It’s a point guard’s game
NBA courts, once dominated by big men, have become the domain of smaller, quicker players as the sport has evolved
Nate “Tiny” Archibald, the first NBA little man to flourish with unabashed creativity and freedom, spots his modern likeness in a crowded ballroom. Archibald weaves through traffic, same as he used to maneuver past defenseless opponents, to reach Los Angeles Clippers star Chris Paul.
They embrace, floor general emeritus squeezing contemporary icon. Then Archibald offers a salute to Paul and this premium generation of point guards.
(Jonathan Newton / The Washington Post)
“You my man!” Archibald exclaims during All-Star Game festivities in Toronto in February.
“Nah, you my man!” says Paul, a nine-time all-star.
“No, bro,” Archibald insists. “I’m glad with some of you guys that I’m not playing because I’d be out of the game real fast.”
“Why?” Paul asks.
It's a nightly grind:
In sports, multigenerational conversations can splinter into debates full of pride, defensiveness, misunderstanding, revisionist history and asinine comparisons. But Archibald is mostly fascinated with how empowered NBA point guards have become. During the 1972-73 season, he became the only player in history to lead the league in points and assists, but when he entered the NBA, he had to convince his coach — Bob Cousy, the NBA’s first great point guard — that his style worked. Then he had to convince skeptical outsiders, who would marvel at his flashy play and at the same time dismiss it as losing basketball.
“They can’t play that now. They can’t touch ’em now. Y’all got Secret Service on the court. I couldn’t guard you my way.”
— Nate Archibald
Now, point guard is the premier position in the league. The game is legislated for guards to move freely around the court, and coaches have welcomed all brands of floor leaders, including scorers once viewed as ball hogs who couldn’t possibly influence winning.
If an embrace could link generations, it was the Archibald-Paul hug. Cousy coached Archibald. When Tiny entered the NBA, he succeeded Oscar Robertson, the first great big and versatile point guard and Magic Johnson’s hero, as the Cincinnati Royals’s lead guard. Paul idolized Allen Iverson, but his playing style makes him a descendant of Isiah Thomas and John Stockton. The little guys — Archibald was listed at 6 feet 1 during his heyday, but he looks much shorter standing next to the 6-foot Paul — embody the position’s evolution.
“I’ll foul you, man, in a second,” Archibald says to Paul. “In my day, with hand-checking, me and you would be wrestling on the court and stuff like that.”
“That’s how they played?” Paul asks.
“Yeah, that’s how they played back then,” Archibald says. “They can’t play that now. They can’t touch ’em now. Y’all got Secret Service on the court. I couldn’t guard you my way.
“Y’all got it made, and y’all know what to do with it.”
The floor general, emancipated
The point-guard renaissance began at a basketball summit in Phoenix. The year was 2000, and NBA Commissioner David Stern had appointed a special committee to improve a stale game. Some of the sport’s greatest minds gathered in a room.
The dignitaries included Jerry Colangelo, Jerry West, Bob Lanier, Jack Ramsay, Dick Motta and Wayne Embry. By the turn of this century, the NBA realized it had become a diminished product. The greatness and skill of the 1980s gave way to the brawn of the '90s. When Michael Jordan retired for a second time in 1999, it became clear that the league had turned into a boring, slow and physical contact sport instead of the athletic, beautiful and fast-paced entertainment it was meant to be.
“The league had basically slowed to a grinding halt,” said Stu Jackson, who was the NBA senior vice president of basketball operations back then. “Scoring was down, and the skill level and success of players was seemingly dependent on how much they could lift in the weight room. Something needed to be done quickly.”
Many creative and radical ideas were discussed, but the special committee ultimately decided upon four significant rule changes: the elimination of old illegal-defense guidelines, which would allow teams to play zone defenses; a new defensive three-second rule so that centers couldn’t turn into human basket lids; reducing to eight seconds the 10-second rule to bring the ball past midcourt; and redefining the way officials interpreted rules of contact to allow players more freedom of movement, especially on the perimeter.
There was intense debate over the proposed changes. Opponents accused Stern of fixing the committee and only appointing those who’d be open to radical change. Active coaches were upset that they weren’t represented. Pat Riley, then the Miami Heat head coach, warned that the rules would drop scores into the 70s.
The NBA board of governors approved the changes for the 2001-02 season. Three years later, the league made one more adjustment to allow freedom of movement, essentially abolishing hand-checking. Now, defenders cannot use their hands or bodies to push ball-handlers, or players moving without the ball, off their path.
