What’s the Point? Parker Must Lead the Spurs in His Own Way

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Tony Parker is not John Stockton. We know that. The Spurs know that. In fact, they built one of the most successfully executing and complicated offensive systems in the NBA around that bit of knowledge.

There was a time, however, when Gregg Popovich did want Parker to be Stockton. In the summer of 2003 the Spurs even attempted to bring in someone Stockton-like in his ability to run an offense and rack up high assist numbers. I’ll spare you the history lesson because chances are at some point tonight one of the television personalities will tell you about it anyways.

Tonight Parker will look his defender in the eyes and see his exact opposite, a point guard who scored inefficiently but excelled at feeding teammates, and remember what the Spurs once wanted. Fortunately for the Spurs, Kidd resigned with the Nets—sorry, there’s that history lesson after all—and Popovich recognized Parker for the unique player he truly was, allowing him to grow into the point guard that won the Finals MVP in the team’s last championship.

“For us, Tony has to be at the top of his game,” Popovich stated after a Dec. 21 win over the Clippers. “It’s always been that way and always will be.”

At the top of his game Parker is aggressively attacking the basket and finishing in the lane. But despite both the team and individual success Parker has helped create, there are always those detractors that still demand Parker to be Stockton. That still wish we could trade him for Jason Kidd. Or Chris Paul. Or Steve Nash. Or even Rajon Rondo. All of it in the name of a misguided and overrated notion of the traditional “pure” point guard.

But what is a true point guard? These “traditionalists” would tell you that it’s to initiate the offense, create for your teammates and shoot only when no other option presents itself. Any guard that deviates from that, no matter how successful, is automatically lumped in with Allen Iverson and Monta Ellis as selfish ball hogs, or perpetual losers.

I would argue that this is a limited and archaic view of basketball and that the concept of “pure” point guard is overrated. After all, how many titles do these “pure” point guards have? Parker and his scoring mentality have accounted for three titles.

So if Parker doesn’t fit the mold of point guard we want to hold so high, how have the Spurs been so successful? Simply put:  assist averages do not predicate success. Systems do. The goal of an offense is to make the best use of its resources in generating the most efficient shots possible and adapt when those options are taken away. A point guard then should be judged solely by how well his team fulfills those goals, regardless of style.

Statisticians have repeatedly pointed out that the most efficient shots are lay-ups and corner threes. It’s a big reason why dominant big men are so integral to championships. They prevent lay-ups while generating close shots and open three-pointers. And what is Tony Parker if not a one-man lay-up line?

Sure, his critics have had ammunition this year (and no, not the Gilbert Arenas kind). After all, last season was supposed to be the coronation of Parker as an elite player, one who Popovich made a copy of Tim Duncan’s keys to the franchise for. Given the reigns to the offense and a bevy of new weapons wasn’t this suppose to be a glorious encore for Parker?

It hasn’t turned out that way. Parker’s numbers are down and the Spurs began the season in a disappointing clash of turnovers, failures to incorporate new players and losses to winning teams. With the team struggling, Parker even attempted to reinvent himself on the fly.

But the Spurs troubles were never a conflict of styles and it’s not been because Tony Parker hasn’t been John Stockton. The biggest problem is that Tony Parker has not been Tony Parker. At least not the one we’ve seen over the past few seasons.

I’m sure you can find some statistics to showcase Parkers struggles. A rise in turnovers, a drop in scoring average and shot attempts. Some of it has been attributed to a transition to a passing mentality, but watch the tape. Does he look right?

Players are staying in front of Parker, or at least bumping him enough to allow the help to recover. They’re stripping him repeatedly on drives while it doesn’t appear defenses are doing anything new.

At least three Parker trademarks have been noticeably absent this season. When was the last time you can recall one of his patented spin moves in the lane? Or a “Euro-step” on a fast break that actually created separation from the defender? Even the teardrop has appeared less.

They were all present at the beginning of the season which leads me to believe that the ankle, or summer fatigue, are preventing Parker from accessing his fastest gears and full offensive game.

And despite what some think, Parker’s complete scoring arsenal is relative to the success of his teammates. Even if he’s not the passer Steve Nash or Chris Paul are, his ability to completely break down a defense makes his teammates better by allowing them to operate against a broken, scrambling defense.

Think about the Spurs’ system. Parker may not have huge assist numbers, much to the chagrin of some, but how much of a detriment is that? In Tim Duncan the Spurs have the best passing center in the league, leading all pivot men with 4.6 assists per 48 minutes to run their offense through. In my previous post, I touched on how Manu Ginobili’s playmaking complemented Parker’s game. When you get so much playmaking from your center and shooting guard spots, isn’t it okay for your point guard to score a little?

