To call it a problem would be too strong, but the Portland Trail Blazers do face a conundrum early in this 2008-09 season. Two weeks ago, in the wake of a thrilling win over the Houston Rockets, the big story the next day had nothing to do with the game or Brandon Roy's winning shot. Instead, the media and fans were abuzz with the news that the Spanish agent for backup point guard Sergio Rodriguez had demanded a trade in the Spanish press. Asked about the report the next day, Rodriguez wasn't as blunt, but did not exactly back down, reiterating his unhappiness with his role.
There are multiple reasons why Rodriguez has been effectively limited to the role of change-up point guard, with Steve Blake starting at the position and Roy also seeing time at the point. Many have noted that Rodriguez's game is much better suited for an up-tempo style than Blazers coach Nate McMillan's half-court-oriented system.
The bigger factor may be this: To be effective, Rodriguez needs the ball in his hands. So too does Roy, a conflict which has meant the two have spent little time on the floor together this season--just 35 minutes through the year's first nine games. Since Roy has averaged nearly 39 minutes a night, that leaves precious little time for Rodriguez.
Rodriguez's status, then, is wrapped up in a bigger question for the Blazers: How do they best complement Roy in the backcourt? Roy is part of a general class of players I'll term "initiators," who break the traditional mold of point guard, shooting guard or even small forward. While not point guards in the traditional sense, these players tend to have the ball in their hands more often than anyone else on their team because of their overall ability and the quality of their decision-making. Besides Roy, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade are obvious contemporary examples, while Michael Jordan is perhaps the ultimate progenitor of this group.
Is there a way to quantify this role? I looked at a few different options and found the most effective to be making use of the touch numbers developed by Bob Chaikin, who charted games to find the correlation between assists and passes thrown as part of the half-court offense (that is, an outlet pass from a rebounder to the point guard to walk the ball up doesn't count). While I don't have the exact formula, Neil Paine indicated on the APBRmetrics forum that the formula is approximately six touches for every pass. Adding that to the touches that end possessions (FGA, a percentage of FTA and TO), we can estimate touches per 100 team possessions. It seems like 70 is the cut-off for players who serve as their team's primary ballhandler. Here are the non-shooting guards who averaged more than 70 touches per 100 team possessions last season:
Player Tm Touch/100
Dwyane Wade MIA 89.3
LeBron James CLE 86.7
Tracy McGrady HOU 76.4
Manu Ginobili SAS 73.9
Kobe Bryant LAL 72.0
Brandon Roy POR 71.1
Intuitively, that group makes sense. Ginobili is probably the only player listed who would not have made my subjective list, while there is no glaring omission. Notably, Ginobili was also the only initiator by this method who played regularly alongside a point guard who averaged at least 70 touches per 100 possessions, Tony Parker (73.9).
Now let's take a look at the group of initiators so far in the young 2008-09 season.
Player Tm Touch/100
Dwyane Wade MIA 97.9
LeBron James CLE 97.3
Brandon Roy POR 73.8
Vince Carter NJN 73.4
This year's list is similar, though somewhat smaller. Ginobili has yet to play due to injury, of course, while McGrady's ongoing battle with injuries is partly responsible for his drop in touches (Ron Artest also presumably plays a role). Bryant, meanwhile, isn't touching the ball quite as frequently because of the Lakers' enviable depth. Vince Carter is playing some backup point guard in Devin Harris' absence, helping him join the group after just missing it last season.
The one notable absence, to me, is Memphis rookie O.J. Mayo. Actually, Mayo's potential initiator role, as discussed by the Memphis Flyer's excellent Chris Herrington in his blog, was one of the reasons I began to think about this issue. By this method, however, Mayo's relatively low assist numbers (2.8 per game through last Friday) hamper his touches; he's estimated as getting a paltry 44.0 touches per 100 possessions. That may not entirely reflect reality, but Mayo surely is going to have to become a more prolific assist collector before we can completely put him in the initiator group.
Let's get back to Roy, Rodriguez and the Blazers. The numbers illuminate the issue that Portland is facing. Last year, Rodriguez averaged a solid 75.7 touches per 100 possessions. Early this year, that's skyrocketed to 100.6, second only to Chris Paul in the league, on the strength of an incredible assist rate. Having two players with such high touch rates together would be largely unprecedented. In part, that's an effect as much as a cause--Roy has averaged just 1.1 assists per 48 minutes when paired with Rodriguez, while the point guard too sees a reduction in his assist rate--but it also reflects that such a lineup simply doesn't cater to the full talents of both players.
