Friday, March 25, 2011

Change Your Para-Dime.

We’ve been hearing it for the better part of two seasons now. From barroom arguments to columns to radio and TV talking heads. The recent upsurge of young, talented point guards in the NBA, not to mention a few veterans who still merit consideration, has set off a firestorm of opinion and controversy over that fundamental sports query: “Who’s The Best?” To be sure, there are a bevy of players for which you could make a reasonable argument in the “Best PG” debate. But when we talk about the best, what exactly are we discussing? What criteria define our opinions and assessments? Before we get into that, let’s take a look at our likely candidates (in no particular order):

Rajon Rondo, when he’s on, is the perfect catalyst for the Celtics offense, the sparkplug that keeps the aging Big 3 moving, and his recent semi-lockdown of Lebron James in the fourth quarter of a close game against the Heat evidenced his defensive prowess and tenacity. With the lowest points-per-game of anyone under consideration at 10.6, he’s the perhaps the least likely player in the discussion, but think where the Celtics would be without him.

Despite all the hype surrounding Kevin Durant’s breakout performance in the FIBA Championships this past summer and his run at a second straight scoring title, it is his teammate Russell Westbrook who has turned heads and made a decisive leap this year, becoming Durant’s offensive foil and considerably refining his all-around game. (Check out his stats from last season as compared to this year; he’s improved either moderately or significantly in every single category.)

The Nets’ Deron Williams is perhaps the most well-rounded of the current elite point guards, averaging 20 points, 10 dimes, and close to 4 rebounds per game, and the fact that New Jersey was willing to give up so much to get him should say enough. Jersey needs to add a few more pieces before we can see him scratch his true ceiling, but when they do, assuming Williams elects to stay, we’re going to see something special.

The aging, or ageless, Steve Nash, still has one of the best assists totals in the league (11.4 per game), and is once again on pace to crack the vaunted 50/40/90 shooting percentile. (Currently, Nash is at 50.5% FG, 40.6% 3FG, and 90.9% FT). The fact that the Suns probably won’t make the playoffs this year diminishes the strength of his case, but Nash is still the most skilled and intuitive passer in the game, and the glue holding a fractured team together.

Tony Parker remains an essential part of the Spurs’ success. At 17.5 points and 6.6 assists per game, his numbers don’t necessarily scream “elite”, and he’s not (and never has been) seriously in the conversation. However, I can’t justifiably keep such an important player on a team with the league’s best record off the list of potentials, especially given the fact that he’s had to assume an even greater role with Tim Duncan on the bench due to a recent ankle injury.

Chris Paul, once considered the near-undisputed heir apparent to the point guard crown, is still notching impressive stats, but he has become a different player since returning from a knee injury, lacking some of the explosiveness and change-of-pace ability that once made him nigh unstoppable. Nonetheless, he continues to have a strong year, anchoring a playoff-bound Hornets squad despite lacking much in the way of quality help.

Even young John Wall, while he’s certainly not in the discussion yet, is averaging comparable totals to many of the players mentioned above. (16.1 PPG, 8.7 APG, 4.6 RPG.) Provided that the Wizards can surround him with better players sometime in the future, he’s almost certainly going to enter the PG conversation within the next few seasons, despite being largely overshadowed by Blake Griffin in the ROY race this year.

And then, of course, there’s Derrick Rose. The MVP candidate is having a truly impressive season, shouldering the load of both distributor and primary offensive weapon for a Bulls team that currently holds the top spot in the Eastern Conference. Rose is as skilled as anyone in the league at getting to the cup, and his improved shooting range makes him a threat from anywhere on the floor, opening up more space for Chicago’s other players to operate. He’s the answer you’re currently most likely to hear if you ask who the best point guard in the league is. But that doesn’t seem to be a fair or even realistic question, at least not the way it’s currently being parsed by fans and analysts.

The position of point guard is the most malleable and system-dependent in the NBA. The requirements of the player are predicated on the pieces around him, and what those pieces dictate in terms of team needs. Given the disparity of offensive systems and personnel around the league, doesn’t it seem a little flawed to compare these players and attempt to draw a definitive conclusion, when their teams demand such different skills and styles of play? It feels like what’s really being asked is: who’s the best basketball player who happens to play at the point? If that’s the case, then the discussion becomes much more simplified. It’s Derrick Rose. But that’s an entirely different question than who the best point guard is. I know it’s largely a difference in semantics, and I know it’s fun to argue about this stuff. The opportunity for a good barroom banter-fest over things like “Was Emmit Smith or Barry Sanders the better running back?” is one of the more enjoyable facets of being a sports fan. I understand that air time has to be filled, that columns have to be penned, and that a topic like this provides a great deal of fodder for those under such obligations, but it still seems like an apples-to-oranges scenario to me.

