New Guard Looks Like Old Guard

NBA Playoffs Should Receive a Huge Assist From Four Players Who Make Their Teams Go

Hornets Coach Byron Scott says Chris Paul, above, is one of the few players today whose game would translate in any era.
Hornets Coach Byron Scott says Chris Paul, above, is one of the few players today whose game would translate in any era. (By Layne Murdoch -- Getty Images)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 19, 2008; Page E09

A remarkable era for point guards ended in November 1991 when Magic Johnson announced his retirement from basketball. The season before, four point guards averaged at least 10 assists per game for the second year in a row and just the fifth time in NBA history.

For 17 years, Johnson, John Stockton, Michael Adams and Kevin Johnson would serve as the NBA's final 10-assist quartet -- until this season.

New Orleans Hornets point guard Chris Paul led the league in assists at 11.6 per game and established himself as a legitimate candidate for the league's most valuable player award while directing his team to the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. Two-time league most valuable player Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns had his string of three consecutive assist titles snapped but still dished out 11.1.

Utah Jazz point guard Deron Williams averaged 10.5 to lead his team to the Northwest Division title. And Jason Kidd started the season in New Jersey, finished in Dallas and finally made the playoffs with the team that drafted him 14 years ago, averaging 10.1.

The new point guard quartet took the league back to a time when the most important player on the court decided who got the shots instead of just taking all of them. All four have led their respective teams into the playoffs, which begin today.

"The point guard position has come back," Nash said. "People are moving the ball, looking for teammates, being creative, being unselfish. I think it's great for the game."

This is just the sixth time in NBA history that four players averaged 10 or more assists -- it also happened in 1990-91, 1989-90 (when there were a record five), 1987-88, 1986-87 and 1983-84.

The previous three seasons, Nash was the only point guard averaging at least 10 assists per game, which continued a trend in which the NBA hadn't seen more than one point guard averaging more than 10 assists in a season since the 1996-97 season. In 2002-03, Kidd led the league with 8.9 assists, which were the fewest for a leading assist man in 26 years.

With a much-needed rule change in 2004-05 that abolished hand-checking and led most teams to play more wide open and free flowing, Nash immediately helped re-define what it meant to be a most valuable player. Then, the 2005 draft delivered two pass-first, franchise point guards in Williams and Paul. Through it all, Kidd has seen his assist numbers creep back to what they were eight years ago in Phoenix, the last time he averaged double-digit assists.

"You can have all the rules in the world, but those are four special point guards," said Detroit Pistons President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars, who shared a back court with Isiah Thomas for nine seasons in Detroit. "I don't throw around 'special' easily."

The dark ages for the position appear to be over for a while with Paul and Williams both in their third seasons. "You got two older guys and two young guys who have picked up the game extremely fast and they're playing the game extremely well," Kidd said. "I think the point guard position is pretty much set for another generation because you got Deron and Chris playing at a high level. For them to be averaging 10 assists in their third season, it's impressive."

Nuggets Coach George Karl is expecting breakthrough performances for Paul, Williams and their respective teams. "Everybody is predicting San Antonio and Dallas, but I think this could be the playoffs for Chris Paul or Deron Williams," Karl said. "Deron Williams moved up the ladder big-time last year."

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