The Orlando Magic demoted Elfrid Payton on November 27. At the time, their offense was nearly 10 points per 100 possessions better with the point guard on the court, but they still ranked 29th in the NBA in offensive rating and 30th in True Shooting percentage. Their starting lineup barely utilized the three-point line and couldn't stop anybody on the other end.
So, to inject more shooting, first-year head coach Frank Vogel replaced Payton with D.J. Augustin, and swapped Nikola Vucevic with Bismack Biyombo.
"[I want to] try to take the first quarter and put the ball in Evan Fournier's hands a lot more with a spot-up three-point-shooting point guard out there with him," Vogel said that night, after Orlando lost to the Milwaukee Bucks.
Even though it was a tad unfair to blame Payton for Orlando's broken offense—the new starting lineup is even worse—nobody flinched at Vogel's decision. After all, the 22-year-old Payton's flaws aren't exactly classified information.
Here are Payton's career splits: 43.3 percent from the floor, 28.4 percent behind the three-point line, and 57.2 percent from the charity stripe. While Payton is gradually showing more confidence in his jumper, and launching outside shots—even ones that probably won't drop—can keep defenses more honest than not shooting at all, there's no getting around those percentages, and plays like the one below illustrate why. Instead of acknowledging Payton's existence, Toronto Raptors rookie point guard Fred VanVleet darts over to get a steal off Vucevic the moment he puts the ball on the floor.
Spacing is a priority in today's NBA. Stephen Curry's wrist redefined the value of deep shooting, while the Houston Rockets have blasted above and beyond preseason expectations with their unprecedented heaving from beyond the three-point line. Both are exciting and highly successful basketball phenomena, but they aren't the only paths to an effective offense.
If Payton is the last of a dying breed—the pass-first ball-handler who can do just about everything but keep defenders 100 percent honest beyond the arc—then NBA may become a homogeneous collection of positionless 3-and-D cogs. That would be bad news for the league, from both an entertainment and competitive standpoint. We need players who zag while everyone else zigs, which is why it's time to appreciate what Payton can do, instead of branding him with a scarlet letter. Just because he can't stretch defenses like Curry or Damian Lillard doesn't mean he's useless. Shooting matters, but so does top-notch perimeter defense, the ability to get to the rim at will, and intelligent passing.
Payton is averaging more potential assists (12 per game) than Kemba Walker, Damian Lillard, and Curry despite playing fewer minutes. He's at or near the top of almost every passing statistic among players who average fewer than 30 minutes a night, and can execute lobs from half-court, hit his roll man with a slick pocket pass, and just get totally ridiculous with the kind of unparalleled creativity that children should not try at home.
Payton has enough intelligence and foresight to puppeteer teammates and direct them toward opportunistic situations, but what makes him harder to stop than most people realize is his ability to draw two defenders to the ball.
According to Synergy Sports, Payton is one of the top isolation players in basketball, in large part because he's good enough of a paint finisher (unlike Ricky Rubio, another hapless shooting floor general) to force help on drives to the cup.
He leads all players who average fewer than 30 minutes in drives, with 8.8 per game, and shoots a respectable 50 percent. Sometimes he's a sledgehammer who smashes his way downhill through smaller defenders, and other times he shows off a delicate touch with a creative display of floaters just outside the restricted area.
In his last 14 games off the bench, Payton is averaging more drives than LeBron James, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and just about everyone else in the league—in only 27.4 minutes. To do that while defenders routinely go under screens and sag back in coverage is remarkable.
On the other end, Payton is quick enough to body up on speedy point guards even when they're a few feet behind the three-point line. His aggressiveness tends to backfire when he unnecessarily tries it out on a fellow non-shooter instead of giving them a cushion to fire away, but all in all, shaking him without a screen isn't easy.
Payton is feisty, never too shy to covertly tug his man's jersey whenever he falls a step behind, and his twitchy hands are everywhere. Very few players can making ripping Chris Paul look easy, but Payton is one of them. (Only four players had a higher steal percentage last season, with a style that's more pickpocket than bank robber.) Against pick-and-rolls, he glides over screens and pursues the ball like a yo-yo on a string. He's also tall and long enough to bother most wings, and some forwards, whenever Orlando has to switch.
When you have someone on your team who can make successfully take away John Wall's air space one night, and then follow it up by harassing Kyle Lowry without getting in foul trouble the next, he's a keeper. Those guys are rare and increasingly valuable.
This is far from an argument against the three-point shot as an effective weapon, or for Payton's upside as an All-Star, inflexible building block—Payton can't succeed unless he's surrounded by specific player types—or even as an above-average starter. Context matters, and Orlando's roster isn't built to accentuate a lot of what Payton excels at. In a perfect world, both his bigs would space the floor and widen the passing and driving lanes that let him hum. Serge Ibaka is a gorgeous fit, and Bismack Biyombo is a nice roll man, but Nikola Vucevic, Jeff Green, and Aaron Gordon (at small forward) aren't ideal partners to make this happen.
He's a heady player, though, and should be able to play beside another heavy ball-handler next season if the Magic try and sign someone like Patty Mills in free agency.
Payton is still only 22 years old; the opportunity to become a league-average three-point shooter is still in the cards, but admittedly it's a long shot. And that's OK! He can still have a positive impact without totally conforming to the norms of modern professional basketball, even if it's as the NBA's premier backup point guard for the rest of his career. Whether he's running a second unit or starting for a team that can properly space the floor, Payton is still long for this league. And the NBA is a much better product with him around.
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