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Tony Parker is better than you think he is

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He's a four-time NBA Champion, but chances are that you credit his teammates, his coach or the system he plays in for that. Even though he won the Finals MVP in 2007, you probably feel certain that it was set up by Tim Duncan's defensive excellence. He's never played less than 80 percent of his team's regular season games, but he's just this skinny little French guard, right?

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I often lose track of time. With Tony Parker, I've lost track of an entire career. Has he really been in the league for thirteen years? He and I are only a year apart in age, but suddenly it’s like Tony is ten years my senior. As with all great tragedies, the steady invisibility of Tony's greatness comes with its share of irony. It’s somehow axiomatic that, of all the Spurs, Parker is most prone to self-promotion. He married (and divorced) an actress. He's got rap songs. He's part-owner of a professional basketball club. Throughout his career, he's been rumored to be eyeing New York or the Lakers as possible destinations in free agency. As the speediest Spur for nearly the past dozen years, it just seemed preordained that Tony would be the first man out of Texas if things ever started going south.

Based on that faulty logic, it was easy to call for trading Tony in the aftermath of more recent Spurs playoff losses. After all, if he was going to leave anyway and play the Frodo who sets off on his own path and breaks up the Big Three's beautiful Fellowship, wouldn't it make sense to recoup the loss? Those thoughts became like mercury in the bloodstream, poisoning me against the Spurs' most reliable star without my even realizing it. Though the Spurs have recovered from their seven year winter, it's as easy as ever to overlook Tony in favor of tossing bouquets at Tim, Pop, and young Kawhi Leonard. Even Manu has stayed in the limelight thanks to his sleeper hit summertime medical drama (I'm calling it The Argentine Diagnosis.) Meanwhile, years after I wrongly soured on the man from the land of wine and cheese, I keep forgetting to go back and correct my view of him. (If you think me disloyal, that's fine; just ask yourself this question: Minnesota calls and offers Kevin Love for Tony. What are you telling R.C. Buford?)

Ad hominem arguments aside, we can probably agree that in terms of sheer numbers, Tony Parker isn't exactly transcendent. Outside of the 5 games he spent battling Dirk Nowitzki on the Beaches of Normandy in 2009 - a series where Parker accounted for an injured Manu by going full LeBron, with a PPG and PER both around 29, a shooting percentage near 60% on 22 shots per game, and 6.8 APG - Tony's approach to scoring has always centered more on cold-blooded efficiency than overwhelming volume. Whether scoring on a backdoor cut or finding corner shooters, Parker is the purest embodiment of the good-to-great ethos. Other than that, what's distinctive about his game? The teardrop is his defining move, much like Tim's bank shot or Manu's eurostep, but what defines Tony as a player? What's his watermark on the pages of basketball legend? Tim is Fundamental, Stoic, Deliberate, Bedrock. Manu is Reckless, Daring, Inventive, Fun, Winsome, Passionate. Tony is ... Fast? Layup-prone? Often Incredulous?

I like cars, and I often use them to make sense of things. So here's a story. My family and I recently traded in our car, a Ford Flex. Fundamentally, there was nothing wrong with it. No, it wasn't the choicest trim, nor was it a flashy color. It wasn't a title contender, in other words. But it was a practical and dependable family vehicle. The car still needed some improvements, though. Since I'm unpracticed at wrenching, and I don't have any connections to Chip Foose, upgrading meant we had to trade our Flex for a better one. (Mrs. Oldmanshirt mandated I keep the monthly payment the same - a "hard cap", if you will.) So we drove 150 miles to the Ford dealer in California, MO, and drove away with another Flex. Unlike our old car, this one is black on black, has TVs in the headrests, has a big sunroof and, with a 355 horsepower twin-turbo engine, it is - as Darrell Waltrip famously quipped - "All ate up with motor." In went Mr. White, out came Heisenberg.

Fundamentally, though, I was just tweaking a few things within the confines of the salary cap. The new motor was for me, but the TVs in the back were for my kids. The sunroof was for my wife, who prefers a perforated roof to having the windows down for her wind-in-the-hair experience. Fundamentally, there was nothing wrong with our old Flex, so we just tweaked a few things and came away with an improved version of what already worked pretty well.

