Saturday, October 16, 2010

Point Guards and Titles

Given that I've recently run a series on the best point guards ever (and will start the series on shooting guards very soon), this discussion on TrueHoop made me wonder; how difficult is it to win a championship building around a point guard? One answer is that it is difficult to build a championship roster around a star of any position, just ask Donnie Nelson or Danny Ferry.

But if your team is fortunate to land an all-time great point guard as its unquestioned best player, how can it win a championship? Here are some teams that may point toward that question's answer.

1973 Knicks. Eight man rotation: Walt Frazier/Earl Monroe/Dean Meminger/Bill Bradley/Phil Jackson/Dave DeBusschere/Jerry Lucas/Willis Reed. I wrote about this team the other day. They surrounded Walt Frazier, the best point guard in the league, with balanced scoring and excellent defense. Besides Frazier, the rest of the rotation scored between 11.3 and 17.7 points per 36 minutes. They had two other celebrated defenders in Willis Reed and Dave DeBusschere, and a number of good passers. A very good team, the Knicks used defense and depth to take advantage of John Havlicek's injury to beat the Celtics before beating the Lakers in five.

1987 Lakers. Eight man rotation: Magic Johnson/Byron Scott/Michael Cooper/James Worthy/A.C. Green/Kurt Rambis/Mychal Thompson/Kareem Abdul-Jabaar. Undoubtedly the best team in the league that year, LA took the best point guard ever, and surrounded him with two of the best finishers in the league, one of the best outside shooters in the league, and a collection of hard-nosed role players. Unlike the rest of the teams on this list, L.A. won by overwhelming opponents with offensive firepower.

1988 Jazz. Eight man rotation: John Stockton/Rickey Green/Bob Hansen/Thurl Bailey/Marc Iavaroni/Karl Malone/Melvin Turpin/Mark Eaton. Not the best of the Stockton-Malone Jazz squads, that would be the '97 squad*, but one on which Stockton was clearly at his best, and was easily the team's best player. Karl Malone and Thurl Bailey handled most of the scoring load, putting up a lot of points with mediocre efficiency, while Bob Hansen provided decent efficiency at low usage. Mark Eaton anchored the league's best defense, but was unbelievably awful on offense; 7 points on .457 TS% with a 1:2 AST/TO ratio. The rest of the Utah offense, along with the bench, could be charitably described as "nonexistent".

*On which Stockton was the most productive player in the playoffs, but got "Jordan-ed" in the Finals.

This team wasn't great, but they were good. Featuring the best defense in the league, they had 51 Pythagorean wins, went 29-13 over the second half of the season, and pushed the Lakers to seven games in the second round of the playoffs, falling just short of knocking off the defending (and eventual) champs mostly on the strength of a great performance by Stockton. What differentiated them from the better teams on this list? Their main failing was depth. While the Lakers and Knicks each featured a half dozen decent scorers (or better, in L.A.'s case) for Magic and Frazier to pass the ball to, the Jazz only had three other competent offensive players, and it showed, as they lacked the firepower to outlast the Lakers.

1996 Sonics. Eight man rotation: Gary Payton/Nate McMillan/Hersey Hawkins/Vincent Askew/Detlef Schrempf/Shawn Kemp/Sam Perkins/Ervin "No Magic" Johnson. The Defensive Player of the Year, Payton led a squad that finished 2nd in the league in defensive efficiency. Like the '73 Knicks, the Sonics had a great defense and balanced offense, led by Payton and Kemp. Hawkins and Schrempf provided efficient scoring, while Perkins and Askew filled in the gaps nicely. The Sonics won 64 games and lost to the Bulls in the Finals, but in most years would have been good enough to win a championship.

2003 Nets. Eight man rotation: Jason Kidd/Lucious Harris/Kerry Kittles/Richard Jefferson/Rodney Rogers/Kenyon Martin/Aaron Williams/Jason Collins. The best team in a weak East, the Nets rode a great defense (1st in the league) and balanced offense to the Finals. Kidd's passing made an offense led by Richard Jefferson, Kerry Kittles, and Kenyon Martin mediocre, which was enough to get the Nets to the Finals, but not enough to get them past San Antonio. The less said about the rest of the offense, the better.

2008 Hornets. Eight man rotation: Chris Paul/Jannero Pargo/Bonzi Wells/Morris Peterson/Julian Wright/Peja Stojakovic/David West/Tyson Chandler. The Hornets rode great offense from Paul and great defense from Tyson Chandler to 56 wins. David West and Peja Stojakovic were the primary recipients of Paul's largesse. However, the Hornets weren't very deep; Paul, Chandler, West, and Stojakovic accounted for the vast majority of the team's positive contributions.

What have we learned from these examples? Unless you can overwhelm your opponents with talent like the Showtime Lakers, in order to win a championship around a great point guard, here are the two major points to take away from this exercise. 1) Defense wins. Okay, I already knew this, but having a point guard that can play good defense helps quite a bit. 2) Depth is key when building around a great point guard. It was the difference between the '73 Knicks, '87 Lakers, and '96 Sonics on the one hand, and the '88 Jazz, '03 Nets, and '08 Hornets on the other hand. If I may speculate for a moment, depth may be more important for these teams because a good point guard can still run an offense well when their opponent has a good enough defense to neutralize their primary offensive sets, if the supporting cast is up to the challenge. The '73 Knicks could beat you with Monroe, Reed, Lucas, DeBusschere, etc carrying the load for a game or two. If you could take away Karl Malone* or David West, the Jazz or Hornets were done.

*Note how much adding Jeff Hornacek helped the Jazz in the playoffs (94-98).

Astute readers may notice that I did not mention the '88-'90 or the '04-'08 Pistons despite the fact that they featured excellent point guards, and won titles.* Even more astute readers may recall that those teams are usually held up as exceptions in what I am now calling "championship blueprinting". What this cursory glance of mine shows, though, is that these teams were not exceptions to the rule. Rather, by building around their star point guards with defense and depth, I think those teams experienced success that was both predictable and repeatable, once you know how to look.

*Two other teams to consider; '79 Sonics and '10 Suns. The Suns had better than expected defense and excellent depth, and overachieved considerably. The Sonics won a title, and came close on other occasions, with a balanced, if mediocre, offense, and excellent defense, of which Gus Williams was a large part.

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