Please understand, I’m not saying Derrick Rose doesn’t deserve the Best Point Guard title or the MVP award. He’s an extraordinary player by any calculation. But for argument’s sake, let’s say Rose, as he currently exists, were playing for the ’06-‘07 Phoenix Suns, for which Steve Nash averaged 18.6 points and 11.6 assists. How does that team’s record look? Obviously, we can’t know for certain, but I’m betting not as good. I’m sure Mike D’Antoni would have loved a player with Rose’s quickness in the 7-seconds-or-less offense, but without Nash’s passing acumen and uncanny court vision, and his penchant for keeping teammates focused and involved, do Rose’s superior athleticism and 6 more points-per-game (he’s averaging 24.9) necessarily translate into more wins or a deeper playoff run?

What about a more contemporary hypothetical? Say this year’s Bulls and Celtics teams swapped point guards. (I’m not talking about going to the ESPN trade machine and engineering some convoluted way to make this happen. We’re assuming both teams’ rosters remain otherwise unaltered.) On paper, this seems like a no-brainer. Unquestionably, the Bulls would be worse off. Rondo’s (relative) lack of offensive firepower would be a huge problem, and his distribution skills and general on-court savvy wouldn’t translate nearly as well to a team lacking the caliber of players he’s used to having around him in Boston. But how would the C’s fair with Rose? Te be sure, he has improved his passing skills and overall Basketball IQ, but those elements of his game still aren’t quite on Rondo’s level. Could he consistently find the Big Three in their preferred spots? Would he be as good a floor general? Could he learn how to operate without the ball effectively? The answer to all three questions is “maybe, but probably not; at least not yet.” And despite his reputation as a good teammate and a humble, genuine young man, would he be able to integrate and maintain the close-knit chemistry Boston has so carefully constructed over the past few seasons? Again, perhaps, but it’s unlikely. And Rondo is the better current defensive player, averaging 1.3 more steals a game and playing smarter and more tenacious at that end of the floor in general, though under Tom Thibodeau’s watchful eye, Rose is getting there.

Swap Rose for Russell Westbrook and you essentially break even. Westbrook averages one more assist and two less points per game, with all other stats being almost equal, and he’s showing some Rose-esque creativity and explosiveness this year. But, again, we don’t know how Rose would handle being a secondary option to Kevin Durant, or how Westbrook would deal with being a primary offensive weapon, for that matter. Switch him with Deron Williams and you’re giving up 5 PPG but gaining two more assists and better court vision. The Nets’ lack of offensive weapons might make Rose a slightly better fit in the present, but if and when they are able to add more quality assets, Williams’ superior distribution skills may well be more beneficial down the line. At this point, putting Rose in the place Tony Parker or Chris Paul would make the Spurs and Hornets better on paper, but it’s still hard to predict his affect on those teams’ chemistry and style of play. (Paul would be a reasonably good replacement for Rose on the Bulls, Parker, not so much.)

The upshot of this admittedly overly-protracted rant is this: the “best’ point guard is a nebulous conception at best. The position is so tied to the intricacies of the team, so inextricably linked to the ratio of passing-to-scoring that best serves the franchise, that there is no correct answer. Legendary Celtics’ point guard Bob Cousy once said, “The playmaker has to be a respectable shooter, but scoring is not his real function. He has to keep the other four guys happy. He has to pass out the sugar.” Right now, Rose’s situation dictates that scoring, for the most part, is his real function. It’s what his team needs him to do in order to succeed. But it’s unclear how well he would fair with a team on which he were required to scale that part of his game back and focus more on “passing out the sugar.” He’s currently 10th in assists this season, behind everyone mentioned above except Tony Parker, and has a worse assist-to-turnover ratio than any elite PGs besides Westbrook and Wall. Look, I’m not detracting from Rose’s considerable skills. He is undeniably a very special player, maybe Top 5 in the league, and he’s only getting better. But calling him, or anyone else, the best point guard in the NBA is like calling Elvis the best singer of all time. Sure, he’s in the uppermost echelon of the discussion, but you just can’t declare “The King” THE KING. Not irrefutably, anyway.

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