A look league-wide shows that the pure facilitator point guard role in the modern NBA may have given way with Rajon Rondo's knee. The remaining guards in this year's All-Star game include one total package at the point in Chris Paul (12.2 FGA/GM and 9.7 AST) and no fewer than four point guards who trend more toward the shot than the pass: Jrue Holiday (16.9 FGA and 9.0 AST per game), Kyrie Irving (18.7 FGA and 5.5 AST per game), Tony Parker (15.2 FGA and 7.5 AST per game), and Russell Westbrook (18.9 FGA and 8.4 AST).
Many Jazz fans, steeped in decades of play by John Stockton and an at-his-best Deron Williams, view this trend of combo guard at the point with suspicion. In full disclosure, I am one. But there is no denying the modern current in the league. Our own starting point guard, Mo Williams, is a fairly prototypical example of the combo guard running the point. Jamaal Tinsley, our stopgap starter, is far more a facilitator first, particularly at this point in his career.
I don't think there's much question that Mo Williams is a better player now than Jamaal Tinsley, or that the Jazz would benefit from his return to form from injury. But there certainly is a stylistic question undergirding the play of this pair: given two players of roughly equal talent at the point, one pass first, the other shoot first, which would help the Jazz win more?
There are far too many variables to answer with certainty, but this Jazz season gives us at least an opportunity to get some data to consider the question. Jamaal and Mo have played almost equal minutes this season (793 to 754). By comparing how five of the most common four-man lineups have played with each player, we might get an idea of how a point guard of a particular style affects the play of the rest of the team.
I looked at the statistical differentials of five Jazz lineups in combination with each point guard this season. (The differentials are for our lineup minus opposing lineups per 100 possessions.) This gives an idea of how these lineups have performed over the season against their competition. (It is a rough estimate given variable competition and the peaks and valleys of Jazz performance over time, but, I think, still valuable.) Then I examined which lineup posted a better differential. I didn't care whether the differential was positive or negative, as that isn't the point. I just wanted to see, given the same players on the court, how has playing Jamaal or Mo at the point affected the play of each five-player combination, and which guy helped us be more competative.
I selected the four lineups in which Mo and Jamaal have combined to play the most minutes, as well as one lineup involving both Hayward and Favors, as they project as being core to the team with more certainty and sooner than Burks and Kanter. The exact lineups are below, along with how many minutes each of Mo and Tinsley have played with that combination.
Foye, Marvin Williams, Millsap, and Jefferson: + Mo 188:41; + Jamaal 266:42.
Hayward, Williams, Millsap, and Jefferson: + Mo 161:28; + Jamaal 51:20.
Foye, Hayward, Millsap, and Jefferson: + Mo 67:42; + Jamaal 39:60.
Foye, Carroll, Millsap, and Jefferson: + Mo 64:32; + Jamaal 50:37.
Hayward, Williams, Favors, and Jefferson: + Mo 20:42; Jamaal + 23:26.
I tried to post the charts with the data, but it kept coming out funky. Sorry for my technical ineptitude. I hope my analysis of the numbers is good enough. I have included a rundown of which differentials were favorable to which player for each lineup. I also ranked each according to how many lineups each player posted an advantage in the same statistical category. The grading system is:
Dominant: A player posted a superior differential with all five lineups when compared to that same lineup with the other point guard.
Superior: A player posted a superior differential with four of the five lineups.
Advantage: A player posted a superior differential with three of the five lineups.
5-0 Tinsley, Dominant: FT, FTA
4-1 Tinsley, Superior: eFG%, FT%, BLK
3-2 Tinsley, Advantage: FG, FG%, PTS, ORB, ORB%, DRB, DRB%, TRB, TRB%, AST, PF
3-2 Williams, Advantage: FGA, TOV
4-1 Williams, Superior: 3P, 3PA, STL
What immediately jumps out to me is that with the same lineups, Jamaal produces a more competitive differential than Mo more often in 16 categories compared to Mo's 5. That's substantial. It's also interesting that Jamaal posted superior differentials with every lineup in two categories where Mo did none. Generally speaking and based upon these numbers, the Jazz are more competitive more often in more configurations when Jamaal plays the point than when Mo does. The specific analysis for the impact of each player follows.