What kind of player makes sense alongside an initiator? The great Michael Jordan Bulls teams offer a couple of different examples. Both Ron Harper and Steve Kerr were good enough ballhandlers to keep Jordan from having to bring the ball upcourt, though neither was a true point guard. Harper brought outstanding size and length to the position as a converted shooting guard and helped anchor Chicago's defense. Kerr, meanwhile, was one of the great shooters in league history, keeping defenses honest.
In a follow-up entry, Herrington suggested three attributes of an ideal partner for Mayo that we can apply more generally:
- Would be able to bring the ball up under pressure so Mayo doesn't have to and perform other basic ball-handling point guard duties.
- Would be able to play off the ball in halfcourt sets and knock down open jumpers, particularly from three-point range.
- Would be an effective and versatile defender.
That doesn't sound that difficult. By themselves, none of those qualities is exceptionally valuable. Combining all three, however, is rarer than you might think. Let's take a look with the help of some junk stats I use to evaluate passing ability and three-point shooting. My pass rating is AST/MIN squared times AST/TO ratio times 50, while along the same lines I rate three-point shooters by three-point percentage squared times 3PA/MIN times 100. Amongst players with fewer than 70 touches per 100 team possessions, I used a minimum 1.00 pass rating to pick out players with enough ballhandling ability to run the offense as necessary and then sorted by three-point rating (minimum 1,000 minutes).
Player Touch Pass Three
Brent Barry 45.3 1.43 1.59
Damon Jones 40.3 1.55 1.50
Eddie House 49.1 1.04 1.22
Jordan Farmar 56.5 1.84 0.93
DeShawn Stevenson 46.3 1.20 0.89
Hedo Turkoglu 64.9 1.52 0.88
Steve Blake 64.8 5.31 0.83
Randy Foye 56.9 1.76 0.82
Derek Fisher 48.6 1.50 0.82
Chris Quinn 56.1 2.84 0.77
Paul Pierce 64.0 1.31 0.76
Bobby Jackson 48.8 1.19 0.75
Jason Terry 52.3 1.50 0.74
Joe Johnson 66.9 2.14 0.73
Chucky Atkins 51.3 4.24 0.72
Jamal Crawford 60.8 1.61 0.70
Rafer Alston 64.7 2.95 0.70
When we remove the players that could be considered pseudo-initiators themselves (Turkoglu, Pierce and Johnson), it becomes apparent that this group is not generally good defensively. That's why Jones, for example, wasn't a success complementing initiator James in Cleveland despite his excellent shooting. Those who do combine all three attributes, unsurprisingly, tend to already be playing alongside initiators.
Nobody has done a better job of collecting players with these attributes than the Lakers, who have veteran Fisher and up-and-coming Farmar splitting time next to Bryant. Both guys handle the ball well enough to be true point guards, yet also are dangerous off the ball because of their shooting ability. Farmar's defense has been maligned at times; still, he's more than good enough to hold his own.
Houston has had a lot of success pairing Alston in the backcourt alongside McGrady. Alston enjoyed an outstanding season in 2007-08, and the injury that limited him was as big a factor as any in the Rockets' playoff loss to the Utah Jazz. As exciting as Aaron Brooks' play as a reserve has been, Alston still tends to be a better fit alongside Houston's starting lineup at this point.
Stevenson doesn't come immediately to mind in this category, since he's been much more clearly a shooting guard over the course of his career. However, backcourt-mate Gilbert Arenas shares much in common with the initiator group even if he's labeled a point guard, and Eddie Jordan's offense asks both guards to share in ballhandling responsibilities.
For all the talk of complementing Roy, the Blazers already have a pretty good fit in Blake. His sure ballhandling is a nice fit, and Blake is plenty capable of knocking down open looks from the perimeter. The problem is that Blake, just 28, seems to have lost a step defensively. The Blazers have had major problems defending smaller guards this season, part of the reason Portland is 28th in the NBA in Defensive Rating.
As for possible trade targets, Terry could become available at some point if the Mavericks decide to shake things up. Along with Mo Williams, Cleveland's new complement to James, Terry represents the ultimate in scoring threats who don't need the ball. Even despite less-than-ideal ability on the defensive end, Terry could be an interesting fit.
The other guy worth discussing doesn't appear on this list. Kirk Hinrich, Herrington's ideal partner for an initiator, is technically ineligible because he averaged slightly too many touches per 100 possessions last year (70.9). Hinrich also would not have qualified for the list because he had an off season from the three-point line in 2007-08, hitting a career-low 35.0 percent from downtown. The year before that, Hinrich was at 41.5 percent, and even though he is better defensively against off guards he's the best defensive player in this group.
With Derrick Rose firmly establishing himself as the Bulls' future in the backcourt, Hinrich is expected to be very much on the market when he returns from surgery for a torn ligament in his thumb. At that point, he could help solve a conundrum for the Blazers or some other team trying to figure out how to complement their star initiator.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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