The American Point Guard Renaissance

For me, the American Point Guard Renaissance started on an otherwise uneventful night in Winston-Salem, N.C. in February 2004. In Wake Forest’s upset of Duke that night at Lawrence Joel Coliseum, highly touted freshman guard Chris Paul showed that he may not have been touted highly enough. Paul scored 19 second-half points and absolutely dissected the Blue Devils’ defense in as sterling a performance as a college point had displayed in years. I remember thinking that night how good it was to watch a real point guard—one who could dominate a game without dominating the ball—on the college stage.

The American Point Guard Renaissance is loosely defined as the return to form of, I think, the most important position in the game of basketball. Spearheaded by the continued brilliance of Jason Kidd and Steve Nash, some favorable rules changes on the perimeter, and a spate of young points like Paul, Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose, Brandon Jennings, and John Wall, the American Point Guard Renaissance is our best hope today to revive the quality of play in the NBA, which has been lagging for more than a decade.

If we look back a decade to the immediate post-Jordan era of the NBA, one of the major reasons of the league’s diminished quality of play was its unimpressive set of point guards. Between 2000 and 2005, the Mount Rushmore of NBA point guards comprised John Stockton, Gary Payton, Jason Kidd, and Steve Nash. Over the course of their careers, these are arguably four of the 10 best point guards of all time, and yet only one of them—Kidd—was in his prime during that stretch. Stockton was well past it, Payton was sulking in Seattle and then Milwaukee, and Nash had yet to be paired with Mike D’Antoni.*

*It’s important to remember that, prior to Nash’s teaming with D’Antoni, he was a very good point guard, but not really a part of any historical conversations.

Beyond those four, the league’s other “good” point guards were shooting guards who happened to be short—hard-wired scorers whose me-first attitudes eventually lowered high ceilings and led to early playoff exits. Guys like Stephon Marbury, Baron Davis, and Steve Francis COMBINED to win three playoff series—all in the first round, and all by Davis.*

*I am NOT counting Marbury’s time with the Celtics last year.

More often than not, the point guard became a filler position—some place where you plugged in a defensive specialist (Ron Harper, Eric Snow) or a three-point shooter (Derek Fisher, Chauncey Billups).* The idea of a point guard being a playmaker had shifted from the 1 who got everyone involved and ran the break and pick-and-roll flawlessly to one who took pull-up threes without a single pass, and who drove to the basket looking to get to the line.

*A large part of this is, of course, the success of the Triangle Offense during this time. In the Triangle, the 1 is de-emphasized if not outright eliminated; its main job is to be able to hit threes from the weakside wing or strongside corner, which is why John Paxson and Derek Fisher have been such good Triangle point guards.**

**Why Ron Harper was such a good Triangle point guard is more opaque; I think it has to do with his defense, since he saw such little of crunch time for both the Bulls and Lakers (Kerr in Chicago and Brian Shaw/Fisher in LA often replaced him late).

There’s a reason this style took over: There weren’t that many true point guards coming out of college. Between 1995 and 2004, 41 point guards were selected in the first round of the NBA Draft, and a grand total of three have been significant and enduring stars at the professional level: Steve Nash, Chauncey Billups, and Tony Parker.* Only one of these players, you will notice, is American. Guards like Marbury, Davis, and Francis flirted with stardom, but again, it’s tough to make your mark in the league if you don’t reach May on a consistent basis. Mike Bibby had a nice postseason in 2002, Andre Miller has been an above-average PG, and Devin Harris regressed for a team that won fewer games this year than several football teams. Perhaps the biggest issue for this generation of point guards is that the two guys who I’d argue had the highest ceiling, Jay/Jason Williams and Shaun Livingston, had their careers wrecked by injuries. If those two guys stay healthy and turn into the great point guards they could have/should have been, we’re not having this conversation.

*In case you were wondering, here is a complete breakdown of those 41 PGs into “Historically Significant,” “Very Good,” “Good,” “Serviceable,” “Career Backup,” and “Bust”:

Historically Significant: Steve Nash

Very Good: Chauncey Billups, Tony Parker

Good: Stephon Marbury, Mike Bibby, Steve Francis, Baron Davis, Andre Miller, Devin Harris, Jameer Nelson

Serviceable: Damon Stoudamire, Derek Fisher, Jason Williams, Jason Terry, Jamaal Tinsley, Kirk Hinrich, T.J. Ford

Career Backup: Travis Best, Antonio Daniels, Brevin Knight, Bobby Jackson, Jacque Vaughn, Tyronn Lue, Speedy Claxton, Marcus Banks, Luke Ridnour, Sebastian Telfair, Beno Udrih

Bust: Randolph Childress, Cory Alexander, Bryce Drew, William Avery, Vonteego Cummings, Mateen Cleaves, Erick Barkley, Raul Lopez, Jay Williams, Frank Williams, Dan Dickau, Troy Bell, Shaun Livingston

Let’s contrast this with the five years since, starting in 2005. Twenty-eight PGs have been taken in the first round in those five years (significant increase in numbers per year), and several of them are already making their mark. Of course, if we perform the same classification from the footnote above, there’s a lot of projecting, and it’s obviously possible that several of the current PG stars will flame out into disappointments like Marbury, etc. or suffer injuries like Williams and Livingston. But, barring those things, you have to like the chances that this last half-decade will produce a significantly higher number of point guard stars than the previous decade.*

*I’d be remiss to not mention one of the main reasons for this American Point Guard Renaissance: the tighter handcheck rules on the perimeter, enacted before the 2004-05 season, that allow 1s to run the offense more freely. This was as responsible for Nash’s ascension as being in D’Antoni’s offense. Neither Nash nor D’Antoni would have succeeded to that extent in the Knicks-Heat ’90s .

