Gary Payton – Best PG of his Era

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The Glove Gary Payton entered the Hall of Fame weeks ago, and I, your trusted source for all the best HoF player profiles, gave you, my loyal reader(s), nothing. Absolutely nothing. It’s disgraceful. I’m a disgrace. Heartfelt apologies to you (all). I shall endeavor to do better than nothing. I think I can do that.

In a way I’m glad I waited, because I’ve seen in twitter feeds and ESPN NBA writer chats quite a bit of anti-GP sentiment coming from loudly typing fans. The words “overrated”, “average”, and “hand-check” appeared frequently. The knocks against GP are that he wasn’t a great outside shooter for a guard, and his Sonics teams underachieved in the playoffs in 1994 and 1995.

And I’m here to tell you that the people bashing away at the real Seattle’s Finest are dead wrong. Gary Payton was maybe the best guard of the hardest era to be a guard in the last 30 years or so, and if he’s not number one over that span, he’s second to Kobe Bean.

GP was drafted in 1991, and he did not impress out of the gate. Most four year players who approach All-NBA status do so quickly. Not Payton. He was a slow starter, and it didn’t help that he shared the PG duties with Nate McMillan and the scoring duties with a plethora of talented guys including Ricky Pierce. BUT Payton is one of the all-time great veteran guards. Age 28-33, only a few guards in the last 30 years are his equal. By PER Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, and John Stockton are the only guards to surpass him. Not too shabby.

Another factor that plays against GP is that he peaked at just about the hardest time to be a guard offensively and just about the best time to be a guard defensively. Not surprisingly, most people who watched him play in his prime remember him as one of if not the best defensive point guard of all time, while the younger set who look back at statistics are not impressed by his efficiency numbers.

The problem is that Payton’s best offensive years were 1997-2002. That’s after the Riley / Van Gundy Knicks demonstrated that by choking out the shot clock and using the NBA equivalent of ground and pound tactics, teams of lesser talent could give themselves a chance to beat their more gifted competitors. And it’s also before the no hand-check rule was consistently enforced. It was the worst of both worlds for players trying to score off the dribble.

For the time span of 1997-2002 Payton has the highest Win Share of any guard and is tied with Vince Carter for the 2nd highest PER behind Michael Jordan (who only played two and half out of a possible 6 seasons). It was a brutally physical era where big men were dominant except when Michael Jordan’s Bulls were still staving off the competition. Even Jordan wasn’t the best player in the league statistically in ’97 and ’98. It was Karl Malone, David Robinson, and Shaquille O’Neal at the top in terms of numbers (a clear indication that box score numbers alone are limited tools in basketball).

I think it’s an important point to stress that using metrics to try to create an unbiased measure for cross-generational comparisons is very, very (very) difficult. In fact it deserves its own post, and I’ll get to that soon. But a quick example might be helpful…

The numbers of the game are heavily determined by the pace, rules, strategies, team structure, and competition of the day. Are players today better shooters than they were in the ‘80s? That sounds like a statistically measurable question, but it isn’t so simple. What unit do we use to measure? FG%? Well in bygone times the three point shot either didn’t exist or was seen as a gimmick rather than a weapon, so FG% in general equated to 2P% which is inherently better than a solid mix of 2s and 3s and is an unfair way to gauge the shooters of today. eFG%? This measure factors in the three point shot, but it does so to the detriment of shooters of yesteryear whose numbers would be better if they took more 3s even if they weren’t very good at shooting them. Single out 2P% to eliminate the division caused by the 3? Sounds good, but again strategically teams today take far fewer long range 2s than they used to (those are 3s now), AND the prevalence of deep shooting big men has led to more space in the paint for slashers (and resulted in fewer offensive rebounds). So you’d actually expect this generation to shoot better from 2 and 3 simply because strategies have evolved, and players are taking better shots. It’s not impossible to compare and contrast players from different decades, but it does require perspective.

Okay, I’ll expand on that later. Back to the man of the hour (many hours after his hour has passed):

Payton does have some very impressive stats in his favor. Of all guards with at least 33,000 career minutes played (11 very high minute seasons, or 12-15 moderately high minute seasons), Payton ranks 11th All-Time in PER and is top 5 out of the point guards on the list.

