The point guard position is commonly referred to as the player who initiates the team’s offense, the floor general. In recent history, the NBA’s infrastructure has undergone a makeover. Now, it’s all about a lightning quick pace and guards that can score the ball at will. While this has produced some exciting and flashy play, there is one critical argument that needs to be discussed with these point guards.
While these scoring “point” guards can produce huge numbers and exciting play, they don’t win championships. Whenever a discussion is brought up about Hall of Fame caliber players, the ring discussion is always brought up. Winning a championship is the pinnacle of success in the NBA, especially as the point guard. The point guard’s main duties are to will his team to victory–he is supposed to control everything on the floor. Would Magic Johnson be considered the greatest point guard of all-time without his five championship rings?
This is being brought up because many of the NBA’s teams are being led by a new breed of scoring point guards. The old fashioned, pass-first guard is a thing of the past. Enter thoroughbreds like John Wall, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, Isaiah Thomas and Russell Westbrook. All five of these point guards are averaging over 20 points per game this season, embodying the role of a pure scoring point guard. When you think about these guards, it’s not Rajon Rondo, chasing triple-doubles and skipping full-court dimes to open teammates. It’s more of a charging to the rack, scoring mentality.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this on the surface. However, let me be straight here for a second. Save Damian Lillard, who appears to be an outlier of this conversation, do you honestly see any of these point guards winning a championship during their careers? Sure, their play is exciting as hell to watch. But in the end, they don’t win rings. The history and facts prove this.
Since Isiah Thomas won the Finals MVP in 1989-1990 with the Detroit Pistons as a point guard, there have only been TWO point guards to win a Finals MVP in the last 21 years. These two are Tony Parker with the Spurs in 2006-2007 and Chauncey Billups with the Detroit Pistons in 2003-2004. Anyone that knows basketball is aware that Tony Parker is more of a facilitator than anything for the Spurs–plus Tim Duncan was the leading scorer during that championship run in 2006-2007, scoring 22.2 points per game in the playoffs.
That Detroit Pistons team that won the Finals in 2003-2004 was a team that was predicated on hard-nosed defense–not one player on the team averaged over 18 PPG in the regular season. This Pistons squad scored only 90.1 points per game (24th in the NBA), while only giving up 84.3 points per game (first in the NBA). Their offense played at a relatively slow pace (87.9 possessions) and wasn’t dominated by one player. Chauncey Billups only averaged 16.4 points per game in the playoffs, shooting 39 percent from the field. Plus, Billups was only taking 12.4 shots per game, compared to 17.6 for Rip Hamilton. Billups was Finals MVP by facilitating his offense and being the floor general in every aspect of the position. Let’s compare this to Russell Westbrook’s playoff run in 2011-2012, when the Thunder made it to the NBA Finals. Westbrook is one of the scoring point guards that has came close to winning a championship, even if his success is predicated by Kevin Durant‘s insane skills.
Russell Westbrook is the embodiment of a scoring point guard. While Kevin Durant is considered the star in Oklahoma City, there is no doubt that Westbrook has been attempting to wrangle that position from him for years. During their NBA Finals run in 2011-2012, Westbrook led the Thunder in field goal attempts per game with 20.4, but only shot 44 percent from the field and 28 percent from deep. Westbrook also boasted the highest usage percentage during the playoffs of 30.7 percent. This equated to A LOT of Westbrook pounding the ball into the ground and a lot of Russell Westbrook shots, which takes up valuable possessions and clock. Westbrook scored 23.1 PPG in the playoffs, which was 5.4 points less than Kevin Durant’s 28.5. Durant also took one less shot than Westbrook per game and had a lower usage percentage, while shooting 52 percent from the floor. Imagine if the Thunder were led by a pass-first point guard–would they have eclipsed the NBA championship hump that year? That can only be tossed up for speculation.
For these other scoring point guards, most of them haven’t reached the type of success that Westbrook has, partially, because none of them have someone named Kevin Durant on their side. Without Durant, Westbrook would arguably be in the same position as Wall, Irving, Thomas and the others. What position is this? Being the leading scorer and arguably best player on a team that isn’t winning. These guards break people down by driving and getting to the rim. They dribble and dribble and use up a lot of clock to get their shots up. Whenever the point guard is leading the team in shots, it usually equates to a lot of stagnant offense, which explains the low shooting percentages coupled with high usage ratings. And these players aren’t just not winning championships; they are barely winning games in the regular season. The Wizards are the only team over .500 at 30-28. The Cavaliers sit at 23-36 and the Kings are at 20-37 and the second-worst team in the Western Conference. Let’s look at John Wall and the Washington Wizards.
The Wizards currently hold the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, but are only a few games away from falling out of playoff contention. Wall is taking 16.8 shots per game, which leads the team. Wall also has a usage percentage of 27.7, which also leads the team. Even though Wall is leading the team in shots and scoring, he is sixth in offensive rating at 106. It’s also significant to point out that while Wall is leading the team in scoring, he is eighth on the team in field goal percentage at under 43 percent.
