Derrick Rose is not a true point guard.
This criticism is often leveled at him, but it’s a myth. In fact, the reality is quite the opposite.
Let’s establish first that there are different understandings of how "true point guard" is intended to be used. Some use it as a descriptive, not critical, phrase. I prefer “traditional” or “scoring point guard,” as neither has a negative connotation, but they adequately denote different styles.
Normally, though, when people talk about “true” point guards or “pure” point guards, they are being critical of other point guards.
What is the antithesis of a “true” point guard anyway? Fake? Faux? Poser?
It implies something untruthful or impure about said players.
Other expressions, such as “pass first” versus “shoot first” imply selflessness versus selfishness. Being labeled as something other than a “true” point guard is normally intended to be negative, not merely descriptive.
Fans and analysts bemoan the “loss” of the position in much the same way they bemoan the loss of the great centers.
It’s bogus. As you’ll see, the rule changes are responsible for the way the position has evolved, and “trueness” of a point guard must be measured by contemporary, not antiquated, standards.
What People Mean When They Say “True” Point Guard and Why They’re Wrong
By now I’ve written enough articles to know what’s going to happen. Comments will fill up beneath the article, explaining to me what people mean when they say true point guard, as though the problem is that I don’t understand the moniker.
So first, allow me to explain what it is understood to imply and why the critics need to adapt their understanding of what the role of a point guard presently is.
They mean that the "true" point guard is filling the true role of point guard, which (in their mind) is supposed to be setting up his teammates.
When they say “pass first,” they convey a kind of a veiled lie, in that they suggest that when a “shoot-first” point guard takes a shot, he does so at the expense of a shot a teammate could have taken. The shot-happy, ball-hogging point guard is lobbing up bad shots at the expense of his teammates, so his team loses.
Meanwhile, the well-meaning and honorable point guard who is able to look past selfish stats will win titles.
History, however, is not so lucid on this distinction.
Basketball historians will tell you the first “true” point guard was Bob Cousy. He reset the standard for passing numbers during the course of his career. When he initially retired in 1963 (he came back for seven games in 1970), he had 6,945 assists, which at the time was 2,740 more than anyone else in the history of the league.
Since, then he’s been characterized as the quintessential “true” point guard. He’s the first player who looked to “pass first” rather than score. He put team success over personal glory, and that’s why the Boston Celtics won six of their championships with him at the helm.
Here’s the problem with that narrative. Cousy was actually a scorer. He averaged 18.4 points on 17.8 shots for his career.
By comparison, Rose has averaged 24.0 points on 19.1 field goal-attempts during the Tom Thibodeau era.
So is slightly more than one shot per game the difference between being a “true” point guard and an “untrue” point guard?
There may be times when a point guard attempts too many shots, but Rose has never broached those numbers. Tiny Archibald averaged 26.3 chucks in 1973, the most in history from a point guard. Allen Iverson, as the 1 (as opposed to the seasons he played the 2) tossed up 25.3 in 2006.
In three seasons (1952, '57 and '60), Cousy averaged more attempts than Rose’s career high, 19.7, in 2011. Isiah Thomas had 19.0 attempts a game in 1983.
This shows the first problem with the whole discussion. It’s arbitrary in terms of what “shoot first” really means. If you want to label a player as shoot first, he is. A point guard being able to score and utilizing that ability is a bad thing, but it’s a bad thing selectively.
For example, Gary Payton, who hurled up 20.3 attempts in 2000 and 20.1 in 2001, recently criticized the current state of the position in an interview with Tom King of The Republican.
We don’t really have point guards in the NBA now. We really have (shooting) guards – and that’s a fact. I think there’s only three true point guards that play like point guards. I think Chris Paul is one, I think (Rajon) Rondo is one, and I think Tony Parker is the other.
I love the “we have shooting guards” part almost as much as the “and that’s a fact” part. You always have to appreciate when someone believes his opinion is a fact. The "fact" is that all 30 teams in the NBA have a player who starts at the point guard position. They all have a backup. Most teams even carry a third. Whether they're "really" shooting guards is a matter of opinion.
