NBA developing into league suited for guards

color:black;mso-bidi-font-weight:bold">It was as if the fraternal order of

point guards had declared war on the rest of the league.

bold">The names involved weren’t surprising, but the numbers and conspiratorial

overtone in having so much positional firepower unleashed on one NBA Sunday was

as a reminder of what we’ve been witnessing for a while.

bold">First up was the Boston’s Rajon Rondo, who took another star turn on

national television, serving up a heavy triple-double in a home win over

Linsanity and the Knicks. Deron Williams of New Jersey stepped in to provide

the shock and awe, slapping 57 points in a win at Charlotte. Chicago’s Derrick

Rose, who rocketed to league MVP status a year ago, dropped 35 points on stingy

Philadelphia in a five-point victory at the 76ers.

bold">As the night bounced along, LA Clipper Chris Paul — considered by many to

be the most-accomplished, contemporary point guard of ’em all — tallied 28

points and 10 assists in an overtime victory at Houston. Aging sorcerer Steve

Nash chipped in 19 points for Phoenix in a home triumph over Sacramento, while

frequently-overlooked Ty Lawson was a whisker away from posting a triple-double

with 22 points, nine rebounds and 11 assists in leading Denver on the road at

San Antonio.

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bold">Awash in sneaker-wearing quarterbacks, we definitely seem to be in

the midst of a point guard revolution. While we’ve seen impressive gatherings

of playmakers in past decades, the volume of those demonstrating the potential

to become top tier is hard to ignore. To the aforementioned lineup we can add

veterans San Antonio’s Tony Parker, Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook and

Houston’s Kyle Lowry. The whippersnapper list includes Washington’s John Wall,

Minnesota’s Ricky Rubio and Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving.

bold">But before examining reasons why we now have a legion of

statistically-overhauled lead guards, please note that NBA glory continues to

seem more associated with wings such as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant

and Dwyane Wade.

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bold">It also should be noted that over the past 21 seasons, championship-level

teams have relied on the dominance of low-post players and/or talent

constellations massaged to greatness by coach Phil Jackson within the contours

of his triangle offense. Working with Michael Jordan in Chicago before playing

referee to Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal in Los Angeles, Jackson’s system — which

sidesteps what has become the usual point guard job description — has yielded

championships in 10 of those 21 seasons.

bold">This adds a dose of moderation to the notion — recently proffered by

NBA.com, among others — that point guards rule the league.

bold">Parker did achieve Finals MVP honors during one of the Spurs’ four title

runs, but — in those days — all things flowed from a low-block reservoir named

Tim Duncan. Chauncey Billups also reached Finals MVP status as a Piston, but

was working as just one member in an equal-opportunity ensemble.

bold">With those positional qualifiers on the table, we still must admit the

NBA often seems up to its ears in outstanding point guards. Explanations for

their rise to prominence may be abundant, but a dribble-oriented style of

offensive play seems to hold the most weight.

bold">Quite simply, the prevailing nature of basketball offense has an

evolutionary arc that’s much like what we’ve seen in football … creating opportunities

for talented athletes to work in space. Spread offenses in football have been

mimicked in basketball, leading to dribble-drive interpretations of the old

motion offense at all levels.

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bold">With the 3-point line providing a spatial threat for defenses hoping to

discourage dribble penetration, the art of winning one-on-one battles in order

to either score or draw help defenders away from teammates prepared to catch a

pass and shoot (the old drive and kick) flourished.

bold">But coaches realized traditional NBA on-ball screens created even more

trouble for defenses without sacrificing the drive-and-kick options.

bold">“The high pick is such a big part of the NBA,” said one scout

employed by a Western Conference team. “It forces the defense to make

decisions on how to deal with it, and offenses already are prepared to exploit

whatever the defense does. But we’re seeing more college teams use

screen-and-roll than ever before, too … and that puts an even greater

emphasis on point-guard play because those tactics require better ballhandling

and decision-making and point guards, generally, are the best at both.”