It’s never been Parker’s pin-point passing that has elevated the Spurs. As a point guard, Parker is a unique and dangerous combination of speed and finishing ability. His approach might not ring up assist numbers, but the attention that teams need to pay a healthy Parker open up driving lanes for players like George Hill or Richard Jefferson, who, while excellent finishers, have trouble creating driving lanes of their own.

Curbing a weapon like Parker to conform to an outdated definition of point guard, especially when you have two other players more than capable of supplementing his playmaking duties, is simply a gross mismanagement of our resources.

Moving forward, it’s not in the Spurs best interests to alter Parker’s game or trade for a point guard who would appease “traditionalists”. The Spurs tried that before and if they have any notion of doing so again, they simply need to look on the floor and weigh the point guard so many always wanted against the rings the team already has.

  • Ben Smith

    You’ve actually done a nice job of summing up why people would like to see a “more traditional” point guard for the Spurs – if TP’s speed decreases, he does not have a floor vision/spacing skillset to continue developing. He won’t be playing at a high level when he’s in his 30s, as Nash and Paul both will be (and Kidd still is).

  • LionZion

    I agree with the basic premise that Parker can play his non-traditional game given that the Spurs have a system in place for initiating the offense anyways and get open looks.

    The part I have issue with is skimming over Parker’s poor court vision and passing skills just coz others on the floor can ‘make up’ for it. See, that part is not always true. Sometimes Tony has the ball, after it has gone around the perimeter ending up back in his hand, and he just dribbles around looking for openings. Good example is Blair who comes to set a pick but then instead he quickly slips it and runs to the basket and Tony rarely ever is able to make that pass around or over two players. In my book, those kinds of passes are critical for easy buckets and Tony hasn’t been getting us too many of those.

    Now if Tony doesn’t handle the ball much in the half court, then I am good with him simply receiving the ball and shooting his mid range J or a tear drop or getting the back door layup etc.

  • http://www.48minutesofhell.com Timothy Varner

    @Ben: Why are you convinced that Parker is losing his speed? He’s having an off season, but it seems too early to make that leap.

  • http://48minutesofhell.com Jesse Blanchard

    @Ben
    I think if Tim’s piece on Duncan’s extended shelf life as an elite player is correct (and I believe that it is) you’re going to have to think of the Spurs future only within this three-year window. And for those three years I believe Parker will remain at what he has been (provided he can leave the French national team).

    And I’m not sure Parker was ever going to age well. As Hollinger frequently points out, bigger guards that do not rely on speed frequently age better. And shooting certainly helps. Parker will never be that. But I think what he is serves in the best interests of the Spurs right now.

    @LionZion. I don’t think Parker has poor court vision or passing. I just think he keeps it basic. And I think ultimately Parker creates more easy bucket opportunities than he misses. The thing that separates him from Iverson and Ellis and Marbury, I think, is that it’s not like he’s shooting pull-up 20-foot jumpers with 20 seconds left on the clock. And I probably should have mentioned this in the article, but I believe the team’s assist averages have been above average–and that’s before taking into account style and pace.

  • Manu

    I think the article is great but the truth is TP has 3 rings b/c of duncan. If Kidd, Nash, CP3 or any other point guard was in TP place i am sure that point guard will also have 3 rings (Duncan is one of the top 10 players in the history of the NBA). Even more, if CP3 was the point I think Duncan will have another ring or two. CP3 can pass and score as well as TP. On the other hand, I think TP is not the problem but the lack of an athletic big. We should tru to pack Bonner, Finley, Mason and Mahini for another big. that will shorten the rotation so we will not “feel” the addition of another new player.

  • lvmainman

    It is well and good that Parker isn’t a traditional point guard for the Spurs. But, it’s disappointing that he hasn’t shown any sign of improving or expanding his game.

    With more points scored by the Spurs this season are Parker’s assists up? No. Over time as Parker added a reliable jump shot to his game? No. Has Parker worked on his ability to consistently make a set shot 3 pointer? No. Has Parker dedicated himself to be more accurate at the FT line? No. Is Parker averaging 1.0 steals a game like he did for 3 years straight? No, Parker is averaging 0.5 steals a game this year.

    This year Parker on 82games.com is shooting .378 on jump shots. Only one other Spur is below .444 and that’s Hill at .411. Parker is .200 in crunch time!! Against the Pistons, according to the ESPN shot chart, Parker was 2 for 8 on jumpers. This is a common occurrence.

