Missing the Point: The Evolution and Endangerment of the NBA Point Guard


The NBA season is nearing it’s halfway mark. One trend that is quickly becoming the story of this season: injuries. Every year we see injuries that impact how the season plays out, but this year the toll on the point guard position is especially noteworthy. In what is increasingly being called a “point-guard’s league,” where the pick-and-roll and the three-pointer dominate, the number of mounting injuries to young point guards is ominous.

The Role of the Point Guard

Entering the season, three of the league’s best point men were walking gingerly, working their way back from devastating knee injuries. Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, and Rajon Rondo play the position more aggressively than most. Prior to Nate “Tiny” Archibald in the late 1970’s, a point guard used to be a composer and a distributor. The role was usually clearly defined. Get an offense into a set. Make the safe entry pass into the post. Call actual plays from the top of the key, while four teammates set themselves up, running along the baselines, setting picks and balancing the floor.  Old school basketball was about the big man and scoring forwards.  Among the NBA’s all-time leading scorers, Allen Iverson (20th) is the only member of the top 25 under 6’5″.

While there were exceptions to the perimeter-focused, passing role of the point guard, such as Bob Cousy and his crafty dribbling and creative passing with the Celtics of the 1960’s and Oscar Robertson‘s do-it-all style at the point, the position was mostly regimented in its role on the court. Robertson was the precursor to Magic and now LeBron, the ultra-athletic big-man who could do anything with the ball in his hands, forcing the defense to adjust and creating wide open looks for teammates.

This year, we’re seeing injury after injury to the man in charge at the point. Many of the NBA’s most electrifying little guys have gone down and their teams are left with uncertain futures. Let’s take a look at the various categories of point guards throughout NBA history. The lineage of the NBA’s best point guards of today can be traced throughout the decades. Here’s one attempt at grouping them:

***

The following players are listed in chronological order (rookie year).

The Point-Guard in a Forward’s Body: rare combos of size, strength and court-vision

1. Oscar Robertson (1960) The “Big O” was 6’5″ 205 lbs. Avg height in 1960: 6’5″
2. Jerry West (1960) 6’2″ 175 lbs. The logo. What a nickname. What a scorer.
3. Magic Johnson (1979). 6’8″ 215 lbs. Match-up nightmare with a dazzling smile.
4. LeBron James (2003). 6’8″ 240 lbs. Unfair package of power and agility. Now he shoots, too.
5. *Derrick Rose (2008). 6’3″ 190 lbs. Plays like he’s 6’6″. Impossible to stop in the lane. The league misses Rose badly.

The Old-Fashioned Passing Genius: creative ball-handlers threading the needle

1. Bob Cousy (1950). 6’1″ 175 lbs. Houdini of the Hardwood. Career 37.5% from the field.
2. Terry Porter (1985). 6’3″ 195 lbs. Porter and Clyde the Glyde.
3. Mark Jackson (1987). 6’1″ 180 lbs. Couldn’t hit an outside shot until he was 30 years-old, but could handle and pass the ball.
4. Rod Strickland (1988). 6’3″ 175 lbs. 17-year career despite a career 28% from distance.
5. *Steve Nash (1996). 6’3″ 195 lbs. With Amare in his prime, Nash won two MVPs. See what happens when you go to LA, Steve?

The Do-Everything Dynamo: the best all-around PGs, impressive rebounders who can pick a pocket

