FD Guest Lecture: Rising from the Whirl

Guest post today from Scout PT, whose ideas over email could not be denied.

Recently, I've been thinking about the job of a point guard—what he does and, more specifically, how he's measured. Basketball, as those who read FD know, is often opaque to numerical analysis. Baseball and football have discrete plays which provide clarity in the evaluation of individual actions. Strikeouts. Yards per attempt. OPS+. Basketball is a flow game and thus harder to measure. The player at the center of the flow—the point guard (and I include here for intellectual completeness point forwards, point centers, and point gauze-wrapping trainers...)—is perhaps the hardest to measure.

In the general discourse, PGs are measured first on assists - themselves, the most subjective of all major sports statistics, relying on the charity of a scorer to judge whether a player is credited for facilitating a direct move to the basket. Did or didn't, 8.3 per game or 5.1, no shades of gray, no description of quality, no description of whether the PG hit his forward in stride for a power lay-in or whether he chucked it up for the center to wrestle through four guys for an ugly bucket. Beyond assists, other measures of a PG's effectiveness include points and concepts like assist/turnover ratios—useful numbers, when considered in the proper context. Scoring 30 points a game is great, unless four dudes are watching the other player—sadly, often the best player on the team—go one-on-five every time down the court. The game is about the team and the rhythm. The extra pass. Moving off the ball. Getting everyone on the squad to move off the ball, and then to make the extra pass. That's what a PG should do. That, to me, is the magic, and point guards are the magicians.

How, then, does one measure magic? I've had a few discussions in which certain players are dismissed as "gunners", "ballhogs" or "just plain bad shooters". The determination is usually made by examining shooting percentages. Kidd and Cousy, two of the greatest court magicians, have horrible career shooting percentages, even adjusting for style-of-play in Cousy's era, and often receive criticism for such performance. Does that bad number mean they're bad shooters? Conscience-less gunners? I don't think so. Both guys had pretty good career foul-shooting percentages and, in the case of Kidd, decent 3-point shooting percentage. When they wanted to, each of them could turn it on and dominate. Outside, inside, whatever. Neither of these guys is Rajon Rondo.

One might consider styles when attempting to measure magic. On the other end of the shooting percentage spectrum are guys like Stockton and Nash (at least, in the glory years). Stockton, in particular, posted crazy numbers. Super crazy for a 6 foot 1 player. My gut tells me that the reason was that Stockton and the glory-years Nash were very disciplined shooters. They took shots they thought they could make and didn't take ones that they didn't, and didn't put themselves in positions where they'd end up with bad shots. That's how you shooting 57 percent from the field. But does that mean that Kidd and Cousy were undisciplined? Kidd, maybe, but Cousy? Aw, hell naw.

Here's what else my gut tells me. Cousy and Kidd have very similar styles. They're the kind of PGs that give the best shots to their teammates. Let's call them Superior PGs, in the I Ching sense of Superior. To illustrate, just think about the flow for a minute. If the ball ends up in the Superior PG's hand with 3 seconds left on the clock and he's stuck in a place he hates shooting from. Too bad but somebody still has to shoot the rock. Kidd and Cousy probably take that shot. Another guy might look to dish because he's in bad-spot hell, but I think guys like Cousy and Kidd take ownership for not executing in the first place and letting things get that bad and take the shot.

See, if the Superior PG dishes to his big for an easy lay-in after he drives and draws the big's man, that's doing his job right. But the shooting percentage win goes to his big. If the big's guy doesn't switch and the Superior PG is stuck under the basket looking at a wall of the wrong colored uniforms and thinking about which of a bunch of bad options is the least bad, all that happened because he's not doing his job right. The Superior PG might still take the shot from a bad spot because a) he didn't do something right in the first place and b) someone still needs to shoot the damned ball. And if he drives and things actually go well, and the choice is for the Superior PG to take a good shot or to dish to a guy 5 feet farther in who has a better shot, well, you know what he'll do.

I note as an aside here that there is an unresolved issue in my mind as to whether there is more ego - and less Superior-ness - in taking the shot from underneath that wall of wrong-colored uniforms or in pre-empting the whole issue and making a 15 footer rather than driving in an attempt to get a switch and a lay-in for your big. I also note that much of the PG's choice is dictated by the quality of said big.

But all things require balance, even being Superior. The greatest of all our magicians, Magic himself, had a .520 career FG%. Superior? Not Superior? First, you have to back out the Showtime fast breaks. Half-court Magic has a shooting number much closer to that of mortal men. Still, Magic was a pretty good shooter and, if you'll remember, Magic used to catch a lot of shit in the press about overpassing. He'd have an easy lay-in on the way and WHOA LOOKIT THAT the ball would end up in Rambis's hands.


