Where Does Tony Parker Rightfully Rank Among NBA Point Guards?Tony Parker's 55 points and 10 assists in a 129-125 double overtime San Antonio victory over Minnesota are significant for reasons beyond the fact that Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson are the only other players in NBA history to reach those point and assist totals in the same game.
There are three ways to look at what Parker did:
1) This is a fluke performance.
2) Parker's skill set remains the same but the situation necessitated that he assume a bigger offensive role on the team.
3) This is a breakout game signifying a quantum leap in the quality of his skill set.
These three statements are not entirely mutually exclusive. Clearly, considering the historical context that only two players--two all-time greats--have ever matched these numbers, it is highly likely that Parker will never have another game quite like this. In that sense, the numbers are fluky (that is not at all the same thing as saying that Parker merely got "lucky" to play so well). It is obvious that with Manu Ginobili out of the lineup both Parker and Tim Duncan are shooting the ball much more frequently than usual. That said, perhaps the coming weeks and months will confirm that Parker has taken his game to another level; he does not have to put up 55-10 every night to prove that but if he suddenly becomes a 25-8 player for an extended period then that would be a big improvement over his career averages of 16.1-5.5 and his single season bests of 18.9 ppg (2006) and 6.1 apg (2005).
While no one could have predicted that Parker would have this kind of single game output, considering his skill set--blazing speed, excellent ball handling abilities, good finisher in the paint, erratic but sometimes deadly jump shot--it makes sense that he can score 50-plus points when everything comes together: high number of field goal attempts (36, five more than his previous career-high), excellent field goal percentage (.611, significantly better than his already good career norm of .488), better free throw percentage than usual (9-10) and a couple three pointers thrown in for good measure (Parker only made 17 three pointers in the entire 2008 season).
When teams were lining up this summer to offer big money deals to Gilbert Arenas and Baron Davis, I did a post that ranked the top point guards in the NBA based on their skill sets: Chris Paul finished first, followed by Steve Nash, Deron Williams and Tony Parker. In other words, long before Parker made the highlight shows on Wednesday night, I considered him to be an elite point guard, a better player than the more heralded Arenas and Davis.
All things considered, Parker's outstanding performance does not really alter my opinion of his game--at least not yet. The reason that I don't have to alter my opinion is that my opinion was based on a skill set evaluation of his game, as opposed to blindly looking at numbers or being mesmerized by a player's "swag" and other irrelevant considerations. San Antonio's system normally has a suppressing effect on individual player numbers because Gregg Popovich's limits the minutes of his star players and those three stars split up the offensive duties pretty evenly. Based purely on their skill sets, each of those players could put up bigger numbers, so it is not correct to evaluate them solely on their statistics.
Parker is a top notch point guard who had a great performance; the absence of Ginobili and the fact that the game went to double overtime further contributed to the numbers that Parker put up.
It is interesting to look at one "stats guru's" take on all of this. According to John Hollinger's "adjusted game score" calculations, Parker's performance is the 43rd best single game performance in the NBA since the 2001-02 season. Amare Stoudemire's 49 point, 11 rebound, six assist game versus Indiana last night ranks 15th on Hollinger's list, largely because Stoudemire shot a much better percentage than Parker and Stoudemire did all of his work in regulation, though Parker actually only played seven more minutes than Stoudemire did. By the way, Hollinger asserts that Kobe Bryant's 81 point game in 2006 is easily the best single-game performance of the past seven years; Bryant has three of the top four games and five of the top 14.
Hollinger ranked Parker as the top player in the NBA so far this season even before this game; now he credits Parker with a stratospheric 39.41 Player Efficiency Rating (PER). To put that in perspective, according to BasketballReference.com, Michael Jordan is the career PER leader with 27.91, while the best single season PER ever is Wilt Chamberlain's 31.84 in 1962-63. Granted, Parker's rating is only based on four games--and he played at a historically great level in one of them--so this is a bit like a baseball player who hits .400 in the first month of the season before settling back to his regular level but I still think that this is a good example of how numbers crunchers often miss the big picture: in 2007-08, Parker did not even make the top 20 in Hollinger's PER rankings but now we are supposed to believe that he is playing at a higher level than Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain did? Parker's raw box score numbers--the figures that "stat gurus" deride as meaningless--are 33.3 ppg, 7.3 apg and .564 field goal shooting through the first four games. Yes, I realize that once there is a larger sample size for Parker's games his PER number will regress to a more sensible level but my point is that this example gives a vivid demonstration of how PER does not accurately and meaningfully quantify a player's abilities, either over a four game stretch or a season--unless you think that Parker is playing significantly better than Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain did when they were at their best.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:33 PM