Why This Isn't the Golden Age of Point Guards in the NBA

Jonathan WassermanFeatured Columnist IVApril 9, 2017

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 30: Derrick Rose #1 of the Chicago Bulls and Chris Paul #3 of the Los Angeles Clippers set for a play at Staples Center on December 30, 2011 in Los Angeles, California.   NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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This just hasn't been an age that's seen many marquee point guards win NBA championships.

Today, guys like Derrick Rose, Deron Williams and Chris Paul have signed with teams as roughly $100 million centerpieces. Franchises are being built around them and the star power they possess. 

It's only natural to feel secure knowing the best player on your team is the one who dominates the ball.

But despite all the captivating point guards who are given max contracts, or taken first overall, or nominated as NBA All-Stars, very few of them have brought home a championship.

Chris Paul, widely regarded as the top point guard of the current era, has only gotten out of the first round twice and never made it to the conference finals.

Deron Williams visited the conference finals in 2007, though he never made it back. Steve Nash has a couple of MVP trophies, but not a ring or finals appearance.

In fact, the majority of starting point guards for championship teams have been supporting-cast members, as opposed to featured scorers in the offense. 

This isn't knocking guys like Paul and Rose or questioning their ability. Rather, it's questioning the chances of an NBA lineup whose top offensive weapon is its point guard.

 

Post-Jordan Era

Since 1999, there's been a slight similarity among teams that won an NBA title—very few of them had high-profile point guards.

Many have been role players—ball-movers and shot-makers, like Derek Fisher and Mario Chalmers. These are the guys teams use to fill in the gaps to support the major building blocks like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki and Dwyane Wade.

Recent history and results have actually indicated that the majority of point guards who've started for NBA champions were either a third scoring option or lower. Teams with point guards ranked top-two on their team in scoring and field goals attempted have made noise in the playoffs, but few have made a permanent mark.

The chart below shows what each championship-winning point guard was ranked in their team's offensive pecking order. If a point guard averaged the most shot attempts per game on his team, he's logically the team's first scoring option. If he averaged the second-most shot attempts per game, he's the second scoring option, and so on.

You'll notice that in 11 of the last 15 years, the NBA champion's starting point guard was a third scoring option or lower. And only once since 1999 has a team won a title with its point guard averaging the most shot attempts per game (Tony Parker, 2007—14.2 shot attempts per game to Tim Duncan's 14.1).

Online Graphing

To no one's surprise, the results were the same for point guards and scoring averages. Not once did a point guard lead his team in scoring and win an NBA title. Only four times did a point guard win a title as the second-leading scorer, and three of those times it was Parker.

Isiah Thomas was the last point guard to win a title and lead his team in scoring, back in 1990. Magic Johnson did it a few years earlier. Other than Tony Parker and Chauncey Billups, there really haven't been any star point guards who've won NBA titles since Thomas and Johnson more than 20 years ago.

Check out how small of a scoring role most of the title-winning point guards have had:

Online Graphing

When Boston won a title in 2008, Rajon Rondo was the team's fourth-leading scorer. Eight other guys averaged more points per game than Jason Kidd did for Dallas in 2011. These were teams with such great balance that each point guard could focus on orchestrating the offense.  

Only Parker and Billups won a title since 1999 and finished the year as high as the team's second-leading scorer. The Spurs and 2004 Detroit Pistons were both stellar defensively, but they found offensive equilibrium within their rotations. The combination allowed them to beat teams with more talent and star power.

 

Team Balance, Offensive Equilibrium 

In 2011, Derrick Rose was the league's MVP for a Bulls team that won 62 games. He was spectacular, evolving into the superstar and icon he's become today.

But Chicago ran into trouble during the playoffs. It found a team who had the time, thanks to a seven-game series, to build a personalized maze that required maximum energy and effort for one man to carve through.

Without better scorers around him, Rose was forced to abandon point-guard duties and morph into a hero. But Rose isn't to blame here—this was just an inherent characteristic of a team whose top offensive player was also in charge of facilitating.

With Rose as the top gun, check out the totals from the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals, when the Miami Heat beat the top-seeded Bulls, 4-1.