To his credit, Magic always acted like he had the team's best interest at heart. I'm the assist man, he'd say, that's what I do. He was unselfish to the point of selfishness. It was only after he got it through his head that the game wasn't just about making gorgeous passes - whether for the benefit of teammates' scoring or his own prestidigitational glory - that he ended up scoring 24 a game and taking home MVP trophy #1. That, my friends, isn't ego. It's Superior.

So, we return to the central question. How do we measure magic? The answer is, you don't. You describe magic. Maybe someday soon, 82Games will figure out how to break every PG's game down into quanta. Then we can measure magic. Until then, we watch, we feel for the flow, we think, we debate about whether a Kidd or a Nash, a Stockton or a Cousy, a young Magic or an older Magic is truly Superior.

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At 3/13/2009 2:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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At 3/13/2009 2:29 PM, Blogger spanish bombs said...

As much as I disagree with Kidd being truly great, I think that the author makes a good point. Team FG% might be a measure to try out, although you'd have to figure out a way to control for teams with Shaq and Dwight Howard.

At 3/13/2009 3:39 PM, Blogger jochbe said...

Writing a post on this topic, at this period in history, without mentioning Chris Paul is perverse. Especially given all the talk about Kidd. It would be like writing an essay on popular music in 1965 without mentioning The Beatles, but extolling the virtues of Chuck Berry...

At 3/13/2009 4:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

my thoughts exactly jochbe

At 3/13/2009 5:53 PM, Blogger El Presidente said...

Jason Kidd: In the top 5% of most productive point guards ever, but somebody on the internet thinks he isn't "great". Say what you want about his current production, but don't be a fucking moron. Lemme guess, you think Clyde Drexler and Karl Malone were overrated as well?

At 3/13/2009 6:39 PM, Blogger Rebar said...


At 3/13/2009 6:45 PM, Blogger Pork said...


chris paul isn't really germane to this discussion. at least, not the first cut. career shooting pctg is good, not great. so, neither stockton-crazy-good, nor criticism-attracting like kidd. no one is going to argue with you that paul - by the time he's done - has an excellent chance to be a top 3 all-time PG, and maybe even top 1. but there's not a fatal-flaw statistic to have to look past, as with kidd and cousy. i will admit that kidd has many flaws, but it's also hard not to recognize his brilliance. the question at hand is one of measuring the right thing and not measuring the wrong thing. CP3 is easy to measure. kidd is harder.

At 3/13/2009 9:50 PM, Blogger Daniel said...

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At 3/13/2009 9:52 PM, Blogger Daniel said...

I've never watched Cousy so I won't comment on him, but man, I gotta call shenanigans on calling Kidd a Superior PG and attributing his atrocious FG% to some higher form of basketball self-sacrifice where he took all the "bad" shots, while saying guys like Nash and Stockton only shot better due to their more "disciplined" shot selection.

The point is especially poignant with Nash, who during his "glory years" had a playing style which mirrored the description for "superior PG" almost to the T. I can't remember one instance where he led the break and wound up taking the three without at least swinging it around to someone else first. The reason his FG % was so astronomically high was 1. partially due to the D'Antoni "sysyem", a discussion for another time, but more imporantly, because 2. he was a great shooter. period. Kidd has always been an atrocious shooter. I think it's been mentioned in these parts before that Nash can be called the "Perfect SG", and I feel that embodies the perfect fundamentals of his shooting stroke and form. Kidd on the other hand, has shot a crappy FG% his entire career not because he was so busy dishing to everyone else and wound up with the "bad" shots at the end of the shot clock, but because he shoots like a 4th grader flinging a soccer ball. Those games in the playoffs where Nash went off for 30 or 40, I can tell you, a lot of his shots were "bad" shots that resulted from teams shutting down his passing options and daring him to beat them on his own. And he did. That's the difference with guys like Kidd, who up until this year had never developed a semblance consistency shooting from the perimeter and thus were able to be coerced into taking and missing "bad" shots. I know this season he's kinda perfected his little set 3 point shot, but to me that shows more of a sly veteran adding one more weapon to his bag of tricks than a naturally great shooter. Magic had much of a same set long-range shot by the end as well. Nash has always been a lights-out shooter with a natural shooting stroke, as did stockton. Kidd has no jumper because he shoots almost entirely from his forearms and wrists. End of story.

At 3/14/2009 6:17 AM, Blogger Jack Barnett said...

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At 3/14/2009 1:37 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

I love it when comments call posts "weak." Like this is a poetry slam or pick-up game. Or we're hitting on chicks at a MMJ show!

At 3/14/2009 2:56 PM, Blogger Business or Leisure? said...

