In Game 1 of the 2013 NBA Finals, Tony Parker had the ball in his hands with the clock running down, fell to the floor, kept his dribble, and hit a shot off the glass that sealed the victory for the San Antonio Spurs. With LeBron James guarding him, no less. It was amazing and it’s a Finals moment people still remember. But I have a much more lasting memory of Parker from that same series that will always define him for me, and it didn’t even take place between the lines.
After San Antonio lost Game 7 in one of the most devastating Finals losses in NBA history, Parker took the podium for the postgame press conference as he does after every game. As a Spurs fan, the anger and sadness was the highest I’ve ever felt after a sporting event (to be honest I didn’t watch that press conference live, I probably saw it a month later. I turned the TV off the moment the final buzzer sounded and didn’t watch ESPN for weeks). I can only imagine what it must have felt like for Parker. But in that press conference there were two moments that personify him more perfectly than anything else I can say.
Being asked about the loss he simply stated, “That is life,” with an unflappable air that’s all too common to him. I’ve watched that press conference multiple times and I still can’t believe how calm he is. Over all the years I’ve watched him, it seems like nothing can get to Tony. Well, almost. The second moment came when he was asked a question about the possibility of the Spurs’ run being over due to the age of Tim Duncan or Manu Ginobili. It was the only moment I’ve ever seen him get heated in a press conference. He fired back about how he couldn’t believe he was being asked that question and it seemed like they were saying the Spurs were too old every year. The ultra competitor that he is…the side he normally keeps so hidden from the public eye…came out for a brief moment. That’s who Tony Parker is. Fire and ice.
Set to return around mid-season from a ruptured quad for his 17th campaign with the Spurs, Parker is still the motor that makes the team go. His cool and always-collected demeanor is still concealing the killer mentality that lies beneath the surface. And just like he always did alongside Duncan and Ginobili, he’s still sacrificing personal numbers and glory to make sure the Spurs win. Despite all that winning, Parker’s legacy still seems to be significantly understated in the conversation of all-time great point guards. When that topic gets brought up, I notice his name is rarely mentioned. Even in a discussion of the great point guards of this era, his name can go unmentioned which I find to be *Stephen A. Smith voice* complete and utter blasphemy. So please, allow me to further examine and delve into Parker’s greatness and that way you can be the one to mention his name at your next water cooler point guard discussion.
Admittedly, with the numbers point guards are putting up right now, it’s easy to lose Parker in a shuffle of huge statistics and unbelievable highlight reels. Guards are revolutionizing NBA basketball and there’s probably never been a greater era of point guards. Rather than big men, it’s guards who are dominating the league. Curry, Westbrook, Paul, Harden, Irving, Thomas, Wall, the list just goes on. With those guys playing at such a high level, Parker’s modest regular season stats generally get overlooked. That’s what makes this case even more fun to deliver.
I’ve touched on the Spurs and their winning a little bit, and it’s the first thing that gets brought up when you mention any great Spurs player, so let’s talk about it. What does all that winning mean in terms of its weight in the conversation of the greatness of individual players?
The first thing I’ll say is that it means more in basketball than in any other sport, and that just has to do with the fundamental qualities of the game. The individual has far more power over the team results in basketball than in any other sport. One great player has such great ability to control success. They can touch the ball and make plays every possession, they play both ends, they’re just involved in a far greater percentage of the game than in sports like football or baseball.
So with that said, the element of team success can be applied with far greater importance in the discussion of individual greatness for NBA players than in other sports. This is why you hear Michael Jordan’s number of championships being compared to Kobe Bryant or LeBron James’ number. In fact, it’s usually the key factor in the discussion of their greatness. You don’t often hear that type of ring comparison as a preferred way of measuring football or baseball players against each other, it just wouldn’t be as reasonable. It’s much more plausible for NBA players.
Tony Parker has four of those NBA championship rings in five NBA Finals appearances, including a Finals MVP in 2007. Let me say that again…Tony Parker has four NBA championships.
Real quick, I just want to name off a list of recent point guards whose names are usually mentioned before Parker’s. John Stockton, Tim Hardaway, Penny Hardaway, Kevin Johnson, Allen Iverson, Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook.
