It used to be easy to define what a point guard was. If you took a group of weekend warrior pickup players, split them into five man squads, there wouldn’t be much debate about which guy would be the one to take the ball up the court and run the offense. We all know the type, typically it would be the shortest one of the five, who had at least enough ball handling skills to limit turnovers.
But lately we’ve seen an explosion of point guards who break our traditional mold. Players like Derek Rose and Russell Westbrook are taking the shoot first label and turning it on it’s head. But, to understand where we are in the evolutionary line of the point guard, we have to take a look at how we got here.
The duties of a typical point guard used to be easily defined. He would get the ball past half court, start the offense by either swinging the ball to one of the wing players or clearing out the floor for a big man to post up. Then he would space the floor and spot up to shoot, giving just enough of a threat to hit a wide open jump shot. Think Derek Fisher.
The thing was, this was mostly out of necessity because of the built-in deficiencies of a traditional point. If he was taller, and therefore able to drive into the lane and finish amongst the bigger defenders, he wouldn’t be a point but he would be one of the wing players. Really, the only thing that made one point a better scorer than another was how good they were at hitting open jumpers when the defense was forced to double off them.
The other way an old school point could drive offensive production was an ability to break down a defense with ball handling and superior passing skills. This was what defined a great point guard. Playmakers, we would call them. Especially when the pick and roll became a staple of the game, you could build a formidable offense around a point guard that had the ability to get in the lane and dish the ball off to those with the ability to finish at the rim. Being able to break down a defense, plus being able to hit the outside jumper if the defense just sagged into the lane, gave your team a chance to win. Think John Stockton.
So while you could build a team around the skills of a traditional point guard, you needed to surround him with other players who could handle the bulk of the scoring load if you were going to be successful.
There have been exceptions, as there always are. Most notably Magic Johnson, the best point to play the game, but I don’t really count him because he was 6’9” with the body of a power forward. He truly broke the mold, and if anything was decades ahead of his time. In truth, he wasn’t actually a point guard, he was a wing player who happened to dribble the ball up the court. The other exceptions, players like Isiah Thomas or even Pistol Pete Marovich, are really just examples of players with traditional skills, just at an incredibly exceptional level.
The other, and possibly more effective, way a point guard could influence the game was at the defensive end. If your point could lock down his counterpart, making it hard for him to get over half court and into the offense, he could disrupt the other team’s timing and spacing. Think “The Glove”, Gary Payton.
This worked well for a while, until the league outlawed hand checking in the late 90s. This made it harder for a point guard to stay with his man in the open court, and allowed the offensive guard to get basically wherever he wanted on the court to start the offense. The hand check put the defensive first point guard on life support, the allowing of illegal defenses (what, you want me to call them “zones”, ok fine) put him out of his misery.
These zones changed the way the game was played in so many ways, but one of the most significant is that it made playing lock down perimeter defense not just difficult, but even worse, completely pointless. Now it’s better to use your backcourt defenders to funnel the offensive ball handlers into the waiting traps of teammates. Where once help defense was a necessary evil, a contingency plan in case your defenders couldn’t keep their man in front of them, it’s now become the go to way to stop a dominant scorer like Lebron James or Kevin Durant.
And here’s where it all comes full circle. These zones, while taking away the best weapon a point guard used to have in his arsenal, were also the catalyst that put the Darwinian metamorphosis of the position into hyper drive. They may have taken away the ability of the point to play dominant defense, but they also opened the floor for score first players to take over games on the offensive end. That sound you’re hearing is Stephon Marbury crying that he was born 10 years too soon.
Shoot first guards used to be a hindrance on their teams simply because, unless they were wide open due to double teams, any shot they took would have been better taken by one of their more capable teammates. But not now. Now spreading the floor, swinging the ball to get the defense out of position, then letting Derek Rose explode to an unguarded basket is an above average offensive possession.
So where does that leave us with the point guard position? Well, passing is less important than ever, the ability to explode through holes in zones the key skill to being successful. There are still some throw backs, Chris Paul may be the best pure point left in the game and Deron Williams is having a good bounce back year in Brooklyn. But, in the end, these types of players may end up being the last of a dying breed. A breed that used to flourish in the days of one on one, isolation type basketball.
The million dollar question is, now that we know where we came from and where we’re at now, what will the position look like in the future? All things staying the same, you never know what kind of rule changes will affect the game in the years to come, the end game is looking like we’re going to have to re-evaluate the way that we define the term point guard, possible even retire the term all together.
The position is looking more and more like a standard wing player, with the small exception that they have the task of dibbling the ball up the court. They have similar skill sets offensively and similar tasks on the defensive side of the ball. Point guards will continue to get taller as bigger players hone their perimeter skills at a younger and younger age. There have been teams that have experimented with three guard offenses in the past with increasing success, those schemes incorporating the Don Nelson favorite concept of the “point forward”.
All of this has been leading up to a world where the point guard is becoming something entirely different then he’s been in the past, competing the evolutionary process. Your point guard of the future, or whatever you’re going to want to call him, will be taller, able to finish at the rim, a great passer, can hit an open jumper if you let him, and a complete defender.
Whatever the position ends up looking like in the future though, true point guards will never be mistaken for playing any other position. It won’t matter if they’re taller than we’re used to, or they take more shots than we’re used to, you’ll always know a true point guard by the way he carries himself.
Point guards are natural born leaders. They inspire their teammates and point them in the right direction when they need it. They make sure the offensive is in the right sets, and the defense dictates the game to their opponents. In the end, the reason we all instinctively know who the point guard on our pickup team is may have nothing at all to do with his physical skill set, but might have everything to do with our ability to immediately identify a true leader, and a true point.
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