Leave Doubt at the Door

Some of us at Paints in the Point have recently discussed the tier system among point guards in the NBA, slotting players in their respective echelons. One player that has garnered significant attention, from me at least is Jameer Nelson. The reason being that he seems to be able to do so much despite the fact that he isn’t like most successful NBA point guards.

By that I mean that many of the current point guards who are regarded as “good” to “great”, they utilize their hyper athleticism to drive the basket and their mismatch advantages to operate the offense. You know the players of which I’m referring to, the marvels like Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Steve Nash (yes, still), Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose, and Tony Parker. They have each been blessed with some kind of uniqueness that enables them to rise above their competitors and appear at times unbelievable.

Jameer doesn’t fit that mold of a super fast kid who can maneuver midair to finish around the basket, or exploit a lightning fast agility that allows him to drive by opponents without any physical nuisance. Nelson doesn’t have any innate size advantages; his height would lead one to believe he contains a certain disadvantage amongst his peers. He can’t out-jump many of his competitors, or muscle his way into the paint without significant effort. His arms are also very short, or appear so whenever he tries to contest a shot (remember the finals?).

Yet, in spite of all of his lack of advantages, he is successful, and majorly so. He was named to the All-Star team this past season, but was forced to skip the game because of an injury, allowing Cavaliers point guard Mo Williams to campaign for the spot. He leads Orlando through determination and spirit, not just through timely scoring or knowledgeable passing.

The first tier is subject to debate, but there are a couple of mainstays that are beyond scrutiny. Chris Paul is heads and shoulders above almost everyone in the league, except some of his first tier companions on the occasional night. He is a double-double machine with a propensity for triple-double nights were he fills the scoreboard. Probably his closest counterpart is the overwhelming Deron Williams, though he is ignored far too much. That is partially a product of him playing in Utah and the fact that Paul has been hailed as the future. Still, he is a top talent who is better than Paul in certain aspects of his game.

Who else? What other players are worthy of being classified in the top stratum alongside Paul and Williams? I would still contend that Nash is still at that level. Granted, he is aging and time has never allowed for players to become more athletic after the early 20s. But, when you look at all the things that he does still, (leading the Suns, running the court, accounting for a huge percentage of the Suns’ point) he belongs in that stratosphere.

From that list, it is pretty evident that Nelson simply doesn’t belong in that group. Sure, he can compete with these guys on any given night; even have his team best them. But, Nelson cannot consistently perform at that elite level that continually swings the fate of the games. Once in awhile, he could certainly change the game in the Magic’s favor, but not every single game in the season like Paul, Williams, and Nash are more than capable of doing.

The list is pretty exclusive, and there are some borderline players who are lacking something from their game that could boost them into that level. They headline the second tier of point guards, the men who are above good and are in many aspects great. Points like Tony Parker, Gilbert Arenas, and Chauncey Billups are locks in this class, and could be argued into the tier above. But the question is, does Nelson belong here? Is he qualified, or skilled enough to rank among these elite players? I wouldn’t say so, and that isn’t a knock on Jameer, he just isn’t good enough yet to be considered an equal to these men.

Perhaps the next tier is where Nelson can truly fit in and have it not be considered a stretch. Yes, the third tier is definitely where I would put Nelson at this stage of his career, one that is very young at this point. Then who else could be considered equal, or at least on par with Nelson and be put on the third tier? I’d consider Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo to be obvious choices to join Nelson, each considerably talented and still very raw and unrefined. Devin Harris is at the minimum on this level. The same goes for Jason Kidd and Baron Davis, who are aging but still super talented points that can effectively run an offense. Another player who might sneak into this stratum is Mo Williams, who has just recently really hit his stride playing alongside the attention grabbing LeBron James.

Then again, these tiers are simply theoretical and many of these players could shift their positions on a weekly basis. Every couple of weeks, one of these guys are going to look like they belong in the top level, or look as if they shouldn’t even be ranked. So why is Nelson so highly ranked if he doesn’t do anything especially great or unimaginable? I can’t put my finger on it. I know that he is effective because he can drive to the basket and because he can hit a pull up jumper or drain the three-point shot, but a lot of players can do that. He isn’t a good defender by any stretch of the imagination, limited by his lack of lateral quickness and dearth of length when contesting shots.

I think that his most pertinent trait, in regards to his quality of play, is his leadership abilities. He is not so much a leader by numbers in the same sense that Dirk Nowitzki or Arenas are, mostly because his averages aren’t awe inspiring or glaringly superior. And I haven’t watched enough Magic games to say for certain whether or not he is a vocal leader in the same vein as a Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, or LeBron James. I can say that when Orlando played Cleveland, there was no greater supporter of the Magic than the dapperly dressed Nelson, forced to sit the bench while healing his shoulder. Every action time out, the camera would shift to the Magic bench where an eager Jameer would greet his team with words of support/encouragement. He just has certain intangibles that separate him from his peers, those qualities that cannot be defined or always seen, but you know they exist. 

I think that image speaks volumes to me about his dedication and where his heart truly lies in the game. In some respects, I feel that injuries can tell just as much about leadership as when the players are healthy and playing. I can’t help but replay those images of Garnett screaming at his teammates, dropping f-bombs and other expletives to hype his team in hopes of reviving their chances against the Bulls and later the Magic. You could fully see his leadership role on that team, and the extent to which he was involved. He was the consummate team player who would have done anything in order to be on the court with his teammates, and I believe Nelson had the same sort of desire, although it wasn’t as boisterous as Garnett’s explosions.

Some would argue that Dwight Howard is the actual leader of the team, just because he is the face of the franchise. I have viewed the relationship between the two as if they were brothers. Jameer is the older and generally wiser brother who survives because of his knowledge, while Dwight is the younger and more physically gifted one who dominates because of his physical prowess. Now, I am not an expert on all things Magic, but it seems that Jameer really dictates the game for the Magic, not Dwight despite all of the attention the young center has garnered over the past couple of seasons.

That dedication to the team must be the main reason that he rushed back from injury for the NBA Finals to join his teammates, perhaps to the detriment of the Magic’s chances. It was not a good series for Nelson, not really fair to make a judgment about his playing abilities based on his injured status. His shoulder hindered his normal play, although he would never blame it on the shoulder. Stan Van Gundy holds Jameer in such high regard that he eschewed what got them to the Finals (a combination of Rafer Alston and Hedo Turkoglu handling the ball and running the offense) and let Nelson run the point once again. Now, the actual impact that decision had on the outcome of the series is debatable, although the one game the Magic won Alston played the major portion of the game. To be fair to Nelson, the game winning shot that Derek Fisher hit was not entirely his fault. Why did Van Gundy opt for Nelson, who was still very injured, over their multitude of lanky guards who could have easily kept in front of Fisher. And beyond that, Nelson contested the shot pretty well, putting a hand in the face of the shooter.

From an outside perspective, the player who I think is the most similar to Nelson would be Chauncey Billups. The deceivingly quiet aura surrounding him, the reliable shot, the penetrating ability, and the leadership qualities are very similar. However, Chauncey is able to get by on defense through his strength, exploit his size to keep quicker guards out of the lane. Nelson contains no such discernible advantages, a short and stocky version of the point guard.

Nothing he does is beyond duplication, nothing so unique that you have to have a certain degree of ability to reproduce and replicate like a LeBron James dunk or a Chris Paul drive to the basket requires. Yet, he is thriving in a league full of players who are typically stronger, faster, and generally more athletic than he is. The only explanation that I can offer is that he just wants it more. He wants to win, be considered among the elite, and be respected as much or more than just about anyone in the league.

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