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The Growing Importance of Point Guards in The Evolution of Basketball

The NBA is a point guard driven league. Once upon a time, it was considered essential to have a dominant big man who you could throw the ball into on the block for offense.

Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and George Mikan were some of the legendary giants that stood at center stage on the NBA’s courts, and who threw huge shadows as they basked in the spotlight. From the league’s inception these players dominated. They were relied upon to be the team’s leading scorer, rebounder and all round best player.

“Offensively a great center will have an arsenal of shots that make him impossible for one man to guard.” 

– Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – a six-time champion and MVP, the league’s all-time leading scorer, and arguably the best to ever play the position.

Hakeem Olajuwon , Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, Moses Malone, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Buck Williams, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson and Shaquille O’Neal were all double double machines. They established themselves as some of the best and well-rounded players in a time when the competition was at its peak.

There are a myriad of reasons as to why the little man is suddenly starting to dominate a big man’s game.

Reason 1

In the 2004-2005 off-season the NBA overhauled the hand and forearm checking rules. When Michael Jordan was in his pomp, a defender who was guarding a perimeter player could extend his hand and put it on the player to “check” him.

Gary “The Glove” Payton is  one of the best perimeter defenders the game has seen. He would rest his hand on other players’ arms. In today’s NBA that is an immediate “touch foul,” but in the era of Michael Jordan that was a “no call.”  Jordan as a result  faced much sterner defensive resistance on a nightly basis.

The enforcement of the hand check rule has opened up the game for slashing guards like Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, Tony Parker etc to attack the lane consistently and without fear of being  impeded by their defenders hand.

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 Reason 2

Prior to the 2001-2002 season, any form of zone defense was considered an illegal defensive violation, and so “zone” was not seen in the NBA.

As someone who has played basketball all my life in Ireland, it strikes me as ridiculous that this rule existed. Any team I played on usually favoured the more traditional “man to man” defense. However a “zone defense” was always something we had in our back pockets if  “man” was failing us. In general, we would only play  “zone”  from the start of a game , if we came up against teams who our coach believed had more talent, but did not have a plethora of good outside shooters.

When a team utilises a zone defense,  instead of each player guarding a corresponding player on the other team( man to man), each defensive player is given an area known as a “zone” to cover. There are many types of zone defenses employed by coaches.

The Dallas Mavericks played zone for large portions of the championship run in 2011, with Dwane Casey, then a Mavs assistant, the architect. They played a hybrid brand of the 2-3 zone, calling it “flow.” It spooked LeBron and co, causing them to become out of sync on the offensive end. It meant that Dirk Nowitzki, Mark Cuban and all in the Mavericks organisation eventually found a path to the championship, a goal which they had seemed to be on the cusp on accomplishing for years, but could never get over the hump.

We will look at the most common zone defense in the NBA, the 2-3 zone defense.

– The 2-3 Zone

This zone defense is seen on sweet stained basketball courts all over  this island. It’s pervasiveness on these shores would likely astound our American friends.

It has the advantage of protecting the inside, the “paint”, and keeps your “bigs” inside. The 2–3 essentially fills the middle of the court and is very effective at preventing penetration into the lane and heart of the defense, leaving the perimeter as an offense’s most accessible option. 

Because this type of zone fills the paint so well, offenses must pass the ball around the perimeter frequently  before attempting to penetrate the the defense. It requires the offense to be more patient in getting a good shot, and thus slows the game down.

Jim Boeheim of the Syracuse Orange is the most famous proponent of this system in the U.S. His zone has become a prototype for use on other teams including the Team USA, for whom he has spent time as an assistant coach. In 2003 Boeheim led his team to an NCAA title playing the 2-3 system, on a team which included Carmelo Anthony.

A team play “zone” leave gaps (areas that are not well-covered by defenders) that can be exploited by teams that pass well or have guards capable of penetrating the zone.

Dribble penetration is very effective in breaking down a zone. If a guard can dribble into the gaps in the zone, multiple defenders must converge on the ball. The onus is then on the ball handler to find an open teammate. This strategy illustrates why point guards have become increasingly important when attacking a teams zone defense.

