Another Golden Age of point guards? - East Valley Tribune: Fox Sports Arizona

Another Golden Age of point guards?

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Posted: Wednesday, February 8, 2012 5:24 am

While brandishing sodium pentothal and hypnosis as our weapons of choice, 20 of 30 NBA general managers, if asked, would swear at least reasonable satisfaction with their team's current status at point guard.

That's my estimate; yours may vary.

But anything approaching two-thirds of point-guard contentment represents a nice ratio for a position that seems really important. This importance -- relative to ultimate team goals -- and the possible reasons for it will be chewed on as we dig into what many league observers are referring to as a golden age of point guards.

The number of point guards with elite statistical performance or the potential for it appears to have grown the past few years. For example, while they're not all destined for greatness (even goodness might be open for debate) the draft class of 2009 produced eight (eight!) players currently working in the role of starting point guard. Four others were selected in the first round that year. In terms of copycat motivation, it probably didn't hurt having Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook as successful point-guard rookies from the previous draft class.

OK, while 2009 was an anomaly, the logjam of Swiss Army Knife point guards obviously has accelerated in recent years.

The prevailing roll call includes the oldies, the prime-timers and the young guns.

The oldies category is captained by Phoenix Suns star Steve Nash, a two-time league Most Valuable Player who turns 38 on Tuesday. Nash, it should be noted, will enjoy a four-day party in late March (assuming he and the Suns haven't agreed to part company) during which he first will square off with rookie Kyrie Irving, move on to a clash with Tony Parker and finish on a date with Chris Paul.

Yeah, it's a brutal point-guard war out there.

By the way, complicating the media's aggressive quest to trade Nash is a list of suitors that's been abbreviated by various circumstances, not the least of which is the aforementioned glut of teams already set at his position.

Anyway, the oldies room also is home to Andre Miller and Jason Kidd, who -- as more of a tour guide now -- hugged the O'Brien Trophy for the first time last June.

The prime-timers include Paul, Deron Williams, Rose, Rajon Rondo, Westbrook, Parker, Ty Lawson, Kyle Lowry and Mike Conley. Representatives of the young guns are (among others) Brandon Jennings, John Wall, Irving, Ricky Rubio, Jrue Holiday, Steph Curry, Tyreke Evans, Darren Collison, D.J. Augustin and Kemba Walker.

Some of these guys have been great for years. Others recently joined the fraternity. Others will arrive in short order, while still others never will and may be eclipsed by point guards already in the league but absent from any of these lists.

So, all things considered, the level of point-guard talent is pretty stellar and widespread.

Is this important? That really depends. In what could be a chicken-egg battle to explain the chronology, NBA coaches are putting more responsibility on points guard than ever. This variable is underscored by point guards' sky-high participation rate in a venerable offensive maneuver that's had quite a revival in recent years.

I'm referring to the relentlessly deployed pick-and-roll tactic.

OK, the word "revival" suggests that the PNR had been dormant, which really isn't true. It's seemingly been lurking in the opening pages of NBA playbooks forever. It used to walk hand-in-hand with the post-up isolation that didn't require as much skill from the point guard. But the PRN's return to prominence in recent years has escorted us to epidemic levels.

Go watch an NBA game and count how many possessions (aside from those in transition) come and go without at least one screen-roll action. It won't be many, especially now that Phil Jackson and his trusty triangle have left the Los Angeles Lakers. It should be pointed out that even Phil often went screen-roll with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal or (later) Kobe and Pau Gasol when playoff defenses figured out how to somewhat neutralize the triangle.

The presence of Jackson's triangle created a 200-foot monolith on an otherwise repetitive NBA landscape of point-guard-generated offense. In the system Phil was presented by assistant coach Tex Winter, the typical drive-and-kick point guard wasn't necessary.

With full-court-pressing defenses pretty rare in the NBA, a triangle team (well, there was one) simply needed a perimeter player capable of dribbling the ball into an entry-pass area. When working as it was intended, the triangle's gospel of passing, cutting, posting and spacing was enough to keep a defense on its heels.

Of course, Jackson's Chicago Bulls (Michael Jordan) and Lakers (Kobe) still had a dominant ballhandler in half-court situations. The same is true of the current Miami Heat. Well, Miami has two superior off-the-dribble lords in LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. That's why helpful observers who think the Heat need someone like Nash are a bit cuckoo. With Miami players already having cues to read when LeBron and Wade are bouncing the ball, guys who can make open shots and guard other point guards (someone like, oh, Mario Chalmers) are sufficient.

Without the triangle, this year's Lakers are attempting a more standard form of offense -- one that a point guard with drive-and-kick ability could make more efficient. In wiping out most of their assets to amass an incredibly well-compensated front court, the New York Knicks also have been working without an accomplished screen-roll playmaker ... well, unless Jeremy Lin is more than a one-game wonder.

It's ironic that the Knicks are in this predicament since their coach, Mike D'Antoni, has been a facilitator in the screen-roll's rise over the past few seasons.

After then-Suns owner Jerry Colangelo helped create a more hands-off policy of on-ball defense and cleared the lane through implementation of the defensive 3-second rule, D'Antoni's floor-spreading policies took advantage while offering the PNR as a nucleus. With the scoreboard screaming in Phoenix, other teams began borrowing the drag-screen with a trailer on the secondary break, or the simple post player/point guard screen-roll with snipers camped out along the 3-point arc.

Those rules to encourage more scoring began during the 2004-05 season. In the previous campaign, only three bullied-by-the-defense point guards averaged eight or more assists per game. Even during this post-lockout Year of the Draggin' Offense, the NBA's point-guard-as-quarterback offenses are delivering eight.

D'Antoni shouldn't receive all of the credit/blame, but his success in Phoenix certainly provoked coaches at all levels of basketball into using an old tactic (PNR) that brought the point guard into even greater focus.

While the seeming renaissance of point guards is hard to overlook, please don't assume the NBA had a bunch of stiffs playing the position until the past few years. But the trickle-down impact of offenses predicated on dribble-oriented probing is a big reason so many young players reach the league with advanced break-down reputations.

Ball-dominating point guards could be considered a bit like the smart phone. All of the applications can be compelling and -- once you've had access -- might seem difficult to live without. But do you really need one?

With Jackson's triangulation hoarding 11 championships in the past 20 years, you might think the answer would be no. It's worth recognizing, however, that losing to MJ or a Kobe-Shaq alliance doesn't exactly condemn the superstar point guard as a centerpiece for victory.

Without Robert Horry's body block on Nash, the old Suns guard and D'Antoni may have claimed a ring and created an even bigger wave of screen-roll basketball. Rose and the Chicago Bulls could reach the ultimate prize soon. Paul could lead the L.A. Clippers to glory.

Watch the league long enough and you'll realize there's no one position or philosophy that delivers an NBA championship. Great post players still are wonderful to have and -- with suitable playmates -- often produce victory. Unstoppable wing scorers will continue to put teams in position to sip champagne. And Parker was a Finals MVP on a team that still frequently runs its offense through Tim Duncan.

The right combination at the right time is the only trend that really matters.

For now, it's certainly fun to watch the prevailing tide of point guards attempt to create life during a post-lockout funk. So enjoy Rose's short-yardage bursts to the rim and Rubio's behind-the-back darts and Nash's clever adaptation of the bounce pass.

And note that none of the frequently visited websites specializing in the NBA draft expect a point guard to be chosen in the 2012 lottery.

The golden age can't be recreated every year.

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