Ballad for the Combo Guard

Ballad for the Combo Guard Links7


With all the irrepressible superlatives the draft season brings, a few dirty words make their way into our collective lexicon. Tweener. Below-the-rim player. Combo guard. The last of these has killed many a draft stock price, sending fine college guards into the late first round purgatory generally filled with white power forwards, 5'11 point guards, and 18-year-old Frenchmen no one but the Spurs have heard of.

This year, several serious prospects have been cursed with the Combo Guard label, a nametag which could send lottery talents to the 20s, first round players to the second. But what the hell does Combo Guard even mean? Could front-office draft analysts even pick a Combo Guard out of a real NBA line-up?

In NBA analysis, few even care about the classification of players beyond the arcane positional taxonomy or measures of quality. A player is a good point guard, or a crap power forward, or an average swingman. Every metaphor weighs almost solely on final justification (or renouncement) of a player's aptitude at basketball in total, not in the vital aspects of basketball. Why? Few players (LeBron, for one) can excel at everything, so why do we measure players by their ability to do everything?

Even in deeper consideration of the point guard position, quality assessment lords over assessment. John Hollinger has a metric named Pure Point Rating. By design, it is an improvement on the contemptible assist-to-turnover ratio. In short, Hollinger's PPR discounts assists by a third, and adjusts for minutes and team tempo. In the end, you get a list of good point guards with particular emphasis on the top assistmen. Quality is the central component -- Paul, Calderon and Nash topped the list, in that order.

But quality is not the same as purity. Hollinger has an affinity for naming his metrics to suggest improvement over the standard fare (True Shooting percentage, for example), so perhaps he means PPR as "a point guard rating freed of the oppressive shackles of overweighted assists and slow teams." But PPR certainly does not measure a point guard's purity. Would anyone argue Paul as a more pure PG than Nash or Calderon, or Jason Kidd? Of course not, by our common definition of purity (one who looks to pass first, score second).

So how do we aptly measure purity? By taking quality out of the equation. We do not judge here, we only describe. Let's take measureable point guard activities on one side (that'd be assists) and measureable impure PG activities on the other (that'd be shots, which can be boiled into FGAs and FTAs). We'll adjust FTAs to account for the reality of 2-shot fouls ('FTAs x 0.44' is the standard here). We'll find the league average for point guards and adjust accordingly to get a nice round scale. And, of course, we'll stick a catchy name on it and slap it into a shiny graphic. Thus, The Purity Scale.


It's a 0-100 scale, with higher numbers telling of a higher level of Point Guard Purity. Above, 0-100 moves left to right. Leandro Barbosa (not really a PG) sits at 23 and Jason Kidd tops out at 97 (!). The scale includes only those PGs who a) played at least 800 minutes in 2007-08, and b) averaged at least 30 minutes per game. In the list here, I have added those PGs who averaged 20 minutes per game, but still topped 800 total minutes.

Again, this is not a ranking of quality. This tells you only who are the most pure (and impure) PGs in the league. Unsurprisingly, Kidd, Nash, Calderon are quite pure. Monta Ellis? Jason Terry? A.I.? Not so much.

Based on the groupings we see on our Scale, there are a lot of incredible "combo guards" in our league. Baron Davis. Reigning Finals MVP Tony Parker (who has roughly three shooting possessions for every assist he makes). Chauncey Billups. Of course, some of these can be attributed to the offense system these players use. Famously, San Antonio basketball results in few assists (though I'll note that Avery Johnson averaged 7+ assists in 31 minutes in SA's first title season, playing in the exact same offense, versus 6 assts in 33 minutes for Parker this year; Parker is less pure than AJ, certainly).

All four teams still competing boast impure PGs, combo guards who shoot at least twice as often as they earn an assist. Two (Billups, Parker) are considered among the best in the league; the others (Rondo, Fisher) are considered solid at worst. Yet we curse every prospect without the vision of Kidd (his team lost in five in the first round) or Nash (ditto), relegating these lepers to the bargain bin.

Chris Paul stormed the universe this year. Deron Williams was also brilliant. These matters seemingly have the greater Chicago area set on Derrick Rose, lauding THE RISE OF THE PURE POINT GUARD. And while these fellows are more pure than most, they aren't holy angels of unselfishness and good intentions. Paul was a 20 ppg scorer, for goodness sake. And even more, Rose's freshman totals would place him with Marbury on our scale!

Our perspective on what makes a point guard great is seriously warped, and I blame it all on the false heralding of the assist as a game-changer and of purity as the singular path to point guard greatness. Because we believe assists to be of utmost import, and because pure point guards are more valued than scorers, we consider PGs who get lots of assists to be pure and thus, the best. They supposedly raise the game of their teammates. They make everything offense easier. They lead, muzzled or not, because they pass. It's malarkey (and I offer Jason Kidd as proof).

This map shows a team's offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) on the x axis and a team's rate of assists per made field goals on the y axis. Good offensive teams to the right, bad ones to the left. High assist teams up top, low assist teams on the bottom. Based on conventional wisdom, you'd expect to see all the good offenses in the top right (with lots of assists) or the bad guys in the bottom left (with few assists), right?



