I don’t want to be known as the Randy Orton of PistonPowered, so I’ll move away from the ‘legend killer’ reputation I may have established for myself a couple days ago with my first foray into this little ‘myths‘ series, and focus on a more contemporary topic: the Pistons point guard situation.
I’ve already weighed in this offseason with my argument that Will Bynum should start over Rodney Stuckey. But this post isn’t so much about who plays that "position" but rather whether that "position" even exists.
Point guards are romanticized so much. The greatest masters of the position are guys like Magic Johnson or John Stockton, who we associate with unselfishness, with leadership, with a poetic fluency in the offenses that their teams ran. They are guys who were fully capable of taking over a game with their ability to score, but instead they sacrificed so that their teams’ offenses had more fluidity, everyone stayed involved and the ball kept moving. Their styles of basketball were beautiful to watch, so it’s completely understandable why fans want their team to always be looking for that pure point guard. Pistons fans are no different, which is why Stuckey has faced an almost constant storm of "he’s not a point guard!" comments since he moved into the starting lineup after the Chauncey Billups trade.
The problem is, outside of the nearing-extinction Steve Nash and Jason Kidd, true points don’t really exist anymore. And while my preference would certainly be seeing Bynum in the starting lineup, I also believe that a team with Stuckey as its starting point guard can be an elite team. It would just require an upgrade in the talent surrounding him.
Isiah Thomas redefined the position
Isiah Thomas played point guard for the Pistons, but he very often was a scorer first. He took over games scoring the ball the way Johnson or Stockton never or very rarely did. Isiah could go out and get 15 assists on a given night, and on the next night he’d go out and score 40 points aggressively looking for his shot. And if that sounds familiar to current NBA fans, it should.
Look at some of the young crop of guards today — Brandon Jennings, Tyreke Evans, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Deron Williams, Chris Paul, Jameer Nelson — all of these players are at different times distributors and primary scoring options. They are budding star players, undefinable by the worn out positional definitions that we insist on giving players in NBA basketball, just like Thomas was. Thomas wasn’t Magic Johnson or John Stockton. He also wasn’t Michael Jordan. He was an extremely unique player whose success fluctuating between scorer and facilitator is the basis for how the position is played in today’s NBA.
Great point guards don’t = rings
If you were to count up the total number of rings Nash and Kidd, the two purest point guards of this era, have won, you’ll see that traditional point guard play doesn’t necessarily translate to championships. They are both winning players, leading their teams to several playoff appearances. Kidd has played in two NBA Finals (albeit in two of the weakest years in modern Eastern Conference history) and Nash has led his team to the Western Conference Finals four times. Stockton was clearly the best point guard of the 1990s, and he has zero rings to show for it. Teams whose franchise player is a pure point guard just haven’t won titles, not since Magic Johnson (remember: guys like Thomas and Chauncey Billups don’t count as "true" point guards in the traditional sense, since they both were responsible for large portions of the scoring load for their teams).
NBA Finals point guards over the last 20 years have included names like Derek Fisher, Ron Harper, Eric Snow, Kenny Smith and John Paxson. Guys like Mark Jackson, Jason Williams and Avery Johnson were "pure" pass-first points, although none would have been considered among the top three players on their respective Finals teams. Jameer Nelson and Tony Parker are guys who can be described as "shoot first" sometimes. Rajon Rondo is not definable by a position because his skillset is so extremely unique.
Having good point guard play isn’t the key to winning. Having a player who dominates some facet of the game, surrounded by a bunch of very good players, is the key to winning. There’s not a recipe anymore that says your point guard has to distribute, shooting guard/small forward have to score, bigs have to rebound and be strong post-up players in order to win. Those responsibilities are spread out all over the place — look no further than Billups, who was arguably the Pistons’ best back-to-the-basket player during their run of ECF appearances.
Many will point to the 2004 Pistons as evidence you don’t need a dominant star to win big. I disagree — Ben Wallace was as dominant as it got. He dominated defensively, altering shots and rebounding, but it was still total dominance of a facet of the game. He was their franchise player, he controlled games routinely, and he was surrounded by a bunch of very good players who did different things well.
In order to win big, teams absolutely need competent players starting at this theoretical point guard position. They need guys who are good spot-up shooters or good defensive players or good ball-handlers. But they do not necessarily need guys who are traditional point guards. Some of these teams have won with "point guards" who spend virtually no time running the offense.
Rodney Stuckey can be that guy
As I said above, it would require an upgrade in the talent around him, but Rodney Stuckey could be the starting point guard on a championship-contending team. He has a unique skillset. He’s a big guard who is potentially one of the better perimeter defenders in the league (he made great strides in his commitment to defense last year).
He handles the ball well enough to initiate the offense. He attacks the rim well enough to be an offensive threat while he’s on the floor (i.e. a guy that the defense can’t completely ignore). He’s versatile enough to defend either guard spot in case his backcourt mate isn’t a strong defender.
For him to fill this role, the Pistons obviously need a guy who they can run their offense through. That person is currently not on the roster (with apologies to Greg Monroe, who I think they will be able to run the offense through for stretches). If they are able to upgrade the roster via trade (assuming that trade doesn’t involve Stuckey) and bring in a go-to offensive player, the criticisms of Stuckey as a point guard would disappear.
Point guard is the new center
In the 1990s, when teams like the Knicks and the Heat were mastering the physical clutch-and-grab defense (and the thrilling 72-66 final scores) the league was known for at the time, big men were all the rage. It’s why stiffs like Eric Montross, Sharone Wright, Yinka Dare, Todd Fuller, Vitaly Potapenko, Adonal Foyle and Michael Doleac were high draft picks. It’s why guys like Jim McIlvaine got $30 million contracts. Teams were willing to gamble and gamble big on size, because if it paid off, the reward was handsome. Of course, what resulted is few teams uncovered hidden big man gems and instead ended up wasting picks and millions of dollars on guys who were good for not much more than 6 fouls a night.
In the current NBA, where zone defenses have made things harder on big men, and tightened hand-checking enforcement on the perimeter have made the league a slasher’s dream, the search for point guards is becoming a trend. It’s why guys like Randy Foye who can maybe kind of learn to play point guard get traded for Brandon Roy on draft day. It’s why Avery Bradley, another guy who occasionally flashed some PG-like skills, shot up draft boards despite a not great one year of playing college basketball. The trend is still relatively early in its stages — the 90s run on big men lasted a good nine years or so. It’s the same principle though.
Because these players only exhibit a skillset that partially resembles how the point guard position was traditionally conceived, I think it’s time for fans to stop thinking about the position traditionally. If you don’t have Nash or Kidd or Paul or Williams, just think of your team as having a couple of starting guards. Just like the big men of the 90s didn’t magically turn into Patrick Ewing or Alonzo Mourning, the point guards of the 90s aren’t going to be Williams or Paul (Or Billups, who Stuckey-as-PG-defenders frequently like to compare him to. BTW, I’m guessing within the first three comments on this post, someone will say, "Well, Chauncey Billups took a few years to become a PG, so Stuckey deserves another year too." It’s going to happen.).
Rodney Stuckey is Rodney Stuckey. He’s not exactly a point guard, but most teams in the NBA could describe their starting PG that same way. Barring a trade, the Pistons have to focus on finding a way to get enough point guard-like skills out of their collective five-man units to become a more cohesive team rather than worrying about whether Stuckey is a full-time point guard or full-time shooting guard. He’s just a guard. Live with it.