Last week, Baron Davis threw the Golden State Warriors for a big time loop. Despite being owed over seventeen million dollars for the final year of his contract by the Bay, he decided to opt out in favor of a new, long term contract from the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers, despite the fact that it now seems they may lose Elton Brand to either the Philadelphia 76ers or those same scorned Warriors, likely would have been interested in Davis regardless; he’s a local legend, raised in South Central Los Angeles, and combines the sort of skill, exuberance, and flash that typically enthralls an LA crowd. It seems symptomatic of America’s two coastal capitals, LA and New York City, that a player will invariably be remembered for how they perform in the clutch, and that performance will be weighted more heavily against their complete body of work. In that regard, Davis will no doubt leave a positive footprint on the Clipper franchise.
I had the good fortune to see Davis play in person over a dozen times last year, as well as watching nearly every other game he played in years past for my beloved Warriors on TV, and I will say at the outset that he is fantastically thrilling. Knowing before a game that Davis would be playing point for Golden State became, for me, a source of hope. Not the general, reluctant, “aw shucks, maybe we can hang with these boys” sort of hope, but rather, the kind that heartens in a way that doesn’t need to be spoken. As an avatar for gutsy underdogs, you’ll find no better than Lord Baron.
The grab by the Clippers, though, seems uncharacteristic; Donald Sterling is known as an incompetent owner primarily due to his tight purse-strings, and at sixty-five million over five years, Davis is going to be making big money well into his mid thirties, and he has a troubling history of lower body injuries. Even last year, when he was lauded for playing a full, eighty-two game season, any Warriors fan can tell you that he was not fully healthy for some of that time. He played through aches and pains, which is admirable, but by year’s end his motor was clearly low on oil. His body is a world-class anomaly, a quick and fast guard bolstered by bursting muscle. But that very strength may be his undoing; even when in perfect physical shape, his bulky frame at times seems to be too tightly wound and heavy for his legs and his stamina to compensate. In any event, the inherent risk of this signing, especially given the torturous grind that is the Western Conference, suggests that Davis may have inspired some hope in Clippers management as well. This is the sort of signing a team makes when it starts thinking about championships.
During the NBA Finals, back when my Baron Davis “the city” throwback jersey was still temporally accurate (though anachronistic), I started pondering something as I watched Rajon Rondo and Derek Fisher square off. Neither of the two are what you would consider great point guards. Rondo is certainly more athletic, and can play exceptional defense, but his jump shot was so unsteady that the Lakers opted not to bother playing perimeter defense on him. Fisher, despite his reputation as a rugged, clutch veteran, is also a far substandard point guard by nearly any statistical measure, his biggest skill being shooting from deep, and his biggest weakness being most anything else sans flopping.
It fascinated me that during what seemed to be a year of unprecedented guard strength, the two teams that would be standing at year’s end would be two with such flawed players running the show. In both cases, the reason this was possible seemed clear; neither Fisher nor Rondo were truly running their team’s offenses. The Celtics’ triumvirate set the tone in the half-court offense, and Kobe Bryant certainly enjoys having the ball in his hand. It got me thinking, though- how many point guards have won championships while being the best players on their team?
If the Clippers manage to keep Brand, you could still make the case that Davis is the more important player; it is at the very least an argument to be had. If Brand leaves, Davis is the unquestioned star of the bizarro, Clipper Staples Center. But can a team win a title with a jack-of-all-trades, ball dominating point guard? A saunter through the history books doesn’t look promising.
Champion Starting Point Guards Since 1990:
‘08 - Rajon Rondo
‘07 - Tony Parker
‘06 - Jason Williams
‘05 - Tony Parker
‘04 - Chauncey Billups
‘03 - Tony Parker
‘02 - Derek Fisher
‘01 - Derek Fisher
‘00 - Derek Fisher
‘99 - Avery Johnson
‘98 - Ron Harper
‘97 - Ron Harper
‘96 - Ron Harper
‘95 - Kenny Smith
‘94 - Kenny Smith
‘93 - BJ Armstrong
‘92 - John Paxson
‘91 - John Paxson
‘90 - Isiah Thomas
This is a very interesting list for a few reasons. The first is that only two of these men could reasonably be argued to be the best player on their team, Billups and Thomas. Tony Parker did win the Finals MVP in ‘07, but you’d be hard pressed to find many people who would argue then, or now, that Parker is better than Tim Duncan, who is still putting up hall of fame worthy seasons. Jason Williams would be hard pressed to find a single NBA team he could start for today. Derek Fisher is more of an undersized shooting guard than a true point, and shoots a mediocre percentage at that. The only guy on that list who had what you’d consider a prolific assist average was Isiah, who averaged 9.3 per game for his career. If you calculate the career assist average for this entire list, it comes out to a paltry 5.9 assists per game, not laughably bad, but not what you’d expect from a great (or “elite”) point.
Now certainly, maybe you’re wondering where Scottie Pippen is on this list, since he was more “point” than Ron Harper. And that’s quite true. However, it speaks to my overall conclusion, that teams which place the heaviest responsibilities for production on a conventional point guard seem doomed to fail. Pippen, whether you consider him a guard or a forward, is certainly a peculiarity for that position. Similarly, Magic Johnson like Pippen was a physical force uncommon for his skill set. In a nutshell, the conventional wisdom regarding great point guard play (“the prototype,” a guard between six-one and six-three who can drive, pass, and shoot from range) seems to be a false idol in recent years. While John Stockton, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Baron Davis, Chris Paul and Deron Williams’ ultimate achievements to this point amount to little more than epic failure, Derek Fisher is sitting at home polishing his rings.
So I urge a bit of caution to Clippers fans who are conjuring up visions of a Baron-Brand championship collaboration. In fact, I urge caution to Clippers fans who even think those two will guarantee a playoff spot. As I learned last year, Baron Davis can be thrilling, dominating, clutch and cool as a cucumber. Unfortunately, he can be all those things and leave you sitting in the ninth seed. He can save your soul and break your heart. But then again, so can many “dominant” point guards.