By: Dan Grant
Welcome to our final installation about the evolution of position in the NBA. You can check out Part 1 and Part 2 to see my take on the transformations and changing nature of centers and forwards in the game, as well as some of the best All-Star moments from players at those positions.
I saved guards for last because there’s a lot to discuss, in terms of the positions themselves. However, while forwards and centers roles have changed significantly in the past few years, the big changes with guards happened first.
The role of the point guard initially developed in relation to that of the ‘big man’, that being a power forward or center. When the NBA began, the shot clock didn’t exist, so the bigger players did everything they could to gain position close to the basket. As these players were less mobile, teams required a smaller and quicker player to handle the ball and bring it up the floor. Sometimes called the ‘1’, this position was called the ‘point’ guard because the player in that role was running point for the offense. Bob Cousy of the Boston Celtics was the first elite point guard in NBA history, starring in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Teamed with Bill Russell and a litany of other Celtics Hall of Famers, Cousy created the type of inside-outside balance that became a necessity to win in the NBA.
While the genesis of the point guard is easy to see, the evolution of the position is slightly more complicated, as the position has skewed off in extreme directions with schools of thought about each type of guard.
PURE POINT GUARDS
The ideal for the position is what is known as the ‘pure’ point guard. This player combines speed, strength, leadership and intelligence in equal measures. They can handle the ball effortlessly and command the respect and attention of the opposition at all times. They create for their team mates but also recognize when they need to score themselves; they’re constantly looking for the best play that can be made, regardless of who makes it.
Oscar Robertson was the pioneer of this definition of the position, although his size (6’5 and nicknamed ‘the Big O’) gave him a distinct advantage over others to play the game. Robertson exploded on the scene in the 1960’s and dazzled crowds with his scoring and play-making abilities. Robertson remains the only player to average a triple double for an entire season, meaning that he averaged double figures in three statistical categories. Robertson did so in points, assists and rebounds during the 1961-62 season for the Cincinnati Royals. Robertson however was a legendarily surly team mate who wasn’t able to win a championship until he teamed with a young Lew Alcindor in Milwaukee (a man later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).
In the 1980’s, Isiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons took the definition to new heights and is still regarded by many as the best ‘pure’ point guard of all time. His Bad Boy Pistons were tough, and though they featured several of the toughest/dirtiest players of all-time, everything began and ended with the 6’1 Thomas. He had the uncanny ability to make those around him better, often making chicken salad out of chicken shit in his early days with team. As the Piston matured, Isiah matured with them. His shot attempts went down as he worked to get shots for his newer and more talented team mates. His personal evolution came to fruition with back to back NBA championships at the end of the 80’s.
In today’s game, Chris Paul is widely regarded as the best point guard in the league, even being described by Bill Simmons as the ‘Evolutionary Isiah’. In a survey comparing Paul to close rival Deron Williams in recent years, Simmons was quoted as saying:
“Until 2006, Isiah Thomas was the best pure point guard of my lifetime. He inspired teammates, ran impeccable fast breaks, beat everyone off the dribble. He took care of teammates the first 44 minutes and took over the final four. His competitive streak was so cutthroat, they left him off the Dream Team. I thought we peaked with Thomas. Then Chris Paul fell out of the sky. He’s a classier Isiah with a better jumper. We are blessed.”
That just about sums it up doesn’t it?
The only other person who has true claim to being in this category is Gary Payton, a no doubt Hall of Famer and world class trash talker. Nonetheless, he might be the best defensive point guard of all time and he also did this.
Kevin Johnson, Tim Hardaway and Deron Williams are all Diet Coke versions of this type of point guard, though all three are/were insanely fun to watch when they had it going.
The future of the category is Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving, whose ability to shoot the three gives him a weapon that Thomas never had and Paul only partially possesses.
There are some sub-categories of point guards. The pure distributor is rare, but is a joy to watch when they grace us with their presence. The aforementioned Cousy began this category but throughout the years, players such as Steve Nash, Mark Price, Rod Strickland, Jason Kidd and Mark Jackson have dazzled with their ability to create offense for teammates. Nash won two MVP awards playing a style that completely engaged his abilities as a creator and under-rated shooter. Jason Kidd was an elite defender, rebounder and creator, leading his New Jersey Nets to two Finals appearances in 2002 and 2003 and finally re-inventing himself as a grizzled veteran and three-point shooter, to win a title with the 2010 Mavericks. Mark Jackson was a mercenary, travelling team to team and doing nothing but racking up the fourth most assists of all time. Rod Strickland was well… Rod Strickland.
One day Ricky Rubio might be the lord and king of this category.
The shoot first point guard is the bane of the traditionalist NBA fan. Shoot first guards are often linked to a ‘me’ mentality and have rarely met with team success. However, there’s a guard in the league currently who might be tweaking the shoot first style in the right way to make it a more effective way to build a team.
The shoot first point guard began with Nate ‘Tiny’ Archibald, the only NBA player to lead the league in both scoring and assists in 1972-73. His team was also terrible and missed the playoffs. Archibald re-invented himself as a distributor late in his career and met with team success in Boston. His coach in Kansas City when he shot so much? Bob Cousy. You can’t make this stuff up.
Though the years, other players have taken on the role, most notably Stephon Marbury, with little or no team success.