Even though Wall is essentially a scoring point guard, he might be the best facilitator out of the bunch–throwing 8.6 dimes per game. Per NBA.com/stats, Wall is taking up 97.8 touches per game, with a total of 5,672 touches this season. Wall possesses the ball for approximately 8.0 minutes per game, which is the highest in the NBA. Since we are discussing winning, Wall is only contributing .136 win shares per 48 to the Wizards, which is tied for third on the team behind Ariza, Gortat and Booker. (The graph below includes all games before Thursday night.)
Obviously, John Wall is explosive and a scoring threat at the point guard position–there is no denying that. But, his style of play doesn’t translate into winning for the Wizards. He’s fun to watch and his stats will make you believe that he’s an elite player. He might be an elite scorer, but is he really an elite floor general? That’s up for debate.
How can he improve in the win column? Well a start would be to surround Wall with better talent. The Wizards definitely have the least amount of talent between the teams we are discussing here, yet they are in playoff contention. Wall has improved as a facilitator and is close to finding the perfect balance between scoring and facilitating. It will be interesting to watch Wall progress and how he reacts to better talent coming along in Washington.
On to Uncle Drew. Kyrie Irving won the NBA All-Star MVP this season, but will he ever be in the position to win an NBA Finals MVP? The Cavaliers are 23-36 on the season, which is good for 10th place in the Eastern Conference. This was supposed to be the season Kyrie Irving took the leap as one of the best point guards in the NBA. The points are definitely there, but the wins and efficiency aren’t.
Irving is leading the Cavs in scoring at 21.1 PPG, taking 18.0 field goals per game and shooting 43 percent from the field. Even with an elite scorer like Irving, the Cavs are only scoring 96.7 PPG (23rd in the NBA), with Irving accounting for 22 percent of the Cavs’ 96.7 points per game. Irving has the highest usage percentage on the team at 28.5 percent, while only averaging 6.3 assists per game this season. Per NBA.com/stats, Irving is only passing the ball 55.9 times per game, which falls behind Wall, Rubio, Curry, Chris Paul, Jennings, Lowry and Lawson. There are more, but you get the jist.
Irving is contributing .127 win shares per 48, which is tied for third on the team. It’s a scary trend when these “elite” point guards are leading the team in shots, points and usage percentage, but can’t even contribute wins to the franchise.
Obviously, most of the teams will drop in scoring when their leading scorer hops off the court. That is no surprise. But take a look at the Cavaliers defense when Irving is off the court. When Irving is on the court, the Cavs are giving up 112.2 points per 100 possessions, but only giving up 103.1 when Irving is off the court. Mind boggling. The porous defense by Irving is castrating the Cavaliers and actually gives Irving an overall negative 4.3 net points per 100 possessions, which essentially means he is hurting the Cavs more than helping when he is on the court.
First off, Irving needs to pick up his defense to help his team win. It’s embarrassing to give up 112.2 PPP with him on the court, but even more embarrassing that the Cavs are plus-9.1 defensively when he’s on the bench. A team’s best player can not be that much of a liability on offense. Irving needs to involve the people around him. Luol Deng is a former All-Star and Anthony Bennett has actually been producing as of late. Plus, Dion Waiters has never met a shot he hasn’t wanted to fire up. The addition of Spencer Hawes, who is one of the better offensive centers in the league, should help Irving also. Just pass the ball, young blood!
Onto Isaiah Thomas, who is a favorite player of mine. Going from being the last pick in the draft to scoring 20.4 PPG is nothing to overlook. Isaiah Thomas can ball. However, he’s a scorer first, not a facilitating point guard. Thomas is in a unique situation because it can be argued that Wall and Irving aren’t necessarily surrounded by the best talent. However, I’m sure inserting Chris Paul onto the Cavs/Wiz/Kings would easily take them to the playoffs. Thomas plays alongside two other elite scorers in Boogie Cousins and Rudy Gay–Cousins averages 22.4 PPG and Gay averages 20.5. With two other 20-point scorers on the team, the best idea to generate wins for Sacramento would be for Thomas to settle into a facilitating role. This spreads the ball around more and creates a lot less isolation possessions by the three. Obviously, the three being dominant scorers hasn’t worked since the Kings are the second-worst team in the West. Isn’t it mind-blowing that a team that has three players averaging over 20 PPG only has 20 wins? The Philadelphia 76ers are the epitome of tanking and still have 15 wins this season.
Isaiah Thomas being a scoring and ball-dominant point guard is taking possessions away from Cousins and Gay and essentially crippling the team, much like what Westbrook did to the Thunder in the 2011-2012 Playoffs. Per NBA.com/stats, Thomas is only producing 14.7 points from his assists per game, which is 20th in the entire NBA. Thomas is touching the ball 84.5 times per game, which is more than LeBron James and Jeff Teague, who both average more assists than Thomas (and Irving for that matter). Thomas is only shooting 45 percent from the floor this season, which is 10th on the Kings. Thomas produces .156 win shares per 48, which is third on the Kings. Thomas and the Kings would fare much better if he focused on becoming a distributor for Gay and Cousins instead of competing for shots with them. The Kings have one of the most talented rosters in the NBA and with the right floor general, this roster can reach successful heights. All of these numbers will make sense when we talk about the proclaimed “point god” of the NBA.
