To the point, building titles around lead guards difficult

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In the past decade the NBA has dramatically tilted its rules in favor of quicker, more diminutive floor leaders. But while the NBA became a “quarterbacks” league, its greatest point guards have had surprisingly little say in the ultimate prize.

In discussing the positional revolution, I stated under the current NBA rules defending quality point guards is virtually impossible. Over at TrueHoop, Zach Harper echoed those thoughts last week while still posing the question: Should you build your team with a point?

What’s odd is the league is currently set up to benefit point guards. Look around and you see so many floor generals putting up insane statistics and making highlight reels. You literally can’t (hand) check them on the floor because it’s against the rules. Giving small guys with otherworldly quickness and dexterity this kind of freedom allows them to get to the middle of the floor and do what they do best — make plays for their teammates or themselves.

And yet, the idea of building your franchise around a point guard scares me.

But if the point guard position is virtually indefensible, then naturally finding a franchise-quality point guard is good place to start, right? Historically, no. But the absence of point guard-led champions does not mean the absence of the possibility, if a team can manage to avoid the pitfalls of building around what some consider basketball’s most important position.

The Point Guard Paradox

Perhaps the troubling paradox behind building around franchise point guards is that it is the most difficult position to form a championship team around because it’s the easiest position from which to build a team around.

For the most part, young franchise quality point guards come with skill sets intact, give or take a jump shot or two. Sure, decision making needs to be honed, but with the nature of the game diminished on the perimeter, a point guard’s speed and ball handling can help him make an immediate impact.

Likewise, because established point guards have such command of the game, and the position controls such a large portion of it, bringing one aboard can produce instantaneous results. Below is a list of turnarounds headed by point guards young and old.

Team/Point Guard

Record Before

Record After

Nets | Jason Kidd

26-56

52-30

Suns | Steve Nash

29-53

62-20

Hornets | Chris Paul

18-64

38-44

Bulls | Derrick Rose

33-49

41-41

Obviously it’s a good problem to have, if you can consider these teams having problems. But there’s something inherently difficult about building around these players, as each of the above players has managed to put playoff teams together with nothing but spot up shooters and duct tape.

And therein lies the problem. Because a point guard presents so much smoke and mirrors, masking teammates deficiencies, controlling tempo, and inflating statistics, it’s far too easy to get caught up in his success and prematurely go all in, overvalue your own free agents, and ignore the development of the rest of your team while still having success — just not the kind of success every team should aspire to.

Was Chris Paul too good for the Hornets own good?

As shown above, a team with a quality point guard is not long for the lottery, which is where teams generally find the two or three core members of a team needed to contend for the title. In shedding light on why the Cavaliers could not find a suitable running mate for LeBron James (who for all intents and purposes was the team’s point guard, as well as shooting guard, both forwards, and coach), John Krolik of Cavs: The Blog hit the nail on the head:

One other thing: this is not a “this was all the front office’s fault” thing. Because LeBron made the Cavaliers so good so fast, they only had a few chances to make the move or draft pick that would have given him a true running mate or set of running mates. Due to a series of circumstances both within and beyond management’s control, the moves they made didn’t work out.

With the addition of Chris Paul, the Hornets immediately went from drafting in the top five to drafting in the mid lottery, where they uncovered such gems as Hilton Armstrong (2006), Cedric Simmons (2006), and Julian Wright (2007). All poor draft selections to be sure, but ones that come with the territory of picking so late in the lottery.

Unfortunately, the Hornets brass not only failed to make decent selections in the Hornets brief formative years, they compounded their mistakes by overbidding on veteran players, trying to capitalize on the rapid improvements made possible by their young point guard. In essence, the Chris Paul-era Hornets were born old, peaking before Paul’s prime.

The Jason Kidd conundrum

Because some point guards are more about intangibles than gaudy stats, a great way of evaluating these players is not by the statistics they accumulate but by the careers that they create. And few have made as many careers as Jason Kidd.

Did anyone reasonably believe that Kenyon Martin was worth anywhere near a max contract? Richard Jefferson? Keith Van Horn? Was Mikki Moore really a rotation player on a playoff contending team? A number of players owe their largest contracts to Jason Kidd.

Unfortunately for the New Jersey Nets, there is no easier way to throw your cap space down the drain than by overvaluing your own free agents. Especially when their stats are inflated by a great point guard.

What Steve Nash giveth, Steve Nash taketh away

For Steve Nash to operate at his peak, a coach needs to put the ball in his hands with an open system that provides him the freedom to probe and create as he pleases. While it’s hard to argue with two MVPs and the team’s overall success, such a strategy does have its drawbacks even if implemented by the NBA’s best offensive point guard.

