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Which Point Guard Fits The Sixers Better?

Point guard has become an incredibly important position in the modern NBA. However, it can sometimes be difficult to garner exactly why each point guard is successful. In this piece, I use Seth Partnow's "Point Guard Personality" rubric, which works sort of like a Meyers-Briggs test for point guards, to do just that. By looking at both Russell's and Mudiay's styles of play, we can perhaps determine which would fit better in Philadelphia.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a phrase repeated so often on LB that it’s almost become a cliche. Point guard is the easiest position to fill in the NBA. We can always pick up a point guard later. While this mindset is largely true, it fails to account for the stylistic tendencies of individual players. Is he a pass-first or a shoot-first player? Is he effective off the ball? Is he more of a combo guard or a true point guard?

Each of those designations may be beside the point as well. The truth is that very few point guards play exactly the same way, and even calling someone a "true" point guard fails to describe the qualities that combine to make him more "true" than other players. This can be a tricky thing to evaluate in the NBA itself, and it holds especially true when trying to project prospective players’ abilities at the next level.

This difficulty has held true in our discussions about D’Angelo Russell and Emmanuel Mudiay. We’ve had experience with players who somewhat resemble each of them, and thus think we know what we want from our point guard position and how closely Russell and Mudiay would fulfill our desires. However, I would posit that our declarations on this matter amount to little more than assertions. With this post, I am hoping to key in on some central aspects of point guard play, evaluate how Russell and Mudiay relate to the rest of the league, and then extrapolate that information to come to a conclusion about how their play would fit within this Sixers’ organization.

Putting Point Guards In a Box

At the beginning of last season, Seth Partnow invented a rubric meant to glean more information about specific point guard play. He titled his piece, "Putting Point Guards in a Box," and wrote about four specific aspects of point guard play which could be evaluated from a pure volume standpoint, not efficiency. In essence, he was assessing players’ styles, not their effectiveness. That is to say, it is possible for two players to have completely different styles of play but largely equivalent value, like Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook. Alternatively, two players could have very similar styles of play, but wildly differing values, like Patty Mills and Isaiah Canaan. It is important to remember that no single style is intrinsically more valuable than another, and that this "personality test" for point guards merely captures how someone plays rather than how well he does so.

This also only takes the offensive side into account, as that is what most people talk about when discussing "true" point guard play. Any comparison of defensive attributes can be done in other ways.

Partnow breaks point guard play down into 4 main components. The first is also the most basic—is he a pass first point guard or a shoot first point guard? This seems like it can be gleaned rather intuitively by merely watching a game, but our intuition is not always accurate. Partnow uses a ratio of FGA to Assist Chances to quantify this metric. "Pass first" players have a ratio of less than one (Ricky Rubio, Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo), while "shoot first" players have a ratio of greater than one (Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook, Patrick Beverley). I have approximated this value by substituting "assists" for "assist chances," as the NCAA does not record chances.

The second component is what he calls "driving" versus "probing." It aims to see how frequently point guards drive. Partnow uses SportVU to determine the number of drives, but I lack that information for college players, so I again had to approximate the value, this time using FTA’s as my metric.

These two metrics alone give a decent idea of a player’s style. A drive-heavy, pass-first point guard conjures up a specific image very quickly—Ricky Rubio or Rajon Rondo. So does a drive-heavy, shoot-first point guard—Derrick Rose or Russell Westbrook. But Partnow uses two more elements to parse out a bit more.

The first of these is "on-ball" versus "off-ball" players. This gives more information about a player’s role in the offense. While Patrick Beverley is a shoot first player, he operates in a mainly off-ball role, which is wholly different from Westbrook, who shoots first, but largely dominated the ball this season. I simply used usage rate for this component.

The final ingredient is whether someone is a floor-spacer or a non-shooter. That is, if you station him in the corner off the ball, will he stress the defense, or be ignored. Again, a rather simple metric can be used to approximate this value—3PA per 40 minutes in this case. In all cases, the metrics are imperfect, but they do provide a strong estimation of play, and that is the goal here.

After compiling these metrics for all of the players, Partnow and I then standardized the numbers such that 100 is league average. Here are what these stats look like for Steph Curry, Chris Paul, and Russell Westbrook, who are largely considered the three best point guards in the league:

Player Shoot 1st Driver On Ball Floor Spacer
Steph Curry 110 96 96 202
Chris Paul 61 68 115 100
Russell Westbrook 113 128 152 102

Paul is clearly a "pass-first" player, with a score well below 100. Westbrook is less extreme of a "shoot-first" player than might have been expected, and Curry is about as likely to pass as he is to shoot, as related to the rest of the league. You can see that all three take very different approaches to this single aspect of their position, and yet all three are wildly successful.

