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Purity, Truth, and WNBA Point Guards

Los Angeles Sparks veteran Ticha Penicheiro has been a model of point guard "purity" during her career, but we can probably forgive Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird for her more "impure" tendencies. <em>Photo by Craig Bennett/112575 Media.</em>
Los Angeles Sparks veteran Ticha Penicheiro has been a model of point guard "purity" during her career, but we can probably forgive Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird for her more "impure" tendencies. Photo by Craig Bennett/112575 Media.
She is a pure point guard. She is consistent and 100 percent pure point guard. She controls the ball and controls the tempo and is an extremely intelligent basketball player. I have had a lot of point guards, but this one is one of one of those really true, true kids that can really fill that position at the Division I level.

- North Tartan AAU coach Bill Larson on recent University of Minnesota commit Grace Coughlin.

There are times when it seems that pure point guards are imagined as The Chosen Ones in the collective imaginations of basketball fans, destined to lead some wretched team from the darkness of their conference cellar to the light of championship glory.

Beyond just being a "coach on the floor", there are those who seem to imagine a pure point guard as their savior; the one player that epitomizes altruism as they glide about the court uplifting all those they come into contact with.

It's a beautiful thing to think about, but the Holy Grail of Purity probably isn't really what people want or simply not exactly what they imagine.

The WNBA has had two players who represent the romanticized vision of point guard purity this past season. Los Angeles Sparks veteran Ticha Penicheiro, who can get nearly anywhere she wants on the court, was the only player who played 250+ minutes this past season to record more assists than field goal attempts. The only other player to do that was Atlanta Dream point guard Shalee Lehning, who suffered a season-ending injury after 18 games but barely had two shot attempts per game if you combine field goal and free throw attempts.

If those two aren't pass first, break-glass-and-shoot-only-in-emergency players, it's hard to say who is.

Not surprisingly, those two were the two purest point guards in the league based on the SB Nation's Tom Ziller's simple purity metric. And since Larson suggests that it's possible to 100% pure - which implies you could also be 83% pure or completely impure (?) - I used Ziller's metric to put all the players who functioned as "lead ball handlers" in the WNBA in 2011 on a scale of 1-100.

A sampling of the spectrum of WNBA point guard "purity" in 2011, from darkness to The Light.
Click here
to see the full list for the league.

"Impure" sounds so harsh, but if there's purity, someone must be impure, right?

If we only privileged purity, there are arguably 15 point guards in the league we might want over Sue Bird who represents about average purity - she wasn't even as pure as Becky Hammon who actually seems to enjoy shooting (as I've joked with a certain Storm fan, trade her straight up for Lehning!). Sure, that Lindsay Whalen character is pretty pure, but Phoenix Mercury guard Ketia Swanier is far more pure and has about the same true shooting percentage.

These choices are obvious, obviously.

But this purity scale, or continuum, only serves to illustrate that really pure purity is probably not even what people actually want when they talk about a pure point guard.

For better or worse, Penicheiro was replaced in the starting lineup by Kristi Toliver, who had almost as many three point attempts as Penicheiro had total field goals. After Lehning was replaced by Coco Miller for the Dream's run to the 2010 WNBA Finals, coach Marynell Meadors was not shy about making it known that the team needed more of a scorer at point guard before pulling the trigger on a trade for Lindsey Harding who assumed the starting role for the 2011 WNBA Finals run.

Of course, John Hollinger's "pure point rating" is another way of looking a purity as a matter of statistical quality and I'm not ignoring that - I use it all the time and find it quite helpful. But even by that standard the Dream went from "pure" (Lehning) to less pure (Harding/Miller) in both 2010 and 2011 in getting to the WNBA Finals.

Obviously, though, my spiritual framing of the pure point guard is a straw-man argument - everybody has a different conception of the pure point guard and even if they could identify who they feel is the "purest" point guard, they'd likely have trouble coming up with a reasonable hierarchy of purity that they'd want to abide by in making personnel decisions.

But Larson's conception of point guard purity above is perfectly reasonable. The sticking point is that the combination of qualities he mentions would necessarily include making scoring decisions: an extremely intelligent player would be able to know when the best thing to do in controlling the tempo or keeping the defense off balance is shooting themselves instead of passing.

Those of you who have graciously stuck with this site for a while probably know where this thinking (along with the thousands of words about potential assists and creation ratios) is leading: point guard rankings. But I took this little detour because the five purest point guards in the WNBA aren't really the five best point guards in the league. And once you get beyond the top five, it becomes a matter of picking pure vs rather "impure".

There's definitely something that distinguishes good from great point guards, but we probably need a more nuanced way to think about that than pure vs. impure.

Related Links:

Full list of 2011 WNBA point guard purity rankings

2011 WNBA midseason point guard purity rankings

Chivalry In Basketball: Why Being An Impure Point Guard Isn't A Bad Thing