1. Walt “Clyde” Frazier (1967). 6’4″ 200 lbs. 19 ppg, 6 ast, 6 reb for his career.
2. Dennis Johnson (1976). 6’4″ 185 lbs. DJ. 14 ppg, 5 apg, 4 reb, and shot only 17% from deep for his career. Glue guy. Ready for whatever was needed for mid-’80’s Celtics teams.
3. Lafayette “Fat” Lever (1982). 6’3″ 170 lbs. 14 ppg, 6 apg, 6 rpb, 2.2 stl. From 1986-’90, averaged: 19 ppg, 9 rpg, 8 apg. Fastest athlete with the nickname “Fat” in history.
4. Jason Kidd (1994). 6’4″ 205 lbs. 12.6 ppg, 8.7 apg, 6.3 rpg, 1.9 stl. Improved a shaky outside shot toward end of career, and tenacious competitor. Lacks the humility to make a great coach.
5. *Rajon Rondo (2006) 6’1″ 170 lbs. Last 4 years: 12.5 ppg, 11 apg, 4.7 rpg, 2.1 stl. Enormous hands and fiercely determined. Rondo’s legacy is yet to be determined.

The Speed Freak: one-man fast-break types who are impossible to stop

1. Kevin Johnson (1987) 6’1″ 180 lbs. KJ. Known for his uber-competitive nature and athleticism, KJ played with a nagging knee injury in ’92 Finals. Five injury-plagued years followed, in which he still dominated at times. Career 18 ppg, 9.1 apg, and 49.3% from the field, despite only 30.5% from distance. For his career, KJ shot a ridiculous 50.5% from inside the arc on over 12 attempts per game. Russell Westbrook and John Wall can only hope to achieve pre-knee injury KJ levels of dominance.
2. Tim Hardaway (1989) 6’0″ 175 lbs. The UTEP two-step. Run TMC. Burst onto the scene in GS, averaging over 22 ppg and close to 10 apg in his second, third and fourth years as a pro. Parlayed it into a 14 year-career avg 17.7 ppg and 8.2 apg.
3. Allen Iverson (1996) 5’11” 165 lbs. AI. Don’t let anyone tell you he was 6 feet. The speed of a cheetah and the heart of a lion.
4. Tony Parker (2001) 6’2″ 180 lbs. I guess TP ain’t cool? Most creative finisher at the rim in the NBA. Body control is only matched by Rondo, Rose and Westbrook. Ball-handling only matched by Nash, Lawson and Chris Paul.
5. Ty Lawson (2009) 5’11” 195 lbs. Can’t be stopped from getting to the rim, leading the league in penetration in Denver’s up-tempo Karl-led offense. Future will demand he further develop the jumper.
6. John Wall (2010) 6’4″ 195 lbs. Baseline to baseline, fastest with the ball. Wreaks absolute havoc with his defense:

The Domineering Floor General: forces of nature, the indomitable spirits

1. Nate “Tiny” Archibald (1970) 6’1″ 150 lbs. “Tiny” changed the way the position was played, by penetrating at will and averaging an insane 34 ppg and 11 apg as a 3rd-year pro for Kansas City. Came to Boston and sparked the early ’80’s Celtics. For a point guard to lead the league in free-throw attempts (’71-’72 and ’72-’73) was unheard of.
2. Isiah Thomas (1981) 6’1″ 180 lbs. Isiah averaged 19.2 ppg, 9.3 apg, 3.6 rpg (despite his stature), and 1.9 steals per game.
3. Gary Payton (1990) 6’4″ 180 lbs. The Glove, known for his physical defense, clutch shooting, and smack talk. Braggadocio. Teamed with Shawn Kemp to make the Sonics a force in the ’90’s. Payton was the best defensive guard of the 1990’s. Was forced/given the chance to carry an offensive burden that most point guards never see.
4. *Chris Paul (2005) 6’0″ 175 lbs. Paul carries the same leadership and swagger that Payton did. He’s one of the few little guys that can get his own shot at the end of the game, due to his mesmerizing handle, clever playmaking and fearlessness. It’d be a treat to see him go deep into the playoffs.
5. *Russell Westbrook (2008) 6’3″ 187 lbs. See above. Westbrook has Iverson’s determination and speed with a bigger body.