I'm not trying to get anal on the language here; I'm pointing out that the language is both ardent and negative. Furthermore, it's ambiguous in its meaning.
Here’s an actual fact: No current point guard has ever attempted 20 shots per game. What’s the difference between Payton and today’s “shooting guards” who are playing the point guard position?
It’s the passing, right? After all, Payton might have put up a lot of shots, but he passed too.
Maybe not as much as you think. His career high for a season in assists per game was 9.0, and his career average was 6.7.
Payton was a shooting guard who played the point, and that should be a fact in Payton’s opinion.
“Shoot first” becomes this ambiguous thing. Player X can shoot just as much as Player Y, but Player X is a “true” point guard, and Player Y is whatever the opposite of that is.
How much a point guard shoots really has no bearing on it.
It’s Not the Shooting, It’s the Not Passing
Let’s set aside the notion that anyone really “shoots first.” No point guard shoots more than half of his team’s possessions, but point guards, especially the elite ones, touch the ball on nearly every possession they are on the court.
Yet even the ones who have the highest usage are only in the lower 30s, meaning that they pass more than twice as often as they shoot, since the passed in the other 70 percent of possessions. And that doesn’t even account for turnovers, or when they shoot after the ball has been passed back to them.
Shoot first, as a descriptive, is a horrible and malicious lie. There are only shoot-more and shoot less-point guards, who are largely defined by their ability to shoot and/or create shots.
The principle stands though, right?
True point guards look to pass more than they look to shoot. That’s the bottom line.
Or is it? Is the job of a point guard to not score when he can? If a point guard has the best chance to score but passes the ball to a player who has less of a chance to score, has he made the right play?
If Rajon Rondo has an easy layup but dishes it for a trailing player to pad his assists, is that purer?
From a smart-basketball perspective, he should take the layup, so that on the off-chance he misses, the trailing player can follow up with the rebound. By hitting the trailer for the pass, Rondo allows for a greater chance of not converting the break into a score, because if things don't go right, there is no third trailer.
Compare it to a quarterback in the NFL. If he’s standing on his opponent’s five-yard line and looking for an open receiver, while right in front of him is an open path to the end zone, should he force the ball to a covered receiver or should he run the ball in?
A pure point guard should make the right play, whether it's scoring or passing.
How the Rule Changes Affected the Point Guard Position
The point guard’s job is not to fit preconceived notions of how many times to pass or shoot. It’s to facilitate the offense and make it more efficient. That can’t be evaluated absent an understanding of the historic rule changes that occurred at the turn of the millennium.
Over a period of time from 1995 to 2004, a series of rules were gradually implemented, which were designed to open up the game, empty out the lanes and shift the game away from big men to more athletic players who could drive the lane and score.
The summer prior to the 2005 season, those rule changes were consummated. Since then, it’s been a perimeter player’s league. Only one power forward or center has won the MVP since, and that player, Dirk Nowitzki, is hardly a traditional big man.
Scoring became about the best perimeter player on the team driving into the paint and getting to the rim. Assists fell as a result.
And then defenses adjusted, overloading the strong side in order to stop the other team’s best player from beating them. Offenses adapted to the adjusted defenses by passing the ball out to the weak side, stretching the court and utilizing three-point shooters left alone.
Not coincidentally, this happened around the same time as teams started drafting “tweener” guards like Rose and Russell Westbrook, who could both drive the lanes and pass the ball to their teammates.
Assists were back on the rise, although many of them were coming from players other than point guards.
If only I could present a chart that shows this isn’t just blabbering...
Stats were obtained by calculating league averages per year, based on data obtained from Basketball-Reference.com.
The point here isn’t to prove that Rose established the trend but that he fits the trend.
The best teams in the NBA right now have one common denominator—they have that player who can win the game passing or scoring.
The Miami Heat have LeBron James. The Oklahoma City Thunder have Westbrook (and things didn’t work out for them without him). The San Antonio Spurs have Tony Parker. The Los Angeles Clippers have Chris Paul.
And yes, the Chicago Bulls have Derrick Rose.
The role of the “true” point guard is not to “pass first.” It’s to run the offense first.
