Can Teams Win an NBA Title With a Shoot-First Point Guard?
How do you define a ‘shoot-first point guard?’ Simply put, it’s the guy on the team who brings the ball up the court who’d rather look for his own shot than create one for a teammate. It’s a player with whom no teammate is perpetually satisfied.
Come on, we’ve all played pick-up with the guy who thinks he’s the cat’s meow, who demands to bring the ball up, attempts a couple crossovers, then jacks up a 20 footer...over and over again. No matter how good that player is, how clean his jumper looks, or how quick he drives the lane, his team cannot succeed in the long run.
Maybe his team wins once in a while in a rec league, but certainly not in the NBA?
So, in defense of basketball traditionalists, I set out to see if it had been done. For the sake of this study, I used the traditional positional title of point guard. I know that at times, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade split duties bringing the ball up for the Heat, as did Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, and Michael Jordan before them, but for the sake of simplicity, I didn't count them as point guards.
Here’s a list of the starting point guards for the NBA’s past 30 champions and runner-ups. The asterisks indicate players who led their team in shots per game.
|Season||Champion||Point Guard||FGA||Runner-Up||Point Guard||FGA|
|2013-14||Spurs||Tony Parker||13.4*||Heat||Mario Chalmers||7.7|
|2012-13||Heat||Mario Chalmers||6.9||Spurs||Tony Parker||15.1*|
|2011-12||Heat||Mario Chalmers||7.8||Thunder||Russell Westbrook||19.2|
|2010-11||Mavericks||Jason Kidd||7.5||Heat||Mario Chalmers||5.5|
|2009-10||LA Lakers||Derek Fisher||6.8||Celtics||Rajon Rondo||11.2|
|2008-09||LA Lakers||Derek Fisher||8.4||Magic||Jameer Nelson||12.6|
|2007-08||Celtics||Rajon Rondo||9.3||Lakers||Derek Fisher||9.5|
|2006-07||Spurs||Tony Parker||14.2*||Cavaliers||Eric Snow||4|
|2005-06||Heat||Jason Williams||10.3||Mavericks||Jason Terry||13.7|
|2004-05||Spurs||Tony Parker||14||Pistons||Chauncey Billups||11.4|
|2003-04||Pistons||Chauncey Billups||12.8||Lakers||Gary Payton||12.5|
|2002-03||Spurs||Tony Parker||12.7||Nets||Jason Kidd||15.6*|
|2001-02||Lakers||Derek Fisher||9.5||Nets||Jason Kidd||13.9*|
|2000-01||Lakers||Derek Fisher||9.4||76ers||Eric Snow||8.7|
|1999-00||Lakers||Ron Harper||6.6||Pacers||Mark Jackson||7|
|1998-99||Spurs||Avery Johnson||9.2||Knicks||Charlie Ward||6.7|
|1997-98||Bulls||Ron Harper||8.1||Jazz||John Stockton||8|
|1996-97||Bulls||Ron Harper||5.3||Jazz||John Stockton||9.3|
|1995-96||Bulls||Ron Harper||6.3||Supersonics||Gary Payton||15.8*|
|1994-95||Rockets||Kenny Smith||7.3||Magic||Penny Hardaway||14.8|
|1993-94||Rockets||Kenny Smith||9.1||Knicks||Greg Anthony||7.1|
|1992-93||Bulls||BJ Armstrong||10||Suns||Kevin Johnson||11.5|
|1991-92||Bulls||John Paxson||6.2||Trail Blazers||Terry Porter||13.8|
|1990-91||Bulls||John Paxson||7||Lakers||Magic Johnson||12.4|
|1989-90||Pistons||Isiah Thomas||16.3*||Trail Blazers||Terry Porter||12.1|
|1988-89||Pistons||Isiah Thomas||15.3*||Lakers||Magic Johnson||14.8|
|1987-88||Lakers||Magic Johnson||13.8||Pistons||Isiah Thomas||16.6*|
|1986-87||Lakers||Magic Johnson||16.4*||Celtics||Dennis Johnson||12.1|
|1985-86||Celtics||Dennis Johnson||13.6||Rockets||John Lucas||12.6|
|1984-85||Lakers||Magic Johnson||11.7||Celtics||Dennis Johnson||13.3|
Over the last 30 years, 10 point guards led their team's in field goal attempts in the NBA Finals. But are they considered shoot-first guards?
Tony Parker (three-time culprit) plays in a system that rewards open shooters. He dribbles around strategic screens until he has an open jump shot, a lane to the basket, or a passing window to an open teammate. The Spurs shared the rock better than any team in the league last year within this system. They had eight players average over seven shot attempts per game, tops in the league. So Parker’s safe from the dreaded title of ‘shoot-first point guard’. Down to seven.
Jason Kidd (two-time culprit) dragged a rotting corpse of a Nets team to the finals in back to back seasons. Any guesses on who was second on that team in shots per game each of those seasons? Keith Van Horn in 2002 and Kenyon Martin in 2003. Can’t really blame Kidd for shooting more than his proverbial ‘second fiddle.’ Plus, he was top two in assists and MVP voting each year. He’s out, down to five.
Magic Johnson (one-time culprit) is considered the greatest passer of all time, and shot only when it was the right basketball decision, so he’s out too. Down to four.
Isiah Thomas (three-time culprit) was the best player on the iconic ‘Bad Boy Pistons.’ Nicknamed Zeke, he was lightning quick around screens and in transition, and could score from anywhere with his pull up jumper. He piled up monster numbers early in his career, but by the late '80s, the Pistons were so deep that the shot distribution was relatively even. In each of Thomas’ three Finals appearances, Detroit posted an offensive rating in the top 10 and showcased 6 players with over 8.5 shot attempts per game. Thomas also averaged 8.7 assists per game during that three-year arc. He’s borderline, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. Just one left.
Gary Payton did two things exceptionally well during his eighteen year career. He D’d up, and he talked trash. In his only finals appearance as a legitimate superstar, he averaged 7.5 assists for a Sonics team that ranked seventh in points per 100 possessions. He also threw the best alley-oops in the league before Professor Andre Miller showed up. Payton’s out too.
Will a shoot-first point guard break through this season?
Here are the top-five point guards from last season by shots per game:
|Point Guard||FGA||Team Passes Per Game||Rank In league|
The two that stand out are fringe MVP candidates Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook. Both of their offenses are flush with talent, but neither team moves the rock well. Both the Warriors and the Thunder finished in the bottom five in completed passes per game last year in part because of the high number of point guard dominated zero pass possessions.
Both players remained efficient offensive threats, but might be asked to change their game in upcoming seasons as more advanced statistics become available. If the last 30 years is an indication of the future, players like Steph and Russ will have to look for their teammates’ shots more often than their own if they want to hoist the hardware in June.