It will be interesting to observe Amare Stoudemire this season minus Steve Nash, if only to see if he makes the same leaps in his game that Dirk Nowitzki made when he was thrust into the role of primary creator.

Each power forward was initially relegated to pick-and-roll (or pop) players in the presence of Nash, putting up gaudy numbers but never truly creating their own opportunities. Each were merely extensions of Steve Nash rather than being individual, dominant players.

Absent Nash, Nowitzki quickly became an annual MVP candidate, taking his game to new heights while also transforming the Mavericks into legitimate title contenders. But here’s the thing, the Mavericks did not become title contenders because they lost Steve Nash. They simply failed to win one because they failed to use (or develop) their personnel properly when they had him.

Because it’s far too easy to just hand the ball to a Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, Chris Paul, or Deron Williams and tell him to go to work. After all, they make the right decisions most of the time, minimize the bad ones, and are capable of leading a team to insane offensive stats.

So while Steve Nash brought instant success to the Suns and Amare Stoudemire, he also hindered their development by almost doing everything for them. Something about giving a man a fish vs. teaching him how to fish comes to mind.

Crutch vs. Foundation

The difficult thing about building around a point guard is that you almost have to restrain their talents, putting your team together and developing them independently of your point guard.

Think of it like making a stew. The meat is usually always going to be good, but if you let it overpower the rest of the ingredients, mask each of their individual flavors, then that dish might still be good, but not what it could have been.

As much a fixture as the pick and roll is in the NBA, it cannot be run every time down the floor. As much as point guards mask their team’s weaknesses, those weaknesses still exist and will always be exposed by great defensive teams.

So as difficult as it is for coaches and general managers whose jobs depend on winning now, building around a point guard should be a process, just like any other. Not a shortcut.

As much as any other position, the point guard can be a foundation upon which to build something great. But in the hands of lesser front offices, far too often they are simply used as a crutch.

  • rob

    Great observation. Reverse the scenario…is Tony a top 5 pg in the league without Tim Duncan?

    I’ve always wondered…not that I want it to happen now…if Tony would do as well on another team that didn’t have a dominant PF/C like Duncan. Would the Celtics have won a title without Rondo? How important is it that Howard might need that kind of PG in order for the Magic to win a title? And LeBron…he didn’t really help his teammates become better players when playing the point. Miami is going to be interesting to watch from a perspective as to see how all this combining of all-stars is going materialize without a true PG.

  • rob

    “Miami is going to be interesting to watch from a perspective as to see how all this combining of all-stars is going materialize without a true PG.”

    I meant to say a dominant PG.

  • Sarge

    You know, in an open system like D’Antoni runs, Parker would probably be posting insane stats and racking up tons of assists. Numbers-wise, he’d be better. But there’s no question that Duncan makes all the players around him better, although the effect is becoming less pronounced as he ages.

    Maybe the above is why having a top-flight big man is more conducive to winning titles than a top-flight point guard.

    In any case, good teams have a symbiotic relationship, anyway. Is Parker good because of Tim (and Manu), or are they good because of Parker? I’d argue a little bit of both. Even Jordan had complementary talent around him.

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  • GitErDun

    This is incredibly interesting. It will be interesting to see how much of a franchise player LeBron is, or better stated – HOW MUCH BETTER HE CAN MAKE THE OTHERS, as he cannot do it all himself, but he sure does try. Stoudimire should be interesting too. I can’t see what all the hoopla is about Rose – IMO he is very average – just has outstanding HYPE. He was very average on Team USA (just like Tyson Chandler – the Mavs saviour???) was. All both managed to do was get their quota of fouls. Chandler was good for 5 fouls in 10 minutes.

  • The Beat Counselor

    Great article. Excellent points.

    In addition to the reasons stated above I can see building around a max money PG being a problem for a few more reasons:

    1) Too much money is invested in a position where physical attributes should be most prevalent and available in the league talent pool (ie we no longer need 6’4″ PGs).

    2) This logic, if extrapolated suggests that PGs could be the most expendable player on a team.
    The role of PG can be relagated to a smart distributor (in the non-transcendant passer mold) as long as they can keep the defense honest (to avoid double teams). Derek Fisher embodies this.

    3) Too much money is invested in a position that can only have an offensive impact (since it is so difficult to guard the perimeter with the handcheck rule).

    With all these things considered, I believe that Rajon Rondo is the ideal PG to build around. He’s fast, can finish at the rim, knows how to distribute the ball, can run the break, is a GREAT rebounder, excels in playoff situations and is one of only a few PGs in the league that can make a difference defensively. Everbody knows his only deficiency is his shooting. But I believe that it is for that VERY reason that he is the ‘most valuable PG’ in the league (and has been since last year). I mean ‘value’ in the traditional ‘most for your money’ sense.

    If Rondo could shoot, guess what? He’d get a max contract (he could probably have gotten one anyway if he didn’t resign). His very deficiency allows his team to justify paying him less than max money which allows them to spend more money on the other starting 5 (where the truly unique talent lies). In the end, that’s who a PG should be passing/deferring to anyway.

    On a side note, its interesting to see how much available talent there is at each position. As you go from 1 through 5 isn’t it apparent that the bigger the position, the less talent there is available in the league at the position? I suppose that just makes sense statistically considering normal distribution and all. To contradict this point, I would say there are currently less talented SFs available right now then talented PFs.

    On another side note, the handcheck rule was a great move by the NBA because now they are allowing more ‘natural’ point guards (at least people that have played PG for years) to enter their league because the PG height ‘requirement’ has been somewhat diminished by the rule. Now shorter people (who there are many more of in the world) that have been playing PG for years have a chance to become elite instead of the old way of trying to convert college SGs and swingmen into PGs because their physical attributes allowed them to guard post-up PGs in halfcourt sets (poor Rodney Stuckey). Its unlikey these bigger guys were ever the shortest on the team which in turn means that they were less likely to run the point (because they were more likely to be matched up with someone their size and because smaller guys have an easier time developing good handles).

    More available talent is a good good thing.

  • Daniel

    “Because some point guards are more about intangibles than gaudy stats, a great way of evaluating these players is not by the statistics they accumulate but by the careers that they create. And few have made as many careers as Jason Kidd.”

    What a waste of a paragraph. Every advanced metric (aside from PER, which basically counts points) puts Jason Kidd as one of the top PLAYERS of the past decade, not just point guards.

    Kidd has had RIDICULOUSLY gaudy stats– points scored are only one piece of the box score, and for some inane reason that’s the only stat that “experts” use in their “analysis”.

  • Francesco

    Daniel goes down a bit hard, but I agree that when you average a triple-double over 2 consecutive (12 games) playoff series (’07) you should be revered as a stats god.

  • Yames

    great article, Yesse! The stew-analogy really hammered it home for me…

    I too wonder if that potato(head) Stoudemire will finally be ready for serving –or if all he ever could do was put the biscuit in the basket.

  • SpursfanSteve

    Defense wins championships, and because of the hand check rule, PG’s really can’t play a whole lot of traditional defense anymore.

    If i had time right now to expand on that point, i would, but i’ve got a paper due in 2 hours that i need to finish. Hopefully just the statement alone will either net a critique or a positive response from someone with more time.

  • Jim Henderson

    Issue raised in main post:

    Difficulty with building for a title around a dominant PG.

    Author’s main point:

    Great PG’s can lull organizations into a false sense of security, which can result in lazy player development, and ultimately very good teams, but not title winners.

    Jesse’s point is interesting, and is at least partly valid. Nash, for example, is almost like a drug for his teammates, and a team’s simply not going to win a title with so many players running around in need of a fix from their PG. A team of addicts are ultimately not interdependent, which is generally a quality needed by NBA champions (e.g., because of Kobe’s dominance, the Lakers were not interdependent before Pau’s arrival – Pau totally changed that team, and not just because of his “talent”).

    However, in the final analysis, the impact players necessary to win championships have always been “BIG” players, whether you have a great PG or not. The Spurs have won primarily because of Duncan, not a great PG facilitator that dominated the action; all of the Laker championships were won because of big men (Kareem, Shaq, Pau), even in spite of one of the most dominant PG’s to ever play the game (Magic); the Celtics won because of Parish, McHale, & Bird (even acknowledging the underrated DJ), and Garnett, of the most recent vintage; Wade heroics aside, the Heat only won in 2006 because of the aging but still influential force of Shaq, not from an all-star PG; Billups et al. were very good, but the Piston’s of 2004 were finished without the presence of the Wallace boys; the Bulls won without dominant “BIGS” because of the GOAT and his “top-fifty” partner in crime, not because of a dominant PG. The only title teams I can think of that won with a dominant PG, and less than all-star/defensive player of the year type “BIGS”, was the Piston teams of 88-89 & 89-90 (although the amazing Rodman won defensive player of the year in their 2nd title year – but cannot be classified as your prototypical “BIG”). Indeed, those Pistons could be considered the main anomaly over the past 30+ years.

