How Good Was Gary Payton in His Prime: The Definitive Analysis

Gary Payton is a singular character in NBA history. His play style looks anachronistic if you watch through the lens of the modern NBA, and his rather abrasive personality extended to opponents, teammates, and family members alike. Stories of his legendary defense and trash-talking abilities flow like the constant stream of expletives from his mouth.

But that’s not what this article is about. Today, I aim to nail down how Payton played on both sides of the ball, his creation role with the 90s Supersonics, and just how impactful his defense was. Since his prime preceded the so-called “databall” era, this article relies much more heavily on film analysis along with basic statistical indicators.

Gary Payton’s Defense

Full Court and Off Ball Pressure

The key to a strong defensive presence is setting the terms of engagement. If a defense allows the offense to function precisely as they’ve practiced, the defense has no chance. Defenses need to set the terms of engagement to disrupt even the simplest of offensive actions. Payton consciously embodied that principle.

“I love it when a team has to have its 2-guard bring the ball up because I’m making it too hard on the point guard,” Payton told Sports Illustrated back in 1995. “That means they’ve changed their offense, and that’s what a good defense makes teams do. Sometimes a team will go to its backup point guard, and then I’ve won, because the backup knows if I’ve gotten the starter out of the game, he’s gonna have problems too.”

While the Sonics often employed a half or full-court trapping scheme, they also relied on Payton’s sole ability to make the opposing point guard’s life miserable.

When used this way, Payton was extraordinarily effective, but he wasn’t used this way often especially in the playoffs. In the 618 games between 1995 and 2003, Payton averaged 40 minutes per game, and in almost every game, he was either the main or the secondary creator on his team. (In that same time frame, he averaged 43.5 minutes per game in 59 playoff games). There’s a reason that Monta Ellis is the only player to average 40 minutes per game since 2011: basketball is too strenuous to play both offense and defense at a high level for that long.

Beyond just staying in front of opposing guards, Payton’s ball denial rivaled that of a shadow. Against smaller, quicker guards, his length, speed, and dexterity made him a menace to shake off. Likewise, his 6’4” stature coupled with his tenacity allowed him to physically jostle with much bigger guards and forwards including the post-maestro Michael Jordan.

Payton’s defensive ability to affect the game without even guarding on-ball in the half-court is rare. Even though I contend that the best defenders create the most events through blocks, steals, charges, and deflections (especially 1-0 transition plays), this sort of unquantifiable ability should be right in that group.

Hands and Opportunistic Swipes

As a unit, the Supersonics were a stalwart defensive team through a stretch of the 90s. Although the defensive rules in the 90s were different, Mark Schindler pointed out that the Seattle Storm plays with similar defensive principles as the 90s Sonics. While the Sonics relied much more on doubles and traps, the idea of relying on spatially aware, flexible wing defenders rings true for both.

Despite not having what I consider to be even an all-star level defensive forward or center, the Sonics boasted a defense that was at least 4 points per 100 possessions better than league average three times between 1994 and 1997. (Their defense peaked in 1996 with a defensive rating 5.5 points better than league average which lands in the 96th percentile from 1990 to 2020).

(Author’s note: Twitter user @KawhiBettr pointed out that Kemp was a talented defensive player. While I don’t want to confirm nor deny the veracity of the claim that he was the best defensive power forward at the time, he was almost certainly an all-star level defensive player. That was an oversight on my part).

Payton reigned supreme as king of this defensive dynasty by setting the tone on the perimeter. His size and vertical athleticism weren’t conducive to being an effective rim protector, but he still made plays under the rim with his rotational recognition and penchant for swiping the ball.

Admittedly, that kind of play under the rim was rare for Payton, but there were multiple instances of him helping in the paint to shut off a drive.

With Payton’s hands and ability to shadow an offensive player, he floated around the perimeter like a phantom waiting for the right moment to strike. In the Sonics’ system, they were well-oiled enough that the other four defenders would appropriately rotate when Payton aggressively initiated a double. These rotations felt more like a part of the system as opposed to just prepping for Payton to fly off the handle. His doubles and swipes felt calculated.

