This feature was first published in the 108th edition (2013 - No. 11) of SLAM China Magazine. Here is my original English version of the story.
The rule was to get Big Men. From Russell to Wilt to Kareem to Hakeem to Shaq and a dozen more in the middle. Get a big man, get success.
And then the smaller guys started to take over. Magic and Bird were bigger guys who could do it small. Jordan made it a perimeter game and Kobe and LeBron took it from there. By the mid-2000s, Steve Nash had won back to back MVP awards. And so we knew that there were some exceptions to every rule.
By 2011, three of the previous four number one draft picks had been point guards (Derrick Rose, John Wall, Kyrie Irving). Six of the last eight Rookie of the Years were guards (Chris Paul, Brandon Roy, Rose, Tyreke Evans, Irving, Damian Lillard). Nearly every team in the NBA had a decent guard manning the point. And big men began to get mostly limited as defensive, shot-altering presences, existing mostly to make life easier for the smaller guys.
The exception became the rule.
While the absolute best players in the NBA currently rove around the Small Forward position – LeBron, Durant, and Carmelo – there is no doubt now that the NBA is morphing towards becoming a point guard’s league. But these aren’t your point guards of the past, the fundamental-first, slow-but-steady floor generals like Stockton, Kidd, or Cousy, who make the right pass at the right time to more explosive finishers. The Point Guard of today is the right passer and the explosive finisher, all rolled into one. He does everything required of him and then some. He can outrun opponents like Ty Lawson. Out-pass them like Rajon Rondo. Out-jump them like Russell Westbrook. Out-craft them like Ricky Rubio. And out-shoot them like Stephen Curry.
He has to be whatever his team needs him to be. And he has to win.
Following the evolution of the point guard position through changing times in the NBA’s history can be an intriguing, eye-opening journey. When the league was first established back in 1947, success depended almost exclusively on big men. The man who led the way was Center George Mikan of the Minneapolis Lakers, helping his team win five titles in six years. Every team hoped to stop Mikan, and so everyone wanted a Mikan. There was no set ‘point guard’ position, as two or three perimeter players played fluidly as shot-creators or outside shooters to help open up space for the big man inside. Great guards of the 50s like Bob Cousy, Paul Arizin, and Bill Sharman were high scorers but rarely settled into a strict ‘point’ position.
In came Oscar Robertson to blur the lines even further. Robertson was the definition of a complete basketball player, messing about and getting triple doubles and easing between any of the three perimeter position. He was a pass-first point guard when needed, a shoot-first shooting guard when the situation changed, and attacked the basket like a forward. Over in LA, Jerry West was the complete scoring guard. In New York, Walt Fraizer began to morph the lines between the guard positions clearer, becoming an unstoppable two-way threat for the Knicks.
Still, it was a league of bigs. After a decade of Russell and Chamberlain fighting for supremacy, in came Lew Alcindor – soon to be known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – to make dominant bigs even bigger. Between 1965-1980, a post-player won the MVP award every season, including Russell, Chamberlain, Wes Unseld, Willis Reed, Abdul-Jabbar, Bob McAdoo, Bill Walton, and Moses Malone.
And then came Magic, and just like Oscar Robertson did nearly two decades ago, he made it essential to start paying attention to the floor-general again.
Magic Johnson – at 6’9” – was a wonder. A genius with the size of a post-player and the vision of a point guard. It was in Magic’s domination of the 80s that we finally understood the qualities that we wish to see in a true offensive point guard. A player who is single-handedly responsible for running the team’s offense and creating scoring opportunities – for himself or for others – as required. While Magic worked his magic, the decade also spawned two more of the greatest point guards of All Time. One was John Stockon, the consummate team player who always saw pass first. And the other was Isiah Thomas, who formed a tough backcourt in Detroit with his ability to be a scoring sparkplug and the blueprint for a generation of young small high-scoring players ahead, from Allen Iverson to Derrick Rose.
Near the end of Jordan’s tenure with the Bulls, Allen Iverson entered the league as an explosive and unapologetic shoot-first point guard. But it wasn’t until Iverson was played in the 2-guard position next to a more stable point man did his explosive abilities result into consistent success. The likes of Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis made high-scoring an art form for the small player.
It’s been in the turn of the century that the point guard position has revved up to a higher gear, and now offers the deepest pool of talent in the league. And in large numbers there comes great variety. Jason Kidd and Steve Nash dominated most of the large decade; Kidd as a complete triple-double threat floor general and Nash as the ultimate offensive weapon who led the league in assists multiple times and was one of the league’s deadliest shooters. Tony Parker weaved his way to multiple championships with the Spurs. Chris Paul and Deron Williams arrived midway through the last decade to further solidify the position; both of them evolving as ‘complete’ point guards in their different ways, and both become great leaders on both ends of the court.
The change of the hand-check rules further emancipated the point guards, who were free to attack the basket at breakneck pace and help result in high-energy, exciting basketball. In 2008, Derrick Rose became the first pure guard since Allen Iverson to go number one in the draft. An army of point men in the same mold – from John Wall to Russell Westbrook – soon followed.
Now, depending on the team’s needs, there is a point guard for each system, for each mentality, and to mesh with each type of teammate. Parker is there to beat screens and attack the basket, playing in perfect harmony with the bigs in his team. Paul and Williams are there to make plays and improve their squad, and take over in games whenever needed. Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard may be following in their footsteps too. Rose, Westbrook, Wall, and Ty Lawson are the type of high-scoring point guards who are athletic monsters, unstoppable in a race down the court and unstoppable when they lift off the floor. Rajon Rondo and Ricky Rubio are of a similar design; two pass first creators who can fill up the stat-sheet and affect the game from every angle. Stephen Curry has elite range and ball-handling skills to match. Jrue Holiday, Brandon Jennings, Kemba Walker, Luo Williams, Mike Conley, and George Hill are all great talents capable of putting points on the board and be the right type of offensive mastermind as their team requires. And don’t forget Jeremy Lin, who lit up the world with his explosive point play in New York last year and is now bringing more consistency into his attack-mode style.
With the rise of all these point guards, what we have started to see is that big players – formerly the anchors around whom every team was centered – now have their roles redefined. It is now the point guard who dictates the way ahead, and the big player who has to adjust to cater for the explosive PG.
The evolution of point guards has reached its apex where there is no more single answer for a point guard, but multiple, excellent choices.
And now, the revolution begins.