The death of the traditional NBA point guard
I can vividly remember back in 1990, my father buying a brand new copy of the NBA Entertainment Video, Superstars. As a young kid back then, I had recently begun a courtship with the game of basketball. Each and every aspect about this sport was as fresh as a new pair of Air Jordan V’s still in the box, laces untouched. So one could envision how watching career highlights of greats such as Magic, Bird, MJ, Akeem (before he changed it to Hakeem), Nique, Barkley and Dr. J, with popular music hits from the 1980s as a backdrop, was hoops heaven for a young man like myself.
As much as I was in awe of the greatness of the aforementioned stars, a little man from Detroit caught my attention more than the rest. Isiah Thomas’ brilliance literally jumped off my television set and made an everlasting impression on me.
The man that they affectionately called “Zeke” was unlike any point guard I had ever seen play the game at that point. Not only was he the general of the Detroit Pistons’ offense, but he also had a fearlessness about himself, unafraid to attack the hoop amongst the trees. Consistently leading his team in scoring and assists, Thomas was a dual threat. He was truly an anomaly, ahead of his time. Until that point, I only associated point guards with being facilitators and playmakers for other teammates.
Fast forward to 2013, and the evolution of the point guard in the National Basketball Association has undoubtedly taken place. Players like Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Kyrie Irving, John Wall and a host of others have redefined the role of the position today. They have no issue taking a majority of their team’s shots, all while being expected to perform traditional point guard duties. But in between Isiah to Westbrook & company, there certainly was a progression in the league from “pass first” to “let me get mine”.
The question is, when did the mentality change?
The answer has multiple layers to it, but let me tackle the issue in three parts.
Part One: Primetime and Showtime
The 1980s were a time of change. Not only in life itself, but in sports – basketball particularly. The NBA exited the 1970s with a reputation so bad, they could’ve used intervention from Lindsay Lohan. Overwhelmed with a rampant drug problem and declining ratings, the Association needed a boost–and quick.
Enter Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. As if on cue, the two transcendent stars improved the image of the league overnight and made games become “Must See TV”. Having Finals games on taped delay up until 1983, the NBA was fortunate enough to have Magic and Bird’s teams meet the following year, just in time for their permanent move to live, prime time championship action. Legendary players on legendary teams in an epic series equaled a ratings skyrocket, which propelled the NBA to unforeseen heights of popularity.
More games were televised, as the NBA inked a deal with Turner Broadcasting in 1984, and David Stern became the NBA commissioner that same year. Stern’s visionary thinking included showcasing the league’s stars in All-Star events and exhibitions. The Slam Dunk Competition and Three Point Shootout gave players –who otherwise would not get any shine– an outlet to showcase their talents to the world and make a name for themselves.
This platform appealed to the younger generation of basketball players who now were enticed by the thought of having their name and face on television sets worldwide, all because they could dunk or shoot long range jumpers. This was no more evident than in 1986, when a diminutive Spud Webb won the Slam Dunk Competition. Standing at only 5 feet 7 inches “tall”, Spud mesmerized the crowd in Dallas by taking down his more imposing competition, including teammate, Dominique Wilkins. His triumph alone motivated smaller players to improve their jumping abilities and reach for the rim instead of practice their bounce pass. More and more, as the eighties gave way to the nineties, point guards around the league were comfortable with becoming more offensive minded. Kevin Johnson, Mark Price, Mahmoud Abdul Rauf (also known as Chris Jackson) and even All-Time Assist Leader John Stockton became legitimate scoring threats.
As much as the little men of those times contributed to the revolution of the point guard position, one man –who is almost as big as the game itself– deserves acknowledgement.
Part Two: Michael Jeffrey Jordan
No introduction needed here. Michael Jordan was, and is, revered by basketball fans around the globe. His popularity, which was a byproduct of Magic and Bird, brought him to commercial success that arguably exceeds his on-court success. Jordan was never confused for a point guard (though he briefly experimented with it in Chicago), but his style of play influenced young kids to this day. His ability to score at will with a grace and flair had five year olds attempting trick shots on their Nerf hoop at home, trying to simulate the degree of difficulty. Though fundamentally sound, Jordan specialized in making an impossible shot look possible.
This, combined with MJ’s marketability and advertising genius, made being an offensive juggernaut the thing to be in the early nineties. Passing and playmaking was no long en vougue as advertisers and companies were not beating down the doors of assists and steals leaders. Ballers wanted to “Be Like Mike” and less like Magic, though the latter contributes to the next theory.
Part Three: The Role Reversal
Earvin “Magic” Johnson is perhaps the most unique basketball player the world has ever witnessed. At 6 feet 9, his game was unconventional and has not quite been equaled since. To have natural point guard skills at the size of a power forward, Johnson often dominated players at his position due to the height advantage alone. His ability to play the perimeter, along with Jordan’s brilliance, and the influx of European basketball created a culture change in the NBA in the 90s.
All of a sudden, big players (even centers) became proficient at long range jump shots and ball handling. A far cry from the exclusively interior play of bigs from times gone by. With the taller players being long range shooting threats, they drew their defenders out further away from the hoop, allowing smaller guys to penetrate the lane undeterred.
In the late 90s and into the new millennium, it was not uncommon to see power forwards like Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett and Rasheed Wallace comfortably shooting from seventeen feet and beyond, while small guys like Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury, and Steve Francis attacked the rim with reckless abandon.
Iverson in particular, was the epitome of the anti-establishment of the NBA. His corn-rows, street credibility, and somewhat rebellious attitude towards traditional league standards helped create himself a cult-like following from young players, only surpassed by Jordan in his prime. “The Answer” had no issue calling his own number during Sixers games, even if his shots weren’t falling or he was double and triple teamed. Each of Iverson’s coaches over 14 seasons pleaded with him to become more of a facilitator and trust his comrades on the floor–to no avail.
But by the time Iverson laced his sneakers up for his final NBA contest in 2010, his impact on the game and the definition of point guard was truly felt. That year, John Wall was selected first in the draft by Washington. Many have compared his game to A.I.’s, as Wall has the tendency to look for his own shot first before allowing teammates to get into the game.
That seems to be the norm in today’s NBA. Some would argue it’s just a changing of the guard in a literal sense, while others would deduce it’s a consequence of the “me first” nature of the professional athlete in the present.
In either case, the current day description of an NBA point guard entails more than what it did thirty years ago. Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook can throw down ferocious dunks with the best in the league, and Stephen Curry is considered to be the best shooter in the league.
Conventional point guard play has not totally left the association as veterans like Chris Paul, Tony Parker, and Rajon Rondo still make table setting for their teammates a top priority.
However, those men are in the minority as the others who have chosen to redefine the position of the point guard have assisted in changing the game of basketball and how teams are constructed in the NBA.
I guess you could say, assisting is still in their DNA somewhere!