bold">The need for wise point guard play also has been created by myriad

gimmick defenses — not hamstrung by a three-second rule preventing defenders

from clogging the lane — which require even more quarterbacking chops from

elite athletes during their short stays in college.

bold">Another explanation for the rise in point-guard importance is the

diminished population of elite low-post prospects.

bold">The issue has two categories. The first can be tracked to Celtics star

Kevin Garnett, a near-7-foot athletic marvel whose ability to wreak havoc all

over the floor has inspired scores of lean, lanky kids to adopt a similar

approach. Since KG jumped from high school to the NBA draft in 1995, his

ability to impact a game in various ways — often on the perimeter — has been

noticed by upcoming players … and those attempting to steer them toward the

professional ranks.

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bold">“Being able to do multiple things on the floor is appealing to a lot

of young players,” the scout said, “and this versatility just adds to

a prospect’s value.”

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bold">The second category that explains the decrease in low-post numbers is

tactical.

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bold">“It’s a lot easier for defenses to prevent the ball from getting to

a really good post player than it is to control a really good ballhandling

guard,” the scout said.

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bold">Without getting into double-team strategies and the attempted

sophistication of rotations, trapping an elite ballhandler working in the middle

of the court creates bigger headaches for defenses.

bold">“That and the NBA rules to help keep the lane open make having a guy

who’s great getting into the lane even more important,” the scout said.

“It’s harder to take them out of a game than it is to stop an inside

player.

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bold">“(Orlando’s) Dwight Howard is a great player and usually puts up

tremendous numbers, but there are things you can do to prevent him from getting

the ball. But if you devote too many defensive resources to stopping Dwight,

his teammates just might wreck you from the outside.”

bold">So where are all of these hotshot point guards coming from? Well …

everywhere. But mostly from the United States. Only four point guards currently

starting in the NBA arrived from outside whatever qualifies as the American

system. With the sport’s rise in popularity, expect that number to increase.

bold">While domestic development has shifted from unstructured pick-up games to

heavy emphasis on the club scene (still unstructured, in many cases), the

American style continues to be highlighted by the ability to go from point A to

point B through use of the dribble. European and South American programs have

achieved considerable international success by adopting an offensive flow that

includes frequent use of the entry pass to initiate the offense and more

movement off the ball.

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bold">Young American players — with club/AAU systems now holding more sway each

year over passing/cutting styles often preferred by high school coaches — have

been making their bones in NBA-oriented schemes since their early teens.

bold">And the expanding range of club/AAU basketball is providing a deeper pool

of point guards attempting to dribble their way to fame and fortune.

bold">“There’s just so many great athletes who learned the game by

breaking down defenders off the dribble,” the scout said. “But some

of this is cyclical. By that I mean, we had Irving and a couple of other pretty

decent guys in the last lottery. Although it’s still early in the process, I

don’t see a point guard on the horizon who will go early in this summer’s

draft.

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bold">“I try not to spend too much time on the high school kids yet, but with

the one-and-done rule, you have to be aware of who’s coming up … and I don’t

see anything spectacular yet.

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bold">“But nobody expected Westbrook to become what he is now, and even

though Rose went first overall, how many people thought he’d be MVP within

three years?”

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bold">And then there’s Jeremy Lin.

bold">“Yeah, that’s an amazing story,” the scout said of the former

Harvard player who went from NBA fringe player to New York Knick hero in about

a week. “But, as I said earlier, that was a perfect storm. Confidence is

such a crucial element in the NBA, and had Carmelo (Anthony) and Amar’e

(Stoudemire) been on the floor with him during the first few games, he would’ve

deferred to them. As it was, they needed someone to make plays. He had the

skills to do it, the Knicks had nothing more to lose and it became the perfect

storm.”

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bold">Now that he’s another of its marked point guards, Lin must deal with the

nightly challenge of playing a position loaded with gifted performers.

bold">“It’s a trend that’ll stay around for a while,” the scout said.