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Point Guard Rankings (New & Improved!): Harding, Quinn Recovering Nicely from Minnesota Sophomore Slumps

When the Washington Mystics face the Los Angeles Sparks tonight in Los Angeles it will include a match-up of two former Minnesota Lynx point guard teammates who are enjoying career years in their third season on new teams.

Last year, Mystics point guard Lindsey Harding and Sparks point guard Noelle Quinn split point guard duties in Minnesota and both experienced drop-offs in production from their rookie year in 2007. Both were among the worst shooters at the point guard position and both seemed to struggle coming up with consistent performances on the Lynx.

So perhaps sometimes a change of scenery is all that is needed.

Clearly, the similarities between these players only exists at the broadest level of analysis – not only are they very different types of point guards, but by any reasonable standard, Harding is by far the better player. Harding was a strong Rookie of the Year candidate in 2007 and a fringe All-Star this year.

Harding’s numbers are up across the board and combined with the athleticism that was previously limited due to injury – one commentator recently said it looks like she’s on ice skates on the fast break compared to everyone else – she has arguably been the best point guard in the East.

In contrast, Quinn is on the opposite end of the point guard spectrum. She has typically been the most basic of point guards, one that merely gets the ball over half court and initiates the offense.

But this season, Quinn has been much more than that for the point guard-starved Sparks. She has come up huge in fourth quarters (and overtimes) for the Sparks attacking the rim and loosening up defenses to give her four Olympian teammates room to operate.

Quinn is definitely not having an All-Star caliber season, definitely not the leader of her team, and she isn’t starting. But she has a role on the Sparks and she has fit it well.

Not too long after the Los Angeles Sparks traded for point guard Noelle Quinn, I asked the following question:

Which Noelle Quinn will the Sparks get – the one that was a rather efficient distributor in 2007 or the one that was a marginal initiator in 2008?

My thinking was that the Sparks were a great fit for Quinn because she would be able to fill a role that matches her capabilities and wouldn’t be expected to do anything beyond that given the number of talented players around her.

Really, that line of reasoning applies to both Quinn and Harding – Harding is playing a system and under a coach that seem to maximize her capabilities.

Honestly, Harding's whole mindset seems to have changed this year – last year she appeared to be much more focused on her own scoring -- and while it’s hard to account for that, it’s obvious that the 2009 Mystics are a much better fit for her than the 2008 Lynx.

Ultimately, when evaluating point guards it’s helpful to consider the context – what the player has demonstrated they are capable of and what role they fit on a team. If being a point guard is more than just creating assists, but making decisions that make teammates better and helping the team win, then the structure within which those decisions occur is important.

So these latest point guard rankings – my ongoing obsession – are an attempt to do all of that: evaluate decision making within the roles players fill, and how much they’re able to contribute to their teams. Coincidentally, it was Harding and Quinn that gave me the hardest time in the process.

Moving beyond the statistics…but keeping them close to my heart…

In my past rankings, I’ve just taken the critical statistical categories, ranked each point guard (and others who fill the lead guard role) and just added up the points.

However, that seemed to contradict my argument about point guard styles – if each player is different, then how could I possibly argue that I could judge them on one blanket standard?

For example, I fully admit that comparing Phoenix Mercury guard Temeka Johnson’s assist rate – the percentage of plays she makes that end in an assist – to Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird’s assist rate is unfair.

Bird is a point guard that also assumes a large portion of the Storm’s scoring burden and that’s because she is the better shooter and craftier scorer. Therefore, Johnson’s plays end in assists more often simply because she’s not asked to do other things as much.

But that’s hardly a knock on Johnson or a claim that she should do more. It’s just an argument that most knowledgeable sports fans are already familiar with: the numbers describe a fragment of the story, but don’t necessarily explain the entire story.

So what is to be done?

Bob Corwin of Full Court Press suggested I weight numbers. However, that still assumes that some point guard traits are more valuable than others, which I don’t think is always true. As Bird said in response to the suggestion that she is the best point guard in the world, part of being a good point guard is understanding "what’s needed and when".