    If Parker were to show some improvement in other aspects of his game that would be one thing, or adapt his game to additional weapons on the team, but apparently he can’t. It leaves one wondering is Parker a great fit for this new current makeup of Spurs or the future.

  • http://48minutesofhell.com Jesse Blanchard

    @lvmainman–but he has improved a lot of aspects to his game. The jumper has definetly improved over the past few years. I’m aware of what the stats are right now, but I believe that a lot of it can be attributed to his ankle injuries and fatigue. Last year Parker was honestly an elite player only behind Paul and pretty much even with Williams. Even if that was an outlier, I believe this season, so far, is one too.

    Of course, we’ll only know for sure at the end of this year, but I think the smart money would be on Parker returning to form.

  • VP of Common Sense

    The biggest difference between this season and last is personel.

    Last season we had to have Tony score 20+ just to stay competitive.

    In addition, a lot of what goes on is perception.

    Manu tends to turn the ball over at similar rates as Parker. The difference is Manu’s turnovers come from trying to make plays for teammates while Parker’s turnovers come from trying to make plays for himself.

    Perception: Parker = selfish Manu = team player

    Fair or not, this is the way many Spurs fans feel.

  • AP

    @fair-weather Parker fans,
    No one was complaining when Parker was dropping 55 last season, or when he was lighting up the Cavs for a Finals MVP.
    He hasn’t been his normal speed-of-light self through the first part of this season, but so what? He’s still freaking good. He’s still better than all but a handful of point guards in the league, and there’s nothing to say he won’t pick it back up soon.
    And, it’s not like CP3, Rondo, or any other point guard is demanding a trade to the Spurs. Our point guard situation is settled the way it is, but we’ve got a great situation with Tony. We have TWO FINALS MVPs on the same team! We’re in good shape. Let’s ride it out and root for Tony to light the torch again, instead of criticizing him for not being the best point guard in the league.

  • Jesse Blanchard

    @VP of Common Sense
    It’s personnel…but sometimes I wonder if the perception of Parker is not personal (Sorry, I don’t really nitpick at typos or mistakes, I just thought it was a good play on words).

    Manu does turn it over forcing passes, but he also takes bad shots at times. It’s who he is and we live with it because he’s such a great player.

    But so is Tony. Yet fans constantly berate him for it. To the point that they start making up qualities in his backup point guards just to justify benching Parker. Remember when Beno Udrih was the best passing point guard on the team? How did that assessment work out in Sacramento? Or the odd notion that George Hill is a pass-first point guard in only his second year playing the position?

  • Ron

    Yet with all the concern about how TP plays the point the Spurs are 4th in the league in assist, only 0.2/game behind Phoenix. I think a lot has to do with the style of play for the Spurs. They move the ball around and many players get touches before a shot is made. TP is the initiator of the play and there is a lot of variation in who makes that last pass. By the way, that’s also why I think the Spurs have so many TO this year. When all the players aren’t in sync, the ball goes sailing out of bounds.

  • Ron

    Yet with all the concern about how TP plays the point the Spurs are 4th in the league in assists, only 0.2/game behind Phoenix. I think a lot has to do with the style of play for the Spurs. They move the ball around and many players get touches before a shot is made. TP is the initiator of the play and there is a lot of variation in who makes that last pass. By the way, that’s also why I think the Spurs have so many TO this year. When all the players aren’t in sync, the ball goes sailing out of bounds.

  • kb

    My friends……A pure pg can control the game without taking a ton of shots.

  • Brandon

    I honestly think the Parker detractors will never be satisfied with who he is and the way he plays. Only after Tony is gone will these guys be comparing the next Spurs PG to Tony and pining for the days when we had a “scoring point guard.”

    The bottom line is this: he is not a traditional point guard, he is not a distributor, he is not Chris Paul, he is not Deron Williams, and he is not Jason Kidd. But Tony Parker IS a special player with great scoring skills who fits in with what the Spurs are trying to do. He has high character, and has earned the trust of his teammates and the Spurs front office.

    If RC and Pop love him as a player, how can we as fans think we know better and wish he were something different? If you don’t like him, fine; but just try to appreciate the talents and skills that he does have… because when he’s gone, you’ll be longing for the days of Tony Parker.

  • AmyfromLA

    Well put, Brandon.

    I like it that Tony is not CP3 or D.Will or J.Kidd or Nash. He’s Tony Parker!!! He has his own style and his own selling point and I agree we should all appreciate him for being him. He works well with the Spurs system. I think Tony will be better as the season progresses. Let’s all be patient and wait for the real Tony to return. =)

    Go Spurs go!!!! (I hope they take down the Mavs tonight!)