The intent was to open up the game, increase scoring and take the league away from isolation basketball. Incidentally, it also unleashed this era of incredible point-guard play.
In NBA history, only five players under 6 feet 5 have won MVP: Cousy (1957), Allen Iverson (2001), Steve Nash (2005, 2006), Derrick Rose (2011), Stephen Curry (2015). That marked increase since Nash’s first is little coincidence.
In terms of the win shares statistic, seven of the top 20 players in the league this season (including four of the top eight) are point guards. Twelve years ago, there were only three point guards in the top 20, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
This season, 12 players average at least 15 points and six assists per game. Twelve years ago, only five players did so.
It’s not just the production, either; it’s the flair with which the players compete. Curry shoots from anywhere on the court. Russell Westbrook is full throttle the entire game. Paul probes defenses with his sneaky style, the Wizards' John Wall whirs about, and Kyrie Irving is a dribbling wizard. These players, and many others, aren’t just highlight reels. Most of them are winning, too. They’re leading some of the league’s best teams.
When Los Angeles Clippers Coach Doc Rivers, a good point guard in his day, started coaching in 1999, he often wondered why it seemed the position was on the verge of extinction. Since then, he has coached Paul and Rajon Rondo, and he can’t imagine making a deep playoff run without an elite lead guard.
“I think it’s the best it’s ever been,” Rivers said. “This is the greatest era of point guards the NBA has seen. It has to be.”
Isiah Thomas, here in 1993, didn't like how his style was labeled when he played. Several of the game's greats envy the era that current point guards play in. (NBA Photo Library/NBAE via Getty Images)
De-stigmatizing the scoring point guard
Thomas remembers fighting NBA convention. His illustrious career was steeped in defiance, peaking when he led the Detroit Pistons to championships in 1989 and 1990. But before Thomas streamlined his game and the Bad Boys changed the league with their physical and intimidating play, he replaced Archibald in the early 1980s as the NBA’s most electrifying undersize showman.
Thomas drives past Chicago's Michael Jordan in 1989. (AP Photo/Fred Jewel)
Just as Archibald brought his New York City charisma to the game, Thomas introduced panache honed on the west side playgrounds of Chicago. He was made for the current game, but he played when the sport still revolved around the big man. Although his time is lauded as the NBA’s best era, Thomas had to thrive as an unconventional figure.
“When I came in, I played a 2000s game in the ’80s,” Thomas said. “Still to this day, some people like the way I played, and some people didn’t like it.”
In November, the NBA will celebrate its 70th anniversary. For the first 58 years, the big man ran the league. The common belief was that you needed a center to win, that playing inside-out was the best way to build an efficient offense and that a good team needed a rim-protecting giant to anchor it. The rules were designed and interpreted to let tall, powerful men express themselves.
Point guards carried tremendous importance as facilitators, organizers, defensive menaces and the brains of the on-court operation. But they still had rigid job descriptions: Pass first, shoot last. Offenses couldn’t function properly with playmakers calling their own number too much.
Thomas averaged 22.9 points per game as a 21-year-old. At 23, he had his finest all-around season, averaging 21.2 points, a league-leading 13.9 assists and 2.3 steals. But it pained him that his style was considered atypical instead of trend setting. He’s 54 years old, and it still bothers him.
“The word ‘pure,’ ” Thomas said, laughing his classic laugh even though the subject matter wasn’t funny. “They said I wasn’t a pure point guard. I always would ask, ‘What do you mean by pure?’ Because I was able to play and win, eventually, the stigma was eliminated. No one asks today if you are a pure point guard. Back then, I had to fight the label.”
In February, at the All-Star Game, Thomas stood in a hotel lobby in Toronto and interviewed Allen Iverson, who was one of the NBA’s most lethal scorers despite his small 6-foot stature, for NBA TV. Iverson was about to be named a finalist for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame; he has since been announced as a 2016 class inductee.
As they spoke, a large crowd encircled them. The moment was symbolic of how popular the little man has become.
Today, because of the rule changes and because coaches have opened their minds, point guards aren’t so often defined as scoring guards or pass-first guards. They’re just respected for how aggressively they play and how their attacking styles create offense.
Westbrook, the Oklahoma City guard, might represent the benefit of the attacking point guard the best. Over eight years in the NBA, he has gone from criticized for not passing the ball enough to Kevin Durant to being praised as a triple-double machine who brings it every night.
