Every June, when the NBA crowns a new champion, a certain mystique swirls in the air around the team. Like the spirit from Raiders of the Lost Ark, it emanates from the Larry O'Brien trophy, wrapping each player in an invisible cloak of invincibility, everyone afraid to look at it for fear that it will disappear, their repeat hopes along with it. Many times, that energy serves to strangle the life out of the team, ending hopes of duplicating their feat. Sometimes, the glow continues to feed the team, nurturing it to a second, or even third title in a row. Countless hours are spent breaking down the elements of these teams, desperately trying to get a fix on that key ingredient to success, something imitable: a tangible and irrefutable statistic.
But to earn a title requires a unique confluence of players, coaches, general manager, owner, fans, stars, and basketball Gods. Most experts would agree that the things needed to align for a championship team are infinite and thus impossible to predict. Until now.
Looking at key statistics from the last 31 title winning teams, a pattern has emerged. Some would say having a dominant big man is key, others a backcourt scorer, and still others would point to an overpowering forward. While each of these positions hold some weight in the discussion, something even clearer appears through the haze of data: the role of the point guard. And even more specifically, that obscure object of desire lies in his shot selection.
We've pored over the box scores to examine how the number of shots taken by the point guard directly affects the team's chances to win a championship. Not surprisingly, it's the percentage of shots taken by the point guard out of the total number of his team's field goal attempts that gives us a keen insight into what it takes to win a championship. Lest we be considered inaccurate, we calculated this percentage by adjusting for any games missed during that season by the player by multiplying the average number of shots per game by the number of games played.
For example, in 1990 the Detroit Pistons won its second title in a row with Isiah Thomas taking 19% of his team's shots. However, Thomas also averaged 9.4 assists per game for a team that had five guys averaging double figures. This was the highest shot attempt percentage by a point guard of any of the championship teams in the past 31 years. Magic Johnson also took 19% of his team's shots in 1986-87 during their first of back to back titles. While Magic led the team in scoring, he also dished out 12.2 assists and was one of SEVEN double figure scorers on a team that averaged a staggering 118 points per game.
On the other side of the spectrum, John Paxson took the lowest percentage of shots of any championship team in 1991-92 when he only attempted 7% of the team's total. This was the Bulls second title of their first three-peat, when the team only had 3 double digit scorers, yet averaged 110 points per game. Not coincidentally, there were two other players who took 7% of their teams' shots - Ron Harper in 2000-2001 and Lindsey Hunter the next year. A gasp - Lindsey Hunter?? This was the Lakers' third in a row, and he started 47 games - tops for any of the point guards on the team. The connection between these three players? All three played for Phil Jackson's teams in the Triangle offense, where the point guard's role was as a spot up shooter to complement their powerful shooting guards. Overall, the average percentage of championship point guard's shot attempts stands at 12% of their team's total.
In comparison, let's look at Deron Williams and Chris Paul and what role they play on their respective teams. Currently, these two players tend to flip flop for consideration as best point guard in the league. Never has the NBA been stacked across the board with this many All-Star point guards: Tony Parker, Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose, Chauncey Billups, Russell Westbrook, and a host of others dominating night in and night out. However, D-Will and CP3 are good enough to be at the top of this list without much argument. But let's look at their shot attempt percentages for a moment. Deron Williams has been consistent: after taking 13% of the Jazz's shots his rookie year, he has taken 17% for 3 years and 18% for one year, for a 5 year average of 17%. Chris Paul does D-Will one better by averaging 18% of his team's shots, however his is an upward trend. In his first four years in the league, he attempted 15%, 17%, 19%, and 21%. Interestingly, for a Hornets team on the rise, having won 56 games in 2008-09, when CP3 took over 20% of his team's shots, the team's record suffered as they won 7 less games. Most likely, injuries to Tyson Chandler and Peja Stojakovic were the main reasons for the drop off - but it serves to prove the underlying point: Deron Williams and Chris Paul play on teams that are simply not good enough to win a championship.
What has emerged from all this number crunching is that having good point guard play could very well be overrated. One thing that skews these numbers is the Triangle offense. It has been responsible for 11 of the 31 championships, and produced the lowest percentages of any of the title winners. The average for the triangle offense point guards is a staggeringly low 8 percent. Ignoring the Triangle Offense effect, the average nearly doubles to 14.7%.
Deron Williams and Chris Paul are still significantly above these numbers. What should not be overlooked is that Williams is one percentage point lower, and his teams have won more games over their careers. So what can we make of all this?
The connection to the number of shots a point guard takes is a measure of how good his team is. The worse the team, the more shots the point guard attempts out of necessity. And the more shots the point guard has to take, the less likely it wins a championship.
Ultimately, this is not a knock on the talent and ability of Deron Williams and Chris Paul. If anything, to accomplish what they do requires almost superhuman skill. Both can blow by their defenders and finish at the rim among the trees, both have style and creativity to score from long range, and both can set up their teammates for easy baskets. However, there is a limit to how high they can elevate their team and unless their squads can improve the personnel around them, there is too much history going against them. As these two elite point guards continue to progress, they must figure out a way to make their teammates better, to the point where there is less of a burden on them to score. Celtics fans will argue that Rajon Rondo deserves to be considered as good as these two since he's won a championship. Others will point out that he's playing with 3 potential hall of famers, and that diminishes his individual ability. Either way you slice it, it proves the point. Rondo took 12 percent of Boston's shots during their championship year - indicative of how good his teammates were - hence, another banner in Boston Garden.
Looking at the upcoming season, it's hard to imagine Chris Paul will take anything less than his career high of 21% of the Hornet's shots. Not much has changed on the team, save for the addition of Trevor Ariza, who is not the kind of scorer that will take shots away from Paul. Utah is much more intriguing, as their entire roster is revamped. But it won't be surprising to see Williams' percentage go UP as his teammates adjust to their new surroundings. The way the Jazz and Hornets are built, it appears impossible the two best point guards in the league will win a championship until they can get to the point where they average under 15% of their team's shots.
So the fog has lifted, the numbers crunched, and what we see is something we've always suspected but never wanted to admit. Great point guard play is not necessary to win a championship. While it certainly helps - see Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, and Chauncey Billups, what is more important is the team around them. Having a hall of fame point guard is a luxury for a title winner, not a necessity. So don't be surprised to see D-Will and CP3 jumping ship at the first opportunity to take their talents elsewhere - it might just be their only route to winning a championship.