The Fundamentals: Appreciating Tony Parker, the Spurs’ true catalyst
By Rob Mahoney
The career and exploits of Tony Parker are bound by two somewhat circular qualities:
1) Parker’s stardom is muted by playing for the Spurs, a team with more in the way of accomplishment than public appeal.
2) It’s unlikely that Parker would be the player he is today if not for Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan and the San Antonio organization, which is arguably the finest-run franchise in professional sports.
Try as he might, Parker can’t extricate himself from this Catch-22. His perpetual dark-horse status isn’t just an unfortunate side effect of playing for the often-discounted Spurs (the season’s quietest winners of 10 consecutive games), but a central component of his NBA character.
He fits the mold of the underappreciated star so well because he was cast in it from the start. Parker carved out a career by playing in Duncan’s shadow, and it’s because of that shield (from defensive attention and public scrutiny, among other things) that he was allowed to develop at his own pace. It takes a special mix to refine a perennial All-Star from the 28th pick in the draft, and yet Parker and Popovich — by exhibiting a patience unfound in today’s NBA — made the process look so easy.
The payoff for that process has been years in the making, with Parker transitioning from a complementary role as a Duncan sidekick to a more crucial position as the true caretaker of the offense. Yet even that evolution hasn’t made Parker a superstar. It’s all too fitting that just as Parker assumed a more prominent role with the Spurs and moved to the brink of a newfound relevance, it was Duncan who unintentionally undercut him from the public attention he’s long deserved. All parties involved are better off with a renewed Duncan, but the aging big man’s individual renaissance this season has again reverted Parker to second billing. Duncan is the X-factor that makes these Spurs a more balanced and viable team than they were a season ago, but underneath it all Parker is the unthanked constant. It’s by his steady hand that Popovich’s reimagined offense functions, and we’d be remiss to overlook yet another brilliant campaign from a player so skilled and so curious. Parker is the reason the Spurs work, and his play deserves consideration on its own terms.
One needs no more proof of Parker’s power than the fact that everyone on the court knows where he wants to go with the ball and yet no stopper or defensive scheme can consistently keep him from getting there. That’s quite a feat for a 30-year-old guard who is no longer the fastest guy on the court on many nights. He may have once relied on burst speed to get all the way to the rim, but these days Parker generates his offensive advantages based on a quick first step and the power of hesitation. Few defenders can keep pace with his start-and-stop ignition, and that unpredictable timing makes even the most familiar opponents vulnerable to his fakes and feints.
Parker really shines once he breaks down the initial defense. There is no skill more important for today’s ball handlers than the ability to manipulate the back line, and Parker has proved to be one of the best in the game in toying with the expectations of shot blockers. The stutter-stepping is one thing, but Parker is truly empowered by the threat of his floater. After Parker beats a defender on the perimeter, opposing big men have little choice but to step up immediately and aggressively to close off any opening for his teardrop runner. But in doing so, they’ve willingly surrendered yet another advantage. Parker is neither big enough nor strong enough to contend physically with opposing bigs, but he’s fantastic at keeping them on his hip and extending laterally to create angles around the basket. The underlying concept is essentially identical to the mechanism behind good post play; by keeping his body in between the defender and the shot attempt, a shooter denies contesting angles, draws fouls more consistently and makes the release less predictable.
And while opponents are occupied in their attempts to peg Parker’s timing and mitigate his threat to score, the corners are often left exposed. Popovich’s offenses have banked on that vulnerability for years, and even opponents who are aware of that pass-out avenue often fall victim to the lure of Parker’s drives. He’s too good at the rim to leave to a single defender, and thus defenders are forced to fight against their every instinct to over-help and surrender an open three-pointer in the process. It doesn’t help matters that Parker’s familiarity with the system makes him one of the most potent assist-men on corner threes in the league, and he has great discretion with corner feeds he’s willing to make.