CP3 is more likely to probe than drive, as he slowly jukes his way towards the elbows and shows or passes. Westbrook is by far the most prolific driver. All three are ball-dominant players, and Curry’s floor spacing numbers are off the charts.

Partnow takes another step in his piece by creating a radial chart to visualize what each of these numbers mean. Here is Curry’s chart with Partnow's numbers for 2014-15:

Curry-Partnow

The diamond that is most inside represents league average (100). Any portion of the web inside that diamond is less than league average, while anything outside it is more. Again, more does not necessarily mean better, as these numbers delineate style, not success.

For comparison, here is Chris Paul’s chart:

Paul-Partnow

And finally, Russell Westbrook's:

RWB-Partnow

76ers’ Point Guard Personalities

While these charts may help to understand style of play, I thought it would be most useful to take a look at the three players who played the majority of minutes at the point guard slot in Philadelphia this season. After all, familiarity makes everything easier to understand.

Player Shoot 1st Driver On Ball Floor Spacer
Michael Carter-Williams 91 138 119 57
Ish Smith 87 69 109 59
Isaiah Canaan 170 67 96 214

This information can give us a bit of a window into what Hinkie wants in his team. Fan frustrations have certainly run high with Isaiah Canaan this year, but he’s a fairly unique player who brings value to the Sixers in his skill set alone. Of the 57 point guards I included in this metric, the one who most closely resembles Canaan is Patty Mills:

Player Shoot 1st Driver On Ball Floor Spacer
Patty Mills 170 51 98 186

Patty-Partnow

Ish Smith may be misrepresented by the "driver" statistic. Most of us would agree that he frequently drove to the hoop, but as he was rarely fouled, it doesn’t show up in this particular statistic. Most else jives with perception, though. Canaan is off the charts as a non-passer and as a floor-spacer, while simultaneously rarely looking to get to the basket. MCW does a bit of everything, but cripples a team’s spacing. Ish looks to get his teammates involved, but needs the ball to do so.

Hinkie has also admitted to having tried to acquire Canaan twice—once in the draft, and once (successfully) through trade. It is a fair assumption that Canaan’s style is one that Hinkie finds attractive as a part of a competitive team, even if Canaan may not be the player who provides it when all is said and done.While Canaan may not have been popular in his first year in Philadelphia, Mills’ success in San Antonio provides a formula to augment Canaan's contributions. Mills played the majority of his minutes along a creative 2-guard with supreme passing ability in Manu Ginobili. If Canaan’s game were to be supplemented with a similar player, his value could perhaps come to approximate Mills’s in time.

Smith and MCW, meanwhile, provide an interesting study in how effectiveness can change player perception among fans (and among the NBA community at large). The two have very similar styles according to this rubric, especially if we credit Smith to be more of a driver than this number claims. Both are more likely to pass than shoot, both are relatively ball-dominant, and both are non-threats from three-point land.

MCW-Partnow

(This is using Partnow's numbers for each individual team as opposed to mine for the entire season, but you can still see his personality in it.)

What Smith and Carter-Williams seem to illustrate, above all, is the importance of efficiency and effectiveness. This is not a novel concept, but it is nonetheless noteworthy. MCW’s presence torpedoed an already poor offense. His extra usage in comparison to Smith looms large given the disparity in efficiency. Those extra possessions wound up being detrimental to the Sixers’ offense as they led to low-percentage shots. Smith, meanwhile, is similar, but more effective, as the possessions that did not end in his hands largely went to teammates with better opportunities. The disparity is clear when looking at the Sixers’ offensive rating—91.5 before the All-Star break with MCW in the lineup, and 95.6 after the All-Star break with Ish.

Neither offense is good, but an increase of 4 points per 100 possessions is still significant—the difference between the Orlando Magic’s 27th ranked offense and the Houston Rockets’ 12th rated one.

Smith also seems to point to a conclusion that runs counter to what most people would think after a season and a half of MCW: lack of three-point shooting at the point guard spot does not necessarily destroy an offense. Spacing can only really be seen as a positive coming from any position, but this merely demonstrates that it is not a prerequisite to a successful offense.

Russell and Mudiay

So what does this tell us about the two point guard prospects who may still join the team on Thursday? Quite a bit, actually.

