until this year (the most vocal of which were Spurs’ fans oddly enough).

  • Stijl

    Yeah. Going to be interesting to see this one.

  • ThatBigGuy

    Westbrook’s numbers have increased (PPG, shooting %, shots per game) like you would expect from a young player who is figuring out how to play in the NBA. Other stats (rebounds, steals, blocks) have stayed about the same. But his APG have fluctuated wildly. Check out his averages: 5.3, 8.0, 8.2, 5.5. On the other hand, Harden’s assists have increased each year.

    I think what’s happening is that OKC is copying the Parker/Manu concept: When Manu/Harden is in the game, much less ball distribution emphasis is placed on Parker/Westbrook, essentially making them shooting guards at times. This is more so apparent with the OKC pair than the SA pair. When Harden is in the game, it’s obvious he’s the PG and Westbrook is the SG.

    With Manu being out most of the year, Parker’s been the only ball distributer, partially leading to his high assist numbers compared to his career averages. However, he’s managed to keep up those high assist numbers even when Manu came back.

    I wonder how blurry Westbrook can make the lines between PG and SG. I would imagine a lot of that answer has to do with Harden’s minutes.

  • Bob


    It’s interesting as much flak as Westbrook has gotten for being a shoot first pg I believe the Thunder have a better record when he scores more than Durant.

  • Tyler

    @ Bob

    That’d be an interesting stat to see. Also, at the point in their careers, considering performance, age and injury history, is there a PG you’d take over Westbrook for the next 5-10 years?

  • Len

    Sam Presti has modeled the Thunder after the Spurs. Which is no surprise at all for obvious reasons. The comparison between Manu and James, Russell and Tony, and even Kevin and Timmy. The last isn’t as direct of a correlation because their games are markedly different. But both are quiet superstars with very similar personalities.