He was influenced by Iverson’s relentless play. No one attacked better than Iverson. Most of the current star point guards were children who grew up emulating Iverson.
“He changed the way the game is played,” Boston Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas said of Iverson. “He changed the culture of the game. He’s probably the biggest influence on a lot of players who play this game.”
The difference: In Iverson’s day, his shoot-first style was considered selfish, and Philadelphia Coach Larry Brown moved him from point guard to the smallest shooting guard in league history. If he had played his entire career in this era, he would get to play point guard.
Jamal Crawford, another scorer who had to make the transition from point to shooting guard, wonders how his career would’ve gone if he had been drafted in 2010 instead of 2000.
“My career would’ve had a different path,” Crawford said. “I was born too early.
“Once they saw I could score a lot, they were like, ‘Oh, he’s a 2-guard.’ But now, it’s a scoring point guard type of era. You look at Steph Curry, everybody always talks about Steph Curry, but it’s his shooting they talk about first. They talk about his passing secondary. That’s where the point guards have kind of gone to, as far as being scoring point guards. And the threat of Steph Curry getting 40 points is worse than the threat of him getting 10 assists. Seeing that, I was born too early. I was definitely born too early.”
Isiah Thomas still celebrates his era, but he’s glad that the fight over diverse styles of guard play is over.
“It’s been a breakthrough at the point guard position in terms of freedom, acceptability and creativity,” Thomas said. “It’s allowed the point guard position to be a much more beautiful position to watch.”
When rules changes opened up the game, the freedom allowed Steve Nash -- here in 2011 against Chris Paul, right, and the New Orleans Hornets -- to go from good point guard to two-time MVP. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Steve Nash: The breakthrough artist
When Nash retired after the 2013-14 season, his peers praised him. Curry thanked Nash for providing a prototype that has led to Curry becoming the league’s best floor leader. Paul kept a picture of the first time he played against Nash in the NBA.
Nash was the standard when Paul entered the league in 2005. “I just had to measure myself against him – to see how much better I needed to get so that I could have a career like his,” Paul said.
At a news conference to announce his retirement, Nash fought back tears as he expressed what it meant to be a leading figure in this point guard era. With Coach Mike D’Antoni in Phoenix, Nash won back-to-back MVPs as soon as the league changed the rules. He was a very good player when hand-checking was allowed. He became a legend when allowed more freedom. D’Antoni knew exactly how to accentuate Nash’s greatness and how to spread the floor to create a model that many teams now follow.
Nash was the first point guard to learn how to dominate the changing NBA.
“I’m not a huge fan of the legacy game, to be fair,” Nash said. “I think it’s incredibly flattering, and I’m humbled every time someone says that I’ve had an impact on the game. I would never want to sit here and say that I deserve that. But at the same time, to hear from those guys and to have their support and respect is the ultimate. And to walk away from the game with that respect and admiration is the greatest gift, I think.
“I’m looking forward to turning on the TV and watching them play for the next 10 years. It’s very, very special.”
There had never been a doubt about the ability of point guards to produce. But in the current period, it wasn’t until Nash showed the way that NBA coaches and general managers started to realize what a point guard could now do.
Nash led the Suns to records of 62-20, 54-28, 61-21 and 55-27 in four seasons directing D’Antoni’s free-flowing, small-ball offense. He ran counter to the conventional NBA point guard. He wasn’t the heart of his team’s defense. He was a poor defender. And he over-dribbled, probing the defense to create the best shots for himself and his teammates. It worked, and the league started to copy Phoenix’s style, which led to today’s era of versatile lineups and emphasis on three-point shooting.
“Nash and the Suns helped open everyone’s minds, and from that, the creativity really took off,” said Golden State Coach Steve Kerr, who was the Phoenix general manager from 2007 to 2010. “Basketball has so many innovative minds. It was only a matter of time before every advantage of this era would be exploited.”
In 2015, Steph Curry destroyed the myth that a team led by its point guard, and without a dominant big man, could not win an NBA championship. Curry's Warriors are set to defend their title after a 73-win season. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Stephen Curry and Golden State: The new standard
As LeBron James took over the NBA with his combination of height, strength and skill, many wondered whether you could create a star to rival him. Basketball hadn’t seen such a physical specimen playing on the perimeter and displaying such agility. It was impossible to imagine a player physically gifted enough to stop King James from a Jordan-like run of championships.
