Glenn Guzzo

 

Prove it with Strat-O-Matic:

The NBA is a Guard’s League Now

 

By Glenn Guzzo

 

            Short on quality big men who can dominate inside, the National Basketball Association now turns to its smaller players for big points and big minutes.

 

            You can prove it by exploring the new Strat-O-Matic basketball cards.

 

            Point guard Steve Nash has won the league’s MVP award two seasons running, literally. Eight of the league’s top 10 scorers in 2005-06 were guards. All of the top six minutemen – every player who averaged more than 40.5 minutes per game – was a guard.

 

            Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Nash and Chauncey Billups are guys to build a champion SOM team around. Gilbert Arenas, Paul Pierce, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili aren’t far behind.

 

            Because the NBA’s gifted athletes play a fluid game, this analysis makes some arbitrary cutoffs on who qualifies for the list of the best guard cards.

 

            We count James and Pierce, whose cards show Right Forward as their primary position, but who are also rated at guard and play more like the guards they have been most of their careers.

 

            We exclude Kevin Garnett and Tracy McGrady, who have guard ratings in the new card set, but who mostly play big with cards that reflect their strength inside.

 

            That said, the guards have the luster. Yes, power forwards Elton Brand and Dirk Nowitzki have “franchise” cards, but that’s about it for the big men in the competition for greatest new cards. Forwards Chris Bosh, Paul Gasol, Shawn Marion and Carmelo Anthony make mighty impressions, but can’t carry a team the way the others named so far can. Yao Ming is coming on, but is a level away from greatness. All-time greats Garnett, Tim Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal are still good, but have seen better cards.

 

            We are just as tough judging the guards. The list of great cards below doesn’t include top-10 NBA scorers Michael Redd and Ray Allen who, like Jason Terry, are big-time outside shooters, but who don’t sizzle in all the categories the top guys dominate. The list doesn’t include high scorers Vince Carter, Jason Richardson, Ricky Davis and Rip Hamilton, whose cards are better than fine, but don’t make your eyes pop. It doesn’t include Jameer Nelson, Mike James or Chris Paul, thrilling youngsters who still need to work on some parts of their game. It doesn’t include savvy veterans Andre Miller and Jason Kidd, who are still valuable, but are showing their age.

 

            Here are the 10 brightest stars and what makes their cards so stratospheric, so to speak.

 

LeBron James. Third in the NBA in scoring average (31.4) and second in minutes (42.5/game), King James has the most unstoppable scoring card. Counting open shots as points (we should – teammate PG Eric Snow has 16 chances in his passing column to create Open Shots), James has no chance to miss from Outside and only five of 36 chances (including the automatic block at roll #9) to miss at Penetration.  He’ll score at any range and get most foes into foul trouble. But he also dazzles as a passer – only Nash and Billups are better playmakers in the set offense.

            Imperfection: Defense X column.

 

Kobe Bryant. With scant teammate help, Bryant’s card has to give him the chance to be the NBA’s leading scorer (35.4) while being assaulted by every opponent’s best two defenders. It does: He’s top 3 at almost everything – shooting, defending, rebounding – and for 41 minutes per game.

            Imperfection: No dazzlers, but ample Open Shot passing chances.

 

Dwyane Wade. You think Wade gets all the calls when he drives to the hoop? Looks that way on his card. But he does almost everything spectacularly well: Shooting, passing, rebounding and defending, too. What a star.

            Imperfection: He has zero chance to hit a 3-pointer on his own card. 

 

Steve Nash. If you’re lucky, really lucky, you might catch Nash on an off-shooting night. He’s got the best 3-point shooting of anyone on this list, trails only James, Bryant and Ginobili for fewest misses Outside, ties Parker for best Fastbreak shooting and, like everyone on this list, is dynamite at Penetration. But no team can stop Nash’s team from scoring because of those 18 dazzler chances in the set offense (and 14 more on the break). Whoosh.

            Imperfection: Defense. Some of this is Nash, some is Phoenix’ up-tempo game that dares opponents to outscore the Suns. He’ll outscore his man, but won’t stop him.

 

Chauncey Billups. His 18.5 points per game and 41.8 percent FG shooting make him unlikely for this list, but there are so many ways this guy beats you, he’s unstoppable in his own right. You can’t Sag on him, or he’ll nail 3s (16 out of 36 chances). You can’t guard him Close, because he’s a foul-drawing machine (the best on this list of dominators) who makes 89 percent of his free throws. So he scores. He’s even better at helping his teammates score, with 16 dazzlers in each of his set-offense and fast-break passing columns. He creates no turnovers in the set offense and he’s a shutdown defender: Blank Penetration and Fastbreak X columns, 0 fouls, the max six turnovers on press defense.

            Imperfection: Despite the foul-drawing, his shooting columns have more misses than the other superstars here. Most of his FGs will come on 3s.

 

Paul Pierce. A scoring machine (26.8 ppg, sixth in the NBA) at guard, right forward and left forward, Pierce fills it up in every shooting column. He’s nearly perfect Outside and superb everywhere else, including a devastating foul-drawing card. He has a forward’s great rebounding rating (1 offense, 30 defense).

