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WNBA preview (Pt 2): What distinguishes "good" point guards from "great" ones?

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All-Star point guard Sue Bird at Seattle Storm Media Day II this Wednesday.
All-Star point guard Sue Bird at Seattle Storm Media Day II this Wednesday.

When asked the other day about advice she would have for rookie point guard Alison Lacey, Seattle Storm All-Star Sue Bird made it sound easier than it looks for her on the court.

"Even if you don't know what you're doing, just act like you do -- it doesn't really matter," quipped Bird. "That's what I do."

Apparently that's worked pretty well for her.

The WNBA announced in a release yesterday afternoon that Sue Bird earned 83% of the votes for "best point guard in the WNBA" in the 2010 GM survey. Although it may be the case that not all GMs take the survey seriously, it's still an interesting question to ponder as fans as the 2010 season gets underway and Bird's assumed backup, rookie Alison Lacey, embarks upon her career as a WNBA point guard.

So, what distinguishes a good point guard from a great point guard? And who might end up having the best point guard season of this year?

Bird and Lacey's Iowa State University coaches weigh in and I elaborate on the playing styles presented yesterday, the latest in my thinking about point guard playing styles.

All jokes aside, Bird did provide a sampling of the type of advice she might give Lacey on what it takes to be a WNBA point guard.

"You gotta act like you know exactly what you're doing every time you step on the floor," said Bird just before the above statement. "And with that attitude, with that confidence, your teammates will just feed off that...Even if you're wrong, if you do it in a confident manner, it won't matter. It really won't. That's really one thing I would tell her because she can shoot the ball, she can handle the ball, she knows how to call a play, she knows how to play defense; it's not going to be the basketball stuff -- it's gonna be all the stuff that's going on mentally for her."

However, making the team or even earning significant minutes in the rotation is one thing. Distinguishing a good enough point guard from a great one is another matter.

"I guess the ability to bring out the best in your team," said Bird when asked about what distinguishes a great point guard from a good one. "I think as a point guard nowadays it's definitely moving towards point guards who can do more than just set up a play and pass the ball. You have to be able to score and do all those things and Alison has that. but still, when you think about a point guard, you need somebody who's going to help their teammates, who's going to put them in good situations and help the team win ultimately, no matter who's on the court."

It should probably come as no surprise that newly acquired Minnesota Lynx point guard Lindsay Whalen shared a similar sentiment when asked about what she brings to the team that voted as the most improved in the GM survey.

"We have a lot of weapons on this team and a lot of people that can make plays, so my job is just give people the ball in the right spots and make sure everyone’s being in the situation where they’re most successful," said Whalen, often considered Bird's rival as the league's top point guard.

Just in case it's starting to sound like Bird and Whalen are reciting cliches rather than articulating specific attributes of great point guards, Swish Appeal also had the opportunity to interview Lacey's college coaches. ISU assistant coach Jodi Steyer elaborated on the mental element of the game that Bird described.

"We always say here -- and it's what I think Lindsey [Wilson] had and what Alison has -- is that you always have to see a play ahead," said Steyer. "Maybe a pass ahead. Maybe two passes ahead. We've had very good players that run our offense and can get us into things, but it's another thing to understand who you're playing with and what they're strengths are and, 'Can I set Sue Bird -- who just gave up the ball -- where am I gonna get her in a spot? When someone's in her face, what can I do to get her open?' And that is a great point guard.

"You hope you're looking for it in recruiting, but once you start in the first week of practice you know, 'Do they have it or are we just going to have to work with it and everybody's going to have to do it?' Alison Lacey had 'it'. And again, I only had Lindsey Wilson for one year, but they have that ability that you have to know everybody else's position and where they're supposed to be and what are they going to do next. And I think they have that and in the point guard that's important -- you can't go game speed, it has to be a thought ahead."

Of course, most of what Bird, Whalen, and Steyer have articulated are intangibles that might escape those who haven't been on the floor and actually attempted to execute plays as a point guard. But to this point at least, running point seems to require one of the most diverse skill sets in sports -- anticipation, facilitating, scoring, and of course winning. It's a lot to manage and as Steyer suggest it has to be done a step ahead of game speed to become a "great" point guard.