It's Tony Parker's consistency that has allowed the Spurs to tinker. He's taken fewer dollars than he could get on the market so his team can overcome its small-market disadvantages and offer good free agents more money. Did you catch that? I'll say it again: Tony Parker took less money to play for the Spurs! Instead of going to New York or L.A., where he'd be welcomed with open arms, he took less than market value to stay in San Antonio. Why does this not come off our spoiled Spurs fan lips more often? Why is Tony Parker, who has sacrificed money just like Tim, playing time just like Manu, and recognition just like Pop, so much easier to take for granted?

One problem might be categorization, that sacred American pastime. Tony Parker may very well be one of the Top 50 players in NBA history. In terms of being hard to label, he's without doubt in the Top, well, Something. As early as summer 2003, during the Spurs' regrettable wooing of Jason Kidd, the discussion raged as to whether or not Tony was more suited to be a point guard or a shooting guard. As a point guard, his ability to set up others seemed limited by his shoot-first tendencies (notwithstanding years such as 2009, when he was the best option); as a shooting guard, his ability to score in either spot-up situations or off the bounce was limited by, well, an inability to shoot accurately. Teams simply played off his jump shot, and the Spurs either leaned on steadier options or went home crying.

A holiday in Engelland's School of Shooting Witchcraft and Wizardry set Tony on the path to a truer jump shot, but the question still wasn't settled. What is he? Establishing his true place in the small guard hierarchy is made even more difficult by the dovetailing of Parker's prime with the primes of two of the undisputed best true point guards in NBA history: Steve Nash and Chris Paul. Unfairly, it is Parker - 5-1 combined against Nash's and Paul's teams in the playoffs - who is generally regarded as a tier below those two players. This is usually due less to hard numbers and more some to ineffable aura which fuels the adoration of both Nash and Paul. Nash is declared a player who makes his teammates better, while Paul is regarded as one of the most clutch players alive, in addition to playing basketball as something like a videogame mash-up of Bob Cousy, Kevin Johnson, and Isiah Thomas.

By those metrics, Tony does not seem to compare favorably. Because he's generally more of a warmer than a cooler in big games (Manu has often taken over point duties down the stretch while Tony plays off the ball) and because he's led his team in scoring for most of the last half-decade, Parker is regarded by both casual fans and the media as neither particularly clutch nor one who makes his teammates better. Not to put too fine a point on it, but both of those impressions are completely bogus. Like air or public WiFi, clutch Tony Parker is all around us:

So is facilitator Tony:

One reason it might be difficult to find a place for Tony Parker in the annals of league history is that it's just as difficult to define his place within Spurs history. Is he #2, behind Duncan, or does he more rightfully fall into a second tier altogether behind the traditional "Franchise Players," the guys with nicknames like Big Fundamental, Admiral, and Ice? Is he the best point guard in Spurs history? Well, between 1981-1986, Johnny Moore averaged 9.6 assists per game, a Pauline - if not Stockton-esque - number. (Moore's peak came in 1984-85, when he played all 82 games and finished third in the NBA in assists per game, second in steals, and third in 3 point percentage.) Then there's Avery Johnson, who was a champion and a more resolute distributor than Parker, and had the fourth most-recognizable nickname of any Spur.

If you feel uncomfortable confining him to the 1 spot, does Tony Parker have a case as simply the best Spurs guard ever? Do you rank him ahead of Manu, or behind him? Are they so perfectly complimentary in both their similarities and differences that they've become impossible to cross-compare, like Luke and Han, Riggs and Murtaugh, Troy and Abed? Not that this issue is unique to Tony Parker or the Spurs. Lakers fans face a similar conundrum when considering the legacy of Kobe Bryant. Is he the best ever to wear purple and gold, or merely the greatest Laker guard? Is he above Magic? What about Jerry West? The difference there is that you can easily imagine Kobe being anxious of the outcome of such an assessment. Tony Parker doesn't care. He's got another defense to break down.

So we quibble, while Tony keeps on winning rings for the Spurs. The time has gotten away from us. Have we ignored the impending downward arc of Tony Parker's incredible career, or simply acted like it doesn't matter? One day, the teardrops will stop falling. One day, number 9 will hang from the rafters of the AT&T Center. In the not-too-distant future, Tony Parker will retire. You can't argue his Hall of Fame credentials, but what defines those credentials will be fodder for decades. In the meantime, let's make sure he stays on a plinth in our minds, and keep watching and appreciating Tony Parker before he runs out of our lives for good.