Nice Read By ROB MAHONEY Tony Parker an underrated superstar for the San Antonio Spurs | The Point Forward - SI.com
Tony Parker is averaging 22.1 points and 8.3 assists for the Spurs this season. (D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via (Getty Images)
The career and exploits of Tony Parker are bound by two somewhat circular qualities: 1) Parker’s stardom is muted by playing for the Spurs, a team with more in the way of accomplishment than public appeal.
2) It’s unlikely that Parker would be the player he is today if not for Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan and the San Antonio organization, which is arguably the finest-run franchise in professional sports.
Try as he might, Parker can’t extricate himself from this Catch-22. His perpetual dark-horse status isn’t just an unfortunate side effect of playing for the often-discounted Spurs (the season’s quietest winners of 10 consecutive games), but a central component of his NBA character.
He fits the mold of the underappreciated star so well because he was cast in it from the start. Parker carved out a career by playing in Duncan’s shadow, and it’s because of that shield (from defensive attention and public scrutiny, among other things) that he was allowed to develop at his own pace. It takes a special mix to refine a perennial All-Star from the 28th pick in the draft, and yet Parker and Popovich — by exhibiting a patience unfound in today’s NBA — made the process look so easy.
The payoff for that process has been years in the making, with Parker transitioning from a complementary role as a Duncan sidekick to a more crucial position as the true caretaker of the offense. Yet even that evolution hasn’t made Parker a superstar.
It’s all too fitting that just as Parker assumed a more prominent role with the Spurs and moved to the brink of a newfound relevance, it was Duncan who unintentionally undercut him from the public attention he’s long deserved. All parties involved are better off with a renewed Duncan, but the aging big man’s individual renaissance this season has again reverted Parker to second billing. Duncan is the X-factor that makes these Spurs a more balanced and viable team than they were a season ago, but underneath it all Parker is the unthanked constant. It’s by his steady hand that Popovich’s reimagined offense functions, and we’d be remiss to overlook yet another brilliant campaign from a player so skilled and so curious. Parker is the reason the Spurs work, and his play deserves consideration on its own terms.
One needs no more proof of Parker’s power than the fact that everyone on the court knows where he wants to go with the ball and yet no stopper or defensive scheme can consistently keep him from getting there. That’s quite a feat for a 30-year-old guard who is no longer the fastest guy on the court on many nights. He may have once relied on burst speed to get all the way to the rim, but these days Parker generates his offensive advantages based on a quick first step and the power of hesitation. Few defenders can keep pace with his start-and-stop ignition, and that unpredictable timing makes even the most familiar opponents vulnerable to his fakes and feints.
Parker really shines once he breaks down the initial defense. There is no skill more important for today’s ball handlers than the ability to manipulate the back line, and Parker has proved to be one of the best in the game in toying with the expectations of shot blockers. The stutter-stepping is one thing, but Parker is truly empowered by the threat of his floater. After Parker beats a defender on the perimeter, opposing big men have little choice but to step up immediately and aggressively to close off any opening for his teardrop runner. But in doing so, they’ve willingly surrendered yet another advantage. Parker is neither big enough nor strong enough to contend physically with opposing bigs, but he’s fantastic at keeping them on his hip and extending laterally to create angles around the basket. The underlying concept is essentially identical to the mechanism behind good post play; by keeping his body in between the defender and the shot attempt, a shooter denies contesting angles, draws fouls more consistently and makes the release less predictable.
And while opponents are occupied in their attempts to peg Parker’s timing and mitigate his threat to score, the corners are often left exposed. Popovich’s offenses have banked on that vulnerability for years, and even opponents who are aware of that pass-out avenue often fall victim to the lure of Parker’s drives. He’s too good at the rim to leave to a single defender, and thus defenders are forced to fight against their every instinct to over-help and surrender an open three-pointer in the process. It doesn’t help matters that Parker’s familiarity with the system makes him one of the most potent assist-men on corner threes in the league, and he has great discretion with corner feeds he’s willing to make.
Parker’s game juxtaposes that kind of safe decision making with a flirtation with irresponsible play. His passes and handle are generally quite controlled, but Parker’s trips into the lane typically involve holding out until the last possible moment before executing a shot or pass, as to absorb the most defensive attention or generate a particularly unexpected opportunity. He also may be the best in the NBA in playing possum. It’s not uncommon to see Parker circle out of a pick-and-roll or a drive with his back toward the basket and his defender — a decision that is in part a guise to protect the ball. Some defenders play this for the ploy that it is, but others enthusiastically take Parker’s bait by lunging at his dribble on one side or the other, allowing Parker to counter-spin easily and create a wide-open driving lane. That’s not the kind of move that any coach would ever teach a player, but it is epitomical of the kinds of gambits prevalent in Parker’s game. He may be the league’s safest risky point guard — a byproduct of merging a savoir-faire style with plenty of experience.
As much as Duncan’s re-emergence has helped the Spurs this season, it’s that wild streak — compounded by the flair of Manu Ginobili — that gives San Antonio’s offense its life. Parker isn’t just a driving point guard finding his teammates; he’s a creative threat from every point within the three-point arc. A single screen opens up Parker for a mid-range jumper, which he makes at a 48.3 percent clip. An attack of the dribble earns a look from the high paint, a shot that Parker converts 46.4 percent of the time. Any slighter opening gets Parker all the way to the basket, where he finishes 64.8 percent of his attempts when excluding his incredible foul-drawing potential. He gets where he needs to go and converts shots at uncommon rates — so much so that only a handful of guards in NBA history have scored so frequently while posting such a ridiculous field-goal percentage (53.4). Parker doesn’t take shots he can’t make, largely because he plays for the right kinds of shots and understands the value that can come from dragging out a possession.
And so he waits — for a quick pick-and-roll to reset at the top of the floor, for a fast break to bleed into a secondary opportunity and for a drive to the rim to create looks for open shooters. Parker’s judgment wasn’t always so sound, but his years under Popovich have taught him the value of a shot or pass not attempted. Such a sophisticated command of the offense may seem out of character for a guard once defined by his breakneck speed, but this is simply the kind of player that Parker has become.
Perhaps it’s for that reason that even the heights of Parker’s career are somewhat silent — there’s just nothing all that sexy about outstanding shot selection or sterling offensive control. Parker can score, dish and run an elite offensive team. But his game is so smooth that it’s almost forgettable, no matter the fact that his unique discretion provides the catalyst for a fantastic career and a clear-cut contender.