However, that does provide some guidance – it is fair to say that some styles of point guard objectively do more than others, not just do things differently.

Last week I revisited the point guard styles I created last year defining five types of point guard – initiator, distributor, facilitator, scorer, and combo guard. And if you look at how I defined those there is a clear hierarchy although each one of those styles can be effective within the right system.

For example, having a player that can create scoring opportunities for others is probably objectively a more skilled player than one whose limit is bringing the ball across half-court and initiating the offense. And I can also say that a player who’s able to balance scoring and creating for others is better than almost any other type of point guard.

So by looking at a) the relative quality of each point guard within their style, b) comparing players across styles, and c) looking at the influence of each player on the game given their style, I think I can find a more reasonable way to rank point guards.

So which players fit which styles? And then what?

I fit players into styles and ranked them based on four criteria:

1) Using the point guard styles framework described last week to categorize the league’s point guards and rank them based on their relative ability within those styles.

2) Using the previous framework for evaluating point guards – which evaluated players on the ability to distribute, score, and impact the game – as it applies to their style. So for example, in looking at distributors, I evaluated them primarily on their distributor statistics whereas I looked more at scoring statistics to rank scorers…and for combo guards I looked at both. I looked at their game impact of each style.

3) Using a standard that I drew from the rookie evaluation framework – a player’s ability to make plays (usage %) for their team efficiently (Chaiken scoring efficiency) while contributing to wins (Boxscores).

4) Defense: it matters. So I took that into account using a combination of observation and some numbers I’ve been playing with.

Yes, this is not exactly an example of statistical parsimony, but the constellation of statistics helps to describe overarching patterns in a player’s game and make arguments about why one player is better than another. In addition, there’s a much more subjective quality this time – I am looking at what the statistics describe and making judgments rather than allowing the numbers to explain themselves.

And another change – although I think players like Jia Perkins, Cappie Pondexter, and Tanisha Wright are very effective lead guards, the reality is that they are not usually the primary ball handlers when they are on the court. So I decided not to include them in the rankings, though all three of them compare very favorably to the players below, which is a testament to their quality as players.

So don’t fear math phobes – I actually did not rely entirely on the statistics to make my arguments. It’s just a way to complement my own observations/biases and describe each point guard’s play in terms that allow for comparisons.

The Rankings:

10. Noelle Quinn, Los Angeles Sparks – Initiator: Trust me this one strikes me as odd too. But the fact is, Quinn is having the best season of any initiator in the league. And when you compare her impact on the game to the lower tier of distributors or even combo guards who just don’t do anything particularly well, it’s easy to make the argument for her in this spot.

Quinn has emerged as a strong fourth quarter scorer for the Sparks recently, but overall she is more of an initiator who brings the ball up and passes it off. While her Sparks teammates are a large part of that, she actually fell in the initator category last year.

What sets her apart from the rest of the players in my mind are two things: scoring efficiency and defense. Quinn has the best two point percentage of the group and among the best efficiency ratios of the entire league.

9. Ticha Penicheiro, Sacramento Monarchs -- Distributor: She’s arguably the best point guard in WNBA history. And it’s hard not to include Penicheiro on the list even though her career is on the decline and I have to admit a major reason she’s here is that I’m biased: she’s the first WNBA player I ever saw play in person and I fell in love with her game.

However, as a distributor she’s still performing well and has one of the highest pure point ratings of any point guard. But what makes Penicheiro especially valuable as a distributor is that she is still one of the best ball handlers in the league and has the ability to penetrate and find open teammates. Her free throw rate is among the top third of the league and is by far the best of any other point guard that fits the distributor category.

8. Kristi Harrower, Los Angeles Sparks – Distributor: I know Sparks fans are not particularly fond of Harrower, but she’s really having a solid year in terms of distributing the ball from the point guard position.

The key to Harrower’s game is that she’s efficient – she doesn’t take a whole lot of risks (she has the second lowest turnover percentage among point guards) and makes solid decisions with the ball (highest pure point rating in the WNBA).