There's no measureable relationship between a team's rate of assists and a team's offensive performance. (For the statgeeks, the correlation for the past four seasons is -0.011.) There's only a tiny correlation between ast/FGM and effective FG% (0.061). It's the same for ast/FGM and two-point FG% (0.065). You can be good at offense and a good passing team (Utah, Phoenix), but you can also be bad at offense and a good passing team (New Jersey, the Clippers). You can be good at offense without racking up assists (Golden State, Orlando). The two concepts, on a leaguewide basis, are not dependent on each other.

This is not to say assists should be ignored. Many systems require ball movement. Quite honestly most personnel in the league (including every player on the 2005-08 Phoenix Suns not surnamed Nash or Diaw) needs help from a good pass to perform at peak efficiency. But as described in a thorough Wall Street Journal Numbers Guy blog post by Carl Bialik, the assist's measureable value is in serious question. Quite possibly, no assist is created equal, and our rash cookie-cutter generalizations only cloud the value of the pass, discounting the truly vital (an alley-oop, a backdoor bounce for an easy layup) to the level of the coincidental (the shuffle pass which leads to single-clutch fall-away from 15).

But despite the veil over the value of the pass, we demand purity. Some of our best point guards (Parker, Billups) are not pure in any sense, but we shun the combo guard. On a league level, assists having nothing to do with offensive production, but we dismiss those who can't drop eight dimes a game. This is all very absurd, as four conference finalists are showing us right now. It must stop.

And my dear Combo Guards, please do not try to become something you're not. Jerryd and Russell and O.J. and even you Derrick: Screw your reputation. Fire away, brothers. Fire away.




Comments (12)

  • phdribble phdribble
    throw it down big man. well done. well. done.
    Posted 27 hours ago [reply] [flag]
  • Zorgon Zorgon

    When TZiller runs out of ideas for charts, I think I might cry.

    Amazing! I think some of the guards were in obvious places, but it was surprising to see where a few others landed.

    But I think the combo guard argument you're missing here is that most people think that combo guards are a dime a dozen. If your "star" combo guard goes down, it souldn't be too hard to find 10 more in the D-League. You know, "more where that came from". But pass first and "pure" PGs are a lot more hard to find. I mean, the first chart speaks for itself. The might be no justification, but it's basically the same reason that so many project big men are picked up in the draft: because it's a lot harder to find a good project big man than it is to find a good guard. I rest my case.

    Posted 26 hours ago [reply] [flag]
  • mcwelk mcwelk
    Doubyous post.
    Posted 26 hours ago [reply] [flag]
  • Jason Jason
    Among starting point guards from championship teams over the past two decades, you could argue that Avery was the only pass-first one of the bunch.  Isiah dished out a lot of assists, but he also led the Pistons in scoring.  Fisher averaged just 2.6 assists per game during the Lakers' last title season.  Ron Harper ... B.J. Armstrong ... Kenny Smith ... some of those guys weren't even point guards.
    Posted 23 hours ago [reply] [flag]
    • holycalamity holycalamity

      You could make a serious argument that Michael Jordan was more of a point guard than  his backcourtmates.  On the Bulls championship teams, Jordan's backcourt partner was either a spot up shooter (Armstrong, Paxson, Kerr) or Ron Harper.

      Indeed, if your primary ballhandler isn't a legit scoring threat, your team isn't going anywhere unless you have extraordinary talent elsewhere (say, Tim Duncan/David Robinson at the two bigs). 

      Posted 8 hours ago [reply] [flag]
  • ethanator1088 ethanator1088

    Great Post!

    Posted 15 hours ago [reply] [flag]
  • Ballerblogger Ballerblogger
    I really enjoyed this article Tom.
    Posted 14 hours ago [reply] [flag]
  • RedsArmy RedsArmy
    Great stuff.. although I don't know anyone in Boston who would list Rondo as a combo guard.  But I guess he fits into the criteria you set up
    Posted 12 hours ago [reply] [flag]
  • docksquad33 docksquad33
    Great post!
    Posted 11 hours ago [reply] [flag]
  • jwjeff jwjeff

    Great post. Delicious charts, as always.

    I think people are down on combo guards because they tend to be undersized 2-guards, and undersized 2's are less likely to succeed (how will a 6-3 shooting guard shoot over a 6-6 defender?). Guys like Barbosa, Ellis and Ben Gordon are rare.

    Posted 11 hours ago [reply] [flag]
  • Ballerblogger Ballerblogger

    It all comes down to basketball IQ to me.

    It doesn't matter how big a guard is, if he knows how to play the game, teams will find a spot on the floor for him.

    Take a look at some of the guys Jason mentioned in his comment.

    Guys like Derek Fisher, Ron Harper, B.J. Armstrong, and Kenny Smith.  The one thing they had in common was extraordinary basketball intelligence.