One flaw in comparing the top point guards by assists or shots is that they have different teams around them with different offenses in mind. Their systems are different, so in terms of whole stats, you can’t compare Rose’s raw numbers with Rondo’s or Paul’s to evaluate “purity.”
You can’t blame Rondo for not doing what Rose does, because he’s not asked to do what Rose does. Nor can you evaluate Rose by what Rondo is asked to do.
What you can do, though, is evaluate their effectiveness in doing what they’re asked to do within their own offense. Which point guards do the most to improve their teammates’ scoring? Which point guards do the most to make their offenses more efficient? That’s something we can do with on/off stats.
Here is how much better each of the player’s teams performed while he was on the court, in terms of offensive rating and in terms of field-goal percentage.
This includes only the teammates' shooting, not the player’s shooting. Numbers were compiled from NBA.com/STATS and represent two-year totals from each player's last two seasons.
When it comes to qualitative performance, only Paul makes his team’s offense better overall, and no point guard in the NBA does a better job than Rose of helping his teammates to shoot more efficiently.
Rose, who helped his teammates shoot 3.2 percent better, has done more to elevate his teammates’ shooting than any of the other top point guards. Paul’s Los Angeles Clippers are 3.0 percent better. Westbrook’s Oklahoma City Thunder are 2.0 percent better. Parker’s San Antonio Spurs teammates shoot just 0.2 percent better, and Rondo’s Boston Celtics are only 0.1 percent better.
Paul’s Clippers are the most improved with him on the court, with 12.2 more points scored per 100 possessions. Rose’s Bulls are 7.6 points better with him on the court. That trumps Rondo (4.9), Westbrook, (4.5) and Parker (3.9).
Incidentally, this is why I have no problem with the stance that Paul is the best point guard in the NBA.
Furthermore, quantitatively, Rose hit rarefied air in his MVP season. He was only the second player in the three-point era to average 25 points and 7.5 assists while attempting fewer than 20 shots; the other was Dwyane Wade. He was the third player in that time frame to hit 600 assists and 2,000 points, sharing that distinction with Michael Jordan and LeBron James.
In terms of being that double threat to pass and score, Rose is as lethal as any point guard presently in the league, if not in the modern history of the NBA. How does that make him impure?
It’s Not About the Numbers, It’s the Mentality
Some will say, "It’s not about the numbers; it’s about the mentality. You can make numbers say anything."
Incidentally, you actually can’t make numbers say anything. If you think you can, I double-dog dare you to prove that Keith Bogans is the best player in the NBA using numbers.
So, what kind mentality does Rose have?
You can’t evaluate that without looking at the offense he’s supposed to run. If he’s supposed to run a traditional “John-Stockton-to Karl-Malone” style pick-and-roll offense and he’s forcing up shots, it’s valid to criticize him, but is that the case?
Coach Thibodeau set up the offense. He got the job in large part because he sold Gar Forman and John Paxson on what he planned to build around Rose.
The offense is a hybrid drive-and-kick offense/flex offense that is predicated on Rose working inside-outside, penetrating to collapse the defense and then taking the shot if it’s there or passing it out to an open teammate if it’s not.
Should Rose challenge Thibodeau, Forman and Paxson and state that he wants to revert to an outdated and ineffective model to satiate the Skip Baylesses of the world? Isn’t the mentality of a pure point guard to run the offense his coach asks him to run?
And in that area, Rose is fully committed. In a recent interview with Doug Padilla of ESPN Chicago, Rose said:
I'm just trying to fit in with them, do my job, where my job is to come in and run the game and get them open shots and play aggressive. So I think if the guys on the team know that and me knowing that, too, I think it's going to be a smooth year and a smooth process.
Could there be a more perfect quote to establish what a point guard’s mentality should be? He’s literally saying his job is to run the offense, get his teammates open looks and play aggressively.
That’s pure. It lacks any sense of selfishness.
In fact, even though he’s the star on the team, he sees his job as fitting in with his teammates, not asking them to adapt to him coming back.
Rose is just as “pure” of a point guard as Chris Paul or Rajon Rondo. The problem isn’t with his play; it’s with the antiquated understanding of his critics.