He still is an impossible matchup. But in the evolution of the little man, the game has presented an unlikely rival for James: Curry, who looks like a chemist but plays point guard in the most mesmerizing fashion.
There have been other sweet-shooting NBA point guards, too: Nash and Mark Price top the list. But there’s never been a player who shoots so well from so deep while taking so many shots. Curry can shoot better than Nash and score as much as Iverson, all with Pistol Pete creativity and flamboyance. And he still averages seven assists per game for his career.
“I was lucky enough to play with Michael Jordan, and pretty much every night, he did something that was awe-striking, I would say Steph is on that level now.”
— Steve Kerr
Most important, Curry, who will soon take home his second straight MVP award, wins. The Warriors won the NBA title in 2015 and just surpassed the Chicago Bulls’ record for victories in a regular season, earning their 73rd on Wednesday night.
Before Curry, there was still the question: While it was easy to see that point guards were leading the way, could you win a championship with a little guy bearing so much responsibility? You could make the playoffs and make decent runs, as Nash showed, but he never played in the NBA Finals. You could be a longtime face of the league, as Paul showed, but he hasn’t won a title. You could win an MVP over LeBron, as Derrick Rose showed before the injuries, but he hasn’t won a title, either.
Then came Curry and the Warriors. Before the Warriors won in 2015, the Isiah Thomas-led Pistons were the last title-winning team whose clear best player was a smallish point guard — we say “smallish” to exclude Magic Johnson, a 6-9 outlier — to win the NBA title. That was 25 years ago.
Throughout history, the best championship point guards — even Johnson and Thomas, to an extent, because their teams were so balanced — were co-stars or elite-level supporting actors, seldom the undisputed leading man.
On the Warriors, Curry is that guy. And their win total suggests another significant development in this point guard era.
“I was lucky enough to play with Michael Jordan, and pretty much every night, he did something that was awe-striking,” Kerr said before a February game in Orlando. “I would say Steph is on that level now. You see it night after night, and it’s awesome, but it becomes routine because he does it so often.”
The best player in the NBA is 6 feet 3 and weighs barely 185 pounds. You might not even ask him to get a dish off the top of the shelf. But when a basketball game begins, he goes from everyman to phenomenon.
Curry illuminates the point guard’s newfound freedom, and he’s also a lightning rod for debate about the state of the NBA. Despite being one of sports’ most likeable stars, Curry’s unprecedented game – as well as the jumper-obsessed style of the entire Warriors team – makes some wonder if basketball has changed too much.
ESPN analyst Mark Jackson, Curry’s former coach, made the bizarre comment that the guard is “hurting” the sport because he inspires misguided young players to take bad shots trying to copy him. Oscar Robertson upset Kerr and many NBA coaches by saying that they don’t defend Curry far enough out on the floor. Others have used Curry and the Warriors to complain that the game has become too soft, too dependent on the three-point shot and too dismissive of the center position.
Has the game gone too far in this direction? It’s a fair question. But if the little man continues to enthrall the audience, and the big man continues to evolve in versatility, this brand of basketball will remain.
“I don’t know if we ever go back,” said Stu Jackson, currently the senior associate commissioner of men’s basketball for the Big East Conference. “The evolution of the big guy in the NBA, in large part, was started by the way basketball around the world is being played. The influx of international players who trained differently and played more skillfully than domestic players was a big influence. It helped dictate the skill requirement and agility of today’s front-court players.
“There’s still plenty of room in the game for a great back-to-the-basket player to score and thrive in the game. But on defense, he’d better have some versatility to be able to defend on the perimeter. That’s just how players play now. Wilt Chamberlain would have difficulty playing against some teams now defensively. I don’t think current players want to go back. The skill makes basketball beautiful.”
While many of the all-time greats are still coming to terms with how much freedom guards now have, it seems that point guards are just at the beginning of their reign.
“I think it definitely is the best time to be a small man in the NBA,” Isiah Thomas said. “There’s never been a better time to be a small man in the NBA in its existence.”
After Kerr praised Curry that night in Orlando, the MVP scored 51 points and made 10 three-pointers, including a bank shot from half court to end the third quarter. He laughed as he walked to the bench.
“That really isn’t supposed to happen,” Curry said. “It was really funny to me.”
The little guy laughs. The little guy scores. The little guy wins.
Yep. Never been a better time.
There are no nights off: John Wall describes the ups and downs of playing point guard