The Statistical Side of the NBA - Anointing

April 29, 2002

I've had a column with my picks for the NBA's annual awards fermenting in mind since . . . oh, probably five minutes after I posted my last column. But a new quarter, the busy Sonics, and the flu have left me unwilling or unable to write that up. For now, it must wait, because the Sonics' series with San Antonio has produced an anger within me that I need to get off my chest.

My problem with the media -- this time -- is the hyperbolic praise currently being heaped upon 19-year-old San Antonio rookie Tony Parker. From Steve Kelley in the Seattle Times, "Voila! A star is born."'s Jerry Bembry: "For fans denied an opportunity to see much of the Spurs this season on national television (boy, did we love all those Knick games), this kid Parker -- with his slight build and his French accent (he speaks French, English and Spanish) -- is for real." His cohort Frank Hughes: "And so, the back and forth continues, with Payton trying to school Parker, who looks like he needs very little schooling indeed." Finally, the AP's Jim Couir punctuated his recap of game three with the following remark: "Parker . . . showed he was on the verge of becoming a star in the NBA with his career playoff high."

And if you thought the media was high on Parker, they have nothing on Spurs fans. One San Antonio partisan posted in's message boards after Saturday's game three that Parker was god. At Dusty Garza's Spurs Report, one of the most active topics in the message board was entitled "Tony Parker > Gary Payton". For those of you who skipped out on math after kindergarten, that's Parker better than Payton, the seven-time All-Star.

High praise, indeed. Especially when you consider that we're talking about a player that didn't average double-figures during the regular season while playing starter's minutes. And if he wasn't playing because of his shooting -- 42% from the field and 32% from three -- he was playing 29 minutes a night because of his stellar passing ability, like Indiana's Jamaal Tinsley, right? Well, as a Hertz commercial might say, not exactly. In fact, he averaged barely four assists per game in 29 minutes.

Let's dig a little deeper. By my efficiency rating system, Parker rates a .447. To put that in perspective, I have arbitrarily set the value for a quote unquote 'replacement player' at .440. In the main rating I use, Value Over Replacement Player, Parker ranks 39th amongst point guards, with 16. Directly ahead of him? Houston's Moochie Norris, Indiana's Kevin Ollie, and Detroit's Damon Jones -- all backups, and not even necessarily top-tier backups at that. Since we are talking about a point guard, his passing ability is of utmost importance. In my previous column (below), I discussed a 'passing' rating I had come up with. In this stat, Parker ranks 48th of 76 point guards with at least 400 minutes played. Who is he directly ahead of? A fellow rookie, Seattle's Earl Watson. While Parker is heaped with praise, Watson wasn't even considered good enough to make his team's playoff roster.

Certainly, this statistical ranking is not the final verdict on Parker's performance this season. But for those of you who have every team's starting lineup memorized like myself, mentally run down the list of starting NBA point guards. Which would you take Parker over? Off-hand, the few names that come to mind for me are Boston's Kenny Anderson (also having a good playoff series, strangely), Denver's Tim Hardaway, and Memphis' Jason Williams. No matter how you slice it, over the course of the 82-game season, Parker was one of the weaker starting point guards in the NBA.

Also ranking ahead of him in VORP is a fellow rookie, Golden State's Gilbert Arenas. While Parker has been anointed a star by the media for his playoff play, Arenas was extremely successful over the last month of the season in obscurity. Despite having to make the difficult adjustment from playing shooting guard at Arizona to point in the NBA, and being just slightly older than the 19-year-old Parker, Arenas averaged double-figures scoring on better shooting from the field, the three, and the line than Parker. And despite having Erick Dampier on the receiving end of his passes as opposed to MVP candidate Tim Duncan, Arenas' assist rate was virtually identical to Parker's.

If there is one fact that bodes well for Parker's chances to become a quality NBA point guard, it's the one that I mentioned off-hand in that last paragraph: Parker is one of the rare players in NBA history to be a full time starter at the age of 19. Besides Parker, there are only a handful of NBA players who have ever played more than 2000 minutes in a rookie season at a similar age:

Lamond Murray, Los Angeles Clippers, 1994-95, 2,566 minutes
Darius Miles, Los Angeles Clippers, 2000-01, 2,133 minutes
Kevin Garnett, Minnesota Timberwolves, 1995-96, 2,293 minutes
Stephon Marbury, Minnesota Timberwolves, 1996-97, 2,324 minutes

Not necessarily as prestigious a list as one might have expected. Lamond Murray has been a decent NBA starter, but certainly nothing special. Miles . . . the jury is still out on him. Marbury is a very tough guy to get a read on. Where does he rank amongst point guards? Payton is clearly number one, and I'd put Andre Miller and Jason Kidd behind. Then there's a large group of guys who could lay claim to number three, including Sam Cassell, Steve Francis, Baron Davis, Steve Nash, John Stockton, and Marbury. So while Marbury has become a very good player, he's hardly set the league afire, and several players in that group are as young as he. Lastly, there is Kevin Garnett, who has unequivocably become one of the NBA's top players. Certainly, starting at such a tender age is a good sign, but it is far from a guarantee of success.

Part of the argument I've seen from Spurs fans has been that Parker's numbers compare favorably of a number of top point guards as rookies, such as Payton's and Stockton's. Of course, the fact is that neither of these players had numbers as rookies that indicated they'd be stars. The logic seems to be that a mediocre rookie season does not necessarily disqualify a point guard from being a star; on the other hand, however, it's far from a guarantee. If it were, I'd already be nominating Jamaal Tinsley for the Hall-of-Fame.

While Stockton came out of nowhere, Payton's rookie season was perhaps unrepresentative of his demonstrated talent. We are talking about a player who was named by Sports Illustrated its Collegiate player of the year and was the second pick in the draft. Even in this era of extended foreign scouting that saw a pair of foreigners, Pau Gasol and Vladimir Radmanovic, selected in the Draft, Parker was picked 28th overall, behind point guards Jerryl Sasser, Brandon Armstrong, Raul Lopez (a Spanish native who is still playing overseas), and Tinsley. How much does that mean? Well, NBA scouts and general managers are far from infalliable, but they're generally on the money. Of the nine point guards I mentioned above, only one -- Cassell, the 24th pick in 1993 -- was taken outside of the top 20. While that doesn't mean that a lower pick like Parker can't become a star, it certainly must temper our opinions.

In the end, the thing that's bothered me the most about the media throwing around the term 'star' so liberally with regards to Parker is its logical fallacy. Yes, Parker has had two very good games during the playoffs so far, but what is better evidence of his ability, two games or the 77 he played with limited effectiveness during the regular season? I'm not discrediting the playoffs' importance, but judging any player on two games is simply unacceptable to me. By the same note, why shouldn't the media be writing about the Sonics' key player, Vin Baker. After all, he too followed up a mediocre regular season with two good games out of three in the playoffs. The same logic that suggests Parker is a future star would say that Baker's play demonstrates he'll return to form next season. Or that Greg Ostertag, who's played over his head against Sacramento thus far, has been underestimated. For a more extreme example, imagine that I were to judge Antawn Jamison on two consecutive games. On back-to-back nights last season, Jamison scored 51 points . . . does that make him the best scorer in the NBA? Certainly it does not. Praising Tony Parker may make a nice column, but it does not stand up to a rigorous analysis.