One of the lone pass-first point guards left in the NBA, Chris Paul is the epitome of a floor general. Whenever CP3 makes a crazy pass or clutch shot in the fourth, Twitter explodes and your timeline probably has a bunch of consecutive tweets that read “POINT GOD!!!!!!” over and over again. The Clippers possess the second-most lethal offense in the NBA, scoring 107.3 PPG. I guess all those dunks do count for something, right?
To put it easily, Chris Paul is a facilitator and it produces wins for his team–something we can’t say about the other guards discussed. On the season, Paul is averaging 19.0 points and 11.2 assists, with a ridiculous assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.67. Chris Paul has perfected the formula for being the leading floor general of the NBA. He’s second on the team in win shares per 48 with .276, and has a usage rating of 24.2, which is less than his two main scoring options in Jamal Crawford and Blake Griffin. Paul has almost taken a backseat to Griffin, letting him score, dominate and develop while Paul tosses him dimes like it’s Christmas morning every night. Paul is third on the team in usage percentage and third on the team in scoring. He’s scoring enough, but not too much and he isn’t dominating the ball. He’s second in the NBA in passes per game at 72.3, which creates a league-leading 20.6 assist opportunities per game and a league leading 25.5 points created by assists per game.
However, just like Superman had his kryptonite, Chris Paul suffers from his own fatal flaw, which is the inability to win playoff games. It’s funny how LeBron couldn’t go one season without a ring before he was chastised to no end for his supposed inability to win it all. Chris Paul has NEVER made it past the second round of the playoffs in his eight years in the NBA. Paul has also won a total of two NBA playoff series in his eight-year tenure. In the beginning, we discussed how scoring point guards haven’t shown the ability to win championships, but neither has the alpha dog of point guards in the NBA. Chris Paul is considered one of the best players in the NBA, but in reality, he hasn’t won a thing. There’s no doubting the greatness of Paul, but it’s interesting how Paul is the Teflon Don of avoiding criticism for turning flaccid when the stage is the brightest.
In reality, how important is the point guard position in today’s NBA when it comes to raising a Larry O’Brien trophy? Let’s consider the fact that Derek Fisher, Rajon Rondo, Mario Chalmers, Jason Kidd, Jason Williams and Tony Parker have all won NBA championships as starting point guards while CP3 has been in the league. None of these players are better than Paul and before you bring up Rondo’s name–remember he was the FOURTH-best player on that Celtics championship team. These guards that have won in recent history have been surrounded by a dominate guard or forward such as Kobe, Pierce, LeBron, Nowitzki, Wade and Duncan. Most of these point guards that have rings can’t be mentioned in the same sentence as the guards we’ve mentioned, so what gives? The scoring point guards aren’t winning in the NBA, but neither is the purest pass-first point guard in the league. Is the point guard position overvalued or overrated in the NBA right now?
It’s a fact that scoring point guards are overrated because the casual fan might be tricked by high scoring numbers. However, remember that these scoring guards have to take a lot of shots to accumulate these high points totals. John Wall, Kyrie Irving, Isaiah Thomas and Russell Westbrook average a combined 17 field goal attempts per game while only shooting a combined 43 percent from the field. Compare this to LeBron James and Kevin Durant, who attempt 18.9 field goals per game combined, while shooting 55 percent from the field. Those combined numbers are inflated from Westbrook’s injury, but yet the two superstars are still able to shoot 12 percent better from the field while taking more shots.
Is the point guard close to becoming the fullback of the NFL? Not quite, because there is a lot of talented point guards in the NBA. However, I don’t think its outlandish to argue that point guards aren’t as important as everyone seems to believe. The NBA is dominated by forwards; that’s obvious. The point guards are becoming more flashy and scoring way more points than the traditional point guard… and yet the trophy shelves are empty besides those All-Star Game MVPs, right Kyrie? I know CP3 was discussed also, but we can all agree that he is, at least, the closest player to a title on this list.
Just think about it this way: if you’re on the wing or playing outside at the gym, it’s boring to play with a point guard that drives and shoots all the time. Sure, he scores. But, he shoots a lot, too. He dribbles a lot, too. He may fill up the scoring sheet, but your team probably loses more times than not.
The scoring point guard is becoming a way of life in the NBA, but how healthy of a lifestyle is this for a championship? It’s not healthy. Winning changes everything; LeBron James is a testament to that. These point guards will need to start picking up NBA championships if they ever want to be considered among the top players in NBA history.
*Charts from 82games.com; unreferenced stats from basketball-reference.com
Do you think having a scoring PG is overrated?
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