The point guard position in the NBA is one of the most important in sports. A good point guard is a leader, and a coach on the floor who runs the offense and puts his teammates in position to score. While that general definition has always held true, the position has changed in many ways over the years.
Early in the league’s development, there was no defined difference between the 1 and 2 guard spots. Guys like Andy Phillip and Dick McGuire helped pioneer the point guard position, the former leading the NBA in assists each of the first three years of it’s existence.
Then came Celtics legend Bob Cousy, who had more style and flair in his dribbling and passing than anyone had ever seen. Guys before him may have pioneered the position, but Cousy was the man who took it to the next level, leading the league in assists 8 consecutive years. It is believed that he was the first player ever to be called a “point guard” by name, and today the best point guard in college basketball annually is given the Bob Cousy Award.
Though it is often hard to quantify what a “true” point guard is, Oscar Robertson would fit the bill in any circumstance. Many consider him the most well rounded player ever to lace up sneakers, and he is the only player in the history of the league to average a triple double for an entire season.
Then there are guys like Jerry West, who are generally considered shooting guards, but could qualify at the point as well. Not only is West among the top scorers in NBA history, but he was the initiator of the team’s offense as well. West generally led the Lakers in assists, and actually led the league in that department during the 1971-72 season. Allen Iverson is modern guy who has played both guard positions. He was a scorer first, yet he often led his team in assists as well.
Another variation of the point guard position, is what has been termed the “point forward.” Scottie Pippen played this position during the Bulls championship years, Grant Hill excelled at it during his prime, and Lebron James now thrives in that role. Essentially the only big difference between a point guard and a point forward (other than size) is the name, and the defensive assignment on the other end. Rarely does this player defend the opposing team’s point guard.
During the late 1980′s, three of history’s best point guards were dominating the landscape. Magic Johnson, the gold standard for the position, led the Lakers to five total championships in the decade. Magic was also amazing because he was 6’9″, yet had the skills of a player much smaller. Isiah Thomas’ Pistons took control of the league in 1989 as they won the first of two titles. Thomas was the antithesis of Magic Johnson, standing at only 6’1″, but his competitiveness was unmatched. Meanwhile, Utah’s John Stockton was just beginning a career in which he would become the NBA’s all-time leader in both assists and steals. The 1987-88 season would be the first of nine straight in which Stockton would lead the league in assists.
In the 90′s Stockton would be joined by many other great point guards as the league continued to evolve. Gary Payton, Tim Hardaway, Mark Jackson, and Mark Price would all become stars to varying degrees. Some, like Payton and Hardaway, were score first guys, others were pass first players, yet they all played below the rim for the most part. The big exception in that era is Suns guard Kevin Johnson, who had multiple 20 point, 10 assist seasons, and helped lead the Suns to the 1993 NBA finals. At just 6’1″ tall, Johnson was an explosive athlete, routinely throwing down dunks over much larger defenders. In many ways, Johnson was a precursor to some of today’s top lead guards.
Around the turn of the millenium, Jason Kidd took over the top spot among NBA floor generals. Kidd not only led the league in assists, but was a fantastic rebounder and defender as well. He is currently third on the all-time list for career triple doubles. If only Kidd had developed a jump shot earlier in his career, we may be talking about him among the top 2-3 ever to play the position.
Steve Nash developed his dominance relatively late in his career. He made his first all star game in his sixth season, won his first MVP at age 30, and has since led the league in assists four times. Nash may have lost a step, but he is still among the best in the league, and few players ever have had his level of efficiency on the offensive end.
Today in the league, we may have the most talented and diverse crop of point guards to ever grace the court in the same season. Guys like Kidd and Nash are still impact players, while Deron Williams and Chris Paul are just entering their primes. Williams is slightly bigger than Paul, and uses his height and athleticism to finish over guys near the basket. Paul meanwhile, is always among the league leaders in assists and steals, and is one of the most creative players in the game today.
Rajon Rondo of the Celtics is now staking a claim among the NBA’s elite with his recent play. Rondo is similar to Kidd in that he can dominate a game despite a sub par jump shot. Rondo set a record with 82 assists through the first five games this season, and like Kidd, he is a very good rebounder and defender too.
Rondo, Williams, and Paul are at the forefront of an emerging trend of point guards with exceptional quickness and athleticism. Bulls guard Derrick Rose, another prime example, was second in the league in scoring entering Friday night’s games, and it is nearly impossible to stay in front of him. Every time you watch Rose play, there is a high likelihood of seeing multiple highlight reel dunks and layups. Derrick is a step ahead of the other young guys, but Tyreke Evans, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Brandon Jennings, Mike Conley, and rookie John Wall all have amazing upside.
I haven’t even mentioned Tony Parker, Chauncey Billups, Jameer Nelson, Aaron Brooks, Mo Williams, and Devin Harris who are very good in their own right.
Not all of them will be hall of famers, but conservatively, it is likely that at least five of the point guards playing today will make it to Springfield, with at least five more having a legitimate shot.
It is commonly accepted that a dominant inside game is necessary to win an NBA title, and that fact would seem to devalue to impact of a great point guard. However, I would argue the opposite is true. I believe that the reason size is so important, is because there is so much more depth of talent at the point. Every good team has a good point guard, but not every team can have a great big man.
The question begs to be asked, why is the position so deep right now? Well, part of the equation is the current rule interpretations and the elimination of hand checking. In 1994 the hand check was made illegal in the NBA, and in 1997, the league told defenders they could no longer use a forearm to defend a player who is facing the basket. These two rules made the game play much faster, thus quicker guards with better ball handling ability were at a significant advantage. Since then, we have turned over a vast majority of league rosters, and players have grown up with a new set of rules to play by.
Those new rules, and the general evolution of the human athlete have made lightning fast players the norm. Each point guard has a different set of skills, but they all play fast, and they all play at a high level. With few exceptions, most notably the triangle offense of the Lakers, a good point guard is essential for success in today’s game. The depth of talent at the position is at a high watermark, and that is good news for the NBA and fans everywhere, as it leads to some very exciting basketball.