  • Artis Gilmore

    @ whoever

    TP is an explosive player who brings speed and a unique style to the court but if you take away his explosiveness and speed then you just have a unique style on the court

    – waiting patiently for a TP return to greatness that coincides with a RJ living up to his potential

  • not as good as I once was

    I read all the comments and it just makes me laugh. What I’m reading is the same thing as when a team wins a championship you see a lot of bandwagoners jumping on. or when some one is struggling a little everyone wants to hang him they forget all the great things that player has done and they cry he is washed up he can’t do the job look at the way he is playing You people are jumping off the bandwagon to soon give the guy his chance you owe him that much there is a lot of season still to play have a little faith.

  • johnny

    Parker is actually not that bad of a passer he could have higher assist totals if the spurs were not a make the extra pass and rotate the ball team. When Parker is at his best penetrating and he kicks it out to the open shooter many times the spurs will rotate the ball and get the even better shot. The key with Parker is his special skill is getting to the basket and being able to convert. That is an incredible skill for a 6-1 point guard, There are not many players in the NBA that can convert on drives better than Parker. I personally think he is one of the best ever at this trait, which is amazing for a 6-1 point guard that doesn’t dunk over people.

  • VP of Common Sense

    Point taken Jesse.

    Tony Parker is better than 90% of the PG in the NBA.

    I wouldn’t call him our best player (that’s Duncan) and I wouldn’t call him the most clutch guy on the team (that’s Ginobili), but we do need Parker to play well if we’re going to win a title.

  • NFGIII

    Too early this season to see if TP has lost any speed. He may have or not since I’m convinced that he hasn’t fully recovered from his ankle injury last summer. TP over the course of his career has shown that he turns it up during the second half of the season. And from what I’ve seen in the last 5 or so games he is getting back to his old form. I think the combination of his ankle and his willingness to try to integrate the new players by passing more made him a little passive in the beginning of the season. The spacing seems to be much better and TP is attacking the rim more. RJ is now getting more looks and Manu is getting his mojo back, too.

    TP is like the old tiger – can’t change his stripes so use him accordingly. Hey, his contibutions and style of play have brought the Spurs 3 rings, right? Well maybe 2 since his performance in ’03 wasn’t that steller against the Nets.

    Anyway he is what he is and to try to change him into something he isn’t makes no sense. When his speed is going then is the time to consider another option. Once TP’s speed decreases his effectiveness would drastically go down. I, of course, would love to trade TP just before that happens in order to get the max value out of him but when can you really say he’s on the downside of his career? Tough call for any FO/coach to make about any star player.

    This team is slowly coming together and once they get truly in sync then this league had better watch out. No only can this team score but more importantly their D is beginning to come together. That’s the scary part if I was on another team. Spurs D coming back!

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  • LionZion

    @LionZion. I don’t think Parker has poor court vision or passing. I just think he keeps it basic. And I think ultimately Parker creates more easy bucket opportunities than he misses. The thing that separates him from Iverson and Ellis and Marbury, I think, is that it’s not like he’s shooting pull-up 20-foot jumpers with 20 seconds left on the clock.

    We will just have to agree to disagree. And I wouldn’t compare Tony to those guys even though they are ‘scoring’ guards. Tony still has a bunch things to do on the defensive end which those other guys have never tried to put it lightly.

    But the passing and court vision. When you say Tony keeps it basic, I agree. I just wish he was more than ‘basic’ in that part and my faith would be tenfold, if he only tried to be creative and failed than not try those passes for a good play. The obvious argument to this is, of course, fancy isn’t always good etc, but to be clear, I am not saying fancy, just a good difficult pass for an easier bucket.

    His kickouts btw are usually pretty good coz he knows where everybody is without almost looking within the system.

  • sj_papi

    Great points all guys (no pun intended). I’ve just thought all along this year that the main reason for Parkers slow start aside from playing FIBA basketball over the Summer is in his efforts to incorporate the new guys. Yeah, truth be told, Parker does not have that natural feel that other elite point guards have of getting other players involved. I’ts been more evident this year that it takes a conscience effort on his part and, unfortnately, is not when he’s at his best. Manu’s instincts on the court, for example, are more what I think most would want Parker to have. Still, Parker gives us a mismatch each and every single night which makes him a star. I guess he sees all this new talent and you play with a guy like Tim Duncan.. you can’t blame him for wanting to be unselfish and get guys involved. Still, Parker needs to get his and he needs to just go for it every night. Getting him going just makes things so much easier for the team and he’s shown he can demoralize an opposing team. Stop thinking and just play TP. Viva le France!!!