Between 1993 and 2000, Payton landed in the top 5 for total steals 6 times, leading the league once in 1996. He was unquestionably one of the premier turnover creators during the 90s.

A Few Defensive Mishaps

Like every player in history, Payton wasn’t a flawless perimeter defender. In a few instances, he seemed to shift down to neutral on defense which allowed a pretty simple drive into the paint. This didn’t happen regularly, but it happened enough that it made me raise an eyebrow.

While I can’t explain those mental lapses, I did find that his one weakness on the perimeter was small, speedy guards. Since every skill in the NBA presents itself as a double-edged sword, Payton’s height both helped him defend larger players while exposing this vulnerability. Now, don’t get my words confused: Gary Payton was still a strong point of attack defender against these guards. I would have no issue having him defend literally any speedster in the history of the league. However, I wouldn’t say that he’s the best in these situations.

Regardless, Payton’s relentlessness made him such a formidable defender. In the aforementioned SI article, he expounded on this idea:

“You can’t lock a guy up every time down the floor, not in this league…There are too many great offensive players. A guy is going to break you down every now and then. You might bust me this time, but I’m coming back at you next time down the floor. The one thing I’ll never be is gun-shy.”

Conclusion on Gary Payton’s Defense

To frame this section, I’m going to use one of Ben Taylor’s comments on his Top 40 GOAT list. About Payton, he said, “I was actually disappointed with [Payton’s] defense on this latest film study. He can crank up good positions by being physical and has good hands, but he can be immobile and gamble heavily.” To a degree, I concur with this conclusion while viewing Payton’s defense more charitably.

I addressed Payton’s mental lapses (shifting to neutral) and gambling (part of their system) above, and I think the former makes sense when considering Payton’s playing load. As I described above, Payton played an absurd amount of minutes across multiple seasons, and he did so as both the defensive and offensive leader for the Sonics. I simply don’t think it’s possible for a player to sustain a high level on both ends over extended periods of time, so something had to give. Despite LeBron clearly idling through multiple regular seasons, it’s his ramped up defense (and offense) that became more valuable. Using that logic, I find Payton’s ramped up defense closer to how he would and could play if he were in a more optimized role (more on this later). Furthermore, it speaks to how he could perform in shorter spurts such as a 7-game playoff series.

Because they’re both physical and defensive oriented guards, Gary Payton is often compared to Jrue Holiday whose defense changed the 2021 Finals. From my Payton film study, I never saw him play possessed defense for the durations that Holiday did, but Holiday was never tasked with being the primary creator for the Bucks. If Payton were to be the third offensive option on a team, I’m convinced that he could sustain Holiday levels of brilliance for as much time.

Nevertheless, the best defensive players are the ones who can defend the most efficient zone on the court: the paint. While Payton may be a better option to defend the point of attack than a Scottie Pippen, Pippen’s ability to adequately protect the rim makes him a much more valuable defensive player. If we’re only comparing defenders to those who play the same position, Payton is at least on the list of top-tier defensive players. On the other hand, if we’re comparing his defensive impact with every defender in history, Payton shouldn’t scratch the window leading to the door of the waiting room that allows players to interview for the honor of GOAT defender.

Gary Payton’s Offense

Setting the Offensive Stage

In the words of SI’s L. Jon Wertheim, “[Payton] can go months without dunking, he lacks the killer crossover of other top point guards, and even when his jumper goes in, it’s not easy on the eyes. Barry goes so far as to call Payton’s style ‘kind of junky.’ Yet Payton is the rare noncenter who can dominate without taking a shot; when he’s on the court, the other nine players pay him constant attention.” According to Payton himself, “The NBA tries to be about flash, but real fans recognize the guy who makes things happen.” These passages are important to keep in mind as you sift through the following Payton plays.

Modern Spacing and Creating from the Post

Prior to 2001, illegal defense in the NBA didn’t allow players to zone at all. Each defender had to either directly defend his man or commit to a double. He couldn’t help off in no-man’s land. This archaic style is where Payton thrived as an offensive centerpiece. Coach George Karl emphasized modern spacing which catapulted the Sonics to an offense that was 6.6 points better than league average in 1998 (97th percentile between 1990 and 2020 and the best offense in Supersonics history). This was the year after Shawn Kemp left.

