One of the most popular NBA debates that comes up on seemingly every blog, radio show, and national television program is about who the league's best point guard is. Depending on who the debaters, they'll apply such qualifiers as "Well the best scoring point guard is..." or "The best true point guard is...".
This ambivalence thus brings us to the real question we should be addressing - what makes a player a truly great point guard? The answer to this question is much different than it used to be, and in the modern NBA, a player's athletic ability is beginning to make positions obsolete. Where do the Hornets point guards fit into this debate? More after the jump.When one thinks of the top ten point guards in the league, it's not too difficult a list to compile:
Chris Paul (LAC), Deron Williams (BRK), Rajon Rondo (BOS), Steve Nash (LAL), Tony Parker (SAS), Russell Westbrook (OKC), Derrick Rose (CHI), Kyrie Irving (CLE), Ricky Rubio (MIN)
The last two spots are up for debate, but I went with Irving and Rubio because they more closely resemble the "true point guard" umbrella I mentioned before. Even with that said, only Paul, Rondo, Nash and Rubio (4 out of the 10) really resemble the traditional mold of pass-first, shoot second. It's not because their offensive abilities are limited, but because that's what their mental makeup (as distributor/floor general) tells them will get the offense going. Guys likeWilliams, Parker and Westbrook can and have averaged high assist totals, but in general, they look to get to the rim or get their shot firs.
Even if you look at the other above average players at the position (Kyle Lowry (TOR), Stephen Curry (GSW), Ty Lawson (DEN), Brandon Jennings (MIL), Mike Conley (MEM), John Wall (WAS), Jrue Holliday (PHI), Goran Dragic (PHX)) only Conley (probably) falls under the classic point guard mold. What does this mean? It means that the position as we know it has changed, and thus what attributes and abilities we once used to grade them needs to change as well. This is true not only for point guards, but for every other position as well. The quality of athletes in this league (and the skill sets of players, such as stretch big men who can shoot 3-pointers but lack interior post skills) has made conventional positions and the purposes they serve less and less important.
This doesn't mean that having a big man who can convert a hook shot isn't a good thing, or that having a point guard who doesn't average 15+ PPG means you can't be a successful team. It just means that as the game and players evolve, so must your criteria for building a winning team. The bottom line is that if you don't have an elite point guard, regardless of if he's of Westbrook/Rose mold (penetrating, tall, strong, athletic) or Rondo mold (quick, shifty, pass-first), you should find one that best complements the pieces you do have. And that brings us to what the Hornets should do going forward:
No one was a bigger Jarrett Jack fan than I was, and last year Jack backed up my assertion that he would be more than adequate as the team's starting point guard, having a career year by most statistical measures and stepping in to fill the leadership void left by CP3's departure. However, the ideal fit for Jack on an NBA team is that of the Jason Terry/Jannero Pargo (circa 2008 Hornets) mold; the 6th man/bench scoring punch option who still averages close to 30 minutes a night. The Hornets wanted to give more playing time to Greivis Vasquez (and rightfully so, given how his production in extended minutes continued to improve), and after drafting Austin Rivers the writing was on the wall for Jack. As nice as it would have been to keep him around as the 3rd guard (especially since he can play both guard positions), a team with Eric Gordon as its franchise player doesn't have that luxury when they have other holes to fill on the squad.
So why pay Jack (who needs to score to get the rest of his game going) ,whose function on a team with a healthy Gordon (fingers crossed) and Rivers on the roster was an excess of riches so to speak, when you have a younger, cheaper option on your roster in Vasquez who's beginning to show promise in his role as a distributor (7.6 APG per 36 minutes in 2011-12)? The Hornets chose not to (despite the value of Jack's expiring deal) and have chosen the Vasquez plan, be it for the long or short term.
As for the always controversial Austin Rivers, his role as a combo guard and first guard off the bench is one that should ideally fit his skill-set and mentality. Michael McNamara at Hornets24/7 wrote a good piece on what has to go right for the Hornets to make the playoffs this season, and one key factor is Rivers not trying to do too much and settling in as the Pargo of this Hornets team. This doesn't mean that his ceiling won't continue to expand and that he cannot grow into a star one day (how he will fit on the court next to Gordon is a little bit of a trickier predicament), but that we don't need him to step in and be Russell Westbrook on day one.
More importantly for Hornets fans (and all NBA fans for that matter) to realize is that we often have too high expectations for backup point guards in the league. Whether it's been Pargo, Jerryd Bayless, or any of the numerous backups around the league, fans expect them to run the offense like John Stockton and not look for their shot when they get it. The problem is that these guys get 15 or fewer minutes a game and look at scoring as the main way to make their mark. If they were expert floor-generals who managed the offense to our standards, they'd probably be starting. This is why playing Rivers at the point for 15 minutes or so a game isn't the worst thing in the world, despite the reports of his ineptitude at running the offense. The kid is only 19 (plus he's a great character guy, if you put stock in that kind of thing)
And so I'd rather we play Rivers at the point for limited minutes and let him take his lumps rather than give that time to Brian Roberts, who does deserve kudos for his summer league play. While it's always nice to have depth in case of injury, Roberts shouldn't be more than a 13th-15th man who only sees the court if something happens to upset the depth chart. It doesn't benefit the Hornets going forward to play him while trying to grow their young core.
This year is only the first in the Hornets' rebuilding plan, and chances are good that if New Orleans is a lottery team in 2012-13, they will look at drafting a more "prototypical" point guard in the draft to complement other players on the roster. Notionally ambiguous players like Austin Rivers are the future of the position in the NBA. For Rivers, the scoring ability is there, but the other nuances of the position need to grow and mature. As long as we recognize this and avoiding judging Rivers for what he can't do too harshly, we won't be as disappointed with the end result.
I'm not saying that Rivers will be the franchise point guard (if he's not a good fit there, the team may have to choose between him and Gordon), but if he is thrust into that role it will be because of his success there and not because of pressure to make things work. If a Vasquez-Gordon backcourt is the most successful going forward, then that's what the franchise should choose. Ultimately, there's more than one way to play point guard in today's NBA.