Tuesday, September 14, 2010

TBTEW: Point Guards 11-15

15: Lenny Wilkens. "Two's company, three's a crowd." The originator of this phrase was not talking about retrospective point guard rankings, but the phrase does apply. In discussing great point/combo guards from the sixties, there is an obvious top two of Oscar Robertson and Jerry West (who I have rated as a shooting guard).

After those two, Wilkens was the best point guard of the sixties. Deserving the appellation "hard-nosed", he was one of the best defensive guards of the sixties, along with Jerry West, K.C. Jones, and Al Attles. He displayed the same tenacity on the offensive end, making up for poor field goal percentages by getting to the line constantly. Also a good passer, his assist numbers were depressed early in his career because the St. Louis offense ran through Bob Pettit and Cliff Hagan, but when his teams needed him to create more shots on offense, he led the league in AST% three times in his mid thirties.

14: Mark Price. Steve Nash 1.0. Or is Steve Nash Mark Price 2.0? Whatever the case, Price was a diminutive (white) dead eye shooter and excellent passer for a series of Cavalier teams who were a few bad breaks away from a dynasty (see: Jordan, Michael).

In his third year in the league (1988-89), Price put up the celebrated .500/.400/.900, averaging about 19 and 8, while leading the Cavs to a 57-25 record (and we won't talk about what happened next). He was just as good the next year, before going down with an ACL injury in the fall of 1990. Amazingly, he made it back for the 1991-92 season, and maintained his high level of play for the next three seasons, albeit at reduced minutes. After that the injuries returned, kicked off by a foot injury in 1995, and he was unable to bounce back this time.

How good was he? At his best, during the six seasons from 1989 through 1994, he averaged a shade under 20 points and 9 assists per 36 minutes while shooting .487/.406/.915. Offensively, he was as good as any point guard on this list not named Magic, Oscar, Stockton, or (Suns era) Nash. However, he wasn't very good defensively, and his small amount of minutes (relative to the point guards above him) prevents me from ranking him any higher.

13: Maurice Cheeks. A point guard that did almost everything right, Cheeks showed how a point guard could be effective without putting up big numbers. He boasted a career high of 15.6 PPG (in 39 minutes) and failed to reach double digit assists in any season. However, it would be incorrect to characterize his accomplishments as "not showing up in the box score." They are there, just not immediately obvious.

The first indication that Cheeks was better than might be expected from his career average of 11 and 7 are his steals. Cheeks finished in the top 10 in the league in steals per game every year from 1979 through 1988. As might be expected, he was one of the best defensive guards in the game, making five All-Defensive teams (four first teams). Second, while he did not do a lot of scoring, he was very efficient, shooting over 52% for his career, and shooting over 50% his first nine years in the league, with a high of 57% in 1985.

While Cheeks he did not put up crazy assist totals, he was still an excellent passer, averaging between 6.4 and 9.2 assists per game every year from 1980 through 1989, without committing a lot of turnovers. Finally, Cheeks was very durable, playing at least 68 games in his first 13 seasons, and leading the league in minutes played in 1986. The combination of excellent defense, efficient scoring, good passing, and durability help explain why Cheeks was better than his career averages originally make him look.

12: Isiah Thomas. In terms of historical rankings, Thomas is undoubtedly the most controversial point guard, with some rating him as a top 5 point guard, and others placing him much lower. On the one hand, he averaged 19 points, 9 assists, and 2 steals for his career, he was a key player on two championship teams, and he did play better in the playoffs. On the other hand, he was inefficient and the Pistons' success had a lot to do with their defense, which was led by Dennis Rodman, Joe Dumars, and Bill Laimbeer.

How one values Thomas depends on how one values shot creation and "leading" a winning team versus everything else. Conventionally, the best player on a team is the player that leads that team in scoring. There are some obvious exceptions to this rule of thumb, such as Bill Russell, but by and large a team's scoring leader is considered the team's leader, especially when there is no obviously better player. In Thomas' case, he is considered the best player on back to back championship teams, putting him in elite company. But is he really?

The championship Bad Boys teams were unusual in that one could make a case for any of four players as the team's best player. There was Isiah Thomas, who led the team in scoring and assists both championship years. There was Joe Dumars, who dominated the ball less than Thomas, but was more efficient and garnered First Team All-Defensive honors each year. There was Dennis Rodman, fearsome rebounder and arguably the best defender in the league. Finally, there was Bill Laimbeer, the defensive anchor who provided efficient offense and fantastic defensive rebounding. Who was the best player on the team? I don't know, but when you have three other players that can plausibly claim to be as good as Thomas, it seems to weaken the argument that the Pistons' success shows that Thomas is a top 5 point guard.

11: Terry Porter. He played forever, and was really good at his best. That's really the argument for Porter as a great point guard. His career numbers of 12.2 PPG and 5.6 APG don't look so good, but those numbers are artificially deflated by a number of 20 minute/game seasons at ages when most of his peers on this list were retired. It does not seems fair to hold those years against Porter's durability, especially as he was effective in that part time duty. Per 36 minutes, he averaged about 16 and 7 for his career. In his best seven year stretch, 1987-1993, he averaged 17 and 8 with a true shooting of 59% in 35 minutes a game.

Although it's largely forgotten since the Blazers failed to win a championship, Porter was just as effective in the playoffs as he was in the regular season. From 1989-1992, Porter averaged 20 and 7 with a true shooting of 63% in 61 games. The Blazers reached two Finals, but fell short against the Pistons and Bulls.

The title "second best player on a Finals loser" doesn't have as much cachet as "best player on a championship team", but when you consider that in Porter's best three years, his team won 59, 63, and 57 games, losing twice in the Finals and once in the WCF, it puts his accomplishments in perspective. And while they were pretty good players, a frontcourt of Kevin Duckworth, Buck Williams, and Jerome Kersey isn't going to win 60 games without a killer backcourt. And Drexler didn't do all of it by himself.


  1. Don't know why more people don't comment here... this stuff is pure gold.

  2. Thanks. I'm guessing my erratic posting schedule (until the past month) and total lack of promotional skills have something to do with it :)