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Lynx vs. Liberty: Purity, Versatility, or Whatever Wins Games

"Pure point guards? That's not the way the game is being played today," Riley said as he continued deliberations over the Heat's No. 2 selection. "You take a look at Steve Nash; his head's under the rim more than anybody in the league."
Reading this quote from Miami Heat president Pat Riley forced me to return to the topic of point guards and what exactly makes one great.

I’m sorry -- I tried hard to stop myself, but I couldn’t resist.

For some reason I find it annoying when people throw around descriptions of point guards that are vague at best. My annoyance is only heightened during draft time when these labels are seemingly applied to players arbitrarily. So I appreciate Riley’s effort to dismiss the antiquated term altogether.

Plus, Riley should know a thing or two about point guards -- he’s coached Magic Johnson, Derek Harper, Gary Payton and Jason Williams (aka "White Chocolate"). But if successful NBA decision-makers like Riley are no longer finding "pure", "true", or "traditional" point guards, what exactly are they looking for?
"There aren't a lot of true point guards anymore," Nets president Rod Thorn said. "A lot of them score and do different things, plus you're always looking for more versatile people who can play more than one position."

Of course, the whole premise of the little point guard ranking exercise I went through last week was that "Sue Bird is the best pure point guard in the league, hands down." Although I know what I meant by that -- I think -- I have to be held accountable for my own words. So I’m sorry for using such a vague and antiquated language.

But where does that leave us?

Does the pure point guard label still apply to the WNBA or do we need to find some new terminology?

Perhaps being more specific will help to clarify exactly what makes a point guard "effective".

The other day I wrote a bit about combo guards in my description of Candice Wiggins (whose game I'm loving more each day). But I’ve thought for some time that it would be interesting to come up with some new language to describe point guards (clearly what I consider to be the game’s most important position).

So I started by watching the Minnesota Lynx – New York Liberty game last night because it featured four guards from my rankings as well as a fifth – Liindsey Harding.

Shifting from point guard to lead guard…

Some people – myself included – have taken to calling the point guard a "lead guard" as a way to describe their primary function on the court: bringing the ball up the court and initiating the offense. It might seem like a pointless semantic move, but I think it helps to broaden how we think about the position from the outset.

This lead guard only requires two things to get the ball up the court and handle defensive pressure: ball handling and decision making skills. Just enough to prevent turnovers before crossing mid-court and to get the team into the offense.

A shooting guard or small forward can get that done if they can beat their defender, so a lead guard is defined by what they do after they cross mid-court.

The Distributor: Noelle Quinn and Loree Moore

Noelle Quinn is probably the epitome of a distributor – nothing fancy, just getting the ball up the court and efficiently initiating the offense. Last year she was second only to Ticha Penicheiro in pure point rating and first in Hollinger’s assist ratio among point guards – meaning she was very likely to pass the ball when it was in her hands.

She’s going to take what the defense gives her and get the team into the offense. This is what I think is normally meant by a "pass-first" point guard.

Loree Moore is similar, though I imagine most of us would agree she’s the better player. Moore can score, but on most possessions she’s just going to come down the court, take what she’s given, and recognize whatever opportunity presents itself. And she is very good at finding spots within the offense to score.

The presence of a player like Moore on the floor can have a calming effect on a team. But rarely does either player create an opportunity for herself or teammates. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing – it works for teams that have other creators on the roster who just need to find a way to get open. It might not work for a team has a lot of spot up shooters who need someone to draw the defense to get them open.

The Facilitator: Leilani Mitchell

As the label implies, the facilitator is able to balance taking what the defense gives her with creating opportunities for others by breaking down the defense with drives or changing pace and finding the open player. She’s able to get separation from herself and the defender and in doing so, keep the defense off-balance.

Mitchell is an interesting case – at her best she’s able to get by her defender and create opportunities for others when the defense comes over to help. But she clearly avoids contact most of the time and so she starts to shy away from driving. And she really struggles with bigger defenders (Wiggins just smothered her on a few occasions).

However, I think that as she gets experience, her ball handling skills and quickness will allow her to be an excellent facilitator. She has the right instincts and can really provide the offense a boost with her quickness when she gets in a groove.

I also think this is what people normally consider a "pure point guard" and Sue Bird would fit in this category. The fact that she’s a scoring threat helps her facilitate, but like Penicheiro who has been a notoriously poor shooter until this year, she has a knack for creating for others just by seeing the court and finding the angles to make things happen.

The Creator…for herself: Lindsey Harding

The creator has a scorers mentality and creates opportunities for the team by making herself a scoring threat. She might have all the skills of the other types, but is more apt to score than pass.

I think this characterizes Harding. I don’t think she’s limited to just being a scorer. But her strength as a player is her ball handling and nose for the basket – once she creates separation, she has the ability to score. The downside of this type of player is when they get reckless.

If the lead guard is constantly looking for her own points but shooting poorly and turning the ball over a lot in the process, it hurts the entire team because they can’t get into a rhythm.

I don’t think this type of player is inherently bad though. If the defense has to focus all of their energy on containing one player, they are bound to leave themselves vulnerable to someone else. A creator can work as long as she has the right players around her – good passers and some rebounders that can pick up the scraps occasionally.

Becky Hammon is definitely a creator in my opinion. She has the skills to set up others, but she’s a scorer first and foremost.

The Combo Guard: Candice Wiggins

I wrote about this previously, but to summarize: the combo guard is the combination of all these other pieces, able to balance scoring opportunities with facilitating opportunities. This player is as likely to score 30 as they are to get 10+ assists. Wiggins has all the tools to be that player.

This is a much more positive spin on the combo guard than is normally applied to NBA draft prospects though. But if you think about this way, every team should want this type of player. She’s a good teammate because her versatility makes it easier to find complementary players. This is what makes guards like Lindsay Whalen and Deanna Nolan so dangerous – it’s hard to defend someone when they can find a way to make you pay no matter what you do.

Stats don’t lie, but tell half truths

I tried to find a way to flesh this story out statistically but I really couldn’t find a way. It’s about a player’s mentality and how they choose to use their skills. So going back to the rankings, if the lead guard can bring the ball up the court and get the team into the offense, there are a variety of ways they can influence the game after that. It's not just about being the statistical best...

But without a doubt, in last night’s Lynx-Liberty matchup, Candice Wiggins’ ability to run the offense or play off the ball was a huge asset against the Liberty defense, not to mention her ability to defend.

Transition Points:

  • Lindsey Harding in the Downtown Journal: "Last year, I had to take a lot more shots and this year I can take what’s given to me. I can take the ones that are open, but my job is to set the tone offensively by getting the ball up and passing it, finding the open man and defensively, I have to pressure and try to slow the ball down."
  • In trying to find the video of last night's ESPN feature of Candice Wiggins, I found this one of her from the Final Four, complete with analysis of how she lit up the tournament this year: