Nothing generates more heated arguments than sports media's main offseason page filler: ranking players and teams. Above all else, as hardcore fans, we crave universal recognition that our favorite player is superior, and all other fans are poo poo heads for preferring someone else.
In this year's rankings, Tony Parker was usually in the 5-7 range, Tim Duncan landed anywhere between 8 and 25, while Manu dropped to the bottom of the list. When Aaron Stampler published his own list, ranking Tim Duncan at #2 behind the freak of nature in South Beach, most readers took it as a joke, as Tony Parker is clearly the best player on the San Antonio Spurs, and our beloved Timmy has declined too far to be a top player. Obviously. No question. Right?
The biggest problem with player ratings is that basketball is a team sport, and no single player, no matter how talented, can win all by himself. Every player on the team makes an impact on other players. Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, Isiah Thomas, Larry Bird, and Tim Duncan have always understood it very well. Tony Parker? I saw some flashes of comprehension at Eurobasket this summer, but we'll see if he fully gets it just yet.
Before everyone gets indignant with me about the high level of Tony's game in the past few years, consider these stats for a moment:
San Antonio 2012-2013 regular season win rate: 0.707
Win rate without Tony Parker: 0.688
Win rate without Tim Duncan: 0.615
Win rate without Manu Ginobili: 0.591
Wait, what? The team did almost the same without Parker, but struggled without Ginobili?
Well, just as any basketball stat, this one needs to be taken with a grain of salt. No one is suggesting that Manu Ginobili was the most skilled or productive player on the Spurs last season, yet he was unquestionably a game changer, and so was Tim Duncan. Since the objective of the game is to outscore the opposing team and only one player on the team can score at at time, the most valuable players are those who maximize their team's ability to score and to keep the other team from scoring. Because that's done in numerous ways by five players simultaneously a single player's efficiency for optimum team performance is impossible to determine by raw stats. Not only must you look at a player's individual contribution, but how he impacts the performance of his teammates.
Let's look at Tony's performance as a point guard. This past season the Spurs had the 2nd best FG% and the highest team APG, while their star point guard was only 6th in the league in APG, responsible for just 30% of the team assists. These numbers alone give substance to the criticism that TP9 is a shoot-first guard. Moreover, the team APG without Parker playing was the same as with him, indicating that his assist numbers are a natural result of his role rather than elite playmaking. Slightly lower win and FG percentages without Parker indicate that he is an efficient passer (not surprising with his experience and established chemistry) and that the Spurs create better shots with him on the floor. This also means that the more he creates for others, the better the team will score, but he probably doesn't create enough.
You might justify his shoot-first tendency with his high FG percentage vs team average, but those numbers are just as misleading as any other basketball stat. Season stats are averages, which means that 99% FG rate against the Bobcats offsets the 20-35% shooting against elite teams like Miami, OKC, and NY. He won't be combating the Bobcats in the playoffs, however. When playing against a tough defense, the Spurs must improve their shooting efficiency by making more uncontested shots. Instead, we've seen games where the defense closes in on Tony, and yet he keeps making bad shots instead of finding open teammates. Of course, the teammates are responsible for creating open looks or cutting to the basket, but it's still Parker's job to make lemonade.
Don't get me wrong - I adore Tony. He's my second favorite Spur of all time. I want him to retire as a Spur with a few more rings and awards. It's not just his breathtaking shooting antics or the heart-melting charm of a hyperactive puppy (which he maintains while rocking an unshaven mug of a 45-year-old), but also his dedication and being such a key part of the "Spurs culture". We've watched him grow up in San Antonio both as a person and a ballplayer. He's gone from a "can't hit the side of a barn" to a "holy mackerel!" kind of shooter -- one of the most efficient in the league.
Parker's an ambitious young man who's neither naturally humble or low-key. He has nevertheless shown excellent work ethic and coachability, spending his entire career in the shadow of Teemee (while other teams have imploded from ego struggles) and has conformed with the franchise's focus on avoiding bad publicity -- his stormy love life nonwithstanding. Tony Parker has put in the hard work and developed from an obscure low draft pick to a superstar who now routinely makes the top-10 list. His continued commitment to the team is a big part of what makes the Spurs special: their enviable chemistry, unselfishness, togetherness, and class.
So why am I picking on him? Because he's still got a ways to go -- and I believe he can do it. Tony's speed and stamina are naturally declining and his talent has likely reached its ceiling, but there's no reason he can't improve his game by taking a page out of Tim Duncan's book by becoming a smarter player.
Tim Duncan's name nowadays never gets mentioned without his age. Everyone keeps waiting for him to succumb to the forces of nature while gushing over his still-elite game. What they forget is that Timmy was never a physical player relying on his athleticism, but a well-rounded player with high basketball IQ. He was already a complete player out of college and has only gotten better with age.
Still one of the best rim defenders in the league while rarely fouling, his block percentage last year was the career high and 4thbest in the league (other writers have covered his defensive efficiency in more details -- look it up). Despite playing without knee cartilage, Timmy has consistently improved his jumper and free throws and still puts up the same per-minute scoring and rebounding numbers as in his "prime". His assist numbers are at the top of his career as well, even though they now rarely run offense through him, with low turnovers.
The difference between Duncan's game then and now is that now he plays less minutes and the Spurs do not use him as the first offensive option. Yet, when needed, he can still take over the other end and put up an insane 30-15-6-4 game. Over the hill? Says who? He's in better health than many young players courtesy of his game smarts and has a more ripped physique than he did at 25. My favorite moments are his fast breaks. On a knee brace. Against younger teams. In decline, indeed.
What really makes Duncan one of the greatest of all time is his adaptability: diversifying his skills and expanding his game at all times; adapting his moves to compensate for the aging body; modifying his strategy against different opponents; being the ultimate team player who knows when to take a shot and when to pass, when to lead, and when to take a backseat. He just keeps playing smarter, and Tony Parker needs to learn from him.
After this summer, I expect Tony to come back more aggressive, more confident, and more comfortable with being a leader. Now, if he only makes a slight leap in his understanding of teamwork and efficiency, he'll easily occupy the much-craved top league PG spot as well as winning the MVP and Finals MVP awards. He might never be as good as Tim Duncan, but we are lucky to have both.
Of course, that's just my opinion. Everyone else is free to disagree, if they want to be a poo poo head.