            Imperfection: The X-column defense (2-4 Outside, 2-6, 10 Penetration and Fastbreak) and Fastbreak Passing (3 dazzlers, 0 FB shots) look more like a so-so small forward.

 

Allen Iverson. He might carry a lot of baggage off the court, but he carries the load on it. He takes his shots (the NBA’s second leading scorer at 33 ppg), but he plays a team game: 43 minutes (NBA #1), is a shutdown defender (blank Penetration and Fastbreak X-columns, 0 fouls, 7 steals, 6 press turnovers) and commits no turnovers in the set offense, with fine passing.

            Imperfection: His rebounding (1 offense, 2 defense) isn’t much in this group, but it will hold up against most other opponents.

 

Tony Parker. You can see the quicksilver on this card – speed to burn from a guard who grabs the defensive rebound (9), then leads the break (11 fastbreak dazzlers) with premier ability to finish it himself. No one on this list of superstars has fewer misses in the Fastbreak and Penetration shooting columns. Parker is tough to defend in the set offense, too, a constant threat Outside to go with the superb Penetration.

            Imperfection: He plays small-ball (no Inside game and little foul drawing), but also doesn’t hit the 3.

 

Gilbert Arenas. Playing 42 minutes, Arenas will confound opponents all game. There’s his deadly Outside column and quality 3-point shooting (13 of 36 chances). Then there’s a lethal Penetration column and intimidating foul-drawing (with 83 percent free-throw shooting) that allows him to post up Inside. That adds to a 29.3 ppg average, fourth best in the NBA.

            Imperfection: Arenas is a capable defender, not a shutdown guy. As a passer, he hits the open man, but doesn’t dazzle.

 

Manu Ginobili. He barely makes this list, but he’s too explosive to leave off. Only James and Pierce on this list have fewer misses Outside. But Ginobili penetrates and finishes fast breaks almost as well, drawing many fouls. His rebounding (9 defense) and steals (21-28, tops on this list) will get him to that Fastbreak column often.

            Imperfection: See Arenas and add this: Ginobili averaged only 28 minutes per game.

 

Rankings

Fewest shooting-column misses (Outside, Penetration, Fastbreak): James (12), Pierce (15), Bryant and Parker (17), Nash (19), Iverson (20), Wade and Arenas (21), Ginobili (22). “Worst”: Billups (30).

 

3-point shooting: Billups and Nash (16 of 36 chances), then Arenas, Bryant and Ginobili (13). Worst: Wade (0), Parker (2).

 

Drawing fouls: Billups and Pierce (63 chances among four shooting columns), Arenas (62) and Wade (60), followed by Ginobili (56) and Iverson (54), then James (51) and Bryant (50). “Worst”: Nash and Parker (29)

 

Free-throw shooting: Nash (33 of 36 chances), Billups (32), Bryant and Iverson (31), Arenas (30). “Worst”: Parker (25).

 

Shot frequency: All of these guys will get their shots. James, Bryant, Wade, Iverson, Arenas and Pierce are all 3-rated shooters. The other four are 1-rated.

 

Passing: All of these guys make their teammates better, but no one more spectacularly than Nash (18 dazzlers in set offense, 14 on fast break) and Billups (16 dazzlers + 4 open shots in set offense, 16 dazzlers on fast break). Then it’s James (10+8 set, 7+7 FB shot fastbreak) and Wade (8+10 set, 9 fastbreak dazzlers), then Parker (2+17 set, 11 fastbreak dazzlers). “Worst”: Three have no dazzlers, but Ginobili (16 open shots set, 11 FB shots on fastbreak), Bryant (11 and 15) and Arenas (10 and 15) all hit the open man.

 

Rebounding: Pierce (1 offense/30 defense) and James (1/28), then Wade (2/13), Bryant (1/11), Parker and Ginobili (1/9) and Nash (1/8). “Worst”: Iverson (1/2).

 

X-Defense: Billups, Bryant, Parker and Wade all have blank columns for Penetration and Fastbreak, with 2-5,11 Outside. Iverson has the blanks, too, but 2-6, 10 outside. Worst: Nash is 2-6, 10 in all three of these columns. James is 2-5, 10 Outside and 2-6, 10 Penetration and Fastbreak.

 

Fouling: Eight of these guys have no fouls in their defense column. Arenas and Ginobili have five chances (out of 45) each.

 

Steals/press turnovers: Ginobili has 8 steals (the most on this list) and 5 press-turnover chances (out of a possible 6). Bryant, Iverson and Wade have 7 steals and the maximum 6 press-turnover chances. Billups and Parker also have 6 press-turnover chances, but only 1 steal. Worst: Nash (1 steal, 3 press turnovers). 

 

Playing time (minutes per game): Iverson and James (43), Arenas (42) and Bryant (41), then Pierce and Wade (39). “Worst”: Ginobili (28).