In today's NBA, point guards who pass first and shoot second are quite a rarity. This may or may not have something to do with the role these skilled players are asked to fill as youngsters. For these guys to win, they have to score in bunches.
Hence, players like Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Chris Paul, and Jose Calderon are indeed special. In a league of players trying to emulate Marbury and Iverson, these guys turn the clock back to the days of Stockton.
Now, here's the catch.
Over their combined 50 years in the league, Calderon, Paul, Nash, Kidd, and Stockton have zero NBA Championships. Kidd, Nash, and Stockton are already Hall-of-Famers. Paul and Calderon are still young, but both have a strong shot at having legendary statistical careers.
The fact is, the importance of point guards is blown out of proportion. This isn't the NCAA and the NBA always has been and always will be a league of giants. It goes without saying that true point guards garner much attention, but more so due to their rarity than their actual importance to an NBA team's overall chances at winning a championship.
Consider the players who've stood in the way of Jason Kidd's two shots at an NBA championship. The New Jersey Nets ran into the LA Lakers in 2002. Kidd was matched up against Derek Fisher. In 2003, the Nets returned to the NBA Finals, and this time met the San Antonio Spurs. This time, Kidd was matched up against Tony Parker.
In 2003, Kidd was No. 2 in MVP voting behind Tim Duncan. Was Duncan just that much better at being a forward-center than Kidd was at being a point-guard? Or did Duncan simply play the more important position on the floor? Certainly, no one believes that either Parker or Fisher were even close to Kidd's level of talent at the time.
"Size does matter in this league," Van Gundy said of Robinson and Duncan, "particularly in the playoffs. And their size beat our speed and quickness because not only did they affect us on the boards and in the post, but they affected everything else. Every penetration was a difficult, difficult shot because of their shot blocking," said Jeff Van Gundy on the Spurs front-court in the 1999 NBA Finals.
Consider the point guards who have won championships in the past 10 years. Tony Parker and Derek Fisher have won three apiece. Chauncey Billups, Rajon Rondo, Avery Johnson, and Jason Williams each won a championship as well.
A case could be made for Johnson, but he was averaging close to seven assists, and was far from this prototypical "true" point guard who averages anywhere from nine to 11 assists per night like the five guys we're focusing on.
The point of this detour through NBA history was to show a slight error in some proclaiming that Calderon was an example for all point guards to follow—because he's far from it.
It might be a little difficult to accept that sometimes a player's statistics aren't a be-all-end-all measure of their talent, or ability. While this holds true for players who underachieve in bad situations, this remains true when speaking of players who overachieve in very good ones as well.
Numbers suggest that Calderon is a true point guard. It's important to establish the meaning of "true point guard" before the term is used, now that we've at least established some reasons for our obsession using it.
A true point guard is a vocal leader who makes his teammates better. He leads by example, knows how to dictate the tempo of a game, when to be passive, and when to be assertive. He's able to break down defenses through penetration off the bounce, and he mostly takes shots within the flow of the offense, rarely forcing bad shots which disrupt a team's on-court chemistry.
He's also his team's first line of defense, a student of the game, and an extension of the coach's philosophy on the court. He knows where the ball needs to go and to whom it needs to go to. He possesses great court vision, and is able to exploit defensive mistakes by the opponent.
If we're to accept that definition of the ideal true point guard, how many areas are missing in Calderon's repertoire?
For starters, he's absolutely incapable of keeping his man in front of him. If he's matching up against a Chauncey Billups or Tony Parker in the final game of a series, he's probably going to cost you the game on this weakness alone.
Secondly, if we're to speak of him in the same breath as Nash, Kidd, Stockton, or Paul, let's figure out where the hell these assists are coming from.
The Raptors happen to be blessed/cursed with a coach who likes to keep it simple. I'm convinced Sam Mitchell's earlier excuse of simplifying his offense to ease in his younger players was just an excuse for his own inadequacy, but that's for another day, and another article.
In Toronto's offense—which features spectacular shooters like Anthony Parker, Jason Kapono, and Andrea Bargnani when he's up to it—Jose's job is to simply pass the ball to stationary shooters. When he's not doing this, he's passing to a rolling Bosh to the basket for a dunk.
Very rarely will Calderon push the ball to look for easy opportunities in transition, or go one-on-one off the dribble against a top-level point guard. This certainly points to a key reason why he leads the league in assist:turnover ratio. But this isn't fantasy basketball.
Who says that sacrificing two possessions per night isn't worth three or four more transition buckets? This is why one has to take this assist:turnover ratio people obsess over with a grain of salt. While he's not coughing up the ball, he's also not making defenses pay for mishaps the way other ball-handlers with great court vision often do.
Furthermore, one has to wonder how much better a player is for having played with Calderon. Because of his high dribble and ridiculously limited creativity off the bounce, he's unable to penetrate good defenses without assistance. This limits how much he's really able to create for his team.
How can we justify praising a player for passing the ball? Could a player like Derek Fisher in 2003 have racked up 20 assists per night by just dominating the ball, dribbling to a convenient location, and throwing the ball to Shaq or Kobe?
I suppose Phil Jackson would argue that his offense wouldn't work if he allowed Fisher to do that. What do I know? I'm a Raptor fan. I only see true coaching once every four years in the Olympics, and when my beloved Raptors NBATV shows NBA Classics.
The Raptors' lack of perimeter players who can actually create cripples them, and forces Calderon to do everything. Outside of Bosh, who simply holds the ball far too long, the entire roster is composed of catch and shoot players, or hustle guys who basically catch and dunk.
There aren't many players like a Vince Carter, LeBron James, or even Jamal Crawford who are constantly demanding to go one-on-one. And while you get away without these guys in the regular reason, you need them in the playoffs when things turn to the half-court. Look no further than Spurs guards Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.
While Calderon is quick and does find gaps in the defense to drive to the hole, there is very little if any way he would be able to dominate a game offensively if needed. Due to this limitation, he fails to be like the other elite point guards in the league.
So although there's nothing wrong with liking Jose Calderon or stating that he had a strong statistical resume for the All-Star game last season, it's important to understand that due to his inability to penetrate, lack of creativity, and inability to defend creative players who like to penetrate, Calderon is far from being an ideal NBA point guard.
It's strange that Colangelo would once again choose to gamble his championship dreams on a lead guard who can't stop other lead guards. I suppose he feels perhaps that with Jermaine O'Neal and Chris Bosh, the Raptors have found the remedy for their inability to penetrate from the perimeter, while stopping the penetration allowed by weak perimeter defense.
If Calderon is being anointed as this team's future at the point, one would have to hope it would be in the role that considers his limitations. This is not going to happen without a change in coaching because, as it stands, Mitchell can't coach any other way but through an offense which starts and ends with his point guard.
If the Raptors ever do want to see what a defensively sound, truly creative penetrating student of the game looks like, they need look no further than Croatian import Roko Ukic, who's being dubbed "the Calderon-clone from his first season."
The name doesn't do Ukic justice at all. Outside of unselfishness, the two are as far as night and day. In fact, if one were to combine the finest points of ex-Raptor TJ Ford's game (like his tenacity on defense, his ability to penetrate, and his court-vision) and subtract the attributes which led to his end in Toronto (such as his lack of durability, mental instability, and lack of size) one could reasonably project the player Ukic could be.
A few scouts drew comparisons to Manu Ginobili when Ukic was playing in Split in 2004. The player European fans have seen over the past three years has been a little less encouraging. However, with the NBA courts at his disposal, and the confidence of his coaches, look for Ukic to do things this season that Raptor fans were hoping Ford would learn to do with greater control over his two-year stint in Toronto.