Why NBA Teams Don’t Need Elite Point Guards to Win
There’s a strong possibility that the 2015 NBA MVP will be a point guard. ESPN named Chris Paul as the most important player in the NBA — and he’s not the MVP favorite, that’d be Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors. There’s little doubt that point guard is the deepest position in the league today. It’s also the least essential, at least when it comes to winning championships.
Consider: Over the last 15 years, the most decorated point guard in the league is none other than current New York Knicks head coach Derek Fisher, who has one hand’s worth of championship rings as the point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers. If you really want to argue about minutia, Fisher was only starting for four of those teams, but the fact remains that Fish, given a generous helping of the triangle offense and Los Angeles’s ability to continually field winning teams, has more championship hardware than any of his contemporaries in this discussion.
Out of the seven point guards who have started on an eventual NBA Champion roster, Fisher is arguably the least impressive. The full list, in chronological order, runs Fisher into San Antonio’s Tony Parker into Detroit’s Chauncey Billups into Miami’s Jason “White Chocolate” Williams into Boston’s Rajon Rondo into Dallas’s Jason Kidd into Miami’s Mario Chalmers. That’s the entire list. You’ll notice a conspicuous absence of, well, more or less anyone involved in the conversations of the greatest point guards of their era (save Kidd). But is this correlation or causation?
We’ll come back to Parker in a second, since his status as an NBA Finals MVP affords him a clear and defined seat at the table in this discussion, but the best playoff performance by a point guard over that same 15-year span wasn’t a championship contender at all. In fact, he was on a team that suffered a first round loss. The player? Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was Chris Paul, and it was the 2010-2011 series between the Los Angeles Lakers and the New Orleans Hornets (now the Pelicans). That series, which ended after six games in L.A.’s favor, saw CP3 completely and utterly eviscerate the Lakers — he averaged 22 points, 11.5 assists, and nearly 7 rebounds per game while posting an absolutely insane Offensive Rating of 128 while played just under 42 minutes per game. Needless to say, he was the undisputed best player on the floor. The Hornets still lost.
Of the players on the list of championship winners, only two of them, Parker and Rajon Rondo, could plausibly make the case for being the best player on their respective teams, but both fields are crowded, to say the least, and Rondo’s defining playoff performance came in a losing series to the Miami Heat in 2011, and while he was able to wrest the title of “best player in the game” from LeBron James in that series, he was definitely the fourth wheel on the team when they won it all in 2008. Parker came up big in San Antonio’s 2007 sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers, but that win, like their 2014 victory, was more of a team effort than anything else, and there’s no way that Parker makes it to the finals if he isn’t playing with the best power forward of all time. To put it another way: Norris Cole finished his second season in the league having won a pair of NBA championships, but he wasn’t getting there without LeBron.
That brings us to the two Miami point guards — Mario Chalmers and Jason Williams. They’re in much the same mold as Parker: Two guys who were competent and adequate, but hardly the stars of the show. We love White Chocolate’s handles, but Miami ran much of its offense around Wade and Shaq, and there’s not much that Williams actually did on that team that couldn’t have been replicated by, say, Gary Payton. Jason Kidd was a shell of himself by the time he teamed up with Dirk and Tyson Chandler, and Chauncey Billups remains the exception that proves the rule: He got hot in the playoffs, but the Pistons were nothing if not a team effort anchored by the (certainly underrated) Wallace Twins.
While the Golden State Warriors will finish the season with the best record in the NBA, they’re not altogether that different from the team that has had considerably difficulties getting out of the semifinals (or the first round) under Mark Jackson, and we’re reminded of yet another Conference-winning team with an MVP point guard which was totally eviscerated in the playoffs. To be sure, there’s a whole host of differences between Steph Curry’s MVP-caliber season and the one that saw Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls get completely shut down by LeBron and the Heat: For one, the Dubs have an offense that extends beyond “give the ball to Steph and watch him drive into the defense,” but there are some startling similarities, as well. If adequate point guard play is the easiest thing to replicate in the modern NBA, and the depth at the position would indicate that it is, then having the best player on the team be a point guard would seem to be a mistake.
Naturally, talent wins out in the NBA nine times out of 10. This is subject to a bit of inescapable hindsight bias, because the best players are considered the best players on the merits of their championship-winning ways, but for every Charles Barkley or Karl Malone there are a dozen lesser players held in equal stead because they were able to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy. No one can doubt the talents of Chris Paul or Steph Curry, but what can we say about them when, as far as positional competencies are concerned, teams seem to have more success with Mario Chalmers or Derek Fisher?
All data courtesy of Basketball-Reference.