The NBA has been dominated by a handful of players over the past 25 years; but very few of them have been point guards. Isiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons in 1990 was the last point guard to lead a championship team in scoring and assists.
The amazing performances of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan over the past two decades has generated debate on whether or not elite NBA point guards can lead a team to a championship.
When Jason Kidd won in 2011 with the Dallas Mavericks, he was 38 years old and was more of a role player to Dirk Nowitzki as opposed to the floor leader he was accustomed to being his entire career. Kidd, who is one of the best point guards of all-time, has also never been a scoring point guard.
Chauncey Billups earned the MVP honors while leading the Detroit Pistons in passing and nearly in scoring that year. The Pistons were a rare NBA Finals team; they were comprised of role players who were known for their defensive play far more than their offensive game. Though it was likely that Billups, because of his teammates and the system the Pistons played in, was put in the perfect position to succeed and could have been interchanged by a handful of guards in the NBA at that time.
Rajon Rondo was on the 2008 Boston Celtics championship team, but was never considered part of the core of the team known as the “big-three” of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. While Rondo certainly played an important role in the Celtics’ 17th NBA title, it was the incredible play of forwards Pierce and Garnett that made the difference.
Since 1990, 14 of the 22 NBA Finals MVP’s have gone to just four players: Michael Jordan (6), Shaquille O’Neal (3), Tim Duncan (3) and Kobe Bryant (2). None of these players are point guards.
The Spurs finished their sweep of the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday to make their way back to the Finals for the first time since 2007. But it’s no longer resting on the 37-year-old shoulders of Tim Duncan to bring the Larry O’Brien trophy back to Texas. No, for the first time since George Bush Sr. was in office, an NBA point guard will be expected to lead his team to a championship; that player is Tony Parker.
The control of the team began transitioning to Parker in 2007 when the Spurs last won the championship; he earned the Finals MVP while the older Duncan began adjusting to having an equal he had not had since David Robinson in 1999. Duncan still led the Spurs in scoring in 2007, both in the regular season and the playoffs. And without Tim Duncan, the Spurs would have had no chance. The same can still be said now with the 2013 Spurs, but it will be Parker who needs to continue to play on a high level while Duncan seems to be the more replaceable cog in the Spurs machine. Parker led the Spurs in scoring this season with 20.3 points per game, to go along with a team high 7.6 assists. In the playoffs, Parker has elevated his game and led the Spurs in scoring with 23.0 PPG and 7.2 APG.
A pass first point guard facilitates the team’s offense and gets their teammates involved in each play. “Score-first” point guards, those that often look for their own shot first, have had a history of not succeeding in the playoffs. Point guards like Derrick Rose of the Bulls’ and Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder will have to figure this out when they return to the court next year. They both prefer, and are capable of, being the leading scorer on their team. However, this detracts from the team’s overall ability to outperform their opponent. So perhaps these two can take a page out of Parkers book, especially if he brings home his second Finals MVP and fourth NBA Finals championship.
Parker, as the point guard, is the number one option on offense for the Spurs; a dynamic that often spells trouble for most teams. Point guards like Rose or Westbrook have a much higher usage rate than most point guards, which makes it difficult for their teammates to stay actively involved in the offense. But Parker’s efficiency and impressive turnover rate create more opportunities for players like Manu Ginóbli, Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard to nail down outside shots while Duncan demands all of the attention down low. Parker seems to have perfected a balance between dishing and scoring; avoiding the stereotype of being a “score-first” or “pass-first” point guard. He is both.
While not technically considered a point guard, Lebron James of the Miami Heat is often used like one. Lebron has a high usage rate because of how many shots he takes and how many times he is the primary ball-handler; this is very similar to Parker’s role on the Spurs. Lebron is obviously in a league of his own when it comes to his array of offensive weapons and ability to guard any player on the court, but his ability to get teammates involved is precisely how Parker has led his Spurs to the NBA finals.
The likelihood of seeing those two in the NBA Finals this year is very good–the Heat are currently leading the Pacers 2-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals and are proving to be the better team. The consensus is that the Spurs are too old to handle the young and athletic Heat, but their roster says otherwise. Tony Parker, at 31, is the clear leader and best player on this Spurs team. Their elder statesmen of Ginóbli (35) and Duncan, are still elite players and provide championship experience, and most importantly will present difficult match-ups for the Heat to deal with. The championship Spurs teams of the past lacked young athletic players like Leonard (21) and Green (25) who are defensive gurus and lethal outside shooters. Also, those two, Leonard specifically, will be good defensive options to throw at Lebron.
Regardless of whether the Spurs face the Heat or Pacers in the Finals, the focus will be on the play of Tony Parker. He is setting out to accomplish something no point guard has done in 23 years, and that player is in the Hall-of-Fame. The Spurs are on their way to earning their fifth NBA Championship since 1999, and Tony Parker will have everything to do with it this time.