  • mori1040

    @Jesse

    Nice article and I agree with your premise that something is amiss with Parker physically.

    This is off topic, but I just felt I had to stand up for Monta Ellis, me being from the Bay Area and all. You keep dumping on the guy but you need to remember that he’s not really a point guard. Last season Don Nelson did with Ellis pretty much what Pop did with Hill. He took a 2 guard who’s been a scorer his entire career and asked him to play point. Monta Ellis took this role because 1. the warriors were too cheap to re-sign Baron and 2. At 24, he’s got the most experience of any guard on their roster.

    Sure, he’ll never be the brightest guy on the court in terms of basketball IQ, but he’s asked to do so much for their team. He is their leading scorer night in and night out and he’s asked to guard the opposing teams best perimeter player. When they played the Thunder, Ellis’ defensive assignment was Durant, a player who stands at least 7 inches taller. Ellis played 48 minutes (for the past month he’s been averaging about 45), scored 31 points and “held” Durant to 9-24 shooting. Yeah, they lost the game, but my point is that Ellis is asked to do far too much on his team and doesn’t deserve the criticism that he’s been taking. I hope he gets traded to a reputable franchise so we can see just how good he can be.

  • http://fundamentally-sound.blogspot.com Jaceman

    I dunno that Parker is a poor passer, especially if you look at straight basketball assist statistics. Oftentimes it’s someone else that makes that extra pass to an open Matt Bonner or something. Personally I think that any other point guard, even a “true” one won’t necessarily put up the type of assist numbers under Popovich’s system. Honestly, the team’s struggles to me haven’t so much been that TP is playing wrong more so than that other players aren’t really stepping up. I find at the very least that 2003, 2005, and 2007 to be fairly substantial evidence that Parker isn’t the issue. Perhaps he’s not playing at 100%, but I honestly believe that the only player that he could really help by passing more is Richard Jefferson. I dunno, I could be off base, but as a team built on defense, I find TP to be a more reliable source of points than necessarily the shots players like Roger Mason and Matt Bonner would have should Parker “pass more”.

  • lucas

    In my opinion, Parker is actually a fairly good passer. He doesn’t have the assist totals to show that, but I think that is largely a function of the system that the Spurs play in. Numerous times a game, after he makes the initial pass following penetration, the ball is swung again on the perimeter for the open 3. These hockey assists are in large part due to Tony’s playmaking ability, but he is not credited in any way in the box score. Additionally, I seem to remember reading an article a while ago that showed that Tony has one of the best assist-to-bad-pass ratios of all point guards, which would seem to indicate that even if he doesn’t have top-tier vision, he is an efficient passer.

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  • Joe Blow What Do Ya Know

    @kb January 8th, 2010 at 11:14 am My friends……A pure pg can control the game without taking a ton of shots.

    That’s nice but how many of those PGs have won championships? Rajon is the only true PG I can think of who has won in the past TWENTY years of NBA championships.

  • Nowitzness_grl2

    I think this is a good article and talks about the difference between a “pure” point guard (like Kidd) and a “points” guard. There is room in the league for both and both are exciting to watch — And, for an example, Chris Paul is a true combo of both (and, being a Mavs fan, I absolutely adore Kidd’s leadership and court vision and the way he reads his team and other teams and makes his team better. But he’s a cerebral player…something the league has also begun to lose. That is not an indictment of Parker, btw, before anyone starts yelling at me about that!).

    I think where Parker’s capability as a “point guard” and not a “points guard” comes up is with the acquisition of Richard Jefferson. Jefferson thrives in the presence of a “pure” point guard (i.e., Jason Kidd, who basically put players like him and Kenyon Martin on the map in a lot of different ways). But Parker doesn’t have the court vision or passing instinct to assist players such as Jefferson. I believe that is why things haven’t meshed and gelled (yet) for the team as they should or as quickly as most of us, fans and non-fans alike, expect from a team as venerable as the Spurs. I think now Popovich wants Parker to pass more and he’s only an average passer (meanwhile, his turnover rate has hit career highs at junctures this year. There is a connection).

    I hope I’m making sense, and in no way is this an opportunity for me to diss the Spurs just because I am a Mavs fan. I have nothing but respect for the team and to be seen as an archrival to the Spurs is a credit to the Mavs’ own development. After all, you guys are still “big brother!” :)

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  • UnwantedTheory

    Plantar Fasciitis…

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