Friday, May 27, 2011

Can An Elite Point Guard Win You An NBA Title?

With MVP and former #1 overall pick Derrick Rose's ouster from the playoffs Thursday night, and with the Cavs almost assuredly selecting Duke point guard Kyrie Irving with the #1 overall pick in this year's draft, I began mulling over something that I have wondered for a few years now: do elite point guards win NBA titles?

First, I need to define what I mean by "elite."  Using Rose as an example since he is the catalyst for this entire exercise, consider how many point guards were taken #1 overall and how many point guards who have won the MVP won NBA titles.  Going back to 1985--the first year of the draft lottery--there is an unfortunately limited sample size of two PGs drafted first overall: Rose, and John Wall (and possibly Allen Iverson, if you consider AI a point guard, which I don't). 

Expanding the parameters to include point guards taken in the top 5, the sample size grows to 22.  Of those 22, 3 won NBA championships (with Jason Kidd or Mike Bibby making it 4 in a few weeks), none with their original teams.  Gary Payton (taken #2 by Seattle in 1990) rode on the coattails of Dwyane Wade and Shaq the last time Miami played Dallas in the Finals, Antonio Daniels (taken #4 by Vancouver in 1997*) came off the bench for the 1999 Spurs, and Chauncey Billups (taken the pick before Daniels in '97 by Boston) won the Finals MVP in 2004 with the Detroit Pistons.

*Did you know: The Grizzlies selected a point guard in the top 4 in 1997 (Daniels, #4), 1998 (Bibby, #2), and 1999 (Steve Francis, #2)?

Other than Payton, Daniels, and Billups, only Devin Harris, Anfernee Hardaway, Bibby, and Kidd even made the Finals, with Harris and Hardaway being the only one to make it with the team that originally drafted them (without having to be re-acquired, as is the case with Kidd, who was ironically traded from New Jersey back to Dallas for Harris).  Even more astounding is the fact that of these 22 players, only 5 have only ever played for the team that drafted them (not including Ricky Rubio, who hasn't played for anybody yet), with the longest tenured of those 5 being Chris Paul.  While it is very possible to get a very good point guard in the top 5, a long career with the same team filled with NBA Championships or even Finals appearances is unlikely.

Moving on the the MVP portion of this exercise, the award has been bestowed upon a point guard 6 times.  For my purposes, however, I'm going to cut that number down to 3, since the other 3 instances were when Magic Johnson won the award in 1987, 1989, and 1990.  While Johnson was obviously a facilitator extraordinaire, he also was not a pure point guard, and doesn't really fit what I'm studying.  The other 3 MVP point guards are actually two men, Rose from this past season, and Steve Nash in 2005 and 2006. 

Obviously, the sample size is too small again, so expanding my parameters to include All-NBA point guards from 1985 to today, I find that of the 19 different players to make an All-NBA 1st, 2nd, or 3rd team (again, excluding Magic), only  5 players won NBA championships.  Payton and Billups have already been mentioned, while Tony Parker has won 3 rings with the Spurs (including the 2007 Finals MVP that rightfully belongs to Tim Duncan), Sam Cassell came off the bench for the 2008 Celtics and for the Rockets in 1995, and Isiah Thomas obviously played a major part in Detroit's back-to-back titles in '89 and '90.  In fact, as far as I can tell, those Detroit teams were the last team to win a title with their point guard as their obvious best player.  Only Kidd and Kevin Johnson at least made it to the Finals, with Johnson getting there in '93 with Charles Barkley in Phoenix.  As for the 2 MVPs--Rose and Nash--the furthest either has reached is the conference championships.

So if the majority of these "elite" point guards aren't winning championships, then who is?  Here's a list of every NBA champion and their starting point guard dating back to 1990, Isiah's last year on top:

2011 Dallas Mavericks (Jason Kidd)/Miami Heat (Mike Bibby)
2009-10 Los Angeles Lakers (Derek Fisher)
2008 Boston Celtics (Rajon Rondo)
2007 San Antonio Spurs (Tony Parker)
2006 Miami Heat (Jason Williams)
2005 San Antonio Spurs (Tony Parker)
2004 Detroit Pistons (Chauncey Billups)
2003 San Antonio Spurs (Tony Parker)
2001-02 Los Angeles Lakers (Derek Fisher)
2000 Los Angeles Lakers (Ron Harper)
1999 San Antonio Spurs (Avery Johnson)
1996-98 Chicago Bulls (Ron Harper)
1994-95 Houston Rockets (Kenny Smith)
1993 Chicago Bulls (B.J. Armstrong)
1991-92 Chicago Bulls (John Paxson)
1990 Detroit Pistons (Isiah Thomas)

So which point guards are winning championships?  For the most part, steady veterans who don't turn the ball over, can at least get in the way of their man on defense, and hit  one or two clutch shots per series.  The only exceptions are Parker and Billups, but Parker was the 3rd best player on his teams behind Manu Ginolbili and Tim Duncan, while Billups was--at least in my eyes--second behind Rasheed Wallace.  Some of you might be wondering about Rondo, but even if you think he's an elite point guard now (which he's not), he certainly wasn't in 2008.  I can vividly remember teams not even keeping a man within 10 feet of him that postseason, as he was easily the Celtics' weakest link, which is saying something considering the performance Kendrick Perkins's corpse put on during this year's Western Conference Finals. 

What's my point?   Having a really good point guard is nice, and will probably get you into the playoffs at least once every two years or so, but in order to compete for a championship, a team needs an elite wing and/or big man, while a solid, smart veteran point guard is more than sufficient.  Thankfully, Kyrie Irving is projected as nothing more than solid, so the Cavs should be well on their way to a championship as soon as they trade back for him 10 years from now. 


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