Tony Parker: From Third Wheel to MVP

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(Photo credit: Russ Isabella-US PRESSWIRE)

9, 2, 15, 9.

Those were the point totals through the first four NBA games from Tony Parker, sixth man not-so-extraordinaire. It was the 2001-2002 NBA season then, and he was a rookie, the French Ricky Rubio, if there ever was one, as he set the pro leagues in France aflame at such a very young age. But by the fifth game of that season, Parker found himself handed the keys to the Spurs offense, which, unfortunately at that time, consisted of a a steady diet of "make the entry pass to Tim Duncan", also famously known as "four down" or quite possibly "the most boring offense in the league." However, his journey from a wide-eyed kid who was very nearly permanently dismissed by Gregg Popovich in their first encounter, to a bonafide point guard leading his team's charge at a fifth franchise championship, took a lot longer than getting the starting job.

The Spurs' Jacob Riis-inspired mantra of "pounding the rock" has been applied to so many situations during the team's dynastic run that sometimes, we forget that it applies to the growth of people, too. And perhaps in this situation, it's not just about mindlessly hammering a solid object until it breaks -- it could also very well be pinpoint, deliberate and calculated swings that do not intend to break that rock, but instead give it shape. If it sounds like sculpting, it very well could be -- and if you haven't looked closely, examine PtR's logo to your upper left. See what the "rock" turned out to be?

* * *

I will admit to not really caring much for Tony Parker for the better part of the Tim Duncan era, and I feel no guilt in that. Big Threes are rarely glorified in equal parts for various reasons, as seen in how Chris Bosh has always been marginalized in his triumvirate with LeBron and Wade; Robert Parish forever the iron man, not even a superstar who helped the Larry Bird and Kevin McHale Celtics win titles; Curly, ironically more half-bald pate than curly hair, serving as the butt of jokes in a comedic trio; and Aramis, whose quiet demeanor and lack of rhyme in name to the other Musketeers can make him an afterthought.

Well, Parker was just that: the necessary but not-necessarily-beloved third guy. The point guard who'd rather score than pass. The athlete whose gifts were denigrated, and achievements discounted. A player around whom constant trade rumors swirled. The teammate who always seemed just about to jump to a bigger, more celebrity-oriented market. Even among the team's Big Three, Parker might not fit the "quiet ones" label mentioned in the NBA's BIG commercial starring the Spurs -- the man likes to talk, as evidenced by him hosting a popular radio show in France. Somehow though, it's been easier to ignore Tony's relevance to the Spurs' golden era for reasons both well considered and completely unfounded.

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(Photo credit: Soobum Im-US PRESSWIRE)

Nothing Compares...to You. And You.

But to be fair, how can Tony even measure up to Manu Ginobili and his personal art collection of jaw-dropping moments? Parker doesn't have Ginobili's tempestuous vibe on the court, nor Manu's candid, adorable way with the press. With the majority of Tony's career, it's always been about times when he didn't give maximum effort on both ends, and how his mistakes have not just been put under a microscope, but surgically cut up and painfully broken down bit by bit. And sure, his smiling sneer when he talks helps with the ladies, but for others it might come off as more than a hint of arrogance, something readily excused in American superstars but not so easily overlooked in French point guards.

How about Tim Duncan, who for 16 years has joined death and taxes as perhaps the only permanent things in this world? The ultra-private Duncan very rarely reveals anything, whether on and off the court, but he is the pillar that supports the House that Greg and RC built. Nobody dares question Duncan's greatness, lest they find themselves under the rubble of rebuilding hell. On the other hand, it has been very easy for Spurs fans and trade rumor-mongers to pencil in Parker every chance they get, like he's a worn out brake pad or rear view mirror air freshner.

And yet, in hindsight, Tony Parker's career arc might actually be the most interesting, and could easily rival that of Duncan's and Ginobili's in terms of fan satisfaction. Only it seems that his is coming far later in his tenure in San Antonio than that of his more esteemed teammates. Tim was more polished than the Black Widow's nails while undercover in a cocktail party, perhaps the most NBA-ready big man that came out of college, after spending four years at Wake Forest. Manu stepped into the league as an older-than-average rookie, honing his black magics while torching international leagues and winning championships overseas. They were plug-and-play stars, smart students who've taken advanced courses in professional basketball, the typical WYSIWG athletes that every general manager wishes he had. Unfortunately, they also got old a bit sooner, their bodies showing slightly more mileage as a trade off for their veteran status.

