Tuesday December 11th, 2007

The modern NBA point guard flows from one of two distinct prototypes. The Bob Cousy model is small and cerebral, a creature of quickness and savvy, darting around and through the dangerous big men who can do him harm. The Oscar Robertson model is oversized and forceful, dominant in body as well as mind, at home both on the perimeter and in the paint. This is classic oversimplification, of course, and does not speak to those branches of the evolutionary trail that are dead ends, such as the Magic Johnson model -- 6' 9" transition-oriented quarterbacks having proved to be sui generis.

But the best contemporary representatives of the BC and OR models fit their molds pretty well. They are, respectively, Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns and Jason Kidd of the New Jersey Nets. "As long as you allow for some variance within the models," says Nash, "[the theory] has a lot of truth to it." And as they age gracefully -- Nash is 33, Kidd is 34 -- two worthy descendants are ready to slip into their gold-standard sneakers: Chris Paul of the New Orleans Hornets (Cousy-Nash) and Deron Williams of the Utah Jazz (Robertson-Kidd). Paul and Williams are umbilically connected, having been drafted back-to-back in 2005, and endlessly compared, the progress of one weighed against the progress of the other. Through Sunday, Williams was averaging 21.2 points and 8.9 assists for the 13-8 Jazz, which made it to the Western finals last year, while Paul was at 21.0 points, 9.8 assists and a league-high 2.89 steals for the 14-7 Hornets, who are the bigger surprise this season.

Williams and Paul are good friends who frequently exchange text messages and late-night calls -- "We talk a lot about point guard play," says Paul -- but also inveterate competitors whose rivalry is fueled by bad memories. Paul remembers that he, the bubbly Wake Forest star, was supposed to go ahead of Williams in the draft, while Williams, who took a backseat at Illinois to Dee Brown, recalls that Utah fans booed his selection at No. 3 and that Paul went on to beat him out for Rookie of the Year. Their rivalry is not nasty. But that doesn't mean it isn't personal.

So which is the point guard of the future? "They both are," says Kidd.

"There's so much good about both of them," says Nash, "that it's impossible to pick."

It should be noted, incidentally, that the BC-OR classifications do not account for one active point guard who, unlike any of these four, has actually won a championship -- three of them, in fact. But the quickness of the San Antonio Spurs' Tony Parker, and the brilliance of his teammate Tim Duncan, through whom the Spurs' offense sometimes goes, puts Parker, as Paul sees it, in a different category. "You just can't learn to get in the lane as quick as Tony does and put up all those weird shots," says Paul. "I love watching Tony, but it's tough to try to be him."

Not that emulating Paul or Williams is any easier. In the case of Williams, he is a playground-style guard tasked with running the trains-on-time system of Jerry Sloan, the NBA's most fundamental and entrenched coach. Williams also plays in the shadow of Jazz immortal John Stockton, who orchestrated that system for 19 seasons. Paul, meanwhile, has been charged with reinvigorating a franchise troubled by low attendance, poor performance (the Hornets haven't won a playoff series since 2002 and have never gotten beyond the conference semis) and the looming possibility that the team will flee the Crescent City. On a recent day the face of the franchise was at the Hornets' training facility in suburban Westwego by 8 a.m. Paul did his daily weight workout, filmed a PSA for the city of New Orleans, did a magazine interview, lifted some more, did a spot for NBA TV about the 2008 All-Star Game (in New Orleans), then went to practice.

But both players were to this manner born, point guards by desire, inclination, personality (both have utter confidence in their decision-making abilities) and, in the case of the 6-foot, 175-pound Paul, body type. "I've always been vertically challenged," he says with a smile. "I never grew at all until my junior year of high school. If you call this growing."

Williams, 23, was the biggest kid on his suburban Dallas middle school team, but he still played point. "I never thought of myself as anything but a passer," says Williams, now 6' 3" and 210 pounds. "The guys I looked up to were Magic and Jason. They could score, but they weren't shooters."

Paul, 22, played youth basketball in Winston-Salem, N.C., for his demanding father, Charles, who wouldn't allow him to shoot unless he went inside and got a rebound. He watched tapes of Kidd, Magic and Isiah Thomas. "I loved how feisty Isiah was at that size," Paul says of the 6' 1" Thomas. In his two years at Wake Forest, Paul concentrated on analyzing Nash from the tapes that his coach, the late Skip Prosser, would give him.

They lead in different ways. Williams, inked to the max (he wears a NO GUTS tat on his left triceps and a NO GLORY marking on his right), is all about coolness. He seldom shows anger or joy, and he commands with an I'm-in-control-here demeanor that suggests Kidd and, in a way, Stockton, though the intensity was more palpable on Stockton's strictly-biz face. "Deron's in his third year, and he plays like he's in his eighth," says teammate Carlos Boozer, the recipient of much of Williams's offensive largesse. "It's going to be scary what he'll be doing when he is in his eighth."

