All positions are not created equal. This is most apparent in football with the obvious influence of the quarterback on a team’s success, but there is a hierarchy of positions in every sport. Sometimes it isn’t as obvious as a quarterback, and the most important position can be a fluid idea. When one position has the most talent throughout the league, it may be a good idea to try to find the limited talent at weaker positions.
This got me thinking, do teams in basketball with a point guard as their best player sit at a disadvantage? We’ve all heard the adage, “it’s a point guard driven league.” The upsurge in repeated pick-and-roll-based offenses has put a higher scoring burden on point guards than ever before; or so anecdotal evidence would have us think. But is there a real effect similar to this? If so, does that affect the way teams should build their roster?
True to scientific method form – my science teacher would be so proud – we should look at the evidence first. I’ve compiled every player’s stats by position, totaled, averaged, summed, divided and formatted for your viewing pleasure here.1
At first, there doesn’t look to be much difference between positions, and that may hold true overall, but there is a lot of data and a lot of shots, so small percentage differences and per game differences can signal a much larger trend. Before you ask, yes I looked at the data after accounting for eliminating players below a certain threshold of attempts, minutes, games, etc. The changes were negligible and, in truth, I’m trying to get at what the layout of the entire positional landscape is in the NBA.
As expected, the point guards led all other positions in assists, steals, free throw percentage and field goal attempts. Somewhat surprising to some may be that point guards also led the league in points and plus/minus. The evidence here suggests that there may be something to the NBA being a point guard driven league. These high averages also imply that the point guard position has a higher floor than other positions; less need for elite replacement.
Free throw attempts, driving to the basket and three point attempts are the most en vogue way of scoring, for logical reasons. Point guards are near the top of the league in free throw attempts and tops in free throw percentage. They also average the most three point attempts of all five positions and are essentially tied with small forwards for three point shooting percentage. It would appear that it’s true that offenses are running through the point guard and those players are taking advantage of it.
If point guards aren’t as important to have an elite level one, wouldn’t they have less of an effect on a league without injuries? A league without injuries is precisely what this article by FiveThirtyEight’s Jeff Stotts2 is about.3 In this situation, the Bulls, a team that lost their best player in Derrick Rose — a point guard of course — for the season, got worse when every team’s injuries were eliminated.
I talked to Stotts and discussed his findings with him. It isn’t so much that Rose doesn’t have a large effect on the outcome of the Bulls, it’s that when taken into the large context of the entire league getting all of its injured talent back, it doesn’t move the needle as much as others. Likely notables that contribute to a bigger jump include; Brook Lopez (and their glut of other aging veterans), Al Horford and some returned games for Anthony Davis.
The Spurs and Heat are somewhat outliers in this article because their bonuses come from the fact that they won’t be resting their stars by choice since there’s no benefit of taking nights off.
This, specifically the information on the Bulls, is indirect evidence of the lack of need for high-level point guards. Chicago has skated by the last two years of Rose’s injury-riddled career with guys like C.J. Watson, Nate Robinson, John Lucas III, Kirk Hinrich and D.J. Augustin. None of those players is a direct replacement for Rose and yet, the Bull stills finish with one of the better records in the Eastern Conference every year.4
What does it all mean? Well, it would appear that teams with a point guard are at a fiscal disadvantage. The max contract goes to the best players, regardless of position, and for good reason. But, what happens when you have $20ish million tied to a position that you haven’t needed for the last two years to be a successful team? Any franchise will take a star player at any position. Stars are what win in the NBA. That doesn’t mean there is no difference between an MVP point guard or an MVP center. It’s worth looking at the implications of which positions provide more bang for your capped buck.
What will the Wizards, Cavaliers and Warriors do when their budding young stars reach their max contract years? The Thunder and Trail Blazers are in better position, despite employing two of the best point guards, because one has the second best player in the NBA5 and the other has an established power forward that is nearly impossible to guard.
An MVP is an MVP. A star is a star. Wins are wins, no matter how you get them. But when you have a salary cap structure so fraught with purposeful loopholes that it creates a game in and of itself, the amount of return on each investment matters greatly.
Chicago has a fairly limiting salary cap situation for the coming years, one big reason is the almost $20 million charge that is Derrick Rose. It isn’t just because he isn’t playing, it is because he is playing a position that Tom Thibodeau has frankensteined to such astounding success in his absence.
What would Chicago be without Rose? Put any upcoming max free agent you want on the Bulls6 and replace Rose with D.J. Augustin and Kirk “Healthy-for-now” Hinrich. Do they look better? Some ways more than others. Can it be helped at this point? Not without alienating their entire fan base.
Here is a list of point guards making less than $7 million this season and averaging good numbers. Some of the following are players on their rookie scale contract, showing the ability to acquire point guards through the draft; others are coming back from injury or were simply signed to smaller deals and are producing at levels much higher than their deal would suggest. These players are examples that it is possible to find point guards capable of contributing on the “scrap heap” or at the mid-level exception salary.
- Kyle Lowry – $6.2 million – 17.9 pts/7.4 ast
- Damian Lillard – $3.2 million – 20.7 pts/5.6 ast
- Isaiah Thomas – $884,000 – 20.3 pts/6.3 ast
- Michael Carter-Williams – $2.2 million – 16.7 pts/6.2 ast
- Shaun Livingston – $1.2 million – 10.3 pts/3.5 ast (last 2 months)
- Darren Collinson – $1.9 million – 11.4 pts/3.7 ast
- Randy Foye – $3 million – 13.2 pts/3.5 ast
- D.J. Augustin – $755,000- 13.4 pts/4.4 ast
Chicago is in a unique situation because of Rose’s early career MVP then subsequent injuries, but Washington, Cleveland and Golden State should be preparing their caps now for what could be hard to deal with limitations. If your $20 million/year man is a point guard, you better hope you have the pieces to supplement him, because you’re not getting the bang for your buck that a team with a more difficult to fill position is getting from their star power forward.
In case you’re curious, it has all base stats/percentages and plus/minus rating. Not perfect stats I realize, but honestly…after putting all of those stats in, I didn’t feel like doing all the leg work again for advanced stats. Here is the link again. ↩
Stotts can also be found at @RotorwireATC on Twitter and is an anlayst for Rotowire and DallasBasketball.com ↩
this year being somewhat of an exception, Luol Deng was dumped for salary reasons after all ↩
a small forward/small ball power forward ↩
Don’t misconstrue this as saying they CAN lure any free agent they want, this is just a thought exercise. ↩