Occasionally we stumble upon a factoid that takes us entirely by surprise. A head-scratcher, in the Aussie parlance. Luckily, more often than not we can explain away these little factoids by using a bit of deductive reasoning, and our world view remains intact. I’ll hit you with an example I only recently discovered that I’m quite fond of:
Joe Dumars, a Hall-of-Famer whose calling card was defense, has a worse Defensive Rating than Mike Bibby, the perennial sieve.
Chew on it. A little more. Still can’t digest it? Me neither. Dumars, a worse defender than Bibby? Nah-uh.
And if you’re anything like me, the first thing you’ll do is try to come up with logical reasons to explain it away, which may or may not include;
Defensive Rating must be a shithouse stat.
Dumars played against Michael Jordan a ton so no wonder he got burned a lot.
Bibby must have had much better defenders around him.
Actually, if you’re anything like me the first thing you’ll do is shoot off seven abusive emails to Rob D titled “Hahaha, more like Joe Umars (no D)”, “It turns out Darko Milicic is only the second-most embarrassing thing on Dumars’ résumé”, and so forth and so on. But we’re getting sidetracked. Eventually, you will get around to thinking about the Dumars-Bibby anomaly, and although your initial reasoning (like the list above) may be rubbish, eventually you’ll find a way to explain it.
However, every now and then something comes along which really does make me question my understanding of the game.
A little background on me first: I’ve been playing basketball regularly ever since I was in primary. Like the majority of us bloggerly types, I’m not particularly tall. Maybe that’s a bit of an unfair generalization, but I imagine tall people have better things to do than blog; like, say, helping old ladies get cats out of trees and owning the paint at your local pick-up game. Point is, at 6”1 in shoes, I’ve gotten most of my minutes at the 1 spot, and I feel like a good chunk of the folk who cover basketball would be in the same boat. I’ll come back to why this sparkling bit of analysis is important later on (structure is for suckers). For now, take a gander at the following list:
Mark Jackson*, Ron Harper*, Aaron Mckie, Derek Fisher, Jason Kidd, Tony Parker, Gary Payton*, Chauncey Billups, Jason Terry, Jason Williams*, Larry Hughes*, Rajon Rondo, Jameer Nelson
That’s a list of all the point guards that have played in the NBA Finals over the last decade, with (*) marking those that were well past their prime when they made their Finals appearance. Not the most daunting list, is it? Only Nelson, Parker and Kidd made the All-Star game in the season they went to the Finals. That’s 3/13. None were All-Star starters.
If we look at it a little closer, we’ll also note that there’s no strong tendencies among the group. Jackson, Kidd and Rondo are as pure as point guards get. Terry, Hughes and Fisher, on the other hand, are essentially shoot-first combo guards. The rest fall somewhere in between. There’s old guys and there’s young guys. Tall guards and short guards. Shooters and non-shooters.
Apparently, we can say nothing at all about what makes a Finals calibre point guard. And yet, media and coaches alike preach the importance of the position. We hear;
He makes players better.
He gets others involved.
He runs the offense.
The point guard, for lack of a better analogy, is the engine of the team. He makes it go, or so we’re told. Yet how are teams with such varied (and often crappy) engines choo-chooing all the way to the NBA Finals?
After much painful self-analysis, I’ve decided that the best explanation is as follows; Any point guard worth their salt, if they’re being honest, has at one time or another experienced delusions of grandeur. Or to put it a little less politely, the club of point guards (of which I am a member) consists of self-important asshats.
Sure, I’m embellishing a tad, but have no doubt that these thoughts do occur from time to time to almost all point guards. Lacking the positive reinforcement one gets from a made basket, or even a rebound, we identify in ourselves the more intangible attributes like ”making others better”, like “running the offense”. Why does any of this matter? Well, those are the exact reasons that are given by media and coaches alike for the importance of point guards. Those same media and coaches, who are often either point guard wannabes in the former case, or point guard have-beens in the latter.
Consider that any NBA fan can rattle off the names of guys who run the pick-and-roll well or who can run a fast break, yet ask someone who sets the best picks, or who is the best communicator on defense, and you’re likely to draw blank looks from all but the very hardcore fans. Would a bizarro world full of tall bloggers and coaches be buzzing about the importance of bigs who “make others better” with screens and defensive talk and the like? I’d like to think so. But we’re not in a bizarro world (yet). In our little world, the point guard is king. And based on the last decade, unjustly so.
Actually, all this talk about bizarro worlds got me thinking about the Hawks situation of a few years ago, and specifically the Billy Knight conjecture. For those that didn’t follow the league in those days, or for Hawks fans who did but have had the Knight era forcibly erased from their memory, the Billy Knight conjecture was:
1. Collect as many versatile 6”9 players as you possibly can.
At the time, just about everyone had poor old Billy Knight written off as a mental. Granted, he probably is a mental, but just maybe there’s some merit to his idea.
The Hawks, as any of their fans will readily acknowledge, still have one of the worst coaches in basketball. Their point guard may be regarded as average at best, and a liability at worst. Yet they’ve managed to play some excellent basketball at times, mainly on the back of versatile 6”9 (give or take an inch) guys who can switch defensively on everything, without creating terrible mismatches for themselves. And they’re not alone. It seems like more than ever coaches are willing to play conventional 3′s as 4′s, and conventional 4′s as 5′s. It gives you the flexibility to spread the floor on one end, and switch like crazy on the other. It’s winning basketball, if you have the cattle. And if you’re going to rid yourself of some conventions, why not others?
Maybe it’s too early to do away with the point guard position altogether. You won’t find too many 6”9 guys capable of bringing the ball up-court each time, or willing for that matter. But maybe it’s time to start developing these guys at junior level. If the point guards are rarely the reason for their team’s success, they might as well be tall. Five guys capable of switching on any screen, yet still able to hold their own offensively? The idea is positively delicious.
I imagine somewhere in Pittsburg Billy Knight is sitting on his back porch in his rocking chair, smoking his pipe, and smiling as his 6"9 butler reads him this post. Maybe he’s even started working on his HOF acceptance speech, for services rendered to basketball innovation. We’re rootin’ for you, Billy.
I, on the other hand, am facing a much tougher proposition. Being unable to shoot up 8 inches overnight, I’m consigned to turning up at basketball this week the same old 6"1 PG. Only this week, I’ll no longer believe that my very presence holds the team together. I’ll no longer fall for the idea that every one of my assists is worth every bit as much as the baskets they lead to. Nope, I will accept my role as temporary-ball-handling-necessity-until-taller-guys-learn-to-dribble-good-and-stuff. Accept that whatever I do on the court, it’ll have little to do with the team winning or losing. Because that’s what the last decade tells us.