Monday, April 28, 2008

Great Point Guard Feats

The annihilation of Jason Kidd by Chris Paul is painful to watch, slightly damaging to the legacy of a probable hall-of-fame point guard, and one of the more sudden and severe changing-of-the-guards in basketball's history. Ali-Holmes might be an appropriate analogue.

The great matchup got me thinking about Jason Kidd's legacy, which in turn got me thinking about point guards, so I figured why not do a piece on some interesting tidbits in the history of the position - Great Point Guard Feats. So that's what I did, and I'll get to it after some thoughts on the playoffs.

Playoff Thoughts (in brief)
-I was startled at Atlanta's performance in Game 3. They were ferocious, scrappy, (insert over-used synonym for "hustled"), and had a great home crowd (surprising for one of the least loyal fan bases in sports). They were also lucky, and the beneficiaries of the truly deplorable Violet Palmer. I don't think there's any way they will equal a great Game 3 performance until next year. It was fun to watch, though.
-I'm enjoying the Cavs-Wizards kind of reminds me of a modern Jordan vs. The Knicks drama. LeBron plays Jordan and the Wizards, built by mid-90's Knicks GM Ernie Grunfeld, are kinda-sorta appropriate to play the old Knicks. They are certainly not afraid to play rough out there.
-I'm still holding out hope for the Raptors, though Chris Bosh's 39 point game should have been the opportunity for them to tie the series, and they didn't even come close. Not a good sign.
-I can't believe Philly won another game. I still don't think they'll win the series.
-The Nuggets are the worst defensive team in the league.
-Jerry Sloan is the best coach in the league.

Alright, on to the point guards. Here are some (three) great point guard feats.

1. The 1,000 assist season and the single-game record. There are two players other than John Stockton who have doled out 1,000 assists in a year (he did it seven times, including five 1,100 assist seasons out of the six in NBA history).

The first is Isiah Thomas, who managed 1,123 in his career 1984-85 season and never again got more than 914. I'm sure you might have guessed Zeke was one of the players - many argue he's the greatest "pure" point guard in NBA history. (I do not subscribe to this argument - I would go 1. Magic 2. Stockton 3. Thomas, but that's just me.)

The second you may not have guessed. It's not Magic, it's not Tiny, it's not Pearl, it's not Cousy, it's not even a former NBA all-star. Kevin (not Terry!) Porter had an outstanding year in 1978 for the Pistons in which he averaged 15.4 ppg and 13.4 apg - a total of 1,099 assists. Porter was 28 and the very next year would be relegated to the bench of the Washington Bullets. Two years after that, he would be out of the league.

Kevin Porter was one of the greatest passers in the NBA's history and he is largely forgotten today. Frankly, he wasn't an object of great affection in his own time and was largely thought to be an enemy of coaches. Porter also held the single game record of 29 assists before Scott Skiles broke it in 1990. His record is of note because unlike Skiles's it was legitimate. And as we're talking about Great Point Guard Feats, I'd like to discuss that for just a second.

Skiles broke Porter's record in a 155-116 blowout over the Denver Nuggets, a game in which it was announced on the PA system that Skiles had a chance to break the record and in which he intentionally racked up assists despite being up by 40. Skiles had 13 points and 6 assists in the fourth quarter when future hall of fame coach Matt Guokas left him in and told him to go for the record. The game was the most lopsided victory in the history of the Magic (also the highest-scoring first half). At the time of the game, the Magic were 6-23 and the Nuggets were 6-22. They were the two worst teams in the league. Furthermore, the Nuggets were known as the worst defensive team in the league, and they relied primarily on a run-n-gun offense predicated on Chris Jackson's (Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf's) ability to score.

Porter's game was not auspicious (for reasons explained herein) but it was a real contest - he had 29 assists in a 126-112 victory over the Houston Rockets. The game was from a different era in the NBA - it was held at the Rutgers Athletic Center (in the bustling metropolis of Piscataway, N.J.) in front of 3,873 fans, and Porter's coach was none other than Richard Vitale. It was awesome, baby.

2. Geoff Huston's 27 assist game. Geoff Huston was one in a long line of great NYC point guards who specialized in the art of distribution. He great up in Brooklyn and is one of those New Yorkers who never really left - he played for the Knicks for a year and now works in the Bronx at St. Mary's Recreation Center, an organization that tries to help the less fortunate from The Bronx (and there are a few of them up there) get education and training to improve their lives.