Parker’s game juxtaposes that kind of safe decision making with a flirtation with irresponsible play. His passes and handle are generally quite controlled, but Parker’s trips into the lane typically involve holding out until the last possible moment before executing a shot or pass, as to absorb the most defensive attention or generate a particularly unexpected opportunity. He also may be the best in the NBA in playing possum. It’s not uncommon to see Parker circle out of a pick-and-roll or a drive with his back toward the basket and his defender — a decision that is in part a guise to protect the ball. Some defenders play this for the ploy that it is, but others enthusiastically take Parker’s bait by lunging at his dribble on one side or the other, allowing Parker to counter-spin easily and create a wide-open driving lane. That’s not the kind of move that any coach would ever teach a player, but it is epitomical of the kinds of gambits prevalent in Parker’s game. He may be the league’s safest risky point guard — a byproduct of merging a savoir-faire style with plenty of experience.
As much as Duncan’s re-emergence has helped the Spurs this season, it’s that wild streak — compounded by the flair of Manu Ginobili — that gives San Antonio’s offense its life. Parker isn’t just a driving point guard finding his teammates; he’s a creative threat from every point within the three-point arc. A single screen opens up Parker for a mid-range jumper, which he makes at a 48.3 percent clip. An attack of the dribble earns a look from the high paint, a shot that Parker converts 46.4 percent of the time. Any slighter opening gets Parker all the way to the basket, where he finishes 64.8 percent of his attempts when excluding his incredible foul-drawing potential. He gets where he needs to go and converts shots at uncommon rates — so much so that only a handful of guards in NBA history have scored so frequently while posting such a ridiculous field-goal percentage (53.4). Parker doesn’t take shots he can’t make, largely because he plays for the right kinds of shots and understands the value that can come from dragging out a possession.
And so he waits — for a quick pick-and-roll to reset at the top of the floor, for a fast break to bleed into a secondary opportunity and for a drive to the rim to create looks for open shooters. Parker’s judgment wasn’t always so sound, but his years under Popovich have taught him the value of a shot or pass not attempted. Such a sophisticated command of the offense may seem out of character for a guard once defined by his breakneck speed, but this is simply the kind of player that Parker has become.
Perhaps it’s for that reason that even the heights of Parker’s career are somewhat silent — there’s just nothing all that sexy about outstanding shot selection or sterling offensive control. Parker can score, dish and run an elite offensive team. But his game is so smooth that it’s almost forgettable, no matter the fact that his unique discretion provides the catalyst for a fantastic career and a clear-cut contender.
• Because I pointed out Amar’e Stoudemire’s horrendous rebounding numbers in this space a few weeks back, it’s only right that I also laud him when things go well. Stoudemire has turned into an incredibly efficient scorer for a Knicks team that needed a little boost, and according to NBA.com, he’s responsible for 30.2 percent of New York’s points whenever he’s on the floor. That’s one of the highest such marks in the NBA, putting Stoudemire above Parker, Russell Westbrook and Dwyane Wade in terms of scoring load.
• NBA analysts and writers have gradually distanced themselves from assist-to-turnover ratio, a simple comparison stat that doesn’t tell us as much about a player’s performance as initially thought. There are simply far better measures of playmaking efficiency available these days, but in case you’re still among the AST/TO holdouts, I’d encourage you to take note of the fact that Steve Novak (4.60) is leading the league in that stat.
NOTES FROM AROUND THE ASSOCIATION
1. Get well soon, MKG
One of the unfortunate things about having 10 big, strong athletes launching themselves through tight quarters around a basketball court is what happens when two of those players collide. That collision manifested itself in terrifying fashion over the weekend, as Charlotte’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist caught a knee to the back of the head from teammate Jeff Taylor. The clip is one of the more harrowing things you’re likely to see on a court, largely because of how routine the play is. We see similar sequences — with trailing players leaping to contest a shot on a fast break — happen all the time, and it’s a miracle that more players don’t wind up suffering so hard a hit.
2. Keith Smart keeps us — and Marcus Thornton — guessing
Thornton returned to the Kings’ lineup almost a month ago after sitting with a minor ankle injury, and he doesn’t seem to be hampered by the ailment. But Thornton — a valuable member of Sacramento’s current core — logged just eight minutes in the Kings’ latest loss and has regularly registered 10-minute nights during his latest active stretch. I have absolutely no way of coming to terms with this fact, save that Smart — who is playing John Salmons, Francisco Garcia and James Johnson at Thornton’s expense — is out of his mind. Thornton may not be the most versatile player, but he’s a potent scorer who can boost the Kings’ prospects if given the chance. He doesn’t need to be gifted 30 minutes a night to make an impact, but limiting him to 10 minutes is pretty outrageous when considering the weakness of Sacramento’s perimeter rotation.