Derrick Rose is a young point guard who plays the game with reckless abandon and takes the majority of his teams shots. While he’s not a great shooter from distance, he constantly creates by penetrating the opposition’s defense with his sheer athleticism and his uncanny ability to finish in traffic. While he distributes the ball as well, there is no doubt that Rose wants to score every time he has the ball. However, he’s the consummate teammate and a hard worker on the defensive end, something that shoot first point guards (Marbury especially) lacked in the past and something that has allowed Rose to evolve this definition of the position.
Magic Johnson gets his own category. A 6’8 point guard who switched and played center in game 7 of the NBA Finals in his rookie season, nobody played the point like Magic. Near the top of most offensive categories that matter for guards despite the tragically premature end of his career at age 31 (despite his brief comeback at 36), Magic was to LeBron as Isiah was to Chris Paul. Magic saw the floor with an inhuman intelligence and understanding of where players were going to be even before they knew where they were going to be. A three time MVP and five time champion, Magic isn’t necessarily a ‘pure’ point guard, but he’s certainly the greatest point guard to ever play the game, in terms of his accomplishments.
Originally, there was no ‘point’ guard and ‘shooting’ guard. There were just two guards. Often referred to as the ‘2’ the shooting guard was originally a defensive specialist and someone who could handle the ball if the point guard was pressured. Over time, coaches realized it would be an advantage if this player created space for the other players on the floor by making quick cuts and it would be an even larger advantage if that player had the ability to shoot from distance.
The shooting guard can be summarized in two words: Michael Jordan. MJ is the pinnacle of the shooting guard position. The position became more of a focal point in the late 70’s and early 80’s with the introduction of players like David Thompson (who in turn had modelled his game after Celtics legend Sam Jones, probably the first elite scoring 2) became guards who led their team in scoring. Jordan grew up idolizing the undersized Thompson (a fellow North Carolina native) and modelled his game after him. When Jordan sprung up to 6’6 and his ruthless competitiveness made him an All-Universe defensive presence, the new standard for the shooting guard had been set.
Kobe Bryant has done his best to evolve the position, but you can’t evolve perfection. Still, Bryant is clearly the second best 2 guard and one of the best players of all time.
Currently Dwyane Wade joins Bryant at the top of NBA shooting guards. James Harden is knocking on the door of that club, but his defense is wanting. If he can evolve that portion of his game, he might someday be considered among the all-time elite.
‘Combo’ guards are the weird hybrid guards who don’t really have a position. This can occur for a couple of different reasons. Often, these are players who lack the size to be a true shooting guard, as they wouldn’t be able to guard their opponent. These players often come off the bench and play with mentality of a shoot first point guard. Jason Terry is a good example; he began his career as a point guard in Atlanta, but reinvented himself as a scoring weapon off the bench in Dallas, winning the Sixth Man of the Year award and a championship with the 2010 Mavericks. Another reason a player might be a ‘combo’ guard is that they’re too big to be a true point guard or can’t handle the ball well enough. They might do so in a pinch, but they’re more of a scorer or a defensive stopper. Dennis Johnson of the 80’s Boston Celtics was the epitome of this role. The 6’5 Johnson handled the ball when necessary but routinely drew the top defensive assignment, regardless of position. Johnson could guard anyone but the other team’s center and probably could have done that if he set his mind to it. Russell Westbrook reminds me of a slightly smaller and crazier DJ, someone with Olympic level athletic ability and a junkyard dog mentality.
Allen Iverson was some weird hybrid of a combo guard and a shoot first point guard, basically creating his own position. I’m including him here because he often played off the ball with a more natural point guard, which allowed him to cut and get open. That said, he often handled the ball and led his team in assists. He doesn’t really fit in any box and by any measure is one of the greatest guards ever to play; he’s certainly the toughest.
Swingmen are the book end to the combo guard. Often too big to play guard exclusively, they’ll often switch and play small forward so the team can play essentially a three guard system. These players are a relatively new addition to the NBA lexicon, becoming popular in the 1990’s. Reggie Miller, Ray Allen, Tracy McGrady and just because I love him, Doug Christie [Ed. Note: Mrs. Christie would like a word with you], were all examples of swingmen. Generally quite tall but slight, a good swingman is a shooter who can cut to the basket and create offense. It’s not coincidence that the first two players listed, Allen and Miller, are the top two all-time leading three point shooters.
Often guards are kept on a team purely because they can shoot. In part 2 of our series, we discussed when teams run a ‘point forward’ instead of a point guard; this is ostensibly so they can play two shooting guards. Steve Kerr, John Paxson, Dell Curry, JJ Redick and Kyle Korver are fantastic examples of guards/swingmen who have carved out a career based 90% around their elite ability to shoot the basketball.
The best All-Star moment at the guard position has two contenders.
From a purely historic basketball standpoint, Jordan’s coming out party in 1988 was the top of the hill. For the first time ever, a player won the slam dunk contest (taking the doctor’s advice and dunking from the free throw line. Dr. J that is), then scoring 40 points and winning MVP in the game.
But the most touching All-Star moment ever can be seen here.
Just months after learning he had tested positive for HIV and decided to retire, Magic Johnson accepted hugs from members of both teams. Even though he didn’t play in the NBA that season, Magic was voted to start in the All-Star game by the NBA fans. He played 29 minutes, threw some filthy no-look passes, and engaged in a back and forth one-on-one with Isiah Thomas. Then he walked off into the sunset, this time with the All-Star Game’s MVP trophy.
The ovation Magic receive after hitting a final three pointer at the buzzer and the hugs he received from players who previously had been scared to even touch Johnson, due to a lack of awareness about the disease, was something to put a lump in your throat. It was a fitting end for one the greats.