NBA 75: Gary Paytons case as the best two-way guard ever

The NBA is celebrating players from the NBA 75 list almost daily from now until the end of the season. Today’s honoree is Gary Payton, the mercurial perennial All-Star, primarily with the Seattle SuperSonic. This story, 10 years into this career, appeared in the Fed. 18, 2000, issue of The Sporting News and asked whether Payton was the best two-way guard in NBA history.

Gary Payton is a lot bigger than a lot of other Seattle-area landmarks. In fact, he towers over them all: Dr. Frasier Crane, Bill Gates, half-mocha half-regular iced cappuccino, rain clouds, the Space Needle. It is not only the fact that Payton is more than 30 feet tall, draped on a banner over the side of Nike Town. Payton looms large because he stands head and shoulders above his peers in the NBA and because he may be the best two-way point guard ever.

Once judged as a hounding man-on-man defender with a limited offensive game, Payton has spent the past decade rounding out his résumé. As he begins play Sunday in the Sydney (Olympics) tournament that will undoubtedly result in his becoming the 12th U.S. men’s basketball player to win two gold medals, we now bring that résumé before the court of popular opinion to ask a tantalizing, almost scandalous question: If you weigh offense and defense equally, is Payton the best ever?

It’s a query taken seriously in basketball circles. To understand why you must start at the defensive end of the court.

“He’s the Deion Sanders of the NBA,” says Pacers coach Isiah Thomas, who will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in October. “I’m trying to think of how to say this without sounding crazy. Defensively, he’s so fast, he’s there. He’s not moving to the point there appears to be no great effort on his part. He’s just there. The person he’s guarding, you can’t just dominate him from the offense.”

“You think of guys with great hands,” says Kevin Johnson, the warp-speed penetrator-turned-NBC commentator, “like Maurice Cheeks and Derek Harper. Gary is like that. But he’s also a great individual defender and a great team defender. He has all three components covered. That’s very rare.”

Payton has a defender’s mentality and a defender’s body, with long arms and the ability to move in a deep crouch. His hands are impeccable; his speed practically defies analysis.

Imagine how disruptive this can be to opposing players, especially point guards. They’re trying to see the court, looking for a mismatch or a backdoor cut. But they don’t have the chance to let plays develop properly because the Glove is there, like a 6-4 mosquito on a humid July evening

“It’s funny, but he’s such a good defensive player he sets the tone for the game,” Johnson says. “He gets people thinking, ‘Man, he’s gonna be all over the ball. We’ve gotta be prepared for that.’ It’s usually the other way around, where you’re worried about a scorer. Maybe a shot blocker can do that to a game, but a guy who’s on the court for 40 minutes?”

Actually, Payton was on the court for 41.8 minutes per game last season, second in the league only to the Mavericks’ Michael Finley. Durability always has been one of Payton’s strong suits. He has missed only two games in 10 seasons and is generally counted on for nearly a full game’s worth of nonstop motion, despite chronic back pain that requires extensive stretching and regular applications of heating packs.

Payton brings a crackling intensity to the game. His malevolent on-court presence — the nonstop slander, the dismissive facial expressions — is straight off the Oakland playgrounds. At the same time, he has developed an astute mind for basketball. “What Gary has,” says George Karl, his coach in Seattle for seven seasons, “is excellent knowledge of the game. His dad coached him for many years. I think he has more of a mental edge than he gets credit for.”

Payton always has been smart enough to spot his own weaknesses. And when he got to Seattle in 1990, he had one major flaw. At that time he was considered a standout defensive player, a cagey playmaker and an adept passer. He played well as a rookie but scored only 7.2 points a game. In truth, he didn’t have a legitimate NBA shot.

“I came in January (of 1992),” Karl recalls. “That June we had a meeting. I told him, ‘You must work every summer, at least for two or three years.’ And he became a worker.”

The SuperSonics enlisted coach Tim Grgurich (now an assistant with the Trail Blazers), who drilled Payton on specific aspects of the game. The first summer they worked on the little things — balance, leg position, repetition. The next year they worked on post-up moves.

“It took three or four years before the work showed,” Karl says.

Payton’s scoring average rose steadily for four seasons after his rookie year. He posted the highest scoring average (24.2) of his career. And that is what leads us to this discussion.

Consider Payton’s current standing. Last season he was named to the league’s all-defensive first team for the seventh time. Only five other players have been so decorated for defense since the league began selecting the team in 1969. He always has been considered a top-tier floor general and passer. And now he is the NBA’s reigning high scorer among point guards. It all smacks of historical magnitude.

Before you can figure out whether Payton is the best two-way point guard of all time — or where he fits into the hierarchy — you run into a troublesome question. What exactly is a point guard?

Magic Johnson and Thomas were points. No one doubts that. John Stockton and Jason Kidd are easy to compartmentalize. But as you recede into time, it becomes harder to tell whether the pegs are round or square. Was Quinn Buckner a point guard? How about Bob Cousy? Jerry West or Gail Goodrich?

“Magic Johnson came into the league when I left, in 1979,” Goodrich says. “At that point, you started to see a trend, a philosophy of getting the ball into the hands of your best passer-playmaker. Prior to Magic, guards weren’t really classified as a point guard or a shooting guard.”

“The first time I heard (the classification) was from Hubie Brown, with the one, two and three positions and all that,” says Oscar Robertson, the do-everything superstar who played for the Cincinnati Royals of the 1960s and the Bucks of the early 1970s. “I think it’s ridiculous. I think every player should be able to handle the ball and score one-on-one.” 