Contrast the 19 year old Parker, thrust into the limelight at a young age because Pop needed a shake up in his starting five, and the kid just so happened to be their only capable backup at that point. Not that he wasn't up to the task. Tony averaged 9 points and 4 assists in 29 minutes his rookie season. He would never average less than 14 points, 5 assists and 30 minutes after that. And when we thought he peaked in 2008-2009, after Manu went down and there was no one else capable of creating offense in the Spurs' lineup other than Timmy. Parker went on a rampage that year, recording his best scoring season ever at 22 points per, and surprisingly to that point, also his best season in assists at 6.9 per game. The burden would prove to be too much though, as he and his team flamed out in the first round of the playoffs

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(Photo credit: Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE)

The Case of the Vanishing Star

In the simplest way possible, I used to view TP's game as the ignition that starts the engine. He'd get plenty of opportunities to attack at the beginning of games, when players usually tread water and prefer to spend some time feeling their way into the game. Before you know it, Parker already has ten points on a variety of coast-to-coast drives, backdoor stabs, and teardrops. Timeout: bad guys. But as the game progresses, opponents become more and more locked in, defenses adjust, pack the lane and let him settle for jump shots. Tony's points per minute take a plunge, and it's up to Duncan and Ginobili to clean house.

I've always pointed to this usual late-game fade to be one of the main reasons why my perception of Parker's place among the greats looked murky. From the casual fan to the most astute basketball observer, it's almost always the mantra that it doesn't matter how you start, but how you finish. You know, that clutch, ice-in-veins, superstar-defining hero ball. Oh Tony scored 24 points? Well, where was he in the fourth quarter? In absentia, I presume!

It's an unfair assessment, since the Spurs wouldn't even be in the position to win without those early scoring flurries. But hey, nobody remembers that the hare even finished the race. It was always about how awesome the tortoise was for winning it in all his slow but crafty glory.

Thus was Tony always in my mind. It seemed like he'd already reached his ceiling just midway through his career, and that there were only two things I could count on him to do: 1) score at a very efficient clip; and 2) be a critical trade chip that can get us back a player who will get the team over the hump with Tim and Manu aging.

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(Photo credit: Jerome Miron-US PRESSWIRE)

The (Not) Accidental Leader

But Gregg Popovich again showed why he's ahead of all of us in his ability to see the potential in a player. It's like when he got Tony Parker, he shut himself in a dark, damp wine cellar, favorite glass in hand, and charted his master plan on how to mold a very young, green rock. First, Pop would show him who's boss. Tony's a wet-behind-the-ears kid who might feel entitled right away after becoming a pro at 14, so yeah, the coach should make an example out of him. Of course, Popovich would cover it up with the cliche, "Listen. I only get on you more than everyone else because I see that you can do so much more." That ought to get his attention. Oh yeah, he's the point guard too, so Pop has an excuse to call him out because after all, the PG is usually seen as the coach's persona on the floor.

The early- to mid-Tony Parker years then became not just an exercise in instilling toughness in the player, but in some respects, also a softening up experiment. Parker eventually learned to take all the criticism and scolding in stride, but Pop kept going at him, for some reason. The coach wanted Tony to be a sponge, and soak up all the lessons taught through the countless timeout tirades, sifting out the nonsense and expletives like a true professional.

Tony stepped in to his late 20s and suddenly, Popovich was in his face a bit less. The trend continued, and Parker appeared looser, coinciding with the team's shift to a faster, more free-wheeling and improvisation- and reaction-based offense. "Okay... yeah this is nice and better than getting shouted at," Tony must have thought. But the timing was probably a bit off, with Ginobili fresh off inking a new contract and Pop wanting Manu to play minutes like the seven-figure player that he is now. However, the Capitan Manu era ended abruptly with a broken arm at season's end, leading to the defeat at the hands of the Memphis Grizzlies.