She is not the quickest, the best ball-handler, or the greatest defender. But in terms of a player who is able to bring the ball up the court and find players open for scoring opportunities she’s solid. And a team like the Sparks – which is already overflowing with talent – does not need a whole lot more than that.

If you were picking players based on reputation or overall talent, you might take Penicheiro over Harrower. However if you’re judging Harrower on performance within the Sparks system this season, there are not many point guards having a better season.

7. Loree Moore, New York Liberty – Distributor:
Moore is not a player that immediately jumps to mind when I think about the league’s best point guards, but she’s having a solid year, on both ends of the ball. I’ll borrow a comment from Liberty forward Shameeka Christon from after their recent victory over the Sparks:

"Loree Moore was the difference in the second half for us,'' Christon said. "She pushed the ball for us in transition which led to easy baskets which we needed. She was also everywhere on defense. She stepped up big for us.''
She is one of the better defensive point guards in the league and that means that she is not only facilitating offense for her teammates, but also disrupting the offense for opponents. She does a little bit of everything, but seems to disappear for long stretches of time. And unfortunately, her high turnover percentage limit her effectiveness as a distributor.

6. Tully Bevilaqua, Indiana Fever – Distributor: Bevilaqua was not even supposed to be the starter for the Fever this season but has ended up having one of the best seasons of any point guard in the league. She is still one of the best defenders at the position, if for no other reason due to the effort she puts into just bothering opposing ball handlers, and she is extremely decisive with the ball and almost always seems to make the right decision at the right time.

In addition to having one of the lowest turnover percentages of any point guard, she also has among the highest scoring efficiency ratio. Which means that even though she does not take a whole lot of shots, when she does she is selecting opportunities that result in points for her team as well as any other point guard.

5. Temeka Johnson, Phoenix Mercury – Distributor: Although Johnson has among the best assist ratios and pure point ratings of any point guard, she is actually not the best of this group. What sets her apart is her game impact – she has among the highest plus/minus ratings of any point guard in addition to the highest Boxscore rating of this group. And that pretty much reflects what you might expect based on observation – Johnson makes excellent decisions and has been an essential part of the Mercury’s success this season.

She dropped a little from the last rankings I made because her numbers have leveled out as the season has worn on, but she is still by far the best point guard of her type in terms of getting the ball in the hands of her teammates within the flow of the offense.

4. Sue Bird, Seattle Storm -- Facilitator: So if saying that Sun point guard Lindsay Whalen is better than Bird doesn’t get me run out of Seattle, putting her fourth among all WNBA point guards might.

Again, the issue is not Bird’s talent, but her performance this season. She disappears for long stretches of time and as I described previously, she shoots a large number of jumpers at a very low percentage. As a result, her impact on the game can be limited, despite single-handedly winning games at times. Although Storm fans would probably not agree, all three of the point guards listed ahead of Bird on this list are having demonstrably better seasons than Bird.

3. Lindsey Harding, Washington Mystics – Combo guard:
So here’s the justification of Harding over Bird: Harding has been both an efficient scorer and distributor as well as being arguably the better defender. And the thing that really sets Harding apart from Bird this season is that Harding goes aggressively to the basket – she has among the highest 2 point percentages of any point guard and a much higher free throw rate than Bird. In other words, Harding does a very good job of creating easy scoring opportunities for herself both from the field and from the free throw line, hence allowing her to do more for her team.

So the argument for Harding this season is simply that she brings more to the court overall as a point guard…and perhaps is able to do so more consistently.

2. Lindsay Whalen, Connecticut Sun – Combo guard: I made my argument in favor of Whalen the other day and stand by it. But what separates her from Harding? On the offensive side of the ball, there really is not much that Harding does that Whalen does not do better, with the exception of a small advantage for Harding in terms of 2 point percentage. The argument in favor of Harding is that she has one of the best plus/minus ratings in the WNBA and she is probably the better on ball defender. But its hard to find much beyond that.

Based on observation, it’s harder to think of a point guard who sees angles and is able to creatively use those angles better than Whalen right now (a few years ago, the answer would have been Penicheiro). And she uses that ability to draw fouls and get herself to the free throw line if she doesn’t finish with an array of creative shots. And while she is not a great defender, she has the instincts to play the passing lanes and play pretty good help defense.

