New breed of point guards leads way

New breed of point guards leads way
Damian Lillard, #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers, looks to pass on the court during their game against the Houston Rockets at the Toyota Center on February 8, 2015.

For so long the domain of man-mountains, the National Basketball Association (NBA) is now big on small men, even if the notion of a pure point guard is extinct.

All-Stars like Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook are leading the new breed of No. 1s - not only can these point guards run their coaches' plays and set up their team-mates, but they can also score, pass and "open up" the court for team-mates to drive to the basket.

With an abundance of talent in that position, particularly in the Western Conference, the term "Golden Age of point guards" has been bandied about.

Certainly, they are by far more entertaining to watch than plodding centres whose shooting range do not extend far beyond the basket.

"Point guards used to be the second-in-command to the centre but now, there's only one general leading the long-range attack," Portland Trail Blazers' point guard Damian Lillard told The Sunday Times on the sidelines of the NBA All-Star Weekend.

"Of course the position carries far more responsibility now. You can't have an off night, or your team's probably gonna lose."

In the past, much of a point guard's job was to give the ball swiftly to his centre or power forward down at the low post. Then, talented big men such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O'Neal would use an assortment of deft skills and raw power to score near the basket.

However, since the 2000s, new rules were introduced to curtail hand-checking, clarify blocking fouls and call defensive three seconds to speed up the game, and this changed the focal point of attacks.

While elite centres are still treasured for their ability to hit high-percentage shots, the mediocre ones were easily defended under the new rules, and teams had to find new offensive weapons.

Enter the point guards. The best one are showcasing the evolution of a position that caters perfectly to a game which is continually moving away from the paint.

By utilising the three-point line and becoming a long-range threat, a premier point guard can force opponents to protect the entire court, and not just focus on defending only the big men.

Of the top 10 NBA offences this season, all but one have a point guard who averages 15 points and six assists.

Leading the way is 26-year-old Curry, the chief architect of the eye-catching, defence-cracking Golden State outfit who own the league's best record at 42-9.

His team-mate Klay Thompson said: "Steph is what a point guard in 2015 should look and play like.

"He has to be selfish sometimes to take his own shots, and yet selfless on other times to feed others.

"Most importantly, he has to have the vision and IQ to know when to do which."

But critics argue that, when it matters most in the play-offs, it is the elite forwards like LeBron James, Tim Duncan and Kevin Durant who come to the fore.

In 11 of the last 15 years, the NBA champions' starting point guard was a third scoring option or lower. And only once since 1999 has a team won a title with their point guard averaging the most shot attempts per game (Tony Parker with the 2007 San Antonio Spurs).

And with acclaimed point guards like Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry and Mike Conley not having reached the NBA Finals, that criticism may seem valid.

Yet, that could change this season, and players could sense something special in the new class of point guards.

Chicago Bulls star Pau Gasol, a two-time NBA champion, said: "The competition among those guys is really intense and they're always trying to one-up each other.

"If I were a fan, I'd just sit back and enjoy the entertainment."

Key man

"Point guards used to be the second-in-command to the centre but now, there's only one general leading the long-range attack. The position carries far more responsibility now. You can't have an off night, or your team's probably gonna lose." Damian Lillard, Portland point guard, on the evolving role.

Thinking player

"Steph is what a point guard in 2015 should look and play like... selfish sometimes to take his own shots, and yet selfless on other times to feed others. Most importantly, he has to have the vision and IQ to know when to do which." Klay Thompson, on Golden State team-mate Stephen Curry.


This article was first published on Feb 15, 2015.
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