Like many Brooklyn ballers, he was discovered by an out of town coach, and it wasn't long before he found himself playing at Texas Tech. Huston was drafted by his hometown Knicks but only played one season there, a solid rookie campaign in which he averaged 8.5 points and 6.2 assists per game.

For the rest of his career, Huston was neither great nor bad - he generally averaged between ten and fifteen points per game and between six and nine assists. His career numbers look awfully similar to Andre Miller, and like Miller, he was an effective midrange shooter who was good at driving to the hoop and terrible at shooting three pointers. (Huston was 16-63 in a ten-year career, Miller is 103-508.)

There was nothing physically special about Huston - he stood 6-2 and weighed 175 pounds. He was not a strong prospect (drafted six picks into the third round of the 1979 draft) and, except perhaps in the halls of Canarsie High School, was the beneficiary of very few honors and accolades.

Huston did, however, play one of the best games at his position in the history of basketball. In 1982, Huston had a decent year in which he started about half of the Cleveland Cavaliers games and averaged 10.3 points per game and 7.6 assists. For reasons I am unable to divine, on January 27, Huston was at his best in a close win over the Golden State Warriors. That night, the Cavs prevailed 110, 106, and Huston was credited with 27 assists - one of the greatest single-game performances by a point guard in NBA history. (Exactly one week later, Huston would hand out 20 assists against the Indiana Pacers.)

3. Twenty Points and Eight Assists. 20-8 does not sound that illusive. Oftentimes, the best point guard in the NBA (or at least the highest-scoring point guard) averages roughly 20-8.

However, over a career, it is much rarer. Oscar Robertson averaged 25.7 points per game and 9.5 assists, and pretty much blew the record out of the water, but after him, it's never been done. The next closest is...Stephon Marbury.

After his horrendous season last year, Stephon has lost the distinction of being in the exclusive 20-8 club. All the same, I think it's instructive that he is (I believe) the only man to have had an opportunity to join it after a long career.

I am a Stephon Marbury defender because I think he is the best offensive point guard of our [pre-Chris Paul, post-Isiah] generation. I defy someone to name a point guard with the ability to slash, distribute, jump, and shoot the way Stephon can. Even at an advanced point in his career, with a ton of games behind him, Marbury still retains the ability to get to the hole better than almost everyone in the league.

Obviously, Stephon is reviled by the majority of the Knicks fan base (rich white people from Long Island). He seems to be a lightning rod for fans in general, despite his relatively clean record and charitable donations. (To wit: He was named to The Sporting News list of "good guys in sports" three times, gave $1M to help the Katrina relief effort, invests in not-for-profit housing in bad parts of New York City, has seven barbers on hire on Coney Island giving free haircuts to kids, founded a shoe company on the premise that ghetto kids shouldn't be tempted to try to afford $100 Jordans when they can barely afford to eat, and gave a free pair of those shoes to every high school basketball player in New York City.) (I guess one can only get a good reputation with the NBA fanbase for rebuilding the inner city if they get AIDS from their extramarital affairs, almost give it to their wife and son, open some "charitable" Starbucks and movie theaters, make a ton of money, and have a failed, self-serving talk show.)

("But he won four rings!")

Stephon's style of play has often caused difficulty on the teams he plays on (much like Jason Kidd's lack of a jump shot) and his personality is clearly eccentric. However, his statistics speak for themselves, and anyone who thinks that numbers like those can somehow be a falsified memoriam of a player who is in fact a selfish, no talent hack need to take a math class.

Those who hate Stephon in New York should remember that he's been playing for Isiah Thomas for four years and probably had to deal with the ridiculous situation in a more personal, direct way than Knicks fans can imagine. Stephon is not Mahatma Gandhi but the only way people can explain why they hate him is that "he's a cancer". I think the 20-8 speaks for itself when it comes to Marbury.

I would also note that it seems to me you could say precisely the same thing ("he's a cancer") about Kobe if it wasn't for him getting drafted onto a team with Mr. Alpha, Shaquille O'Neal, and now becoming the beneficiary of a trade he didn't have any part in orchestrating.

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