2011 Eastern Conference Finals Totals Field Goals MadeField Goals AttemptedField-Goal Attempts/GameField Goals Missed
Derrick Rose421202478
Luol Deng327615.244
Carlos Boozer245911.835
Joakim Noah13438.630
Kyle Korver7224.415

It's going to be tough to maintain offensive balance when the point guard takes 44 more field-goal attempts than anyone else. With Rose jacking up 120 shots in five games, not only can it wear on his body, but it also keeps the next four scoring options from establishing any rhythm.

A point guard obligated to score in volume can jeopardize the flow of the offense, even if he's able to drop over 20 points a game.

The 2004 Pistons won a title with their point guard as a top-two scoring option. But the shot distribution among the team was a lot better balanced.

Take a look at the shot-attempt averages for Detroit's top five scoring options during the 2004 NBA Finals against the Lakers, and compare them to Chicago's from 2011.

2004 NBA FinalsField-Goal Attempts/Game    
Richard Hamilton18.4
Chauncey Billups11.4
Rasheed Wallace10.6
Tayshaun Prince

10.8

Ben Wallace

9.2

Billups put on a clinic of efficiency. He was the Finals MVP and the most effective player on the floor without needing to press. He took just 11.4 shots per game that series. Compare that to Rose, whose talent, competitive drive and lack of supporting offense led to 24 shots and 15.6 missed shots per game.

Given the overwhelming, electric capabilities of new-age point guards like Rose, along with less accomplished point guards like Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry and John Wall, it's the general manager's job to keep them from having to overuse it. 

 

Value of Recent Champion Point Guards 

When general managers are assembling their rosters, they have the important decision of deciding which baskets to put their money in. 

Maybe it's a coincidence or a secret among successful front offices and owners, but take a look at the starting point guards who've won a title in the last 15 years. None of them were long-term investments or pricey, standout acquisitions at the time. 

Recent Champion Starting Point GuardsTeamAcquired ThroughSalary Year of Title
Mario ChalmersHeatDraft, Second Round

2013: $4 million

2012: $4 million

Jason KiddMavericksFree Agent2011: $8.6 million
Derek FisherLakersFree Agent

2010: $5 million

2009: $4.7 million

2002: $3 million

2001: $3.3 million

Rajon RondoCelticsDraft, First Round2008: $1.2 million
Tony ParkerSpursDraft, First Round

2007: $9.4 million

2005: $1.5 million

2003: $800,000

Jason WilliamsHeatFree Agent2006: $7.5 million
Chauncey BillupsPistonsFree Agent2004: $5 million
Ron HarperLakersFree Agent2000: $2 million
Avery JohnsonSpursFree Agent1999: $3 million

Stats and Salaries courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.

Our recent NBA champions haven't won titles by spending big bucks on free-agent point guards. The Spurs drafted Parker in the late first round and developed him. The Celtics did the same with Rondo.

The rest of the teams used fill-ins, mid-level deals and short-term contracts to add mistake-free players at the point-guard position. They chose to instead allocate funds for retaining and/or acquiring dominant big men or versatile wings.

The fact of the matter is that this isn't the golden era of NBA point guards. Though the talent is there, the rings and championship success just haven't seemed to follow the way they followed Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson.

I wouldn't bet on the Bulls winning a title until they upgrade that offense with another scoring weapon. You won't convince me to go with the Clippers, either, because they could use a scorer on the wing capable of generating his own offense. 

The skill level of some of today's top point guards is so high that we tend to miscalculate their value or misinterpret their capabilities. 

Is Brandon Jennings a guy you want to invest in long-term if you don't already have two established scorers on the roster? Was acquiring Jrue Holiday worth giving up two valuable assets in Nerlens Noel and a potential lottery selection?

Depending on who could be available at a later stage, it may be wise to hold off on investing heavily in one of today's hero point guards, unless it's to complete an established puzzle already in place.

With the game in a state of metamorphosis where small forwards are 6'9'' athletic freaks, it will take a really special point guard to win a title as his team's top offensive weapon. 

The point guards of this era are capable of changing the trajectory of a team. But asking them to carry one to a title just isn't a formula for success.