Last season, Houston was second in the NBA in points per game, and without a single doubt, Parsons was its second offensive option. Parsons made big shots, shot 39% from beyond the arc, guarded the opposing teams' best wing, and helped James Harden run the offense (something that coach Kevin McHale didn't trust Jeremy Lin to do consistently).
We're just a couple weeks away from the NBA regular season beginning, and judging by what I read (both professional articles and comments on the articles), Parsons has surprisingly failed to gain the general public's respect.
So, why is it that a 6-foot-9-inch quality wing defender who averaged 15.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game last season isn't being mentioned in the same breath as second-tier small forwards Nicolas Batum (Portland Trail Blazers), Rudy Gay (Toronto Raptors), Kawhi Leonard (San Antonio Spurs) or Danilo Gallinari (Denver Nuggets)?
We all know that the Rockets brought in Jeremy Lin after his Cinderella season in New York. We all know that Houston landed its first star in James Harden right before last season. We all know (and this includes people who know nothing about basketball) that Dwight Howard went from yellow and purple to red and white (pretty patriotic of Dwight, actually). Maybe talking about four players on one team is a little too detailed for most fans, but, if Parsons hasn't gotten your attention yet, my advice to you is simple: Just wait.
In the NBA, there are a handful of small forwards who are in their primes and have a stranglehold on the competition. At the top, there's LeBron James (Miami Heat), Kevin Durant (Oklahoma City Thunder), Carmelo Anthony (New York Knicks), Paul George (Indiana Pacers), and Andre Iguodala (Golden State Warriors). For the sake of argument, let's say that George and Iguodala are 3s, despite the fact that both will be spending some time at the 2 this season.
After those fives guys, who's next? To me, the next best player is Luol Deng (Chicago Bulls), who's a step below the aforementioned five best 3s, but still is an elite player in his own right. After Deng, though, who comes next? This isn't a video game. This isn't a fantasy team. Intangibles count and raw talent alone is useless (ask Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee how far it's taken them). With that being said, there isn't a small forward in the league who I would pick to start alongside Harden on the wing than Parsons, other than the aforementioned top six.
I'm guessing that the biggest argument would revolve around Rudy Gay ("Whoa, Chandler Parsons better than Rudy Gay! You're crazy and know nothing about basketball."), so we'll key on that. Guys like Batum, Gallinari and Leonard are all very good players, although they don't impact a game on both sides of the ball the way Parsons does. Batum is above average, but he's still a one-off talent. He provides his team with a wing defender and spot-up shooting on offense, and that's about it. Last season, Batum had the chance to step up, and he proved once again that he's just a stand-still shooter who can't create for his teammates the way Parsons can.
On the other hand, Gallo is strictly a scorer. To separate him from Parsons, you can just look at the numbers. Parsons averaged 15.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 3.5 assists while shooting 49% from the field and 39% from beyond the arc. Gallo averaged 16.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and shot 42% from the field and 37% from distance. Even if Gallinari is a slightly better offensive option than Parsons (which I don't agree with), the fact that Gallo has trouble guarding 3s and Parsons is a top-15 wing defender proves that Parsons is a superior overall player.
When it comes to Leonard, I've already compared and contrasted the two young small forwards over the summer, but this is what tips the scales for me: Leonard's feel for the game offensively is considerably worse than Parsons', and, although Leonard does more on the offensive boards, Parsons' ability to handle the ball, facilitate, cut, and spread the floor makes him the better overall player. Defensively, Leonard is slightly better, but I'm not ready to dub Leonard a top-flight defender. Remember, Boris Diaw spent a lot of time on LeBron James in the NBA Finals last season, and guys like Gary Neal and Danny Green were the ones who distinguished themselves offensively, not Leonard.
Finally, we've made it down to Mr. Gay. Please clear your mind so you won't be dismissing this strictly off of their video-game ratings (Parsons is probably an 84-86, while Gay is probably an 89-91, but that's why video games have always failed to create realistic outcomes; in other words, it's the plight Antoine Walker).