    Posted 9 hours ago [reply] [flag]
  • Robtastic Robtastic
    Is it weird if I ask you to marry me?
    Posted 7 hours ago [reply] [flag]

Links (7)

What is a Combo Guard Exactly?
Published 13 hours ago by JakeTheSnake at Gilbertology
... Over at BallHype, Tom Ziller takes a look into the whole combo guard vs. pure point debate (which is always a hot button issue whenever someone discusses Gilbert Arenas) and analyzes how players fall into these different categorizations.  Even though Gilbert didn’t get enough playing time this year to be included in the analysis, I think you can draw some conclusions based on TZ’s research. ...

Lamenting The Doc In Beantown [Blogdome]
Published 12 hours ago by Will Leitch at Deadspin
• Can everyone agree now that this Doc Rivers thing isn't gonna work? [With Malice] • Other great pitchers debuting, from the "past." [Bus Leagues Baseball] • The sad saga of Kurt Wright. [Money Players] • A mean joke to play on poor Reggie Bush. [The Sports Point] • More on that very cool SI For Kids cover. [Home Run Derby] • Love for the fallen combo guard. [Ballhype] • Here comes Jay Bruce. [The Reds Rocket] • Run, stripping girls. [Machochip] • When it ended for the Royals in 2008. ...

The 10-man rotation, starring 'The Showstoppers'
Published 12 hours ago at Ball Don't Lie
... finals." This makes me so sad. 6th: Lion In Oil. Celtics' forward "Big Baby" Davis gets manicures twice a month, and favors a clear top coat. 7th: Mavs Moneyball. The Dallas Mavericks (year old) fight song. (The high-pitched "Dampier" part kills me.) 8th: Black Jesus Disciples. Quick staring contest — Nash and Alba. Now! Da da de da da do ... 9th: Ballhype. Scales, graphs and combo guards. You gotta love it. 10th: The ...

Tom Ziller Will Melt Your Face With Awesomeness
Published 11 hours ago by Hardwood Paroxysm ( at Hardwood Paroxysm
... First, he dishes this Combo Guard piece over at BallHype which made my mind light up like a plasma ball. The combo-guard v. pure point argument has been rattling in my brain for weeks and I was actually going to try and put something down on screen for it. Thank God I didn't because it wouldn't have been half as good as what Tom did. ...

Rondo Is A Combo Guard
Published 10 hours ago at CelticsBlog
Ok, so I picked the one thing that seems odd about the charts that Tom Ziller put together on BallHype and made it my headline. That was just to draw you in. See, you are reading, so it worked. Now, take a moment and bask in the warm glow of fancy charts and cool statistics that have nothing to do with John Hollinger. The gist: combo guards are not all bad. (Note: Rondo is listed as a combo guard only because he shoots a bit more often than some considered "pure" point guards. Not a bad thing, according to this study.) A sample: But despite the veil over the value of ...

Orlando Magic News for May 27th: Dave Twardzik Talks Draft Strategy
Published 10 hours ago by Ben Q Rock at Third Quarter Collapse
... Tom Ziller breaks down the "pure point" vs. "combo guard" debate (using stats and graphs!) and asserts that no one kind is "better" than the other. Three of the four point guards still playing (Chauncey Billups, Tony Parker, and Rajon Rondo) are combo guards and the other (Derek Fisher) is a small two-guard. Conclusion? Assists are overrated. ...

NBA Essentials: Ronny Turiaf Might Be the People's Choice
Published 10 hours ago by Brett Edwards at FanHouse
Filed under: Celtics, Lakers, Spurs, NBA Draft, NBA Media WatchNBA Essentials ranks our six favorite stories of the day. 1. Upside and Motor: The Ronny Turiaf movement is working! 2. BallHype: Everything you've ever wanted to know about the elusive Combo Guard. 3. Red's Army: Wondering about KG's energy in Game 4. 4. ...

Related Content

Related Stories

Hoop Doctors Mock Draft 2008

Interesting picks. They got Rose goin' first.

Water is Still Wet

Was anyone genuinely surprised to hear that Chicago Bulls forward Joakim Noah smokes weed? This wasn't breaking news at all. Epic Carnival compiled a list of other non-shocking sports revelations.

Ford: Miami Not Interested in Michael Beasley

Is the draft really a two-man race like we've assumed? While most of the debate since Tuesday's lottery has centered on whether the Bulls should take Derrick Rose or Michael Beasley , everyone seems to have taken for granted that the Heat would be ...

Interview With The Agent: BJ Armstrong

Why Derrick Rose chose BJ to represent him, how BJ recruits, his thoughts on O.J. Mayo, etc.

Memphis Holds Key to Knicks' Draft - May 27, 2008 - The New York Sun

Click to enlarge image > Jamie Squire / 2008 Getty Images OMAHA, NE - MARCH 20: O.J. Mayo #32 of the USC Trojans against the Kansas State Wildcats during the Midwest Region first round of the 2008 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament on March 20, 2008 at ...
Related News Articles
Mayo, agent part ways under 'intense' scrutiny
Read full story for latest details.
Draft Blog: Givony and Ford on Mayo
O.J. Mayo may be the most intriguing prospect in this year's draft and two of the most respected draft experts have had an up-close look at the USC product in the last week.'s Draft Blog checks out what they had to say.
Leave a Comment Comment