When Mo Plays...
Most notably, we take and make more three point shots when compared to the competition. We also show a better differential when it comes to stealing the ball. The three point stats are predictable and likely stem largely from Mo shooting just over one more three per game than Jamaal does. The steals may be a result of the pace Mo sets as he conducts the team, I'm not sure. We also show a slight improvement on average in how many shots we get up compared to the opponent and how often we cough up the ball.
So, these numbers show when Mo plays, the Jazz get up more shots than when Jamaal is leading the charge, and more of our attack--both in terms of attempts and makes--comes from the three point line. We hold onto the ball a little better while turning over the opponent more, which is a good combination (that probably influences the shots attempted differential as well). But every other aspect of play, these numbers suggest, suffers more often than not when compared to what Jamaal brings.
When Jamaal Plays...
We take and make free throws, and the difference is substantial. To give you an idea, the lineup with the smallest difference in free throws made still shows 6.6 more per 100 possessions for Jamaal playing than Mo. The greatest difference? 17.9! For a team without a super-efficient offensive option, getting to the line is a big deal--and Jamaal helps us do that far, far better than Mo. More, he does it with his passing. Mo actually shoots and makes 1.5 free throws more per game than Jamaal, which means the rest of the team is making that up plus a great deal more.
Jamaal also shows a substantial advantage to the team in terms of blocks and free throw percentage. The blocks I don't quite understand, but I suspect his passing has something to do with the FT% advantage. His vision and passing ability (not to mention willingness) mean some of our better shooters get the ball in positions where the defense is out of position and has to scramble, leading to free throws. He's also probably better than Mo at recognizing players who are in an offensive flow and getting them the ball, which might improve their shooting from the line.
That four out of five of the lineups posted superior effective field goal percentages (which account for three pointers being worth more than two point shots) with Jamaal on the court I see as very significant. Basically, the Jazz are a more efficient offense when led by Jamaal, in spite of his mediocre shooting ability. (Mo has a higher eFG% and FT% than Jamaal, but the team does better more often on these categories when Jamaal plays. Once again, he makes up for his own shortcomings through his influence on the team.)
On a slew of other categories, the numbers give us reason to believe that Jamaal may help the team perform more competitively as well, though I have no idea why this may be so. Why the team would compete better on the boards across the board with Jamaal in than Mo is hard to pin down. (Shots are taken more often when players are in rebounding position maybe?) It is only a 3 lineup to 2 advantage, so any number of other variables may be skewing the advantage Jamaal's way.
That being said, I think where one indicator is inconclusive, many can be indicative of something real--and lots of things point to the Jazz being a more competitive offense with Jamaal at the helm. His lineups post advantages at every shooting percentage category listed for lineups on Basketball-Reference, as well as with assists, offensive rebounds, anything and everything having to do with free throws, and points. Take all of that together, and I think it says something powerful about the competitive advantage we gain offensively when Jamaal is on the court.
Mo Williams is a better player than Jamaal Tinsley. But if these numbers accurately reveal anything, the team competes better and more efficiently when the worse of the two is trusted with the reins of the team.
My belief is that these numbers reflect a truth. In team sports, the potency of the whole is more than a simple sum of all the parts. (Ask the Lakers.) The key is meshing personalities, abilities, and styles so as to create the greatest whole. In team competition, style is substance. And the Jazz are a more substantial obstacle to opponents when a less able pass first point guard plays than a higher quality shoot first player does.
I confess, this exploration has confirmed my own basketball philosophy going in: that the Jazz will be better served with a true facilitator running the point than a combo guard or dynamic scorer, especially if we are talking players of roughly equal overall ability. (I think any team is excepting they have a generational superstar. Get one of those at any position, and you have a great chance to get some jewelry.) Perhaps that predilection has influenced my interpretation. That is always possible. But it doesn't change that I believe the Jazz would be well served to look for a facilitating point guard for the future rather than the new wave high-scoring, high-usage guards--and how the Jazz have competed when led by our point guards this year bears that out.