The Lakers’ point guard woes are not a secret. In his player profiles John Hollinger questioned if the Lakers point guards were the worst position in the entire NBA, and he’s not alone in that thinking. When I was asked what the Lakers biggest need for next season was, I answered improved point guard production. This isn’t rocket science; the Lakers PG’s played poorly last season and getting an impact player at that position is a necessity.
Or, is it?
To be honest, I’m not so sure.
Hear me out.
Roster construction is a complicated thing. Every general manager is tasked with the same goal: build the most formidable team possible in the hopes of winning the championship. Last year, Dallas was successful in this pursuit and Miami was closer than many people want to acknowledge (it’s much more fun to call LeBron a choker, right?).
In the two previous seasons, it was the Lakers that won the championship and before them, in order, it was the Celtics, Spurs, Heat, Spurs, Pistons, Spurs again, Lakers, Bulls, Rockets, and the Bulls again (this takes us all the way back to 1991). Basically, that’s the last 20 years of NBA champions in a tidy paragraph.
Now, how many of those teams had impact point guards? In 2008, Rajon Rondo was not part of Boston’s “big three” but was vital to their run. In three of their championship years Tony Parker played a pivotal role, earning the Final’s MVP trophy once. Chauncey Billups also claimed the Final’s MVP trophy, earning the nickname “Mr. Big Shot” in the Pistons’ 2004 run. And…that’s it.
That’s the list of impact PG’s on championship teams in the last 20 years.
This isn’t to say PG’s haven’t been important. Derek Fisher’s leadership and clutch shot making ability has aided multiple Laker runs to the ring. The same can be said of John Paxon and Steve Kerr for both sets of Bulls runs. An aged Gary Payton provided veteran moxie and hit some key shots for Miami in 2006 and Jason Kidd’s fantastic floor generalship and ability to guard bigger players were major factors in Dallas’ run.
All that said, it’s one thing to be a key contributor and another to be the reason a team won the championship. And recent history tells us that point guards have been valuable pieces but not the driving force behind most teams’ championships.
Instead, nearly every championship team of the past 20 years has been built on two principles: elite post play on both ends of the floor and dynamic wing players on offense.
There are the obvious and traditional examples of Kobe/Gasol, Kobe/Shaq, Duncan/Ginobili where the offensive and defensive paint were controlled by one (or more) great players and the offensive wing was controlled by the other. Then there’s the not so traditional of Jordan/Pippen/Rodman, Hakeem/Maxwell/Cassell/Ellie where one of the post or the wing was held down by one (or more) dominant players with a contingent of excellent role players (or in the case of Rodman, a HOF level one) did the dirty work elsewhere.
(As an aside, that was rather simplistic and not a very nuanced take on some of the best players of any era. Jordan, besides being amazing on the wing, was one of the best post up guards ever and commanded many a double team working from the low block as if he were a dominant big man. Pippen’s versatility meant he was highly effective in the post and on the wing, often taking advantage of mismatches by going inside against smaller players. As for Houston, Hakeem put together some of the most amazing playoff runs anyone will ever have. He demolished his foes with a combination of inside/outside work that few Centers in the history of the game could duplicate. But I digress.)
The main takeaway here is that building a championship roster isn’t as much about finding players at certain positions, but finding the best players that fall into rather large templates and unleashing them on the rest of the league. It’s not about having the best point guard, but having a play maker on the wing that can control the game from the perimeter and create shots for others off the dribble. It’s not about having the best big man (though that helps), but rather about being able to protect the basket area on defense and score in the paint while drawing double teams on offense.
Dallas was able to do this via Dirk’s mid range post ups, Terry’s shooting, and Barrea’s ability to get into the paint on the P&R. The Lakers did this in a more traditional way with Gasol and Bynum (and Kobe) post ups with Kobe working the shallow and extended wing in isolation as well as in weak side actions out of the triangle. Both styles got their teams the Larry O’Brien trophy and neither had an elite player at point guard as the catalyst to their success.
So, if you’re asking me if I think the Lakers need an impact player at point guard, I’m going to say ‘no’. Improved play at the position would certainly help, though that’s not what will be the difference between whether the Lakers win or not. Instead, you can look to how well Kobe works on the wings and whether or not Gasol, Bynum, and Odom can control the paint the way they did in 2009 and 2010.