Usually when a Hall of Fame level player retires, we like to do a comprehensive write up of his career. Clearly, Gary Payton falls into that category. In Payton’s case, we already gave him that treatment back in 2004 when he returned to Seattle for the first time. More recently, J.A. Adande wrote a nice article on Payton’s current state of mind (GP is 99% sure he has retired) and reflected on his career a little bit. John Hollinger wrote a nice side piece about Payton and how he is underrated.
Hollinger had Payton as the third best modern point guard behind Magic Johnson and John Stockton, while many other experts had him behind Isiah Thomas, Steve Nash, and Jason Kidd. Hollinger laid out that Payton was a much more complete player than Nash (can’t defend), Kidd (can’t shoot), and Isiah (smaller player, had a very short career, and was not quite as good overall). Frankly, Hollinger has a point about Payton, who is ridiculously underrated and whose sustained peak from 1994-2003 was an astonishing run.
It does bear mentioning, however, that while Kidd and Nash have been almost universally loved by teammates, Payton had his moments where he wore thin. Payton was always a little more openly brash. Even as a rookie part-time players, he was always talking. You need look no further than the Sam Smith’s classic “Jordan Rules”: “The Bulls had played Seattle three times during the exhibition season, winning two. In the one loss, brash SuperSonics rookie guard Gary Payton had played well, and told USA Today‘s Peter Vecsey that he could defend anyone, including [Michael] Jordan. Later that night the two met by chance at a Seattle nightclub and Payton began to taunt Jordan: ‘I’ve got my million and I’m buying my Ferraris and Testarossas, too.’…[Later, when the Bulls and Sonics met in the regular season for the first time] Jordan would out of the locker room he promised, ‘I’m going to show that little sucker.’ The first time Payton had the ball, Jordan stole it, drove for a lay-up, and was fouled. The next time Payton had the ball, Jordan stole it again and drove all the way down court and slammed for a 6-0 Bulls lead. The third time Payton had the ball, Jordan destroyed his dribble…It would be an easy Bulls win, 116-95, as Jordan had 33 points and 7 steals before the end of the third quarter.”
Despite the fact that he developed slowly, Payton also told the media early in his career that point guards like he and Magic Johnson come around once a decade, which confounded the media a little bit. GP also butted head with coaches most of his career, in particular Paul Westphal, whom Payton seemed to have no respect for. Payton also had famous incidents where he (1) berated Detlef Schrempf for not shooting and costing him assists, (2) got in a full-scale brawl with teammate Vernon Maxwell, resulting in the two trying to assault each other with blunt objects (chairs and free weights) and injuring teammates Chuck Person and Horace Grant when they tried to break up the fight, and (3) Payton was suspended for screaming at Ruben Patterson on the bench during a game.
But despite all his woofing, Payton was a hell of a player and he won regularly. He did develop into the player he thought he was and at his absolute peak from 1995-97, there was no better point guard (he thoroughly outplayed John Stockton in the 1995-96 playoffs and did a credible job on Jordan in the Finals). Payton also did chill out a little bit with age after he left the Sonics (he even took his benching by the Lakers in 2003-04 in stride). Still, you can’t separate Payton the character from the player and for that reason alone, there is ample evidence for a GM to prefer Jason Kidd or Steve Nash (Isiah is another story in that he had such a short career and wasn’t exactly loved by teammates either). If I had to choose one of this bunch as my point guard to lead my team for 15 years, Payton would be my top choice–provided that I had a strong enough coach to keep him semi in check.