    Moral of the story: You want a title? Build around talented, dominant “BIGS”, and get the best PG you can get to facilitate that team around those “BIGS”. The PG needs to be a good, smart, all-around player, but a “top-flight” one is a luxury, not a necessity when it comes to winning titles.

  • mac

    This article could also be titled “Yet More Reasons Why David Kahn is an Idiot, and The Timberwolves Should Trade Rubio’s Rights.”

    Actually, they should have traded his rights in June to the Nets for the 3rd pick, especially if they are running the Triangle… even better, I wish WE could have gotten our hands on an early pick, DMC is going to be a beast, but all said, it’s good to be a Spurs’ fan.

  • Marcus Swayne

    To everyones point that why i like DFISH anyday yeah he might get beat a couple of time’s they might shoot right by him but no better defender at his position in the league there was a time i would say get rid of Fish but when i lookback at the PG’s that i wanted over D-Fish i must have been Smokin somethin.
    ALL PG BUM LIST
    AI
    Steve francis
    mike bibby
    j-kidd
    B-davis
    G-payton snuck a tittle in
    Mo williams
    Marbury
    should i say there flashnist does not cut it rings do baby. 3 peat

  • Jim Henderson

    Marcus Swayne
    October 18th, 2010 at 12:56 pm

    D-Fish was good enough to win with Shaq, Pau, and Kobe, and smart enough to get out of their way. Let’s not get carried away here.

  • td4life

    Jim Henderson is correct, in that you pretty much need all-star Bigs to win it all. Of course, Magic Johnson played center to win his first title, and the finals MVP, in his rookie year, but he was exceptional talent even in the middle, and was surrounded by a BUNCH of talent, and truthfully they simply caught the Sixers by surprise for one game.

    All of the Pistons’ championship squads had great talents down-low. The ONLY exception to that rule is the Bulls. That said, all those championships squads generally had pretty good primary ball-handlers and play-makers, too… just not neccessarily Point Guards, so Jesse’s points are spot on.

    That said, If I was Orlando, I would trade both Vince Carter AND Rashard Lewis for Chris Paul, if I could. As it is, I don’t like Dwight’s chances.

    All you need are 6-8 guys playing better than everybody else, especially on defense, and a great coach. If some of those guys are exceptionally talented Bigs, it’s a virtual lock. The team with the best Bigs wins… Detroit beat LA in ’04 because LA was truly complacent, Malone was injured, and Bryant was ruining team chemistry. The MVP of that series was Larry Brown… whose team was hungrier by far. If Hakeem had played like he did versus the Spurs in ’95, I am sure he would have stolen one from Phil & Company… but there you go, dominant bigs aren’t enough either.

  • Tyler

    While I think it’s preferable to build a team around a top flight big man (to Jim’s point), most teams generally don’t have that choice – it’s usually made for them depending on the draft and where they are selecting.

    Put another way, what if the Spurs had the first pick in the 1996 draft and not 1997? We might be paying homage to AI in the silver and black (yikes!). Or 1998? Olowokandi (I doubt we get duped)? Or maybe we’re smart enough to pick Vince Carter, Jamison, or Dirk?

    My point is most teams looking to exit the cellar generally don’t have the luxury to decide what position or player to build around – they take what they can get and they figure the rest out later.

  • Jim Henderson

    LUCK is certainly a part of the equation. The point is, if you get lucky enough to draft (or trade for) a dominant big or a dominant PG, history says you’d be wise to get the dominant big if you want to increase your odds of winning a title some day.

  • http://48minutesofhell.com Jesse Blanchard

    When you’re a team that far down, you take what you can get. I think the point that I would make is that if it’s a point guard you have to take steps not to rush the process and skip steps. Which is hard when you have a point guard making you look so good.

  • SpursfanSteve

    Jim, i think you bring up an interesting point with this paragraph:
    “The only title teams I can think of that won with a dominant PG, and less than all-star/defensive player of the year type “BIGS”, was the Piston teams of 88-89 & 89-90 (although the amazing Rodman won defensive player of the year in their 2nd title year – but cannot be classified as your prototypical “BIG”). Indeed, those Pistons could be considered the main anomaly over the past 30+ years”

    Could this be the Spurs post-Duncan plan? All star PG (Parker), solid wing play (Manu/Hill) and a non-prototypical big causing havoc down low (Blair)? While i wouldnt put Parker up there with the Piston’s guards from then, but he’s still a top 5ish pg in the league. And although Blair will probably never win DPOY, his rebounding is already there, and if he plays as good in the regular season as he did pre-season, he will be solid.