That group holds a combined total of zero NBA championships. Even if you want to throw in Gary Payton, who got one well past his prime coming off the bench for the ’06 Miami Heat, and Jason Kidd, who was a productive member but also past his prime for the ’11 Dallas Mavericks, that brings the total to two championships. Add in Stephen Curry’s two and that whole group could tie Parker’s total, but Curry hasn’t sniffed a Finals MVP, which means Parker’s got one compared to that group’s total of zero. And if you want more, let me throw out some of Parker’s career NBA playoffs rankings; all-time he’s fifth in games played, fifth in assists and ninth in points.
You can dig back in NBA history as far as you want to go, but short of Bob Cousy, Magic Johnson and Derek Fisher you won’t find a more winning point guard than Tony Parker. And I think even Laker fans would agree that Parker’s only contemporary in that group (Fisher), although was certainly a winner and a key ingredient, isn’t in the same tier with Parker. Regardless, why doesn’t that winning quality seem to matter when we’re comparing the great point guards? If anything it should mean more for the point guard position! As Larry Brown famously says, wins are the only statistic for a point guard. If that’s true, no one from the last 25 years could possibly have a claim over Tony Parker.
I know what it is that holds him back though and it’s a poisonous train of thought. NBA people do this weird thing where they try to take away from everyone’s accomplishments because of the greatness that surrounded them. No one is safe from this except players who didn’t have much team success. Kobe played with Shaq. LeBron teamed up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Duncan played in the Spurs system for Gregg Popovich. Coaches aren’t safe either. Phil Jackson coached Jordan and Kobe. Popovich coached Duncan. These are all grounds to diminish individual accomplishments, it never ends.
Let me tell you something- no team success has ever been achieved in the NBA without collective greatness. Jordan needed Pippen, Shaq needed Kobe, Pat Riley needed Magic and they all needed each other! We have to stop trying to diminish everyone’s accomplishments and just take them for what they are. By the same token, we also have to stop making excuses for players who didn’t achieve team success and evaluate what actually happened. No more what-ifs. Maybe none of Allen Iverson’s teams were good enough to win a championship but the fact remains that he didn’t win one and you can’t use that to take away from what Tony Parker has done. Nor can you use the fact that Parker played for Popovich and with Duncan, Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard. Yes, he needed all of them to achieve such great team success. But they needed him too.
Aside from all that talk of team success, what else can be said about Tony Parker? In addition to his six All-Star appearances and four All-NBA team selections, I think it’s the eye test and longevity that separate him. From the day he came to the Spurs as a 19 year-old kid in 2001, Parker was given the reins of the team. For all 16 seasons he’s played, he’s been the Spurs starting point guard and he’s still doing it at a very high level. Even with quality basketball still ahead of him, not many point guards can boast such sustained success.
Beyond that, it’s what you can see when you watch him play that makes him such a special player. I’ve always said that when it comes to attacking the paint and scoring at that size, Parker and Iverson are in a class of their own. Many successful point guards have been able to break down defenses and get to the paint in order to create for their teammates, and Parker shares that ability. But when it comes to actually putting points on the board in the paint, he’s simply uncanny and has positively rare ability. The craft he shows in being able to score in there so consistently despite his diminutive size is unmatched in my opinion and like I said, only Iverson could even have a word in that conversation.
People are quick to forget what a dominating presence Parker was during his prime. He was totally unstoppable. He garnered MVP talk and was regarded by many as the best point guard in the league circa 2008-’13 despite his willingness to give up regular season statistics for wins. Parker would regularly take over games. He attracted double teams and was often guarded by other teams’ best defenders. In the 2013 Finals, every time Miami took LeBron off Parker he shredded their point guards. They had no choice but to put LeBron on him for almost the entirety of the series and that says everything you need to know about what his presence means to the Spurs and how dangerous he was as an individual player at his peak.
Tony Parker is one of the winningest point guards in the history of the NBA. His individual dominance spans a rare number of years. Those who have watched him closely should recognize that he deserves a word with any point guard there is in a conversation of greatness.