So how do the WNBA's best manage all of this? One answer would be that they don't necessarily manage all of it, but find different ways to manage most of it at once, with each player bringing their own unique flavor to the game.

So with that, how might we better understand WNBA point guard playing styles?

In the past I've used a five pronged framework, which worked conceptually but was sometimes difficult to apply, especially at the level of Bird and Whalen. However, the SPI playing styles actually yielded a simpler framework that simply indicated differences within categories.

Scoring distributor

Example: Sue Bird

By SPI tendencies, Sue Bird actually exhibits the highest scoring ratios, with a scoring tendency just below the 70th percentile in the league and perimeter tendencies just under the 90th percentile. Although Bird mentioned that point guards have moved in the direction of increased scoring, in 2009 Bird stood as the only point guard who played significant minutes with a usage rate -- which describes how often a player attempts to create a play for their team -- over 20%.

Most impressive about Bird is she's able to assume that scoring role while also having a nearly 29% assist rate and turning the ball over only 12.36% of the time, a turnover rate that stood as second best among starting point guards last season.

However, the reason why we might not consider Bird a "scoring guard" is her high passing numbers and rather pedestrian efficiency numbers. Despite her relatively high scoring tendencies by the numbers, it's obvious from watching Bird play that she is fundamentally a player that looks to facilitate for others first, but the mere threat of her scoring and her ability to recognize opportunities to do so extremely well keeps defenses on edge. No defender is going to think, 'Well since Bird has only an average true shooting percentage I can lay off a bit.' She's still one of the top two or three point guards in the world (at worst) and the fact that the defense has to respect her scoring makes her that much more effective. And as any fan in Seattle will tell you, what she has done to carry the team when All-Star forward Lauren Jackson has been out is nothing short of remarkable -- Bird is a winner.

Distributor

Examples: Whalen, Lindsey Harding, Temeka Johnson

Distributors are so named because they rate highly in perimeter tendencies (between the 80th to 90th percentile in the league, among players currently on rosters) and have above average assist rates and pure point ratings. However, they differ from a player like Bird in that they are average to below average in terms of scoring tendencies (somewhere between Whalen at the 33rd percentile and 56th percentile) and have usage rates under 20%. In other words, while many of these players are capable scorers, they are typically in the bottom half of the league in terms of how frequently they look for scoring opportunities relative to peers.

To illustrate the core difference in the two types, perhaps it's interesting to look at Bird and Harding. Prior to last year, most people might have considered Harding more of a scorer and relative to other point guards, she certainly is as the player in this category sitting at the 56th percentile in the league in scoring tendencies. In addition, Bird is more perimeter oriented -- primarily due to averaging one more assist per game -- and only attempted one more field goal per game.

So the big difference between "scoring distributors" and "distributors" is their interior tendencies -- Bird averaged 2.5 rebounds per game and was in the 3rd percentile in the league while Harding averaged 4 rebounds per game and was in the 22nd percentile. Neither is above average, but consider that with other things relatively equal these interior actions decrease the frequency with which Harding does perimeter or scoring actions.

So that takes us to the perennial comparison between Whalen and Bird.

What separated Whalen from Bird in 2009 is that Whalen's scoring tendencies were just beneath the 40th percentile in the league, but she was more efficient, got to the free throw line more often, and her "value added" rating was much higher primarily due to her rebounding ability. But does that mean that Whalen is significantly better than Bird? I suppose that depends on how you judge the two.

By both PER and Win Shares, Whalen definitely had the edge over Bird overall in 2009 (you can read more about those numbers here). However, if what matters as a point guard is anticipation and putting others in position to score, then the analysis shouldn't necessarily end with measures of overall player productivity.

Whalen's pure point rating -- a metric that can be considered a proxy for how well a player manages the risk of making turnovers with the reward of creating scoring opportunities for others -- was higher than Bird's; conversely, Bird's assist rate -- the percent of touches on which she gets an assist -- was higher than Whalen's by a couple percentage points. While that's essentially a wash, what becomes interesting is the player's points per empty possession rating or the efficiency of a player's "scorer decision making" in terms of actually generating points vs costing a team possessions. As it turns out, in 2009 Whalen had the highest points per empty possession ratio of any point guard in the league.