The Pick-and-Roll Master with the Deadly Shot: intuitive marksmen

1. John Stockton (1984) 6’1″ 170 lbs. Assist king, career 13.1 ppg, 10.5 apg, only 2.8 turnovers, 2.2 steals, and 38.4% from deep, as well as 51.5% from the field. Safe to say Stockton rarely forced a shot, though Malone gave him that luxury. Incredibly missed only 22 games in his 19-year career, and 18 of those missed games came in a single season.
2. Mark Price (1986) 6’0″ 170 lbs. Knee injury shortened a phenomenal career. Arguably the best shooter under 6’4″ not named Steve Nash. During his peak years (’91-’93) shot over 94% from free-throw line, averaging over 17 points, 7 assists and shooting about 40% from deep.
3. *Steve Nash (again) (1996) 6’3″ 195 lbs. Seven years with over 10 apg. Career 49% from field and 43% from distance. The ball-handling and ambidextrous passing have always been mind-blowing. Career 42.8% from distance. Those MVP awards owe a serious debt to Mike D’Antoni and Amar’e Stoudemire.
4. Stephen Curry (2009) 6’3″ 185 lbs. Learning fast how to be a facilitator and when to pick his spots. Unparalleled range. Career 43.7% from deep. Will set 3-point records that will never be broken.
5. Damion Lillard (2012) 6’3″ 195 lbs. Improving with every game. He and Curry will dominate the position for the next decade.

The Defenders: these are the ball-hawks, the harrassers who wreak havoc

1. Maurice Cheeks (1978) 6’1″ 190 lbs. Steady Mo. Career 6.7 apg to 2.1 turnovers, plus 2.1 steals / gm.
2. Alvin Robertson (1984) 6’3″ 185 lbs. Averaged 3.1 steals per game for his career, to go with 16 ppg, 5.7 apg, 5.9 rpg. Best defensive guard of the 1980’s.
3. Mookie Blaylock (1989) 6’0″ 180 lbs. Pearl Jam was originally called Mookie Blaylock because Mookie was the man.
4. Chauncey Billups (1997) 6’3″ 202 lbs. Amazing that Chauncey is still hanging around. Future coach.
5. *Eric Bledsoe (2010) 6’1″ 190 lbs. Sculpted and imposing. Now if he could only sculpt that jumper into something.

*player is currently injured

***

The Three-Pointer’s Impact on the Point

The three-point line wasn’t introduced until 1979. In many respects, this marks the beginning of the modern NBA.  It’s simply a different game without the added value of the three-pointer, and the floor-spacing that the outside shot creates. The league-wide response was mild, at best. The line was thought of as a gimmick. By 1980, the NCAA began to adopt the arc. It wasn’t until the late 1980’s that the three-pointer really caught on.  Without a three-point line, the best shot was always the closest shot. Get the ball to that 7-footer, or the slashing small forward and get out of the way. In 1994, the NBA shortened the three-point line to 22 feet all around the arc. The move, which lasted for only three seasons, was made to increase scoring after the defensively-dominant ruggedly physical play that took over in the early-to-mid 1990’s. In the summer of 1997, the league moved the above-the-break (non-corners) section of the arc back to 23’9″.

As defensive schemes have become more intelligent (teams copying Tom Thibodeau‘s pick-and-roll strategies, denying the corner three, and attempting to force long-range jumpers), players that can create off the dribble become critically important. Teams are now drafting for defensive ability and potential nearly as often as for offensive acumen. Through advanced scouting and Sport VU analytics, teams are getting better and better at taking away the first and second options of offenses.

This leaves offensive supremacy to teams that can create off the dribble and that emphasize fluid ball movement and long-range shooting, in addition to pushing the pace. When a defense doesn’t have time to set itself, the offense always has the advantage. Three-pointers are now being taken at historic rates. As of January 10th, 21 of the NBA’s 30 teams are attempting over 20 threes per game. As recently as three years ago, only 9 teams averaged over 20 3-pointers. If we go back ten years, to the 2003-04 season, only two teams averaged over 20 long-range attempts. What does this three-point barrage mean? More shots from point guards, shooting guards and small forwards.  Fewer shots from centers.  One intriguing development over the last few seasons: the “stretch 4″, the outside-shooting power forward, is being integrated into the offensive strategies of many teams. Zach Harper, writing for CBS Sports’ eye-0n-basketball blog, breaks down the impact of today’s stretch 4’s. The chart below highlights just how much the three-pointer has become integrated into the modern NBA games. During the 2003-04 season, an average of 15.6 points per game (per team) were scored via the three-pointer.  This year, that number has risen to 22.8 points.

