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.