During the 1998 season, Coach Karl placed Payton in the post instead of hammering pick-and-rolls. The results were startling.

That’s Tyrone Corbin whom Gary Payton easily spun around for the easy finish. Basketball Reference lists Corbin as being at least two inches taller and 30 pounds heavier than Payton, yet Payton makes mincemeat of him. I cannot stress how often this sort of play happened, but usually, it was Payton posting a smaller guard like defensive thief Mookie Blaylock.

Blaylock, standing around 6 feet, has no chance against Payton’s post work. In response, the Hawks double, and Payton makes the beautiful read for the open three. Because of their modern spacing, teams struggled to contain this inside-out attack initiated by Payton’s brutality near the rim. Possessing both the scoring chops to draw attention and the passing vision to make plays, Payton was a veritable powerhouse.

Kickouts comprised the majority of Payton’s diet, but he flashed similarly brilliant reads to the interior as he backed down from the perimeter.

Attacking from the Perimeter

Aside from kickouts, Payton made good use of dump off passes. He was a master manipulator who engaged in a game of chicken with opposing players forcing one of them to blink so that he could create an open shot at the rim.

His dump off game was stronger off the drive which I credit to his ability to acrobatically contort his body in the air. In these aerial games of chicken, Payton would force defensive reactions by leaping into the air with multiple options open. Watch as he renders three Lakers defenders helpless before making the last second pass leading to a shooting foul. Shaquille O’Neal is looking the wrong way as Payton makes the read.

Even though Payton creates that entire possession off the dribble, I don’t want to portray that as common. He didn’t attack the paint like a modern day Ja Morant. As Wertheim’s comment illustrates, Payton didn’t have a deep bag of dribbling moves with which to break down defenders. His dribble was more economical and employed best off secondary creation.

As for that stylish floater, that was a mainstay of Payton’s attack. He sometimes opted for a more traditional floater, but he preferred the finger roll position to scoop it over the defense.

Unpacking the efficacy of his finishing ability is a bit of a challenge. Based strictly on my eye, I didn’t consider him to be a strong finisher. I felt that he didn’t have an excellent touch around the rim, and if a defender stood directly in front of him on a drive, I wasn’t confident that Payton could finish around him.

Despite my observation, Payton’s 64.1% shooting percentage within 3 feet ranked 17th out of 74 eligible guards in 1998 according to Basketball Reference. To merge the two conclusions, there’s a chance that Payton finished better when shooting out of a post up. Those attacks, especially when spinning around an opponent, felt more lethal than when he was driving from the perimeter. Perhaps his layup shooting percentage would be lower compared to other guards, but I have no specific evidence to back that up.

Shooting and Efficiency

Let’s just cut to the chase: Payton’s shooting form was rough. Not Shawn Marion rough, but still rough.

With very few conventional cues of a strong shooting form, it’s no wonder that Gary Payton was a sporadic jump shooter. In the 90s, his free throw percentage peaked in the mid-70% range, and his three-point percentage was 34%: consistently below league average from that range.

Teams used Payton’s shooting woes to their advantage. During Game 3 of the 1997 Western Conference first round, Payton hit 5 out of 6 three-pointers in the first quarter. Even with the shortened three-point line, this is the frantic pace the Suns used to close out on a fiery-Payton in the 3rd quarter.

He consistently found the confidence to shoot three-pointers of all kinds: off the dribble, off the catch, etc. Sometimes, they went in. Often, they didn’t. Payton kept defenses honest by forcing them to think about closing out, but in totality, he was a poor shooter.

Passing Awareness

As the captain of Seattle’s egalitarian offense, Payton was far from a ball-hog. He made quick, low-viscous reads that fit into a ball-movement heavy offense; as illustrated above, he was great at finding open shots for teammates on the perimeter and in the paint.

