If I had a quarter for every time somebody in a Game Day Thread said Jerryd Bayless can't be an NBA point guard, or that we should trade him for an $8 Rose Garden Hefeweizen, I'd have like $30. Somehow it's become common knowledge that the last two months or so of sub-par play has punched Mssr. Bayless's ticket out of town. While Upper Left Corner did a great job canvassing his statistical strengths last month, this post is an attempt to argue from a slightly more qualitative perspective why we shouldn't be pinning the struggles of our substitutes solely on Bayless. Bayless has been put in a position to fail because he and the reserve wings are a poor match, and the units he plays with have a very small amount of perimeter shot creation. Because these factors won't exist if Bayless every becomes a starter (indeed, they shouldn't persist into next year on the bench unit), the case is still very much open as to whether he can "make it" as an NBA point guard.
I) Bayless's strengths and weaknesses are a poor match for our other bench wings
Bayless has a game which is predicated primarily on taking the ball out of the basket, dribbling down the court, putting his head down and getting to the basket. As ULC pointed out, he is great at getting to the foul line and he scores relatively efficiently as a result. On occasion, he will make a really decent drive and kick pass for an assist, or perfectly orchestrate the fast-break. However, his decision-making, court vision and command of the game are obviously not his greatest strengths. This observation garners support from the fact that his best performances (vs. Phoenix, at San Antonio) have come while playing alongside Miller or Blake. The detractors will say this "proves" he will never be a point guard. I disagree. He has gone from a situation that plays to all his strengths (playing as a primary creator with a pass first point guard) to a situation that plays to all his weaknesses.
The reason I write that he is in a situation that plays to all his weaknesses is that the current situation is more difficult than just "playing point guard." Bayless is playing point guard with wings who need an instinctive, pass-first point guard to help them get on track. Neither Webster nor Fernandez can create their own shot, and their offense is primarily predicated on someone else finding them for either open perimeter shots or cuts to the basket. To make matters worse, they are below average ballhandlers for their respective positions, so Bayless finds no help from either in running the point or making decisions. Although Fernandez occasionally makes spectacular alley-oop passes, and Martell can look like a world beater driving to the hoop, both struggle mightily with their handle when faced with any sort of pressure. This puts all the ballhandling duties on Bayless's shoulders, something he is not prepared for. The situation also harms Fernandez' and Webster's performances, as they don't have a consistent supply of good passes to get their offense going.
II) Our reserve lineups have very little perimeter shot creation
To make matters worse, Bayless is not only saddled with handling all the duties associated with handling the ball and initiating the offense, he is also the only perimeter bench player who can get his own shot. His baskets are assisted 38% of the time, while Rudy is at 75% and Martell 82% (Hoopdata). Basically, Bayless has to dribble the ball up the court, initiate the offensive progressions, and if everything breaks down, he's responsible for creating something at the shot clock buzzer.
The counterargument may be that any bench unit is going to have less shot creation than the starters because they just aren't as good. To check on this, I compared Bayless's floor time to that of two reserve rookies who have arguably had more success for contending teams: George Hill and Ty Lawson. Out of the Spurs top 20 units, when Hill is the point guard, either Ginobili or Jefferson is always in the game. Hill gets to play the vast majority of his time with Ginobili, one of the top 5 shooting guards in the league, and someone who is a perfect bailout option for a young point. In a similar vein, Lawson gets to play the vast majority of his point guard minutes alongside J.R. Smith, Carmelo Anthony or both. Anthony, like Ginobili, is a devastating scoring option who you can simply pass the ball to on the wing. Although Smith isn't as effective, he never shies from creating his own shot, which deflects some of Lawson's obligations.
III) Conclusion: conditions for Bayless can not (or should not) stay the same
Because Jerryd Bayless has been put in such a difficult situation, it is impossible to conclusively evaluate his potential as an NBA point guard. If Rudy Fernandez were the shooting guard of the future, we would know full well that Bayless can't be the point guard. However, an attempt to extrapolate from Bayless's performance as a backup point guard has to take into account the extremely poor fit between Webster, Fernandez and Bayless and the lack of offensive firepower from the wing in our reserve unit.
On a note unrelated to Bayless's ability to play point guard, the lack of perimeter shot creation on this team is a red flag going into next year, and an area I would like to see addressed. This is one reason I don't see how we can ship Bayless. Even if he is not the answer at point guard, he has shown an ability to to create his own shot off the bench that we are totally missing otherwise. This team needs more players who can attack the rim off the bench, not less. I would be comfortable with two possible solutions behind Andre next year: bringing in a "steady hand" Blake-style point guard to allow Bayless to play off the ball, or bringing in a bench scorer who can take turns attacking with Bayless. The second is probably favorable, because more weapons is typically better than less. However, it is likely to be more expensive, and possibly not feasible.