For the sake of argument, we tried to identify players who served as their teams’ primary ballhandlers and most successful passers, at least for the majority of their careers. Payton arguably is the best defender of them all, and his offensive game is better than most. If there is a knock against him, it’s that he has not been able to produce an NBA title — a heavy cross to bear at a position often called the “quarterback” of a basketball team.

Seattle’s postseason record is 44-46 during Payton’s tenure, including notable first-round upsets by the Nuggets (1994) and Lakers (1995). That hardly compares to the track record of Magic Johnson, who won five titles with the Lakers, or another superb all-around guard, Dennis Johnson, who won three with Seattle and Boston.

Most of the sources queried for this story, however, do not hold Payton responsible for his team’s mixed success. “Gary is a very talented player,” Robertson says, “but he can’t do it by himself. He needs some players around him.”

Beyond such general assessments, our experts were wary of ranking Payton against the all-time greats, arguing that it is difficult to compare point guards of different eras.

Most were willing to concede that Payton is the best of his generation, however.

“I don’t know who else you’d take at point guard,” Karl says. “Some say Jason Kidd. Well, every time Gary went nose-to-nose with Kidd, Gary won that matchup.”

Kidd and Stockton are among the best ballhandlers ever; each would seem to have an edge on Payton in that regard. Both play good defense, especially Stockton. But Stockton is more of a pest on defense, not the smothering blanket Payton can be. And Payton can create his own shot better than either of them.

Dennis Johnson, a nasty defender who sacrificed his scoring ability when he joined the Celtics in 1983, seems to be on equal footing with Payton. Between them, chronologically, are Magic and Isiah, two consummate offensive players who aren’t particularly remembered for their defense.

“That’s because our offense was so good,” Thomas says.

He laughs when he delivers the line, but he’s serious about the subject. “We both scored a lot, got a lot of assists,” Thomas continues. “Defensively we were very sound. But it’s offense that gets attention.”

Nevertheless, neither player was an NBA all-defensive selection (first or second team), and that must enter the equation. In this mythical competition, Payton’s stiffest challenge appears to come from three thoroughly old-school athletes who divided up three of the four NBA titles from 1970 to 1973.

The Lakers’ Jerry West is best remembered for his offense, while the Knicks’ Walt Frazier evokes defensive memories. Each excelled on the other side of the ball, too.

“Early in his career, Jerry scored a lot of points,” Goodrich says of West, who averaged 27 points and 6.7 assists over the course of 14 seasons. “Then in 1972, he led the NBA in assists (9.7 per game). If a guy’s a great scorer, people tend to say, ‘Maybe he’s not so good on defense.’ Well, Jerry was a great defensive player.”

After the league began choosing all-defensive players, West made the first team four times. Each time he joined Frazier, a seven-time selection whose ball-hawking skills tormented the guards of his day. Frazier also averaged 18.9 points and 6.1 assists during his career and no doubt could have scored far more had he not shared the spotlight with a starting lineup full of future Hall of Famers.

Only one guard could hope to cast a shadow on those two — Robertson.

Robertson admits he wasn’t a pure point guard, as now defined. A teammate often brought the ball up the court, then offered it to him at the top of the key. But it was the Big O’s move after that.

Robertson’s offensive skills were absurd. He scored 25.7 points and sneaked into the paint for 7.5 rebounds per game. He distributed an average of 9.5 assists, though he wasn’t always surrounded with great talent. His offense was so grand, in fact, that you could have overlooked his defensive skills if they had been average.

At least, that’s what Pete Newell thought when he agreed to coach the 1960 U.S. Olympic team. Newell couldn’t wait to see Robertson’s array of shots. But when the All-American guard arrived, the coach was blown away by his defense.

“I was known as a defensive coach,” Newell says. “My teams usually ranked high nationally. I felt I knew a little about it. And Oscar was truly an excellent defender. I was amazed at his footwork, his constant movement to keep position. He defended about as well as a person could.”

When you hear testimonials like that, it’s hard to call Gary Payton the best two-way point guard in history. Still, even old hands show no hesitation inviting Payton to a very prestigious party:

“He deserves consideration when you’re talking about the Oscars and the Magics,” Newell says. “It’s just hard for me to compare them because physically they’re so different, and their games are so different.”

“Gary Payton is probably as complete a guard as there ever was,” says Goodrich, who played with West for seven seasons. “He’s a wonderful player.”

When Kevin Johnson was developing his game, he considered Magic Johnson the unquestioned king of the point. His other role models were Isiah Thomas, the darting Tiny Archibald and Philadelphia’s steady Maurice Cheeks.

“Is Gary Payton just as intimidating as those guys I mentioned?” KJ asks. “Yes. Maybe even more so because of the defense. The thing about point guards is that you have to assess them in their different eras. But Gary certainly is amongst the best ever.”

Second opinion: Bill Walton on Gary Payton

The question of where Gary Payton stands in the pantheon of NBA guards came up in “Bill Walton’s Mailbag” in the Feb. 7, 2000, issue of The Sporting News in which the big man answered readers questions:

Bill,

Do you think Gary Payton plays with the kind of intensity once shown by Michael Jordan? Does Payton rank among the top five point guards ever? if he doesn’t who would be your top five? —Rahman Bagby

I love Gary Payton’s game, and I think his intensity is much needed on the Sonics. One thing that disturbs me in the NBA is the occasional lack of passion among players. You certainly never get that with Payton. Payton does have a tendency to explode, criticize teammates and get mad at management when the team doesn’t win as he feels it should, but that’s fine with me. After all, that’s what the NBA is all about — winning. As for where Payton ranks on the all-time list of point guards, that’s tough to say, considering he’s up against the likes of Magic Johnson, Walt Frazier, Oscar Robertson, Bob Cousy, Isiah Thomas and so many others. But I will say this: Gary Payton is certainly among the best guards ever.

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