In other words, although Bird scored more in 2009 by a narrow margin with higher scorer tendencies, one could certainly argue that Whalen is a) the more well-rounded player and b) the more efficient player in terms of managing possessions, the primary role of a point guard given that they are the team's lead ball-handlers. Yet that is not to negate what Storm fans witnessed in Key Arena last season -- Bird made big shots at big times on more than one occasion. However, it might have implications for who you want to surround the two players with.

Utility distributor

Examples: Shalee Lehning, Noelle Quinn, Leilani Mitchell, Ticha Penicheiro

As described previously, the "utility" label describes what David Sparks has called "scorer's opposites" and what I have misleadingly called on occasion "non-scorers" -- it's not that they tend to look for scoring opportunities less than other things (I settled on "utility" to indicate their strong tendencies in other aspects of the game not related to scoring). Among point guards, that means scoring tendencies from the 3rd percentile in the league (Ticha Penicheiro) to the 28th percentile (Noelle Quinn). They are far more perimeter oriented, most above the 90th percentile in the league in perimeter tendencies. They are low usage players, with usage rates generally below 15%.

So as one may be able to guess, with less focus on scoring these players are characterized by assist rates of above 30% in most cases -- a league-high 50% in the case of Shalee Lehning. Although they do not all have higher pure point ratings than Bird or Whalen, three do have higher pure point ratings, including Leilani Mitchell's league-high 6.00 ppr. In other words, at their best utility point guards take care of the ball extremely well and do a relatively good job of running the offense.

However, the are in which almost every non-Portuguese utility point guard will draw criticism is their scoring. What makes Noelle Quinn arguably one of the most underrated point guards in the league is that she not only had the strong assist rate and pure point rating of a strong facilitator last season, but she also had a points per empty possession ratio of 2.00 (second highest of any point guard behind Whalen). Quinn is not flashy, but on balance she doesn't exactly hurt a team that had other scoring options and her size makes her a more than capable defender.

What's interesting is that the Los Angeles Sparks paired Kristi Harrower (also a utility point guard) and Quinn in their backcourt in 2009 and now essentially upgraded that position with Penicheiro for 2010 -- although they both obviously have low scoring tendencies, Penicheiro had a free throw rate of 41.00%, meaning that she gets to the line at one of the highest rates in the league and second highest among point guards. For someone who doesn't shoot very often, the ability to penetrate and set up others that her free throw rate and pure point rating suggest is a huge asset to the Sparks.

How might a player like Penicheiro in her prime (for the sake of argument) compare to Bird or Whalen? You're not going to get a whole lot of scoring out of Penicheiro, but it's hard to find a player with better anticipation, knowledge of where her teammates are and their strengths in a given situation, or just the ability to remain a step ahead of game speed than the Sacramento Monarchs legend. Penicheiro is a player who absolutely will make players around her better even if she only shoots the ball less than 5 times a game.

Initiator/perimeter utility player

Examples: Nikki Blue, Ketia Swanier

These players have the exact same tendencies as the above utility distributors. They also have the same assist rates. The big difference is in the pure point rating -- they have negative pure point ratings, which is the result of turnover percentages upwards of 22% (Blue had a turnover percentage of 24.34% in 2009). That combined with among the lowest points per empty possession ratings in the league means that this type of point guard is considerably less efficient at managing possessions.

However, yet again the effectiveness of these players might depend on the players around them -- if they are good defenders and they have players around them that can help manage possessions, they can be adequate for a team. So it's an interesting coincidence that Blue will be playing with All-Star guard Cappie Pondexter in New York after Swanier played with Pondexter in Phoenix -- playing alongside players like Pondexter or Taurasi who can share the burden of handling the ball is probably ideal for this type of player.

Combo/scoring guards

Examples: Becky Hammon, Renee Montgomery, Jia Perkins, Cappie Pondexter, Kristi Toliver

This set of point guards is rapidly becoming one of the most interesting in the WNBA and not just because three of the five names listed above were traded this off-season.They best illustrate Bird's point about scoring -- they've all played point guard at one point or another and yet they are all primarily scorers no matter how one looks at it.

