Thursday, October 7, 2010

TBTEW: Point Guards 1-5

5: Gary Payton. Payton has the lowest career free throw percentage of any point guard on this list, a distinction he is likely to hold until Rajon Rondo plays a few more seasons. Despite not being a very good shooter, Payton was the best point guard in the games for almost a decade, from the mid nineties through the early aughts. Probably the best defender on this list, Payton combined outstanding defense with high usage, great passing, a low amount of turnovers, and fantastic durability-if it wasn't for the '99 lockout, he would have topped 3000 minutes in nine straight seasons (95-03).

It will be interesting to see how players who peaked from 1999-2004, when the NBA went through a mini deadball era, will be remembered. The league wide decreases in offensive efficiency and pace mean that those players have less impressive stats than their predecessors and successors. The other factors that usually help a player to be remembered are team success and (generally offensive) style. Payton had a bit if both, but not enough that he's guaranteed to be remembered as one of the five best at his position, which he is.

4: Walt Frazier. Another lockdown defender, the man known as Clyde was the best guard of the seventies, and the most stylish NBA player ever. He could do everything on the court; score (efficiently), pass, rebound, and defend. Frazier is the first player on this list to have won a championship as a team's clear superstar. While Billups, Isiah Thomas, and Gus Williams all may have been the best player on their team, there were other players on each of those squads that were at or near the same level as those players. Not so on the 1973 Knicks.

By 1973, injuries had limited Willis Reed into a supporting role, and the rest of the roster was talented, but lacked a star. They did have one of the best collection of veteran role players ever assembled-Reed, Jerry Lucas, Earl Monroe, Dave DeBusschere, and Bill Bradley, along with a couple of talented backups in Dean Meminger and Phil Jackson. Still, Frazier was the only one on the team to finish in the top 20 in PER or Win Shares, a rare accomplishment on a championship team. The only players to do that since the merger have been Magic Johnson (1987), Michael Jordan (1998-Pippen*), Tim Duncan (2003), and Dwayne Wade (2006-O'Neal*).

*didn't qualify for the PER list due to injury, otherwise would have made it

3: John Stockton. The numbers, especially the assists, are almost unreal in their quantity and consistency. Nineteen years in the league. Not missing a game in seventeen of those years. Nine straight seasons leading the league in assists. Fifteen years leading the league in AST%. Sixteen straight seasons with a PER over 21. Career marks for steals and assists that won't be touched anytime soon.

Often called the best pure point guard, Stockton's the only point guard (before Chris Paul, if you believe in his defense) to combine ridiculous assist totals, excellent defense, and ultra efficient shooting, a reflection of the three attributes a good point guard is supposed to possess (court vision/passing, ballhawking, and accurate shooting).

When you play in 19 different postseasons, you are bound to have some disappointing postseasons and also some good postseasons, even if they don't result in championships. Stockton's best postseasons came almost a decade apart. The first was in 1988, when he set the record for assists and steals in a playoff series, outplaying Magic Johnson as the Jazz pushed the eventual champions to seven games. The second came in 1997, when he destroyed Matt Maloney, leading the Jazz to the Finals, where they lost to the Bulls despite Stockton's heroics (especially in Game 4).

2: Oscar Robertson. Put up great numbers thanks to playing almost every minute at a ridiculous pace, while being better than everyone else. The fast pace of the sixties, and the fact that top players played a few more minutes a game than they do now, means that his numbers aren't quite as impressive as they seem. Still, the man averaged a triple double over his first five years; something no one else has ever done (in any one season).

During his first few seasons, Oscar's Royals were near the top of the league in offense, but near the bottom in defense, as the frontcourt of Wayne Embry, Bob Boozer, and Jack Twyman was competent offensively but couldn't stop anyone. Jerry Lucas arrived in 1964, just in time for Jack Twyman to hit the "I've stopped being good" portion of his career. The Royals led the league in points scored, won 55 games and lost to the Celtics on the backs of Robertson, Lucas, and one of the worst supporting casts in the league. The next year featured more of the same, as a 48 win campaign was stopped by Wilt's Sixers. The Royals slid back into mediocrity over the next few years as Robertson slowly started to decline, Lucas never quite matched his rookie year, and the best players Cincinnati could surround them with were Adrian Smith and Happy Hairston. It was probably this experience, along with leading the fight for NBA free agency, that led Robertson to recently applaud the idea of stars teaming up to win a title, in defiance of the "alpha dog syndrome."

What made him so effective? The Big O probably had the best midrange game ever. A deadly shooter from 10-20 feet, he used his 6'5 frame to back down smaller guards, and create shots for himself, often drawing a foul in the process-there's a reason he led the league in made free throws four different times. And if the defense focused on him, he could find the open teammate with a pinpoint pass.

1: Magic Johnson. The difference between 1 and 2 on this list is very close. On the one hand, Magic was the more prolific passer, won more (with better postseason stats), and had better per minute stats. On the other hand, Robertson was the better scorer, was more dominating, and had more impressive overall stats. Ultimately, I went with Magic for the simple fact that I view Oscar's 45 minute a game seasons as an artifact of the sixties instead of an indication that he would/could play 45 minutes a game in the modern era. Maybe that's unfair.

But let's talk about Magic. The numbers are ridiculous. In 1987, he averaged 24-6-12 for a 65 win team, then averaged 22-8-12 in the championship run (with great efficiencies). 23-8-13 in 1989. A career playoff average of 20-8-12 (.595 TS%). If you like advanced stats, he finished in the top 4 in Win Shares 8 times (although strangely never in first).

I could go on for pages, but you don't need me to tell you how good Magic was. The only thought I'll leave you with is that the Showtime Lakers were the last offensive minded team* to win a title, as well as the worst defensive squad to win since the merger**. That's how good Magic made that offense.

*Of course, other teams with excellent offenses have one. Just not another team whose identity was almost solely in its offense.
**And no, the 2001 Lakers don't count. They were excellent defensively when they could be bothered to try.

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