Williams pooh-poohs the notion that he feels, or ever felt, pressure to run the offense in the precise way that Stockton did for two decades. Before his rookie season, though, he journeyed to Spokane, where Stockton now lives in blessed anonymity, and worked with the pick-and-roll master. Williams got so much out of it that he made the trip again the following summer. "What John Stockton was really great at was preparation," says Williams. "He never seemed surprised by anything, and I wanted to be like that." One of Stockton's shooting drills has been particularly helpful. From a small area in front of the basket Williams is fed the ball and launches it immediately, sometimes with his back to the basket, sometimes with the opposite hand, going through the smorgasbord of spontaneous shots a point guard has to hurriedly throw up when he's in the lane.

Actually, the chance for any potential guard-coach conflict in the post-Stockton era was overrated. For one thing Sloan might be old-school, but he's always been open-minded about adapting his offense. He called all the set plays from the bench during Stockton's tenure because that's the way Stockton wanted it -- "All John cared about was getting the play," says Sloan, "then making sure it was run like it was on paper" -- but the coach has given Williams much of that responsibility. "I still look over sometimes to see what he wants," says Williams, "but if he doesn't look back, I know I'm on my own." Also, Williams, while more free-form than Stockton, is a fundamentally sound player. He doesn't throw goofy passes, doesn't yo-yo dribble just for the hell of it, doesn't eschew the obvious play for the spectacular.

By contrast Paul as a leader wears the ebb and flow of the game on his expressive countenance, bouncing around like a rubber ball, jabbering and gesticulating, a mini Magic. "On this team there is no doubt that Chris is the guy," says teammate Peja Stojakovic. "We look to him on every play." Hornets coach Byron Scott remembers Paul asking him for the team's video playbook on his first day of rookie camp. "He had it memorized, everybody's spot on every play, by the end of the week," says Scott.

It has always been like that. "Real early the game just seemed to make sense to me," says Paul. "I could see stuff on video that other guys would forget and I'd remember. But there are basic concepts, too, understanding that most plays, no matter how they start out, are going to end the same way -- with three out[side] and two in and with a ball handler handling. I get some of my steals, for example, because I'll jump out at the end of the play when I know my man, a ball handler, is going to get it back." This sounds like the kind of A student (as Paul was) who got all three of his questions correct during a September appearance on the NPR quiz show Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!

Still, Paul is quarterbacking a team that wants to play up-tempo and one that does not have the precise execution of the Jazz. In that respect, then, Paul is like Nash, a student of the game who nevertheless does highly unconventional things. One Western Conference assistant coach goes so far as to call Paul "somewhat of a loose cannon," and for that reason favors Williams.

In fact it's their delicious departures from the models that make these guys more interesting. Williams, for example, has turned himself into a precision shooter (52.8% from the field and 48.3% from three-point range at week's end), more Nash than Kidd in that respect. And though he is cast in the Robertson-Kidd model, Williams gets only 3.0 rebounds per game, far fewer than Mr. Triple Double (the Big O averaged 7.5 over his 14-year career); the astounding Kidd, who was leading the Nets with 8.7 per game; and, as a matter of fact, Paul, who was averaging 4.0. Then again, Williams plays with great rebounders such as Boozer, Andrei Kirilenko and reserve Paul Millsap. "I just get out of the way when I see them coming," he says.

So is there a consensus as to who is better? "I'd take either one and be real happy," says Indiana Pacers president of basketball operations Larry Bird. "They both do one thing that every great point guard has to do -- they get wherever they want to on the floor."

"They both make something out of nothing," says Detroit Pistons coach Flip Saunders. "That's the sign of a great point guard."

"You approach them the same way," says Pistons point guard Chauncey Billups, "with the idea that you have to trap them. You can't let either one get going or you're dead. And neither one is real easy to trap."

The Spurs' Parker does stick one foot out on a limb: "Deron, like Chris, is a great passer, and he's a better shooter than Chris," he says. "So Deron is a little harder to cover because you can't leave him open."

Indeed, one can collect several not-for-attribution votes for Williams, based on his superior shooting ability and size (the latter giving him an advantage on defense) and the 17-game playoff experience he got last season. A coach who observed both of them during the U.S. national team trials in Las Vegas over the last two summers -- Paul participated in '06, Williams in '07 -- says that Williams seems closer to stardom. "Chris was kind of like everybody's little brother in camp," says the coach. "Deron was willing to learn, particularly from Jason, but he never acted like he didn't belong."

On the other hand The Wages of Wins, a stats-based website, devoted a long recent post to comparing the two, concluding that Paul is the superior player. Paul's assist-to-turnover ratio was 3.28 through Sunday, better than Williams's (2.37), Kidd's (2.60) and Nash's (3.27); that doesn't sound very loose-cannonish. And anyone who watched CP3 (so nicknamed for his uniform number) shred the Memphis Grizzlies with 43 points (including the game-winning basket with 1.8 seconds left), nine assists and four steals in a 118-116 overtime win last Friday would be hard-pressed to name a better point guard performance all season. (Of course, the next night Williams nearly matched Paul's point total, pouring in 41 in a 125-117 loss to the Dallas Mavericks.)

Whatever Paul and Williams might feel privately about who's better, you won't get either of them on the record. "I'm not going there," says Williams. And Paul waved the question away with a smile. "The good thing is," he says, "we have a lot of years to find out." And maybe to create their own models.

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