The epitaph of the traditional pass-first point guard writes itself. Gone are the good old days when point guards dribbled only with their dominant hand and perfected the craft of the two-handed chest pass. Whether it be a funeral or a passing of the torch, the pass-first point guards’ extinction continues to draw near, and in its place is the shoot first point guard of the modern day NBA.
This past season, eight of the NBA’s top 20 scorers played the 1-guard. (Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Isaiah Thomas, Damian Lillard, Steph Curry, Kemba Walker, Kyrie Irving, John Wall). This would be an astronomical spike in most decades, but just the season before there were six point guards who were the NBA’s best scorers, and in both 2014-15 and 2013-14 seasons there were four. This trend has picked up since the turn of the half-decade: between the years 2010-2013 there were only seven point guards in total that finished among the league’s best twenty scorers.
The most common denominator in the uptick in point guard scoring has been the emergence of Stephen Curry, evidenced by his back to back MVPs in 2014-15 and 2015-16. The up-tempo, Mike D’Antoni-esque style of point guard play that Curry and many guards exhibit seem to have turned the NBA on its head. But let history be your guide. There’s a native Canadian that turned the NBA upside down while most of the current NBA guards were still in high school.
Steve Nash revolutionized the point guard position in the same ways that Curry has. However, he lacked the gumption to make the frequent flick of the wrist part of his offensive forte. In both of Nash’s MVP seasons (2005 and 2006), he finished 66th and 29th scoring the ball compared to Curry’s top 10 scoring finishes in both MVP seasons, including a league-best 30.1 points per game in 2016. Nash gave guards the freedom to run the offense at a frenetic pace, but it wasn’t until Curry entered the league that guards began to shoot at a frenetic pace.
Since the 2005-06 season, the average number of possessions per game has increased by seven, largely due to the freedom point guards have to shoot. Ten years ago, the pull-up three in transition was a terrible shot, but now it’s a product of the basketball ideology of Darryl Morey that has spread across the NBA. Miss or make, the reward of converting on a quick three outweighs the downfall of missing a quick three, knowing that the other team’s goal is to do the same on the other end of the floor.
In the 2013-14 season, Stephen Curry led the NBA in pull-up three-point attempts per game at 5.2. This past year, James Harden eclipsed that with a staggering 6.8 attempts, and even fellow All-Star point guards Russell Westbrook (5.2), Isaiah Thomas (4.8), and Kemba Walker (4.8) were within striking distance.
The demise of the pass-first point guard has come with the removal of the vernacular: “point guards run the offense.” That Chris Paul needs to control every facet of the offense not only kills the vibe of his teammates through his constant barking but also the vibe of the offense with his ball dominant style. Over the past two seasons, the Clippers were league average in pace and possessions, a recipe for disaster in today’s NBA. Even Rajon Rondo, a man once known for being a one-man fast break, ended up riding the pine for the Bulls for a good portion of last season due to him bogging down the pace of the team.
As basketball becomes more and more position-less, there will be roles that go away. The big prodding 7-footer that prefers to play in the paint now has his role reduced. Likewise, so has the ball-dominant point guard that prefers to play through his teammates (For anyone that wants to reference Ricky Rubio’s amazing passing reel on YouTube, I challenge you to look at his mediocre mid-range jump shooting reel). Much like the stretch 4 replaced the paint clogging 5, the playmaking forward has replaced the pass-first point guard. Fittingly enough, the need for the point guard to be both master body language doctor and distribution leader of the team has gone away. His job has been reallocated to two or three players on the team instead of one.
There aren’t many playmakers the caliber of LeBron James and Draymond Green, but there will be enough bad copies of them to help make way for point guards whose greatest weapon is their outside shot. In as little as five years we will be in an NBA where guys like Luka Doncic and Ben Simmons are at the top of the assist charts instead Ricky Rubio and CP3. Even today, teams like the Pelicans and the Rockets deploy dual point guard lineups to promote ball movement. Point guards have gone from game managing quarterbacks to kickers that are on the floor for one reason: to put points on the board.
Laker fans will be quick to bring up how Lonzo Ball will change all of that with his unselfish brand of basketball because unlike most point guards his best attribute is his passing. However, little do people know that his true destiny is as a secondary ball handler based on his 18.2 USG at UCLA that couldn’t even crack the top 50 in the Pac-12 playing 35 out of a possible 40 minutes per game in his lone collegiate season. If a 20-year-old Lonzo Ball can understand he doesn’t need to be the center of attention to have an impact that means that NBA coaches and GM’s have received the message as well.
And so the season begins shortly, not as Bob Cousy’s seasons did, but as Steph Curry’s season does. Shoot. Shoot. Shoot. It’s the point guard way of life.
photo via llananba