The NBA is an evolutionary league. Its fluid, constantly moving and adapting to various trends and strategies as it survives and thrives as an entertainment product. Tweaks and adjustments are constantly implemented in order to continually better and improve the on-court spectacle for fans. Remember, at one point there was no jump-shot, no shot-clock, no dunk and no three point-line.
In different eras, different positions have both inflated in value and subsequently crashed. At one point, it was thought impossible to win an NBA Championship without a star center. Now, the position is not even an option on the All-Star ballot. The league has trended towards shorter (relative to the league) players and small-ball is the buzzword of the past couple of seasons.
Now, perhaps more than ever, the NBA has become a point guard focused league. Sure, there are exceptions to the rule; LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George all spring to mind. But these four can all handle the ball and effectively plays as a point forward. Generally though, the league is looking to smaller players to be the go-to guys on their rosters. This is all despite the annual GM survey voting Anthony Davis (2015) and Karl-Anthony Towns (2016) as the player they would most want to build a franchise around (subconsciously at least, the league is not will willing to give up that center idea).
You could of course argue that this is nothing out of the norm. Historically, point guards have always played a vital role on any successful team. They are floor generals, responsible for getting everyone involved, distributing the ball, identifying and exploiting mismatches or weaknesses, essentially becoming an extension of the coach on the court.
Touches, touches, touches
Houston Rockets head coach, Mike D’Antoni, somewhat jokingly commented on his pre-season decision to move James Harden to the one, calling his star player a “points guard. ‘Cause he’s going to score some points”. Jokes aside, ball dominant stars who are capable of taking the ball end to end are highly sought after commodities in this league. Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker and Isaiah Thomas (to name but a few) all play the “traditional” point guard spot, but in an untraditional manner.
A quick glance at basketball-reference.com’s 2017 Usage Percentage leader board gives five point guards in the top ten (Westbrook, Harden, Thomas, Lillard and John Wall), and just outside the top ten Irving and Walker make the top 15, with Steph landing in the 18th spot (notably, Steph was ranked number 2 last season so Durant’s arrival has had a significant impact on his touches already).
This in itself is not a massive discovery – if the point guard is a team’s best ball handler, then why wouldn’t his usage rate be high? But the interesting kicker is that, when it comes to points per game list, four of the top 10 are point guards. Westbrook, Harden, Thomas and Lillard (and 6 of the top 15 with Curry and Irving). Distributors have evolved into scorers. So if elite point guards are point Gods, does this make the current talent on display points Gods?
Part of the cycle?
With the rise of athletic scoring point guards is the traditional distributary point guard dying out? At the NBA crossover event in Shoreditch last October, Double Clutch managed to get the thoughts of a man who is perhaps better placed to answer this than anyone else in the NBA world, former point God and two-time MVP Steve Nash.
“Maybe this is not purely cyclical, because I think we’ve found a way where point guards can impact the game even more. I think when I was playing, in the prime of my career, the point guard still had the traditional role where he was trying to run his team, being a little bit democratic and leading in that way. But I think now, point guards are really asked to exploit the defense as much as possible and score as much as possible. So it’s partly cyclical, partly exploitation of the rules of the game and I think it’s fantastic to watch those ebbs and flows in the way the game is played.”
Of course, Nash is right, there is a cyclical aspect to this “phenomena”. There have been players ahead of their time who, because we couldn’t appreciate it at the time, were pigeon-holed as shooting guards. Allen Iverson, springs to mind – was Eric Snow really the 76ers default point guard? Was AI really a two guard? So too does MJ (particularly the 80’s to early 90’s iteration) – John Paxson was about the most off-the-ball point guard I can think of. They are not the only ones, just the ones that sit on a pantheon slightly ahead of their compatriots.
One of the strange thing about this situation is the suggestion that basketball is becoming a positionless sport. It’s not. Traditional roles are just evolving. Former player Jalen Rose has stated on numerous occasion that basketball position were only invented to so that people who didn’t understand the sport could learn it (only a very slight paraphrase). This also is not entirely true.
Yes, the traditional five spots on the floor may not be an accurate way to categorise players, but I’m not willing to make the jump positionless players just yet. The game has evolved into two roles; wings or perimeter players and bigs (note not necessarily interior). Being able to play multiple spots on a team is essential in modern basketball, but it is also reliant on a small number of physically-gifted, highly-skilled players. On the DC pod early in the season we spoke about the plethora of talented bigs on the scene in the NBA, Anthony Davis, Karl-Antony Towns, Joel Embiid et al. But with the exception of Giannis Antetokounmpo (the human cheat code) they still don’t have skill level to be reliable ball-handlers and outside threats.
This is still a guard’s league because of the ability of smaller players to be used as ball-handlers. This in turn helps popularise the game with fans, seeing smaller players doing incredible things with the ball, whilst being more (physically) relatable. Just look at the sneaker market – name a big with a signature shoe that sells?
Changing of the guard
There is something different about these guards though. Look at the top-two so far this season. Individually, there is no question that the highest performers so far this season are Westbrook and Harden.
Of the NBA’s 50 Triple Doubles so far this season, 32 of them come from Westbrook and Harden alone (20 and 12 respectively). These guys are literally doing everything on their team and, whilst it is a risky to put all of your eggs in one proverbial basket, the Thunder and Rockets would be nowhere near their current positions (third and sixth in the West respectively) without them.
Both stars are toying with averaging triple-doubles – a feat only achieved once before, by Oscar Robertson, in 1961-62. One of the factors that makes this statistic all the more impressive is the change in game pace over the past 55 years. But that’s another article altogether.
This guard focus won’t change any-time soon either, the DraftExpress.com 2017 mock draft is predicting that the top three picks will be point guards, and another two going within the top ten. The current predicted number one pick? A quick, explosive, do-it-all, guard from the University of Washington, Markelle Fultz.
There is already a next generation waiting in the shadows. Looks like the Point Gods are here to stay.
*Stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com