Missing the Point

Missing the Point
Jul 10, 2006, 08:56 pm
Marcus Williams’s draft day plight is symbolic. Not merely of the tremendous potential for embarrassment if you accept an invitation to the green room, or NBA personnel folks’ preference for measurements like body fat percentage and time recorded in hopscotch over the ability to actually play basketball. More than that, Williams’s plummet from the mid-lottery to Pavel Podkolzine territory symbolizes the death of the point guard as a position of consequence in today’s NBA.

Isiah Thomas has been in the news a lot lately, for reasons I need not mention. But before his missteps and short stops as a coach and front office head honcho, he was arguably the greatest true point guard in the history of the game. Zeke was the Finals MVP when his Pistons won the title in 1989, and that was the last time a pure bred point guard was the alpha dog of a championship team. The last 16 title winners have all been built around big men or do-it-all wings, rather than pass-first ball handling wizards.

Not so fast, says you, the ever alert DX reader, ‘what about Chauncey Billups?’ No doubt, Chauncey plays point guard, as he did when the Pistons won it all and he was Finals MVP, but there is little dispute that he is far from a true point. First, his nickname is “Mr. Big Shot” not “Mr. Big Pass,” and his clutch reputation comes from sticking jumpers when it matters, rather than lacing bounce passes. And while he did average 8.5 assists this year with an absolutely bananas assist to turnover ratio, one could easily argue that his numbers were more a function of Flip Saunders’s offensive changes than Chauncey’s ability to create. Additionally, the year Detroit won Chauncey was further from being a true point than he is today, as he averaged under 6 assists per game during the 03-04 campaign. All you have to do is remember his personal history as a young player without a position to realize that Billups is clearly a hybrid guard, who would rather stand straight and square to launch jumpers than get low to penetrate and set up his teammates.

So who or what is to blame for the demise of the point guard? A number of explanations present themselves for your appraisal.

Point guards are too small.

Silly and simplistic as this may sound, the truth of the matter is that players across the board are bigger and stronger than they’ve ever been. This affects the little guys in a bunch of ways. First, it’s harder to finish plays around the hoop when giants are fouling and shot-blocking above the rim like never before. Second, the bumps and bruises of life in the NBA are bloodier than ever. There is a reason that Allen Iverson is heralded as one of the league’s true warriors, despite his distaste for practice and inability to bench press his own body weight. Fans love AI because he’s built like a scooter and plays like a pickup truck, throwing himself into the fray at any and every opportunity, and playing through pain like a hungover and headached Kennedy at Congressional hearing. It’s near impossible to have a career as a lead guard without significant and debilitating injury. Steve Nash’s ongoing back saga and T.J. Ford’s spinal destructification are exhibits 1A and 1B.

Big men play too little.

I have had the displeasure of watching Marcus Camby shoot around during pre-game warm-ups on a number of occasions, and it isn’t pretty. Not because Camby isn’t a gifted and fluid 7 footer, but because he spends his time dribbling through his legs and hoisting jumpers from 18-20 feet, rather than working down on the block. Camby’s perimeter skills and decision making are far from exemplary, but his pre-game routine does exemplify the trend of big forwards playing smaller than they ever have. If Kevin Garnett, Boris Diaw, and soon, Kevin Durant, can dribble, pass, and generate perimeter offense, what good does a pass first point guard do you? Especially when the little man with little man skills may be forced to guard a big man with little man skills on the defensive end.

The NBA has made it illegal to guard the perimeter.

One would think the new anti-handcheck rules would make penetrating point guards more valuable rather than less, but this rule actually hurts prototypical points on both sides of the ball. First off, the point men who can really get down and guard must do so without being physical, which is a contradiction in terms. Take someone like Gary Payton, for instance, who bullied opposing floor generals for more than ten years by standing his ground using his feet, taking space away from offensive players using his body, and swiping at the ball relentlessly with his hands. There is no Gary Payton in today’s NBA, because physical play up top has been eliminated. Kyle Lowry and Rajon Rondo, arguably the best perimeter defenders in this year’s draft, will not be able to impose their wills the way Payton did, which is a shame, considering the defensive gifts each brings to the table.

Offensively, the new rules allow point guards to penetrate more freely, but the rules help penetrating shooting guards and small forwards far more than points, because wing players are better finishers. Both Dwayne Wade and Jason Williams got into the lane at will during the playoffs, but what makes Wade a bigger threat is the fact that he is unstoppable from within 8 feet AND he has the awareness to dump it to Shaq or kick it to Posey for an open three. Williams, by contrast, can’t absorb contact and would always rather pass than finish around the rim. A brilliant handle is no longer a prerequisite for beating one’s man off the dribble, which once again diminishes a true ballhandlers’ relative importance.

There haven’t been any point guards good enough to carry a team to the title.

In a sense, the proof is in the pudding, and all the other explanations don’t matter. If Stockton was so good, why couldn’t he get past Jordan at least once? Same goes for Jason Kidd, and every other true point guard in the post-Zeke era. The things that the best point guards bring to a team simply aren’t as important as finishing near the hoop and providing interior defense, the two things wings and big men do better than points. Maybe it’s unfair to place all the blame on players like Stockton and Kidd, because some say they never had the help they needed. But Stockton had Malone in his prime and a bunch of solid role players, and two of the 50 best ever should be enough to get at least one ring over a 10 year time span.

While all of the above make perfect sense, I’m not quite ready to close the casket on true point guards, thanks to three beacons of hope.

1. Steve Nash

This is a man who cannot defend, cannot touch the rim, and routinely licks his fingers and runs them through his hair during games. His spine is deteriorating like a Ritz cracker on an ant farm, to the point where he is physically incapable of sitting upright on the bench. Still, nobody has an answer for him, and he has reached legendary status with back to back MVP awards, earned with two different supporting casts. With Amare back and a roster 9 deep with battle tested playoff veterans, Captain Canada can win one for little guys everywhere if the Suns rise to the top next year.

2. Chris Paul

Nash’s window is closing rapidly, but Paul has just scratched the surface of his NBA promise with a rookie campaign that landed him squarely among the 5 best point guards in the league. Time will tell if the flurry of off season roster moves is enough to put the Hornets in contention, but as long as they keep the point in place, this team will never embarrass themselves over the course of a full season. The only things Paul has left to master are how and when to change gears during a game, and where his new teammates like and expect the ball. Even in the West, 45 to 50 wins is not out of the question for this sophomore sensation.

3. Shaun Livingston

He finishes third after Nash and Paul as the player with the least polished game and least experience running a team. But Livingston’s ceiling is the highest of the three, because of his physical gifts. If he can stay healthy and add a jump shot, his Magic Johnson + hops will do things nobody has ever seen out of a true point. Doubters cite a bevy of injuries over the course of his young career and the absence of a mean streak as cause for concern. But with at least two more years within earshot of Sam Cassell, Livingston has all the time he needs to develop championship intangibles.

If none of these three point prophets can manage to win a ring, point guards will find themselves on the verge of extinction, and ball movement will die with them. Until then, I pledge to keep hope alive, and pass first, shoot second.

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