They all have some combination of elite scoring and perimeter tendencies but their point guard numbers are all over the map in terms of assist rates, points per empty possession, and pure point rating.

What makes them interesting is what Bird said earlier -- every single one of them has the technical skill to be a good point guard. The difference is a matter of a scorer's mentality. For example, while Perkins claimed on the latest Dishin and Swishin show "that's just something I can't get down with", Pondexter said in last week's WNBA pre-season media teleconference that she felt perfectly fine playing the point after doing so in Europe over the past two seasons. Statistically, Pondexter does have a better assist rate, points per empty possession, and pure point rating than Perkins, but other than desire one could definitely argue that there's not much separating these two in terms of their ability to play the position.

However, there are also times when players in this group can also be difficult to put in either the point guard or shooting guard category. For example, both Renee Montgomery (#4 in the 2009 WNBA Draft) and Kristi Toliver (#3 in the 2009 draft) entered the league with reputations as scorers. Statistically, both players rated as scoring perimeter players. They had the lowest pure point ratings of any point guard in this category, assist rates hovering just below average, and points per empty possession rates of under 2 (Toliver was at 1.96, Montgomery 1.77). The biggest difference is that Toliver had a usage rate of nearly 26%, which places her above average while Montgomery sat at about 20%. The big thing is that Toliver had a true shooting percentage of 60.60% to Montgomery's 53.97%. So if the argument is that scorers can be point guards, then Toliver -- being the better scorer -- would be the better point guard, right?

Not if you consider that Montgomery and a draft pick that became UConn center Tina Charles was exchanged for Whalen and a #2 pick while Toliver was traded yesterday for a 2011 second round pick (in a league that currently has 11 player rosters). These two are not seen as equally productive point guards and based upon market value and one could easily argue based upon these moves that Montgomery was clearly the more successful point guard after one year.

The biggest difference was Montgomery's quick step and ability to get to the basket -- she nearly doubled Toliver's free throw rate. Watching them play last season, Montgomery was just more adept at breaking down defenders and getting to the basket whereas Toliver relied heavily on her (very efficient in consistent minutes) shooting. What it demonstrates is the difficulty in using numbers for point guards with so many intangibles in play and so much dependent on coaching and player preferences.

Perhaps no player embodies that more than Becky Hammon, the player who one could argue was the best point guard in the league last year despite a reputation as a scorer. So as to remain consistent with my past statements, I'll quote from last year:

Hammon's Playmaking Ability Beats Lynx: Is Hammon the Best Point Guard in 2009?
What Hammon does extremely well is use the threat to score as a means by which to create opportunities for others. She’s not a point guard who is racking up assists just by swinging the ball to an open shooter – Hammon is often driving and forcing the defense to shift in ways that create open shooters.

And right now, Hammon is doing the job of creating scoring opportunities for others better than anyone else in the WNBA.

If being a point guard comes down to a matter of decision making – more specifically, making the decisions that help their team score points – then understanding Hammon as a point guard should come down to an evaluation of her decision making. If she is the best scorer on the floor in almost any game she plays, then creating scoring opportunities for herself is actually a good decision.

Hammon was among the most efficient scorers in the league last year by true shooting percentage and points per empty possession. As a point guard, we talk about creating scoring opportunities for others and making one's team better and Hammon sometimes does that by scoring herself at a league-high usage rate of 27.79% last season.

However, perhaps it's best to close with this thought -- how many guards would you rather have with the ball in their hands to lead a team than a player who can shoot 36.9% from the three point line, drive and finish at the rim, and shoot 90% from the free throw line while still finding time to pick up an assist on 21.83% of her touches? It's not at all what we expect from a traditional point guard -- Hammon is not near the same style of point guard as Bird, Penicheiro, or Whalen, each of whom widely respected candidates with distinct styles of play. And that is exactly the point of this whole exercise -- there is no way to define what it means to be a point guard with a singular set of tendencies, yet understanding their various tendencies can be extremely helpful in understanding what they bring to a team.