Point guards important, but they need help to win
After watching Warriors point guard Steph Curry’s 22-point third quarter against the Spurs Monday night, which amounted to the closest approximation of shooting perfection we’ve seen all season, it seems crazy to say this.
Sorry Steph, and sorry, Mark Jackson, and sorry Warriors: The last NBA champion whose best player was its point guard was the 1990 Detroit Pistons, led by Isiah Thomas. This year will likely extend that streak, begging questions of why and how and whether this really matters. In part, it doesn’t. The best team wins, good point guards win, and when a team has several great players, sometimes a great point guard falls to second-best. That said, though, in today’s NBA, it’s worth thinking about.
In today’s NBA, there’s Curry, John Wall, Ricky Rubio, Kyrie Irving … the list goes on. There are so many young, talented point guards clamoring for contracts and only so much money to go around, only so many chances each franchise has to build in a very specific way.
Franchises are building around point guards. I watched a year ago in Minnesota as David Kahn and company decided not to offer Kevin Love a max deal, in theory saving it for Rubio, at that point an unproven rookie point guard with an admittedly massive upside. Maybe they were right. Maybe not. But when a championship is the ultimate goal and no championship team has been led definitively by a point guard since the days of the Bad Boy Pistons, this is something worth pondering.
(To give credit where credit is due, this story idea sparked from a Saturday Twitter conversation among many and led by the Washington Post’s Michael Lee. Having covered Rubio for two seasons and listened to many conversations about how the NBA has become a league driven by point guards, I perked up when I saw this.)
Yes, there are more great point guards in the NBA now than there have been in recent memory, with seemingly more young guys throwing their names into that discussion every season. Yes, they drive the league, and the game has moved away from big men and toward these facilitators. Yes, the position is changing. But is the way we look at these point guards and their value, the way teams build around them, flawed?
Let’s look at which point guards were eliminated in the first round of this year’s playoffs: Avery Bradley for the Celtics, Brandon Jennings for the Bucks, Jeff Teague for the Hawks, Deron Williams for the Nets, Ty Lawson for the Nuggets, Jeremy Lin for the Rockets, Andrew Goudelock for the Lakers (yeah, yeah, maybe this one doesn’t quite count) and Chris Paul for the Clippers. Of those teams in that bunch that were supposed to win and didn’t — or had a solid shot at winning and didn’t — three stick out: the Nets, Nuggets and Clippers.
On all three of those teams, arguments could be made that the point guard was the best player, arguments that are almost airtight for Williams and Paul and slightly shakier for Lawson on the star-less Nuggets.
Granted, that small subsample proves little. Curry, the best player on his team, is still going, but not one other team that remains boasts its best player as its point guard. Sure, there’s a great point guard still active — Tony Parker for the Spurs — but both the Bulls (Rose) and Thunder (Russell Westbrook) are winning with their point guards — one a former MVP, both perennial All-Stars — conspicuously absent.
This hardly means that Chris Paul shouldn’t have been so depressingly surprised at the Clippers’ exit interviews on Saturday, that he shouldn’t have told his story about his son, Lil Chris, waking him up that morning and asking him why he kept losing. Teams whose best players are point guards, especially now, when there are so many great point guards in the league, expect to win. Point guards are given max money, the kind of money that says, “yes, we’re building around you” when every team, in theory, is building toward a championship. And maybe this 23-year drought is just happenstance. Maybe there haven’t been the point guards that there are today. Maybe the rules that look more favorably upon point guards and have thus emphasized their importance haven’t yet translated into championships, but they will.
Maybe, but it’s hard to see Tony Parker winning all those championships without Tim Duncan. Just look at the names of starting point guards who have won titles in the past 23 years, and it’s bound to surprise, especially for the casual NBA observer, who may not have even heard of a good number of them. There’s Mario Chalmers last year, for the Heat, and Jason Williams for the Heat’s previous championship iteration in 2006. There’s Ron Harper five times, for the Bulls and Lakers, John Paxson for the Bulls before Harper, Lindsey Hunter for Shaq and Kobe’s Lakers in 2002, Kenny Smith for Hakeem Olajuwon’s Rockets in the dark two years of Michael Jordan’s baseball career.
Those are good players, all of them. There are great players on the list, too, in Jason Kidd, Rajon Rondo, Parker and Chauncey Billups. But none was the best, not in their championship year. (The strongest argument could be made for Billups on the 2004 Pistons, but that was a team with no consensus best player.) Every single one had someone better, a big man or a wing player who was the consensus best player on the team. As the NBA’s financial rules continue to evolve with this CBA, stockpiling great players is going to take financial sacrifices on the part of those great players, and it’s hard to say what direction that will take all of this. One great point guard might be enough, or maybe even a scoring point guard the likes of Chris Paul or Curry would be asked too much of to win a championship.
It’s hard to say that just because the past 20 years haven’t yielded a situation in which a transcendent point guard leads his team to a title, no team today should build toward that. But it’s also worth wondering what lessons might be learned from all of this. Is the way point guards are expected to play these days, with scoring becoming more of a priority than it often was in the past, a part of it? Possibly. Is it just a matter of personnel, and when some of these young players mature, this will all change? Also possible. But really, a point guard at his core is a floor general, a manager, and in theory, he should need someone great to manage. Maybe not someone better than he, but still, someone great.
That, it seems, could be the root of the phenomenon. A point guard can’t do everything. A point guard needs a supporting cast, and all the better if a member of that cast might be even greater than his point guard.
This isn’t to say that if Paul re-signs with the Clippers, a team with him and Blake Griffin and one other piece couldn’t someday win a title. It certainly isn’t to say that the Clippers aren’t going to throw every ounce of money and effort they can scrounge at Paul this summer, that they aren’t going to build around him. But there’s a valid lesson in all this, a kernel of truth, and it’s not just a random thing that it’s been 23 years and counting since Isiah Thomas’s championship.
Someone has to catch those passes. Someone has to make those shots, or else there’s no assist, no stats, no fame and glory. And while the point guard might be the most fascinating and even the most loaded position in the NBA today, it necessitates a web of players around it, certainly more planning than slapping a max deal on the back of a 24-year-old and running with things.
And so here we are, 23 years and counting.