33,000+ Career Minute Guards Sorted by PER:

Michael Jordan

Magic Johnson

Kobe Bryant

Oscar Robertson

Jerry West

John Stockton

Clyde Drexler

Allen Iverson

Vince Carter

Steve Nash

Gary Payton

Ray Allan

Reggie Miller

Isiah Thomas

Rod Strickland

Considering that PER does not factor defense at all, and Payton is at worst the 3rd best defender on that list, that’s very impressive. In fact, defensive acumen probably jumps him up above Nash and Carter and maybe AI too. Quick aside – If I include ABA games, George Gervin comes in 7th and pushes GP down to 12th. Also Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul both project very high on this list if they make it to the 33,000 game mark in their careers.

Only 3 players have ever had per game averages of 20+ points, 5+ assists, and 5+ rebounds for a season while maintaining the elite, Pat Riley-required assist to turnover ratio of 3:1. Gary Payton, Chris Paul, and Magic Johnson.

Only 6 players have ever averaged 20+ points and 7+ assists per game, and maintained a 3:1 assist to turnover ratio for a season:

Gary Payton – 4 Times

Magic Johnson – 3 Times

Kevin Johnson – 3 Times

Tim Hardaway – 3 Times

Chris Paul – 2 Times

Isiah Thomas – Once

In terms of accomplishments, Payton became the only point guard to win DPoY when he took the trophy in 1996. GP is the only guard to win defensive player of the year since Jordan did it in 1988. No guard has won it since. The Glove is a 9 time all star, 9 time all-defensive first team player, and he made the All-NBA team 9 times as well (2 first teams, 5 second teams, 2 third teams). Payton was arguably the best player on an NBA Finals team, a starter on another NBA Finals team, and key bench contributor on a champion (24 minutes per game in the playoffs and several clutch shots hit) – which means he could fit with other skilled players on elite teams. He also helped the USA bring home gold medals in the 1996 and 2000 Olympic games, demonstrating that he could mesh his skills with great players at a high level.

For my money, Payton bridges the gap between John Stockton and Chris Paul as the best point guard of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. He was a fearlessly competitive lead guard capable of posting up point guards, blowing by shooting guards, running the break, killing it on the pick and roll, and even working off the ball. Defensively he was probably the best ever against quick guards and had the strength and tenacity to cover 2s and even some 3s (he defended Scottie Pippen in a lot of situations in the 1996 Finals in order to force Chicago to run their offense through someone other than their 6’ 7” point forward, and Scottie had a terrible offensive series).

And like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Kevin Garnett, GP was one of the great trash-talkers and agitators of all time. He could beat you with his skills. He could beat you with his brain. He knew it, and he made sure that you knew it too.

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2 Responses to “Gary Payton – Best PG of his Era”

  1. boyer Says:

    Great article. My first favorite team were the sonics with kemp/payton, very fun team to watch. I appreciate that you recognize the limitations of the box score. While we can still use these fancy advanced stats some, they often tell us very little.

    I don’t quite understand why Payton is overrated by many. I rarely ever see him elevated above Kidd or Nash, and it makes no sense. Those were great, but I have Payton easily over both of them. If Nash doesn’t steal 2 MVPs, which he had no business winning, and the fact that he’s played with multiple AS for most of his career and never made 1 NBA finals is proof of that. If not for those MVPs, he’d have a hard time making the HOF, which I’m still iffy of him deserving, but he’s a lock now since he won 2.

    Who’s the other guard you’d have over Payton defensively? Stockton? Stockton was great defensively, but he was a small PG, and Payton was a big PG. Payton seemed much better to me, and much more versatile. I don’t remember him guarding Pippen, long time ago, but if he did and did well, that’s amazing. Payton’s 2004 season was dreadful, which is surprising since his 2003 season was still very good. You’d have to take Jordan over Payton, maybe just for the sole reason that he was bigger and a more versatile defender. Iverson always did get a lot of steals, but I don’t consider him that good of a defender. Probably above average, but nothing special.

    While certain factors might allow for more effective outside shooting, I think that defenses today are easily the best of all time. And not that they didn’t necessarily play defense back in the 60s/70s, it’s just that there’s so much more involved with how teams play defense today. But, I do think that it’s obvious overall that teams/players are so much better defensively and offensively today than ever before. So, even if looking at FG% is a valid argument, you have to factor in that defenses are better as well. And usually first option guys shoot lower %’s, though always exceptions. Spot-up shooters are usually good shooters, but they usually only have to catch and shoot, much easier to make a higher % when doing this.

    • jpalumbo Says:

      The two guards I thought you could put ahead of GP defensively, at least argue the point anyway, are Jordan and Bryant, for exactly the reason you mention. The extra size and exceptional speed makes them three position defenders.

      FG% doesn’t capture today’s shooters at all because it completely neglects the additional value of the three point shot, and most of today’s stars are perimeter guys.

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