I think this post most definitely ties into the Rondo article a few weeks ago.

Rondo is, in this case, a young case-study in how far a point guard can enter his "Kidd-Zone" while still maintaining a PG's swag. His shots-- form included-- are terrible and since he's given up really working on them, this makes him the future case study in this "magic" arena, no? not to mention his lack of Magic/Nash's running teammates. This means more magic in less possessions, not to mention less creative teammates as far as getting to their spots without the ballhtna any of the PGs mentioned.

I mean, Rondo is Edvard Munch's "The Scream" where Paul is Fragonard's "The Swing." The latter, being something that is so simple, that you just admire the way it is painted, whereas the former evokes a sense of "WHAT THE FUCK IS HAPPENED."

I think that might be why Paul is excluded from discussions on the rudiments of PGs. He's so simple and pure that it's like analyzing a sunny day at this point.

At 3/14/2009 5:26 PM, Blogger ethan said...

Really, Kidd isn't great because he is a crappy shooter? So the fact that he took two weak Nets teams (in an admittedly weak eastern conference) to the Finals as the undisputed best player has no bearing on your evaluation? The fact that he was one of the best defensive point guards is irrelevant? Please.

The only way he wasn't great is if we draw the line for greatness at, say, Magic Johnson.

At 3/14/2009 7:58 PM, Blogger Daniel said...


I don't know if your post was directed at mine, but no where do I even bring up Kidd's greatness or lack thereof. I was only commenting on the post's rationale explaining his greatness, which I think is fundamentally flawed, as I outline above.
That being said, is Kidd an all-time great PG? Of course! No one is disputing that. The point of the post and responses was, how is he an all-time great despite acertain "obvious deficiency".

At 3/14/2009 7:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can someone point me to the link or article where Rondo says he doesn't work on his J. I just find this impossible to believe.

Obviously you don't think about rebounding as a typically measuremnet of a superior point guard, a portion of the game where both Kidd and Rondo excel.

At 3/14/2009 9:31 PM, Blogger Business or Leisure? said...

I watch all the Celtics games, and, while he may work on his J in practice, he ain't working on them in-game. That's basically irrefutable.

Killian's is an OK beer, though.

At 3/14/2009 9:40 PM, Blogger goathair said...

How do you work on a jumper in a game? Nonsensical.

Chicks at MMJ shows don't shave their legs.

At 3/15/2009 11:29 AM, Blogger ethan said...


Well, spanishbombs is evidently questioning his greatness; but you're right that in general it isn't up for debate. It seems that I did misinterpret your first paragraph. I don't disagree that he has a weird shooting stroke, but to my eyes, the real reason why he has such a poor fg% is that a high percentage of his shots are jumpers (which he actually makes at an acceptable rate, at least over the last few years), combined with his poor finishing ability at the rim on the small number of close shots he takes. His woeful finishing annoys me more than his weird shooting form.

At 3/15/2009 11:57 AM, Blogger Bhel Atlantic said...

W2: This may mess up your epistemology royally, but please believe it, because Rondo said it in this article.

(To be fair, Rondo did say that he will undertake plenty of practice. But apparently he said that he plans no serious work on his shooting form.)

At 3/16/2009 1:45 AM, Blogger David Dittell said...

To the author,

I picked a more or less random season (2005-2006), but you can actually find shot clock usage rates and %'s at 82games.

To use your examples, and keeping in mind that I'm not a mathematician...

Jason Kidd took 16% of his shots with <3sec, and has a .415 eFG% under those circumstances. (COMPARISON: .480 eFG% overall)


The Nets took 15% of their shots with <3sec left, and had a .439 eFG%.


Steve Nash took only 8% of his shots with <3sec and had a .512 eFG% in those circumstances. (COMPARISON: .584% eFG% overall)


The Suns took 7% of their shots with <3sec, and shot .464 eFG%.


Like you said, there isn't enough information overall for this to be definitive, but it seems to me that both players took <3sec baskets at the same rate as the team on a whole. You need to get into overall usage rates, etc. to really get to the heart of it, but I really think that these sorts of last-second/split-second decisions are based not on the spirit of the player, but on what the defense gives them. And it's clear that while Kidd's 3P% doesn't show in FG%, he's still not as good of a shooter as Steve Nash in most situations. A player's style may be paramount to our understanding of him, but it doesn't mean his substance should be discounted or overlooked.

I think your central argument, that some players take responsibility for the entire team, and others take responsibility for being the "assist man" is really, really interesting, has a lot of merit, and most importantly is great to argue over at a bar, but I don't see it in these particular examples.

At 3/16/2009 10:20 PM, Blogger Pork said...

you, sir, are awesome


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