 Year

 Team 3-Point Attempts / Gm  # of Teams Avg 20+ 3PA

2013-14

21.3

 21 Teams

2010-11

 18.0

 9 Teams

2003-04

14.9

 2 Teams

1993-94 9.9

 0 Teams

source: basketball-reference.com

The Point Guard’s Role

The rising frequency of outside shots has changed the game dramatically. One important way it has influenced today’s game: the driving lanes are wide open. This wasn’t always the case. Coaches rarely gave point guards the freedom to operate from the perimeter in the post-heavy 1970’s and 1980’s. By the late 1980’s, only a handful of supremely athletic, mentally-tough and psychologically-fearless point guards were able to consistently enter the paint and finish their drives at the rim, or dish the ball and create dunks and lay-ups for teammates with their own creativity. A few teams were giving the keys to the offense directly to their point men. Stars like “Fat” Lever in Denver, Isaiah Thomas in Detroit. Kevin Johnson in Phoenix were given that freedom and ran with it, Thomas in half-court sets in Detroit, and Johnson in the up-tempo style of Phoenix. John Stockton and Mark Price were pick-and-roll geniuses who used pin-point passing to make their mark, but finishing at the rim was not an option for them. Allen Iverson and Gary Payton used their penetrating ability, gutsy style, and an array of creative angles and spins to finish near the rim, but were often criticized for not balancing their own offensive abilities with the importance of making their teammates better. In 2000, when a point guard ended up taking the last-second shot to win or lose the big games, the criticism was still deafening. The formal roles of each position have been slowly disappearing over the last few decades.

Since 2000, we’ve seen passers like Steve Nash and Jason Kidd influence the position.  Important for their longevity, both became better three-point shooters as their careers progressed. Tony Parker and Deron Wiliams picked up the penetrating, aggressive scoring point-guard mantle.

Still, the physicality and aggressiveness of Rose and Westbrook are unique. The speed and agility with which they contort their bodies in mid-air, and the verticality of their playing styles leaves them susceptible to injuries. Chris Paul and Rondo are also incredibly strong and wildly creative in their ways of attacking the rim, but they don’t leave the ground as often. As of today, all four are injured. Rose’s career, and the future of the Chicago Bulls, hang in the balance.  Rondo begins what he and the Celtics hope is his post-injury phase within the next month. Westbrook will return to the court for Oklahoma City sometime in late February, they hope. Chris Paul’s freak shoulder injury should be healed by mid-to-late February as well. Eric Bledsoe, who was just starting to make his mark in the league as a starter in Phoenix, is out for the season.

For fans, the question lingers, is the point guard position now being played in an unsustainable way? Is it the amount of games that young prospects play in as teenagers, with the advent of the AAU year-round hoops system? Is it the style of play, the aggressive cutting, spinning and leaping? Is it the insanity of the schedule, with it’s 19-game months and stretches of 7-games in-10-nights? The NBA would be wise to start evaluating the extent to which these injuries are preventable or to consider ways they might reduce the risk of injury.

The best young athletes in the sport should be limited as teenagers by playing fewer AAU games, and the NBA schedule should be adjusted to lower the number of back-to-back contests and 4-games-in-5-night stretches. Basketball will always be a physically-demanding sport, but there’s no reason to make it tougher on the body than it already is. There will always be players waiting on the sidelines to get in the game. Injuries create opportunities for them. However, we’re all clamoring to see the D-Roses, the Westbrooks, and the Rondos, get back to full health and stay that way.

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