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What Happens When Your NBA Point Guard Isn’t a Scorer?

Scoot Henderson has plenty of skills, but the lack of one hurts.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Portland Trail Blazers guard Scoot Henderson scored 19 points in a narrow loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday night, his 10th game in double-digits in 14 tries since Christmas. Initially disappointing, the third-overall pick in the 2023 NBA Draft has begun to turn around his season. But critics are quick to point out his flaws: a propensity for turnovers, the lack of a reliable three-point shot, and most of all, an abysmal 36.5% conversion rate from the field.

Are those flaws as big as they seem, though? One Blazer’s Edge Reader would like to offer a model for Scoot that doesn’t center on his scoring prowess. That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.

Dave,

Everybody’s down on Scoot but he’s a point guard. Back in the day point guards didn’t have to be the main scorer on the team. They didn’t produce as many points as passes. They didn’t even shoot that much all the time. I think of Andre Miller as a model for what Scoot could be if we would just stop trying to fit him in a Dame model that he just isn’t built for. Why couldn’t Scoot become like a class guard and do just fine?

Alex

Point of order: Andre Miller shot 46% for his career, not 36%. He had two seasons above 50% and fell below 45% (rounded) only twice in his career. He was never a major point producer, but he was efficient. That’s a major difference between him and Henderson off the bat.

Efficiency aside, the comparison to Miller is apt. It’s one I’ve made myself. But it’s not a tight one-to-one, not just because Henderson’s skill set is different than Miller’s was, but because the game has changed so much.

When Andre played, size, bulk, and isolation play were the keys to scoring. The three-point shot existed, of course, but the league hadn’t become so reliant on it. Tall centers, hulking forwards, and athletic wings with a couple inches on their defenders ruled the court. The job of a point guard was to set up the team’s stars, providing a secondary outlet if the first option got bottled up.

Under those conditions, Miller’s incredible court savvy and sturdy body were enough. He could score 15 a game with 7-8 assists and still gain ground for his team. Scoot probably would have done well in that era too. He’s got the body and he’s already shown a knack for passing and getting to the hoop.

Today’s game is about two things: spacing and speed. Offense isn’t just seen as five points on a chart representing a team’s players. Creating and using gaps between those points is critical.

In part that’s because defenders have become so quick and rangy that it’s harder to develop an isolation advantage against them unless you’ve got a freakish combination of physical attributes and skills like Kevin Durant.

The need to cover the three-point arc—used more now than ever before in the history of basketball—is another reason. Entering the ball to a post player takes time, draws defenders, and only produces two points. Entering it then passing out is quicker and often produces three.

Changes in defensive rules also make a difference. Point guards carry an unprecedented natural scoring advantage. They can’t be touched if they drive. You can’t step underneath them or tap their arm when they pull up. The edge that Miller had to earn via craftiness and physicality is granted automatically to every relatively-quick player who can dribble today.

This evolution has made life easier for scoring point guards. The shadow side: it makes life hard for everybody—not just the player himself—when a point guard is a non-scorer and/or non-shooter.

The first move of the defense will be to sag off of a dribbler who isn’t a scoring threat. That puts another player in the thick of the interior action, forcing the point guard to drive into traffic, if at all.

The point guard’s teammates also lose their spacing edge, as defenses are now guarding 5-on-4. With more players in a smaller space, they can cover ground more effectively. Entry passes become difficult for the offense. Close-outs to the arc become shorter for the “D”.

Pick-and-roll plays are the traditional way to solve this problem. But if the dribbler isn’t a scoring threat, opposing defenses don’t have to worry as much about how they guard it. Defenders can go under the screen instead of chasing the point guard around it, sagging back into the lane area like they wanted to do in the first place. If the defense switches, the cost of having a mismatch against the non-scoring point guard is relatively low. That packed-in defense will also do a better job defending against the roll player, taking away his ability to gain advantage from the mismatch.

Bottling up a non-scoring guard is relatively easy. If that guard’s team can’t do the same to the opposing point guard, the mismatch is obvious. 9 of the top 16 scorers in the NBA play the point. Point guards account for 13 of the top 60, with a couple more lying just outside. That latter number doesn’t sound like much, but it means that on roughly half of your nights—give or take, depending on your conference and division schedule—the opposing point guard is going to be one of the top two scorers on his team. In a full third of your matchups, the opposing point guard is destined for 20 and is a threat to score 30.

If your team’s point isn’t keeping pace, you’re ceding one of the most obvious potential advantages in the game. When trying to make it up via other options, see the section above for what defenses do to a non-scoring point guard’s teammates.

Not scoring as a point guard isn’t a one-way ticket to Doomsville. The game is more complex than that. But it’s harder to hide a non-scorer at point than at any other position. The effect is going to be greater there than anywhere else.

It’s just not an Andre Miller league anymore. Either Scoot Henderson is going to have to develop a shot and better offense or the Blazers are going to have to work exponentially harder to cover for him on the offensive end.

Thanks for the question! You all can send yours to blazersub@gmail.com and we’ll try to get to as many as we can!