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Reason 3

 

“The only important statistic is the final score.” – Bill Russell, 11 time NBA Champion.

 

Layups,  three pointers and free throws. These are the  most efficient shots that a player can attempt. This fact is repeated on ESPN and TNT as often as a Buddhist person might repeat the “OM” mantra.

Ten years ago, there were two NBA teams that acknowledged having a staff member whose role included data-driven analysis. What has happened in the meantime can only be described as a revolution. Today every team in the league has at least one person(and usually more) with the word “analytics” in their job description.

The reality in 2014 is that Adam Silver’s NBA has cameras in the arenas measuring every players move. These stationary drones in the rafter are beaming gigabytes of vital intelligence back to video rooms and practice facilities across the league

The NBA’s war on numbers is over. The white flag has been raised, and the analytics guys have won. The word “analytics” is no longer synonymous with “weird numbers that nerds who never played the game  use,” as it was once memorably described as by a prominent former player.

Teams (though not all to the same degree) have embraced the analytics revolution. A glance at the list of recent General Manager hire shows throws up names like Rob Hennigan of the Orlando Magic, Ryan McDonough of the Phoenix Suns, David Griffin of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Sam Hinkie of the Philadelphia 76er’s. All of these guys have strong backgrounds in analytics.

People point to the influx of young owners into the league, who have made their fortune from number crunching as a reason for the  proliferation of “number guys” getting more and more GM positions. The theory being that the owners are more comfortable working with people cut from the same cloth as them.

This is as opposed to appointing ex-pros, who they would argue have years of experience within the game of rigorous practice sessions, of wading through hours of film, and of simply “knowing the game.” The counterbalance to this argument can be summed up in a few names. Isiah Thomas, Billy King, Elvin Baylor.

For years teams ran their offenses through the low post, seeking out their big men to get them buckets. It is now firmly established that this is not the best route to put the ball in the hoop.

The result of most post up  situations, on the NBA level at least, are jump hooks or turnaround jumpers. So despite the image you might have in your head of a player going to work deep in the paint, right near the basket, the actual shot results are typically short to midrange 2s anywhere from roughly four to twelve feet from the hoop. As the analytics movement has told us, shots from those locations produce a worse points-per-possession outcome than the three key scoring areas on the floor: at the rim, behind the 3-point line, and at the free throw line. Teams have thus moved away from this old school formula.

Teams still use post ups, but it has become more a vehicle for passing and creating shots for outside shooters, rather that for a post up shot itself. This of course is good news for guards and is just another reason as to why the game we see today has the point guard dominating games.

That is not to say that the post up is a non option. Outliers exist, and these are guys who have a particular skill set which makes them a very difficult match up on the inside. Players like  Al Jefferson(who is coming off a stellar year with Charlotte) are efficient on the block because there every step is thoughtful. His precise and technical footwork enables him to manipulate defenders and create viable scoring angles, or draw a foul.

Tim Duncan is similar in this regard, and Gregg Popovich will call a post up for Timmy when he has a discernible advantage on the inside as he did in the Miami series.

LeBron James’ post game is a relatively new phenomenon. Being bigger, much stronger, and typically more athletic than his opponent,  Lebron works his way into incredibly deep post position with relative ease, and is a strong finisher at the hoop. 

But by and large teams are straying away from what was once the staple of an NBA teams offense. It is the era of the point guard, which as a fan I am happy to see. It means a faster paced game, and your point guard can no longer be the guy who just tests he offense.

Conor O’Mahony, Pundit Arena.


 

As a follow up to this article, I will be writing a piece on the top 5 point guards in the league . An article on the fabled 1984 draft that include Jordan, Barkley, Olajuwon and Stockton is also imminent.

*As someone who has played basketball all my life in Ireland , it strikes me as ridiculous that this rule existed. Any team I played on usually favoured the more traditional “man to man” defense. However a “zone defense” was always something we had in our back pockets if “man” was failing us. In general, we would only play  “zone”  from the start of a game , if we came up against teams who our coach believed had more talent.

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team. If you would like to join the team, drop us an email at write@punditarena.com.