NBA all-star game: a point guard resurgence

February 24, 2012

They come in varying packages, from the muscular and athletic Derrick Rose to the slight Steve Nash. They offer differing styles, from the composed efficiency of Chris Paul to the frantic unpredictability of Rajon Rondo. Some are looking to score first and set up later, such as Russell Westbrook and Deron Williams, while others are content with playing setup men, such as Jason Kidd and Ricky Rubio.

Some are the products of disparate basketball laboratories, such as the John Calipari dribble-drive factory (Rose, John Wall or Tyreke Evans). Others have recently been plucked high in the NBA lottery (Kyrie Irving) or from the waiver wire (Jeremy Lin). But no matter the physique, technique or place of origin, there is little denying that the NBA has moved into an era in which the point guard is the most talent-laden position.

The little man is suddenly starting to dominate a big man’s game.

“The point guard position has changed the game and turned it back around to the exciting game that we were seeing some time ago, back when I was playing with all the great point guards,” said Magic Johnson, who won three most valuable player awards and five NBA championships from 1979 to 1991 as a point guard with the Los Angeles Lakers. “You think about that time and that era, and that’s when the ball was moving. That’s when the teams were scoring. Now we return back to that. . . .The game is healthy now because of the point guard position.”

Evidence can be found on the rosters for this Sunday’s NBA All-Star Game in Orlando, where seven of the 24 players selected are point guards.

Point guards, whose primary job is to run the offense, have more responsibility than just passing and taking the occasional open jump shot.This NBA season, 12 point guards are averaging at least 15 points, five assists and three rebounds per game — all-stars Westbrook, Williams, Rose and Paul and also Wall, Evans, Irving, Golden State’s Stephen Curry, Milwaukee’s Brandon Jennings, Houston’s Kyle Lowry, Denver’s Ty Lawson and New Orleans’s Jarrett Jack.

That list doesn’t include all-star Rondo, who is averaging 14.8 points, 9.5 assists and 4.9 rebounds, or recent sensation Lin, who averaged 22.4 points, 8.8 assists and 4.0 rebounds in his first 11 starts for the New York Knicks.

“It’s the deepest the position has ever been,” said Nash, a 16th-year veteran who leads the league at 10.9 assists per game. “The supply is there. I think it’s always been an important position, but the game has definitely shifted a little bit.”

The resurgence has been building for some time and can be traced to rule changes before the 2004-05 season, which called for stricter enforcement of hand and forearm checking on defense. Three years earlier, the NBA loosened rules on zone defenses, which also created more space to operate on offense while removing the stagnant isolation and two-man games that bogged down scoring. Smaller, quicker players can now move without impediment, whereas they were once bullied out of the lane.

Jerry Colangelo, director of USA Basketball, was an executive with the Phoenix Suns when he pushed NBA Commissioner David Stern to make the changes. He received an immediate payoff when his team signed Nash the summer before the rules were initiated and saw him win back-to-back most valuable player awards.

“We did talk about, these rules, once in play, would give the point guard an opportunity to come back. . . . I think that’s exactly what’s happened,” Colangelo said in a telephone interview. “We brought back some skill to the game by allowing guards, the point guard to play a much more significant role than they had been for a period of time. And that was good for the game.”

It also put the pressure on teams to find players who could take advantage of the new rules. In three of the past four NBA drafts, point guards have been taken first overall, which is staggering considering that only three point guards had been taken first in the previous 32 years. Irving or Rubio are the favorites to win rookie of the year this year; they would join Rose and Evans among the point guards who have won the award in the past four years.

The rise of the point guard has come at the expense of the traditional shooting guard, with several teams now relying on two ballhandlers in the back court. Shooting guard Kobe Bryant leads the NBA in scoring, but more point guards rank in the top-20 in scoring (five) than shooting guards (three) this season. Dallas, Minnesota, Denver, Golden State, Sacramento and the Los Angeles Clippers are among the teams that often use point guards or combo guards to keep steady ballhandlers on the floor.

“A lot of teams are starting to play two point guards — it’s becoming more of a personality in the NBA,” Nuggets Coach George Karl said. “I’d bet you at least 10, 12, 15 teams are doing it. The game is now such a pick-and-roll game and a pace game that making good basketball decisions is as important as execution.”

The glut in point guard talent and the demands that come with it means that the players who man the position rarely have the opportunity to get any rest on either offense or defense, because they have to involved in nearly every play.

“Every night, you got to come out and show that you’re better,” Westbrook said. “It’s definitely a challenge every night. There’s a lot of great guards in this league — and young guards, so they’ll all be around for a while. You want to make your presence known.”

And right now, several of them are.

Staff writer Rick Maese contributed to this report

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