It’s hard not to argue that Whalen is the best "traditional" point guard in the game right now.

1. Becky Hammon, San Antonio Silver Stars – Scoring point guard: So last week I wondered aloud if Hammon was the best point guard in the league this season and after watching all the other top point guards, I came to the conclusion that she definitely is.

Here’s why – she’s a weapon on the court from the point guard position that is almost impossible to stop right now. She is by far the best overall player playing the position by a long shot – she is the only point guard who is among the league’s best in terms of the ability to make plays (usage %) for her team efficiently (Chaiken scoring efficiency) while making a large individual contribution to the team’s wins (Boxscores).

It goes right back to the quote from Bird – no point guard in the league is better at understanding what’s needed and win and getting it done.

If she’s not scoring, she’s setting up others. If her team needs her to score, she can do that from anywhere on the court at a high percentage. And moreso than any other player in the league right now, Hammon is able to create plays for herself and others seemingly out of nothing.

People can try to dismiss her as "just a scorer" but ultimately, her abilities as a distributor are comparable to most of the players on this list and her decision making with the ball in her hands is arguably the best in the league.

Transition Points:
  • Obviously, I use some statistics to support and complement observational evidence...but I'm hardly a statistician. In fact, I hated math for most of my life. And even as a self-proclaimed, lifelong math-phobe, Kathy Goodman's LA Times blog last week entitled, "Basketball is Not Math" (but somehow it *is* chemistry, physics, and maybe psychology) was hardly moving.

    Rather than dissect it, I thought I would redirect to a more nuanced and less myopic approach to the same subject by Shoals at the Baseline. Shoals clearly has a bone to pick with Berri, but he makes a solid argument. To summarize his argument: statistics are fine as long as they are placed in context and based upon common sense assumption. Out of context and devoid of common sense, statistics are completely pointless. Taking an anti-statistics position is silly unless you want to also claim that your observations are honed to perfection...and if that's so, more power to you. All the numbers do is allow us to see trends and make comparisons that are very difficult to make otherwise...and if you care about make substantive arguments with some nuance, yes stats help.

    I am not as anti-Berri as Shoals is because honestly, I think the premise of many of Berri's arguments is solid -- our observations are often based on completely arbitrary assumptions about the game that really don't reflect the things that every coach knows lead to victory. But ultimately, both the "Basketball is not math" and the "Basketball is econometrics" arguments are misguided and incomplete.

  • Speaking of finding middle grounds, you may notice that despite my defense of Shalee Lehning last week, she was not in my top 10 here. There are a few reasons why she didn't make it, but I want to reiterate my point: it's not that Lehning is great, it's that she's not nearly as bad as people assume at what she does well...which is of course running the offense and getting the ball to scorers.
    For the record, she classified as a "distributor", which means she does more than just bring the ball upcourt -- she finds ways to get it to players in scoring position. Never an all-star, but she has a career in his league likely as a strong back-up.

  • After pilight compared Becky Hammon to Allen Iverson last week, I got an email from a Lynx fan I consider rather knowledgeable who suggested that Renee Montgomery is more like Iverson -- right now, she is a score first player, who has a great handle, gets to the line but is the worst distributor of any WNBA point guard right now. As a side note, the Iverson we most remember was not actually a point guard at all but an off-guard; Eric Snow ran point. And it's no coincidence that it's when Iverson was at his most effective.

  • If I were to add players like Pondexter, Perkins, or Wright to these rankings, Pondexter could be labeled the best "lead guard" in the league. And I'd probably have Perkins in my top five. And really, the number of non-point guard lead guards in the WNBA is one of the league's biggest selling points in my mind. It makes for an even more fluid and dynamic game of basketball.

  • Speaking of which -- will Kristin Haynie really be a better option at point guard for the Sacramento Monarchs than Kara Lawson has been? I'm not sure I see how...but then again, she hasn't really played enough this season to make an assessment. And trading forward Crystal Kelly to Detroit for Haynie strikes me as a very bad move. Whatever happened to player development?