Nonetheless, Payton missed more open passing opportunities than I’m used to seeing from a high-level creator. This first play is the most egregious example, but a couple others were in the ball-park of missing a golden opportunity.

In other instances, he simply didn’t see the opening for a teammate. Payton was a tremendous lob thrower, especially when Kemp was on the team, but this play shows the lack of vision the best passers in the league possess.

Overall, Payton’s passing vision and awareness combined with his willingness to throw risky passes made him a deadly creator. He is one of the best guards I’ve seen utilize the dump-off pass which made his otherwise slightly above average drives more dynamic. More than anything, his inside-out passing game looked like a proto drive-and-kick initiator, and he was a master at baiting defenders before making the correct read.

Like his defense though, that didn’t make him flawless, and the presence of those missed opportunities and mistakes held him back from reaching the top of the passing food-chain.

Offensive Conclusion on Gary Payton

Contrary to popular belief, Gary Payton derived the majority of his impact from offense. He spearheaded two of the top ten relative offenses during the 90s, and his creation value only increased with the departure of Shawn Kemp.

However, I think my opinion of Payton’s offensive impact is lower than it might seem. What I can’t capture with film or statistics is how Payton seemingly disappeared for long stretches of games. Seattle’s offense ran the smoothest when he was working in the post or off secondary creation, but there were plenty of times when Hersey Hawkins, Detlef Schrempf, or Vin Baker created the initial dents. The Sonics were built with an eye to offense, so they could be buoyed by committee (much like last season’s Clippers).

Moreover, Payton struggled to self-generate offense in large spurts during the playoffs. He wasn’t the sort of player on whom an offense could count to consistently take over for long stretches.

Contrasting him with Allen Iverson might prove the most fruitful here. Say what you will about Iverson’s voluminous offense, but one could build a functional team surrounding him with little offensive help as long as his teammates could handle defense. On the other hand, he’d struggle on a team of high-level offensive players.

Gary Payton is the opposite. Given a squad of defensively inclined players, I think Payton would struggle to generate efficient shots for himself. Next to other offensive players, however, he fit in well-enough to generate a solid amount of offense as long as his teammates took on a sizeable load.

I don’t think this makes him particularly portable on offense, though. Payton cut well, made quick, secondary passes, and shared the ball, but when he didn’t have possession, his lack of shooting made him a liability.

Where Should I Draft Gary Payton in an All-Time Draft?

Unfortunately, Gary Payton wouldn’t make a great direct transplant from the 90s to today’s game. If you’re participating with strict textualists who see players as remaining the same, Payton’s play style would be way outdated for today’s spread game. His lack of shooting, weak isolation attack, and reliance on post ups would make for an anachronistic player.

If viewed charitably though, Payton could bring more to the table. I’ve said before that ball handling blossomed as much as three-point shooting, so if your draftees are arguing for skill corrections in shooting, they should allow the same with dribbling. With that said, Payton still didn’t have tremendous athleticism for relentless paint attacks. His economical handle and passing game would make him a dangerous on-ball threat, but he wouldn’t be in the upper echelon of creators.

Payton is probably best utilized as a supercharged Jrue Holiday. He can fix problems on the perimeter, and if given a lesser role, could ramp up his defensive impact in truly frightening ways. Nevertheless, he couldn’t anchor a defense on his own. Offensively, he would fit next to another creator who could create on a more consistent and efficient basis while providing immense spacing. He is best paired next to somebody like Stephen Curry, Larry Bird, or Dirk Nowitzki. I still wouldn’t pick him in the 2nd round. By the 4th round, he would be a steal, so somewhere in the 3rd round seems like a natural place (depending on your team build).

Final Grades (A+ to F) For Gary Payton

ScoringB-
PlaymakingA-
DefenseB+
ShiftabilityB
PortabilityC-
ScalabilityC-
Ideal RoleO2D2

Cody Houdek is a writer and podcaster for Premium Hoops where he co-hosts Sense and Scalability. He also assists with videos for the Thinking Basketball YouTube channel. You can find all of his work (articlesvideos, and podcastshere.

Check out Cody’s other historical player breakdowns.

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