Deron Williams

The Changing of the (Point) Guard

Deron Williams and Chris PaulLast week, the inscrutable Deron Williams dropped 57 points on dismal Bobcats and, in the process, reminded me that, although relegated to a tiny patch of land known more for its not being New York and the hack sitcom writer’s go-to joke on smelly states, he is one of the three best point guards in the NBA. Arguably, anyway. (On a side note, I couldn’t help but picture Michael Jordan chewing on a Cohiba in the owner’s box laying 100 grand to an ill-fated busboy’s tenner that Williams wouldn’t eclipse 60. I then imagine Jordan scooping up his “windfall”, flashing his rings, before telling the busboy a tip was not forthcoming.)

Anyway, as far as marketability and the sort of personal branding LeBron James has made into a frustrating art, Williams is a hollow, indistinct shape of NBA stardom. Anyone who follows basketball somewhat closely will have an opinion on him – notably on how he did or did not force the fastidious Jerry Sloan’s retirement and whether he did or did not deserve to be traded afterward – but by the same token, young children aren’t likely to badger their father to score serviceable tickets to watch Deron throw lobs to Kris Humphries for 36 minutes.

His relative obscurity can’t be blamed entirely on the Jerz, though his unobserved location does play a part. Much can be blamed on the fact Williams is not playing all that well, despite what the quick glance stats may indicate.

Williams, this season, averages 22.6 PPG and 8.6 APG which appears, at a cursory glance, to be pretty good basketball. His shooting (.414/.361/.864) does not, nor do his turnovers (4.2 TOPG) or the disinterested, unwashed aggressively blasé swagger he wears like a skin throughout the games.

I caught Williams’ scoring explosion on NBATV the day after (there’s no counting the list of priorities above watching a Nets game live) and couldn’t help thinking just how different the point guard position has become over the last decade.  And how little I’d noticed until Williams scored 57.

Whereas the point guard’s job, historically – and the way it’s taught in youth leagues and summer camps – was to facilitate the offense, grease the wheels, get everyone involved, it is now the position we put players too short to play shooting guard.

Out of the top 50 NBA seasons in assists per game, active NBA players comprised only 12 of the 50 positions and even then, only six different players cracked the list. Chris Paul is the first of the actives to appear and doesn’t do so until number 19. He also shows up again at 36 and 47. Steve Nash appears the most, to no surprise (20, 22, 26, 35, and 37).  Rajon Rondo (30) Andre Miller (39) Jason Kidd (40) and Williams (48) appear once each.

Further to my point, as of this writing, seven of this truncated NBA seasons’ top 20 scorers are point guards (Russell Westbrook, Rose, Williams, Paul, Tony Parker, Brandon Jennings and Kyrie Irving).

The shooting we’re seeing from this position is unprecedented. I’m not sure this development is a good one either.

I don’t want to say wins are inversely proportionate to the shots a point guard takes and then cherry pick the best guards to ever play the position for comparison but…well, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

The 90s may have had – for a brief three-year window –  the best collection of point guards ever. Three of the best points, Magic Johnson, John Stockton and Isiah Thomas, were winding down their careers while a new crop of point guards – Gary Payton, Kevin Johnson, Mark Jackson, Jason Kidd – hit their prime. Let’s also not forget Tim Hardaway, Rod Strickland, Stephon Marbury before he began his slow descent into vaseline-eating madness and, briefly, Terrell Brandon.

Though their body types and playing styles vary, all the aforementioned players passed the ball more than they shot it. Or at least they had a healthy mix of the two. Sure, Payton would scowl and possibly launch a water bottle at his teammate should he miss, but, nevertheless, he passed.

The greatest point guard and Laker ever, Magic Johnson, only finished as a top 10 scorer one season (86-87) despite shooting 52% for his career. He could have scored so much more had he wanted to; I’d never seen him stymied, but chose to run an offense instead. He had six season averaging more than 12 assists per game and never averaged more than 16 shots. By the time he retired, Magic averaged 13.2 shots per game against 11.2 assists.

The second greatest, John Stockton,  rarely shot at all, mostly relying on the pick-and-roll with Karl Malone to bore their opponents into submission. He ended his career averaging more than 12 assists per game in eight seasons and took an average of nine shots. I have a feeling we will never see this again.

As comparison, the three best guards drafted after 2000, Paul, Williams and Rose are averaging 9.8 APG/14.0 FGA, 9.1/13.7 and 6.8/17.4 respectively over their careers. Between them, they’ve won one MVP and no titles – though to be fair, Paul ought to have won the MVP in 07-08.

It’s a deceitful argument, to be sure, comparing Magic, Isiah and Stockton to the current crop of point guards and distilling their dearth of rings down to the fact that they shoot too much. The league has, after all, changed and there are a multitude of factors that go into winning. Magic played with Kareem, Paul with Emeka Okafor; Isaiah with Lambeer and Dantley, Rose with Luol Deng and Joakim Noah; Stockton with Malone, Williams with Carlos Boozer. There’s only so much one player can do.

But, at some point, we’ve got to start talking about it.


One Response to “The Changing of the (Point) Guard”

  1. Daniel, I always enjoy your articles, but I don’t buy your thesis on this one. The shooting from the point guard position we’re seeing today is far from unprecedented-it’s the historical norm for the NBA’s elite PGs.

    Bob Cousy was the best PG alive in the 50s and early 60s. He averaged 18 FGA and only 7.5 APG during his career despite an abundance of talented offensive players on his roster and a faster-paced game than today’s.

    He ceded the mantle of best PG alive to Oscar Robertson, who averaged 18.9 FGA per game and 9.5 APG during his career and lead the league in both scoring and assists at various points. I believe most would consider him the #2 PG of all time over Stockton.

    Around the time of Oscar’s decline, Tiny Archibald went out and lead the league in scoring and assists in the same season-with 26 FGA per game to 11 APG (14.4 to 7.4 for his career). At the same time, Walt Frazier was running the show for the Knicks, and he averaged 2.5 FGA per assist for his career.

    Even the great Isiah Thomas averaged 16.2 FGA per game and 9.2 APG over the course of his career.

    These guys were the best PGs of their day and each won at least one title with a stat line that skewed much more toward shooting than either Paul or Williams. Even Magic and Nash, famous for being pass-first guys, still average more shots than assists for their careers.

    Paul and Williams, at least, stack up quite nicely to their historical counterparts in terms of how they run the show and get their teammates involved. And even Rose, as a shoot first PG, is pretty in line with shoot-first guys like Cousy and Frazier. Really, as you point out in your article, Stockton is just a huge historical outlier.

    Posted by Lochpster | March 16, 2012, 8:08 am

Post a comment