The case for Gay being a better player starts and ends with statistics, which is a solid argument on the surface, but, in reality, it's as thick as this playing card ("My Cousin Vinnie" reference). In his first four seasons, Gay averaged 17.4 points and 5.5 rebounds, shooting 45% from the field and 35% from distance. During those four years, the Grizzlies were 108-220, and although you can't blame Gay for having an awful team, you can blame him for not lifting his team to a new level in any way, shape or form during those four years (and you can point out that the year before Gay came to Memphis, the team went 49-33, and the next year it dropped to 22-60; chew on that for a second).
After those four years, nobody was really hating on Gay. Think of it like this: DeMarcus Cousins averaged 16.3 points and 9.8 rebounds per game in three seasons in Sacramento. During that time, his team went 74-146, which has led to absolutely no one comparing him to Joakim Noah, who is superior to Cousins in every aspect aside from raw statistics (rebounding is close, but Cousins scores considerably more; you get the point).
The argument against Gay starts in 2010-11, when he finally had a team that was talented enough to make the playoffs in the Western Conference. In the first 54 games of the season, Gay played nearly 40 minutes a night, averaging 19.8 points and 6.2 rebounds while shooting career highs from the field (47%) and distance (40%).
In the team's 54th game, Gay went down with an injury, and something strange happened. The team didn't miss a beat and actually had a better win percentage after he went down in the regular season (very slightly better, but I could have snuck that past you without admitting it). The Gay-less Grizz then managed to beat the mighty San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs, before falling to the rising Oklahoma City Thunder in seven games in the second round.
So, if you need to hear it plainly, Memphis lost its second-best scorer for the year and then got better. If you're thinking "maybe things just fell right for them," or "maybe his injury sparked a team-first mentality that drove them towards one of the better upsets of the last decade," then you're already on the defensive, and I have you right where I want you.
The next year, which was the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, Gay put up similar numbers (except for dropping to 32% from beyond the arc) but this time, the Grizzlies couldn't make it out of the first round, losing to the Los Angeles Clippers. So, without Gay, Memphis staged an upset in the first round, and with him, it lost in the first round. Is it all Gay's fault? Of course not. If he had lifted them to a first-round victory would he have been dumped a year later? I'm going to say no.
Last season should tip the scales in this argument. Gay was traded from the Grizzlies after helping the team go 29-13. Without Gay, the Grizzlies went 27-13, which means they did about the same despite trading Gay, Marreese Speights and Wayne Ellington (in separate deals) for Ed Davis and Tayshaun Prince (I'd imagine that Speights' video-game rating is pretty high). That means that Memphis was doing fine, dumped a lot of salary, then continued on its merry way. In the playoffs, Memphis defeated a superior Clippers team in the first round (something it failed to do with Gay) then made it to the Western Conference finals, although the Grizzlies can thank their second-round victory over the Thunder to Patrick Beverley.
If you're keeping track at home, twice in Gay's career his team has last lost him (via injury or trade) and gotten better. In Parsons' career, as a rookie, he helped the Rockets contend for a playoff spot in the highly contested Western Conference, despite playing on a flawed team. Then, in his second year, he was the second-most important offensive player for the second best offense in the league, providing it with sound defense from the wing and a second playmaker on offense, and also served as a vocal leader for an undermanned playoff team.
Essentially, I'm taking the guy who has less talent, better intangibles, and works better with his teammates over the guy whose team gets better when he leaves, isn't too keen on defense, and doesn't make his teammates better. Statistics can be twisted and tortured, but impact is measured in success. Gay is a new-school Corey Maggette, and Parsons is going to be the third star on a championship-caliber team.
Don't forget that Parsons learned how to play off Harden in about a month, while a guy like Lin had trouble playing off him for the entire season. Things like these can't be forgotten on the basketball court, although they're easily overlooked. The bottom line is that Parsons needs everyone's respect, and even if you don't want to give him yours, he'll have no trouble earning it from you this season. That's a guarantee.
M. De Moor is an NBA junkie and the writer of "The Daily Fix" on Hoopshabit.com. He is inspired by the likes of Bob Dylan, James Harden, Troy Polamalu, Kurt Vile, and Jose Calderon.
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