Player Shoot 1st Driver On Ball Floor Spacer
Emmanuel Mudiay 113 128 129 80
D'Angelo Russell 126 136 134 159

The biggest difference between the two is exactly what would have been expected—3-point shooting. Russell is an ace shooter while Mudiay is considerably below average. As we just covered with MCW and Ish, though, a lack of shooting does not necessarily portend poor offense. Surprisingly, these two actually share quite a bit in common. Neither player is of the "pass-first" variety that many consider a requirement to be called a "true" point guard. Both score highly on the "driving" metric, and surprisingly, Russell appears to drive more frequently than Mudiay. Both are ball-dominant players, with high usage rates well above what would have been league average from the position.

Mudiay-Partnow

Voodoo-Partnow

Mudiay’s style is very close to Carter-Williams’s. Both are ball-dominant point guards who like to drive and are more likely to look for their own shot than a teammate’s. Both struggle to shoot from distance. However, as I’ve mentioned plenty of times throughout this piece, stylistic similarities do not, by any means, correlate with production ability. We saw with Smith that a player who tends towards MCW’s approach can be far more effective than MCW himself was.

That’s really what it comes down to for Mudiay—he will need to raise his efficiency. An offense run by Mudiay would likely look quite similar to the one the Sixers ran with MCW. Mudiay would need a lot of the ball, and much of the offense would be derived from his drives to the hoop. There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic that a Mudiay-centric offense would be more effective than a MCW one, too. Most obvious is his age-- Mudiay will be 19 when he is drafted, 3 years younger than MCW when he entered the league. Secondly, Mudiay seems to have a better handle already, and is likely to be a better finisher at the rim, largely because of his superior strength and body.

Another player whose style somewhat resembles Mudiay's is Tyreke Evans. He's not a perfect example, but can still be informative. Though Mudiay is undoubtedly a better and more willing passer than Evans was at the same point in their development, Evans is still a high usage driver, with a suspect jump shot, something that could describe Mudiay to a T. For Mudiay to be more effective than Evans, he would need to create one elite skill to make up for his jumper—probably finishing at the rim.

Russell, meanwhile, doesn't resemble any of the players from last year's Sixers' squad. He would present Brett Brown with a type of offensive player that he hasn't been able to work with to this point. In fact, Russell's closest NBA comparison, in terms of style, is one that I haven't seen made very frequently:

Player Shoot 1st Driver On Ball Floor Spacer
D'Angelo Russell 126 136 134 159
Damian Lillard 117 138 120 159

Lillard and Russell are almost exact in the ways they match up. Russell was more ball-dominant in college than Lillard was last season, but it is entirely possible that would regress given a stronger set of teammates around him, as Lillard possessed. This is a comparison I like a lot for something that doesn't show up in these stats as well-- ability to shoot off the dribble threes. This is an enormous component of both of their games, and one that really ties the two together stylistically.

Again, we have no way of knowing whether Russell would do anything as well as Lillard does when he moves to the next level, but we can say with some confidence that their styles will resemble each other. If Hinkie picks Russell, perhaps we would be well-served to watch footage the Trail Blazers to get a better understanding of what the team's offense might look like next year.

A second similarity is Isaiah Thomas, who Partnow uses as a prototype for the "scoring point guard."

Thomas-Partnow

Russell is a more prolific shooter, but the two profile very similarly beyond that.

Conclusion

I hope that this has gone some way towards dispelling the myth that there is a "right" way to play point, and that there is a correct configuration for constituting a "true" point guard. Each player brings something unique and different to the table. The best that a coaching staff can do is meld those distinct qualities together to form the most cohesive unit possible. This exercise demonstrates the myriad types of point guards that can lead to that cohesion, and shows that any number of them can be effective.

The matter of who fits best with this Sixers team should really be irrelevant. Styles similar to Mudiay's have been proven to be successful, just as styles similar to Russell's have. Our true takeaway should be that the "type" of point guard matters more within the context of a team that has already been built, and in that case, you need to already have the talent in place. We've repeated it time and time again in this place, but it just shows, again, the importance of selecting the best talent available. In a world in which both Mudiay and Russell can be successful as point guards stylistically, what matters most is how effective you think they will be in implementing their styles. And even more importantly, selecting the best talent may not even mean one of these point guards, but could be any number of other players as well.

I'm excited to see what Sam Hinkie decides to do.

Special thanks to Seth Partnow, both for the concept that serves as the framework for this piece, and for the radial charts that he very kindly provided. Check him out at NylonCalculus, the Washington Post, and TrueHoop's ClipperBlog.