Building Around a Point Guard

Yes, I’m about a week late with this. But this is a point I found worth retaliating to, so you’ll just have to let me jog your memory.

While manning the fort at Truehoop last week (and doing a great job), everybody’s favorite suicidal Wolves fan, Zach Harper, posted this gem:

Ultimately, size still matters most in this league. The Lakers and Celtics had huge frontcourts with a lot of versatility in their recent title seasons. Duncan is probably the best power forward of all time (unless he’s a center, a power center, or a center-forward) and had David Robinson alongside him for a pair of titles. Shaq was still Shaq for his four rings.

You can have a point guard, and even the best point guard, but as Jazz and Hornets fans can see, it doesn’t always get you where you want to go. It seems to me building around the best point guards can be a fun thing to give your fans, but I don’t know it will ever be what they truly want.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen Zach make this point, and it’s definitely a valid one.

In the 31 NBA Finals since Dennis Johnson carried the Sonics to the title in 1979, only 4 point guards have won Finals MVP. Two of them – Isiah Thomas and Chauncey Billups – were members of two of the most outlier-istic, ensemble cast champions. The third, Tony Parker, clearly wasn’t the best player on the ’07 Spurs, nor the player around whom the Spurs were built. The fourth was Magic Johnson, widely considered the best point guard in history – and even he shared the spotlight with an all-time great in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Of course, I’m playing devil’s advocate here. A very solid counter argument can be made against Zach’s thesis, one which was unsurprisingly led by Hornets 24/7’s Joe Gerrity.

Quotation marks, attack!

First off, most great point guards of the past 20 years haven’t been that historically great. Of those that arguably have been (Paul, Williams, Stockton, Kidd, Payton, Nash), two have been in the league for less time than it took MJ to win a title, [edit- and three made the finals]. As for Nash, he took some tough breaks against the Spurs, and his defense is awful. That’s all I have to say about him.

Of the three best point guards in the past twenty years that have finished playing, two have been painfully close to winning titles. Stockton was Jordan-ed for God’s sake!

It’s also hard to include Chris Paul and Deron Williams in the category of great point guards of the past two decades not to win titles because their teams have thus far been almost entirely unwilling to spend over the luxury tax line. If you’re looking for the reason Paul and Williams aren’t contending, that may be the more likely culprit.

On another note, there really hasn’t been a player on par with the pure basketball skills of Chris Paul since Isiah, who was also the last point guard to lead his team to a title. Sure, some people are going to claim Williams, Stockton, or Jason Kidd are up there, but get real. If you’re going to choose the best player of that bunch (when healthy) it’s going to be Paul.

All very strong points, which I wish I would have thought of first so I could take credit for them.

So which one is it? Are point guards really a bad choice for your foundation? Or is this just a confusing spot on the ever so complicated NBA map?

I agree with Zach that there is a basic flaw behind building your team around a point guard, and that’s defense. While I question the blind following behind the worn out “defense wins championships” mantra, there is a certain amount of defensive proficiency a squad must have to compete on the highest levels. And no matter how good your point guard is defensively, it’s hard to build an elite defensive squad around the shortest guy on your team. You know, the whole “interior” part of “interior defense.” Thus, recent champions always seem to have strong defensive front courts – the two Laker incarnations of the 2000s had Shaq and Bynum/Pau/Odom, the Celtics had Garnett and Perkins with a staunch defensive unit around them, the Pistons had the Wallaces, Duncan is Duncan, Hakeem was Hakeem. The outliers here are the ’06 Heat – which had an older Shaq, and frankly, are an outlier any which way you look at them – and the Bulls dynasties, but they did have three of the best defenders in history, even if none of them was your typical big, so that helps quite a bit.

Of course, no matter who you build your team around, you need to have a good defense. Good defense is rarely achievable through only one guy, no matter what position he plays. And of course, I don’t want to ignore the mini-D’Antoni in my head, who reminds me that offense can win championships. Whether mini-D’Antoni speaks the truth is debatable – I will forever contend that the SSOL Suns could have won the title if not for a few bad breaks (like Joe Johnson breaking his face, Amar’e breaking his knee, Robert Horry breaking the ethic code, etc.), and that team was clearly built around a point guard.