Pop, now a little more hands-off during the game than ever before, uses the opportunity to at last treat Parker more like an adult than the youngest brat in the house who needed to be told to go stand in a corner and face the wall as punishment. With Manu again hobbling, Popovich turned to Tony, "I want you to run the team. You know, like how you commandeered your French national squad." It might have seemed like a coincidence, something forced out of a hopeless situation, but really, I'd like to believe it was a part of the plan. A very long-term plan. The wheels of Coach Pop's succession plan turns once more, and it reveals a more ready, calmer Tony Parker. And what an unbelievable season it has been for him so far.

Did Tony have this kind of season in him all along? Couldn't he have summoned it a bit earlier in his career? It's all certainly up for debate. But I have no doubt that Pop rolled the dice with his "TP9 Career Path" project, hoping that his pupil would respond well to his unorthodox player development tactics. Fortunately, Tony did. And here we are now, with a very real chance at a fifth title.

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Game of Point Guard Death

But the career timeline doesn't end there. Other writers here at PtR have mentioned how people make up their own narratives to try and meet whatever expectations are forced by the short attention spans they or their audience may have. Here's mine: Tony Parker, now the leader of the pack, going through the point guard gauntlet a la Bruce Lee in the Game of Death.

The first round matched Parker up with his old nemesis, Devin Harris, who once upon a time seemed faster than Tony and looked like a better prototype of the lightning-quick, score-first floor general. But as in cinema, initial opponents are usually just a warm-up, and TP exorcised his demons in style, making everybody forget that once-upon-a-playoffs Devin Harris performance of 2006.

The West semis brought another familiar foe, this time the player who leapfrogged Parker in perhaps only his second year in the league. Chris Paul: the all-world point guard, the astute passer that Tony will never be, a pick-and-roll maestro who relied on guile rather than only athleticism or speed. In a quick four-game sweep, Tony showed that he could get the better of the so-called "best" point guard.

And now, here comes the future: perhaps even Tony Parker 3.0. Russell Westbrook is as explosive as they come, able to put up points in a jiffy and with the kind of hurricane violence that caused Bruce Lee's face to be cut and bloodied, his shirt torn to pieces as he climbed to the next floor. In a way, Westbrook resembles Parker's career in the early stages, in that the third-year guard is called out for shooting too often, when he should be deferring. It should be an exciting battle of small-man attrition.

A triumph over Westbrook could be the last hurdle, but if the Celtics clear through on the other side of the bracket, then the boss stage could very well be filled by Rajon Rondo, the anti-Parker. No, it's not just about Duncan and Garnett going at it one more time, but it's also going to be the fight for who the best point guard will be this season. Rondo is a true pass-first point guard, and excellent rebounder, and a first-rate defender, something Tony has never been known for but has worked toward becoming. It could be a fitting final showdown for all the marbles, to determine once and for all if the maturation of Tony Parker is complete.

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(Photo credit: Jerome Miron-US PRESSWIRE)

In praise of the ordinary

Surely, the book on TP will continue to be written. I find myself now not only appreciating his development this year, but also enjoying the recollection of times when I ignored the importance of his growing years, which were often cringe-worthy but mostly amazing when put in the context of Coach Pop's overall plan for him.

These days, I become more aware of the little nuances in Tony's game. His trademark forays into the paint and patented teardrop will always be a joy to watch, but he's more than that. The curl off a Duncan or Splitter pick may not be the most exciting play, but when executed correctly, can be just as devastating as a Kevin Durant dagger three. Tony's simple pass to the roll man or to the corner shooter is never too close to an epiphany, but the realization that it's the smart play to make heightens my appreciation for Parker's fundamentals.

Yes, it's not just about circus shots or artistic plays. Sometimes, making the right play -- as ordinary as it can be -- is good, too, and more often than not leads to a lot of wins.

Indeed, in giving praise to Parker's growth, focusing on the journey rather than the destination becomes a more fulfilling act. While it will be really difficult to win a title without any of our Big Three, I'm more confident in saying that after this season, Tony Parker finally deserves a legitimate, equal place, as part of one of the best trios in the history of the sport.

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