3. Jeff Green off the bounce
With Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger out for the remainder of the season, the Celtics may wind up funneling a good chunk of their possessions through Green — a forward who can share the floor with Paul Pierce in select situations and do a little bit of damage off the dribble. Green may not be as effective with the ball as his point forward reputation would suggest, but he’s been able to attack the basket pretty consistently all season despite his nonthreatening shooting potential.
That said, nothing all that good can come from Green’s having the ball too often; he’s not a very comfortable passer once he puts the ball on the floor, and he often opts for out-of-control attempts and leaners when the defense stays with his attempt. He’s not the answer, but a small Celtics lineup with Green at least gives the Rondo-less offense another slightly dynamic option. Good on Boston for making it work so far, but it’s hard to be bullish on a team so strapped for scoring.
4. Andre Drummond
In last week’s Fundamentals, I mentioned Drummond’s interesting ability to pick off passes on the perimeter. Matt Moore of CBSSports.com’s Eye on Basketball chips in with a visual aid:
5. Alan Anderson, weirdo among role players
Low-cost role players typically fit the mold of certain archetypes (spot-up shooter, helpful rebounder, reserve ball-handler, etc), but Toronto’s Anderson stands apart as a fairly high-usage offensive player. There’s a reason why the highest scorers in the D-League and the most shot-happy free agents available don’t typically get called up to fill final roster spots; while most teams are in need of some particular skill or added depth, scoring and shot-takers are largely deemed to be accounted for. Even if a frequent shot-taker is signed to fill a smaller offensive role, such moves are typically made with the intent to refashion a volume scorer into a more limited, defined resource.
That effort hasn’t really been made at all with Anderson, a wing playing on the veteran’s minimum hoisting an impressive 10.8 field-goal attempts in just 25.8 minutes per game. Anderson’s minutes are likely to drop now that the Raptors have acquired Rudy Gay (who fills the same functions and the same minutes), but let’s take just a moment to appreciate how strange it is for a player of Anderson’s stature to immediately assume such a prominent offensive role. Raptors coach Dwane Casey is nothing if not open-minded.
6. What’s Andrew Bogut’s secret?
It generally takes time for players returning from significant injuries to find their timing, but Golden State’s Bogut — who missed nearly three months — appears to be an anomaly. Conditioning is still very clearly an issue, and the Warriors are wise to sit Bogut on the second night of back-to-back situations in order to alleviate some of the schedule-related stress on his ankle. But Bogut has jumped right into the thick of the action on both ends of the court (he has showed off a lefty hook and blocked 10 shots in three games) without hesitation since his return last week, and his game appears to be completely in rhythm even if he’s a bit out of breath.
7. A modest proposal
On a related note: Derrick Rose is inching closer and closer to his own return, and NBA.com’s Steve Aschburner floated the idea that Rose could be the first star of note to take significant advantage of the D-League’s revamped rehabilitation assignment rules. With the Bulls playing for seeding in the East and Rose’s return sure to be a bit more gradual than Bogut’s, how is this not the preferred course of action for Chicago and for any team with an injured star under similar circumstances?
8. Poor Greg Monroe
My commiseration may derive from the fact that I’m a big man by pickup basketball standards, but there are few play outcomes that are more of a buzzkill than the sequence that unfolded at the 2:45 mark in the second quarter of the Pistons’ game against the Lakers. As Monroe slowly began sizing up Pau Gasol on the left block, Detroit’s Kyle Singler curled around the arc toward the ball. Monroe quickly gave up the ball to the cutting Singler, who executed the foundation of a give-and-go sequence by bouncing the ball right back in to Monroe as he continued his cut toward the baseline. Monroe paused briefly, causing Kobe Bryant to hesitate in his trailing of Singler, and opened up his teammate for a wide-open dunk attempt that … died on the rim. Woe be the passing big men, who even on their best feeds can’t manage to draw an assist.