Also, as Joe Gerrity noted, many of the era’s best point guards were struck by bad circumstance. The “Jordan-ed” part is key, to my eyes. Much like a large gravitational object that bends the trajectory of light itself, so does Jordon to the annals of NBA history. Between the players whose legacies suffered the consequences – next to names like Clyde Drexler, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Reggie Miller, Shawn Kemp and Karl Malone – are two of the game’s best point men ever.

But the main factor that requires a side dish of a grain of salt for the anti-point guard argument is the realization that, regardless of position, there aren’t that many players who can lead you to a title. Every year, there is only one winner and 29 losers. Every year, this is one NBA player who wins Finals MVP, and 449-ish who don’t. This is pretty basic stuff, really – it kind of comes within the definition of sports – but we don’t give it nearly enough weight.

To drive that point home, let’s take a statistical stroll.

Take all NBA players and divide them into 5 positions. Now, allot a “lead guy on a title team” to one position, every year, at random. The odds of that player being a point guard are, obviously, 1 out of 5. The odds of him not being a point guard, 4 out of 5.

Assuming statistical consistency in these odds, I’ve assembled a chart which plots the chances of a certain number of point guard led title teams over a period of certain length. Of course, this chart assumes that every title team has only one alpha dog, but as a statistical footing, it is sound.

Odds of certain number of point guard led teams in an X-year period

The results are fairly interesting. There is about a 10% chance that, in a given decade, we will have no point guard-led title team. Over a 20-year period, that drops to just around 1% – a long shot by all means, but not impossible.

Let’s look at actual data, and see how it holds up. Compiled below is a list of NBA title teams since 1980, and the player around whom they were built:

2009-2010 Lakers: Kobe Bryant, SG

2008 Celtics: Kevin Garnett, PF

1999, 2003, 2005, 2007 Spurs: Tim Duncan, PF-C

2006 Heat: Dwyane Wade, SG

2004 Pistons: Ben Wallace, C (admittedly a shaky choice, but meant more than Chauncey)

2000-2002 Lakers: Shaq, C

1991-1993, 1996-1998: Jordan, SG

1994-1995 Rockets: Hakeem, C

1989-1990 Pistons: Isiah, PG (again, part of an ensemble, but was above the others)

1983 Sixers: Moses Malone, C (I’m sorry Doc)

1980s Lakers: Magic, PG, Kareem, C (split for the sake of the discussion)

1980s Celtics: Bird, SF

Summed up, we have 31 title “teams.” If we split the Magic/Kareem category so we give Magic 3 titles and Kareem 2 (reasonable, given Kareem’s age), and give Duncan 2 PFs and 2 Cs (in line with David Robinson’s years), we have:

  • 5 point guards (2 Isiah, 3 Magic)
  • 9 shooting guards (6 MJ, 2 Kobe, Wade)
  • 1 small forward
  • 5 power forwards
  • 11 centers

Quite the interesting spread. Unsurprisingly, big men take it by a huge margin, and the MJ/Kobe duo give shooting guard second place. Point guards get 5 out of 31. In our chart, 5 out of 30 got 17% odds. So I’m inclined to say this is not a statistical oddity. In fact, by glossing over this info, one would be inclined to say the cursed position is in fact small forward. Thank god we’re abolishing it for the positional revolution.

A point I must make, though, is how many of these teams were multiple champions. Whether it skews the statistics or not depends on your view – for example, I chose to credit MJ with 6 and Wade with 1, but some might say that for this specific exercise they should carry the same weight. One might also say that given how dominant some of these dynasties are, we should also count strong runner ups – thus adding the Stockton-Malone Jazz and the Payton-Kemp Sonics – or maybe add prevalent sidekicks (Pippen’s 6 would look nice in that lonely small forward spot).

These, however, are judgement calls. I’m looking for a main theme.

In this main theme, I found this a fun and educating exercise. I must warn you – do not put more stock into this than what it’s worth. This is the work of an excel sheet, 12th grade statistics, and a basketball fan. It’s not like I’m Hollinger or anything.

But I think this can teach us a few important lessons:

  • Winning a title in the NBA is hard, no matter how you build your team.
  • Winning with a point guard as your main player is not impossible. In recent history, it has happened less than with big men or shooting guards, but it is within “statistical oddity” range.
  • If you do choose to build around your point guard, it never hurts to have one of the best centers of all time or a historical defensive squad backing him up.
  • Small forwards suck, ergo, Lebron sucks, ergo, Skip Bayless was right. May god help us.

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