    Just thought i’d throw that out there.

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  • rj

    funny. haven’t seen one mention of avery johnson in here. anyone remember damon stoudemire saying the spurs couldn’t win a title aj at pg? this article makes me appreciate tony p. i used to criticize him as a scoring pg and non facillitator, but his skill set has suited the spurs well in our title years. you could almost call him an allstar role player.

  • Bushka

    Brilliant article. Very original take on theme.

    @Daniel I don’t think the author was saying Kidds stats weren’t gaudy, just that his intangibles were greater.

    As in he raised up all these players and literally made their careers.

    @Marcus.

    Dfish isn’t really applicable here is he? He is not what you’d call the decision maker on the lakers in terms of offence or defence. Great career as a player and outstanding character guy but not a Nash, Williams, Paul, Kidd type at all.

    Find it hard to believe you’d rather have Derek Fisher than Gary Payton, Jason Kidd or for all his faults an in his prime AI.

  • td4life

    I’d take Fisher over Iverson everytime with NO regrets, especially if I’m those Lakers. Playing with Shaq would have given a AI a different career, however.
    But NO ONE would take Fisher over J-Kidd, not Phil, not Jerry West, not anybody. That’s just silly.

  • Jim Henderson

    Marcus Swayne
    October 18th, 2010 at 12:56 pm

    “ALL PG BUM LIST
    AI
    Steve francis
    mike bibby
    j-kidd
    B-davis
    G-payton snuck a tittle in
    Mo williams
    Marbury”

    These guys don’t even belong on the same list.

    AI – scoring point/combo guard – almost single-handed led Sixers to the NBA finals – with 26,000+ points, quite likely a future hall of famer.

    Steve Francis – Great talent, injury-plagued career, head-case.

    M. Bibby – Solid point guard in his prime with the Kings – gradual decline set in earlier in his career than normal.

    J-Kidd – One of the best PG’s of all-time, and a 1st ballot future hall of famer.

    Baron Davis – One of the best point guards in the league during his prime years – a bit of a loose cannon emotionally/psychologically. Had some injury problems. Generally an inconsistent performer in relation to his talent. Not the best leadership skills for a PG.

    Gary Payton – One of the best PG’s of all-time – future hall of famer.

    Mo Williams – Very good scoring PG – would benefit greatly from playing with a superstar-type “big”.

    S. Marbury – Great talent — major head case. Nuff said.

    In their prime, if I were a Laker fan, I would definitely have taken Bibby, Kidd, and Payton over Fisher in his prime.

    The others, while good players, I would have some question about as a fit (some more so than others), mainly because Fish has been a good fit for LA, and is a proven big-game player with solid leadership skills.

  • Marcus Swayne

    Hey big Jim you are very sharpe in their prime D-fish would be dog food to those guys but guess in the NBA its just about getiing better gotcha point all the way from cali.

  • DaveMan77

    Point guards fill seats big men win championships. Lakers hella big, Celts hella big men, Spurs winning championships TD at PF and a 7 footer at center hella tall. There’s always exceptions to the rule in this case one Jordamm. Remember folks Magic never won without Kareem. Kareem won in Milwaukee without Magic. I’m in S.F. go Giants.

  • Marcus Swayne

    And there is no such things as big 3 it is called big draft picks cause TDuncan never played for any other team and went to the spurs not the Momba,
    not even the bulls scoottie just happen to be a good pick up so putting together a super team means nothing all the way from cali lets go yankees!

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  • Jacob

    How about this? Championship caliber players have to play well on offense and anchor the defense. Therefore guys like Wilt Chamberlain, Charles Barkley, and Allen Iverson never won championships (OK Chamberlain won a Championship BUT only when he accepted that he need to play defense, rebound and not be the center of the World). Further, Duncan & Robinson, Jordan, Even Shaq in his prime were All-NBA defensive players. The Stars must play defense just as hard as the rest of the team to justify the focus of the offense being on them. Defense wins championships and the stars must sell out on D just as much as the 12th man on the bench.

    Great point about a good young PG improving a team too much in the first couple years and therefore not being able to build around them in the draft. Think about the OKC Thunder getting a PG last when they drafted Westbrook after Durant and Green.

    PG in their late 20’sor early 30’s should try and hit the free agency market and go to a team that has everything BUT a PG.