Chris Paul and Deron Williams clearly lead the class; they’re the reason the cutoff is 2005. Both Paul and Williams stepped in and became the stars of rebuilding franchises, reached the playoffs by their third season, and won playoff series early in their careers. In the process, each has played the position the way a point guard purist should: They get the team involved, have helped other teammates make All-Star teams, and their career shot attempts to assists ratio* is well below 2:1. It isn’t a stretch to say that Paul and Williams now are both better than Chauncey Billups or Tony Parker have ever been, and that both are on pace to crack that elite “Historically Significant” category by the time their careers are done.**

*I wanted to use this stat as the be-all and end-all of the point guard v. combo guard debate; a “true” point guard didn’t exceed 2:1 on a routine basis. In my choice of three test cases—Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, and John Stockton—I perhaps wasn’t as scrupulous as I should have been. The three are well below 2:1. Stockton barely reached 1:1. Of course, these are also the three best point guards of the last 30 years, and possibly all time. Other great PGs like Gary Payton, Bob Cousy, and Nate Archibald exceeded that 2:1 ratio more often than not. All that said, I still think it’s better to have a ratio under 2:1, and the fact that Paul and Williams have been such successful scorers while staying well under it (both round to 1.45:1) speaks to how good they are as point guards.

**To me, Paul has a higher ceiling as an offensive player, but the instability in New Orleans and his recent injury do concern me a little. I think Williams will end up with a career like Payton’s—not in the convo for best ever, but there in that next tier as both a primary offensive option and an excellent defender (of course, not as excellent as The Glove).

But the American Point Guard Renaissance doesn’t stop there; in fact, the beauty of the APGR is its depth. After Paul and Williams, we still have Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook, and Brandon Jennings.* Rose might be the quickest guard the league has seen in a decade, and I can’t think of who the “since” would be. Was Iverson that quick in his prime? Isiah? Rondo is the closest thing this next generation will get to Kidd—a triple-double machine who doesn’t run the fast break as well as Kidd but who shoots better. Westbrook already has his team in the playoffs and, as the secondary option to Kevin Durant, looks an awful lot like Tony Parker already (who makes more elbow jump shots than these guys?). And Jennings is some fine-tuning away from being in the class with Rose as a natural scorer who still makes his teammates better.

*And Rodney Stuckey and Aaron Brooks and George Hill and Ty Lawson and Darren Collison.

Is the American Point Guard Renaissance set in stone? Of course not. Ten years ago, I could have waxed poetic about the position’s future, citing Kidd, Marbury, Francis, Davis, and the ongoing prime of Payton. I would never have guessed that Nash would have outshone all of them. But in 2010, we’re on the precipice of a new point guard era in the NBA, one with no fewer than a half-dozen guys poised to become stars in the league—if they aren’t already.

And as a former point guard myself, that remains the biggest reason to watch the NBA into the next decade. The league has, and always will have, its bevy of Jordan impersonators on the perimeter. But the guys who make basketball beautiful, who allow the sport to connect to the American audience in a transcendently aesthetic manner in the same way soccer does for the rest of the world, who turn great players into great teams, are the point guards.

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5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by John S on April 27, 2010 at 3:46 PM

    You do acknowledge this, but isn’t it a little early to be pointing to guys like John Wall, Ty Lawson, Darren Collison, Russell Westrbrook, and even Brandon Jennings as evidence of a “Renaissance”? Are you really confident in saying these guys will have better careers than Billups and Parker? I mean, people were REALLY optimistic about Stephon Marbury’s future 10 or 11 years ago, but now he’s best known as a guy you trade to get better. With the exception of Paul (or, as you even acknowledge, as an uncertain future ahead of him) and Williams, I’m not really sure any of the PGs you mention will live up to the hype. Maybe we should hold off on terms like “Renaissance” for a while.

    And seeing Jason Williams and Shaun Livingston listed as “busts” is eminently depressing, if accurate.

    Reply

  2. Posted by james Schneider on April 27, 2010 at 5:35 PM

    1. Rajon Rondo is not a better shooter than Jason Kidd. 2. Why are you so anti-Baron Davis?

    Reply

  3. […] may have caught my footnoted allusion to George Hill in the American Point Guard Renaissance; if you didn’t, I really like George Hill. I saw the Spurs play in Philly this year (a terrible […]

    Reply

  4. […] YOU FEEL KIND OF STUPID THESE DAYS TO NOT MENTION RAJON RONDO EXTENSIVELY IN YOUR “AMERICAN POINT GUARD RENAISSANCE” PIECE? Although I may not have mentioned him “extensively,” I did write, “Rondo is the […]

    Reply

  5. […] surprise — and it will not dramatically alter the sport’s entertainment value in the way the American Point Guard Renaissance can for basketball. But the next time your team tries a too-long field goal or sends a short punt into the end zone […]

    Reply

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