Where Did All These Point Guards Come From?
Around the time Shaquille O'Neal roamed this earth with absolute impunity, we would ask, wistfully, "where have all the big men gone?" This was not a really bad, basketball-related Kinks parody, but a real question: At least in the collective imagination, once the population of competent seven-footers (or slightly below) in the NBA was stable, even flourishing.
Then abruptly -- and this is not in any way intended to detract from Shaq's achievements -- being Michael Olowokandi was enough to get you selected number one overall. The Hack-a-Shaq strategy may have been desperate and sad, but offering up these raw meat sacrifices wouldn't have been necessary if real centers had been on the roster in their place.
Of course, the gleaming coda to it all was that Shaq, and the Lakers, were brought down by Ben and Rasheed Wallace. These two Pistons proved that the best way to defend O'Neal was not with an equal or lesser traditional big man, but with new thinking.
Theories abounded as to why seven-footers had gone the way of Andesaurus Delgadoi. Kids all wanted to be Michael Jordan, meaning they grew up working on their handle, refused to bulk up (um, okay), and all turned out shorter. The more accurate answer would be "all turned into Kevin Garnett", which didn't happen much, or "all turned into Dirk Nowitzki", which took place overseas independent of these market forces. Oddly, the supreme seven-footer of the pre-Shaq period, Hakeem Olajuwan, was acclaimed for the wing-like agility he picked up playing soccer as a youth in Nigeria -- where, it should be added, he had little interest in a future in basketball.
That's Exhibit A. Exhibit B is far less controversial. Around the mid to late-nineties, all of a sudden true point guards -- as in, smart distributors who could get theirs while holding a team together -- were in short supply. They were replaced on the map of basketball species by the dreaded combo guard, or venom-ed point.
Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis were the patron saints, but as much as it pains me to say so, Jamal Crawford and Gilbert Arenas (however redemptive he once was) belong to this wave. As did young Chauncey Billups, Mo Williams, Mike Bibby, Monta Ellis, and so on. Terrell Brandon faded out piteously, and Jason Williams, he was the old way regurgitated back in its own face. As a Maverick, even Steve Nash fell victim this syndrome. Everyone wanted to be Jordan, or something. Plenty didn't make it pro as a result. This, my friends, is how Darrell Armstrong, Jacques Vaughn, and Mark Jackson stuck around the league so long, and why Dwyane Wade was doubted.
So we have two currents in history, presumably flowing into the league from the outside: Fewer big men of note, and fewer pure point guards. No wonder everyone was so bummed. Now, let's glance at the present: We have an embarrassment of point guard riches. The paradox: They are no longer a rare commodity at the exact moment at which they have become most prized.
To stress this again, even if it bores the 'brows right off of you: The Class of 2009 boasts totally excellent PGs Brandon Jennings, Darren Collison, Ty Lawson, and putatively, Ricky Rubio. Tyreke Evans, Stephen Curry, Rodrigue Beaubois, Jonny Flynn, cannot be hailed as "pure", but their scorers' fervor by no means hampers their playmaking ability. This is the combo guard brought back from the brink. And we've yet to really see with Jrue Holiday or Eric Maynor can do, but signs are encouraging.
And already, across the league, there was Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Russell Westbrook, Steve Nash, Rajon Rondo, Tony Parker, Derrick Rose, Devin Harris, and Andre Miller.
If you're out of breath just from reading that, or skipped much, I think I've done my job. Oh, and standing atop this year's mock drafts despite his shameful loss in some amateur shin-dig over the weekend, John Wall is the grand prize in this upcoming lottery. Don't believe the backlash: Wall is a transformative force and then some, as you saw any time that Memphis Kentucky bothered to push the tempo and let their freshman guard work with the slightest bit of space. So fine, he was smothered and died, and given the quality of his teammates, that means he's vulnerable in the pros. Maybe sound logic if everyone/anyone else had pulled their weight. Downgrade John Wall at your own peril.
If that sounded like a crazy old lady trying to remember all her grandchildren, or the names of the gnomes that litter her front lawn (which is, naturally, on a major highway), it's because that's how crazy things have gotten. I don't know what the definition of a commodity is, or how much it depends on a balance between supply and demand, but we are facing the strange problem of too many sound, effective, even star-like PGs currently populating the league. The question: Is this like when the big men vanished, and has something happened to artificially generate this bunch?
I'm glad you asked. Shaky as it is, it seems as if this represents a backlash against the likes of Iverson and Marbury. Iverson, at least, is still beloved. And yet youngsters saw what a hard road he had to hoe, all because he refused to play the position he was built for. The timing doesn't work out exactly right, but then again, we're talking about some epiphany (brought on by a coach? relative? trusted adviser?) that lead these kids to see that they needed to take the PG's responsibilities seriously. In some cases, this is a stretch.
I've heard that Curry is now contending with Evans for ROY; okay, I can't argue with the wind. Regardless, that Curry went from "shooter learning the position" to "his own scoring man" to "and yet can feed with the best of them" shows that, even if it's been a learning process, Curry ended up learning how to be the guy that threw passes in Nellie-ball. Kind of like Stephen Jackson before him. There's a difference between defying the role and trying to make peace with it.
But do we really want to ascribe this shift in positional ranks to the free will of teenagers? We have also, over the last few years, seen a shift (supposedly) from the paint out to the perimeter -- or, in other words, the point guard can now be as important as the big man when it comes to building a franchise. Looking at the Hornets or Suns, it's hard to not see where this thinking comes from.
Then again, didn't they change some rules at some point to enable zone and encourage ball movement, open shots, and faster play? I forgot exactly what happened, but its the changes in defensive standards that seem to have had the most pronounced effect. As has been said a million times over, speedy guards can now go to town. No one could touch them before, and now they really can't. If the crossover is as much about creating space as showing off, this provided a built-in move. As Ziller put it, the rules provided Nash with a crossover. All of a sudden, he had that much more space around him to see the floor, or start winding toward the basket.
The question remains, though, why so many point guards? The explosive production of rookie Marcus Thornton has shown that scorers, as much as point guards like his teammate Darren Collison, can produce speaking-in-tongues numbers when no one expected. There is, strictly speaking, no reason that someone from the previous, benighted generation wouldn't have been able to increase their impact under the new rules.
The point is, then, that even with Evans, or Curry (you can make whatever you want of Nellie-ball stats, frankly), there's an ethical imperative to mind the distributor, or at least shaper-of-possession, part of playing the one. That, as much as the rules, accounts for the rabbitz-like explosion of PGs. Is there a video game called Rabbitz?
It's entirely possible that whoever draws the Number of John Wall in the lottery may already feel set at that position. Still, unless that team is Utah or New Orleans, they still have to pull the trigger. Otherwise, they face the equivalent of passing on Michael Jordan because of Clyde Drexler as the Age of the Point Guard reaches its zenith. Two point-guard line-ups are possible, maybe even for Jerry Sloan.
The Hornets alone could justify a pass, if only because Paul is heavenly, Collison the ideal back-up, and Wall an unknown factor. That team needs to return to prominence, and any number of other highly-rated prospects in 2010 could help get them there. Point guards are somehow at a premium even as they fall from the sky, but this can only continue for so much longer. Then again, the Twin Towers didn't do so badly for themselves. Nor did -- watch me now -- Pau Gasol and a hobbled Andrew Bynum last spring.