League's shift in power to small guards continues through to draft
You know this is an inverted time for basketball when a 6-foot-4 point guard is expected to go No. 1 in the NBA draft, held June 23 in Newark, N.J. If the Cavs indeed select Duke freshman Kyrie Irving, it will be the third time in four years that the top pick was spent on a point guard of Irving's height or smaller.
Over the previous 61 years, the No. 1 pick had been spent on point guards four times, and only two (6-foot Allen Iverson and 6-3 John Lucas) were small guards (the other two being Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson). So this trend is revolutionary, and it goes against the long-standing idea that size matters most in the NBA.
In colleague Sam Amick's latest mock draft, three of the top five picks are little point guards -- and for very good reason. "With the way the league is going," said Mavericks point guard Jason Kidd, "the guard has the ball over 90 percent of the time now."
Look to the championship example of Dallas to understand how the NBA has become a point-guard league. The Mavs won by starting a backcourt of two point guards, with each of them able to exploit the most important trends. Kidd was able to win his first championship at age 38 because he had invested years of practice to become a reliable three-point shooter.
That improvement was a reaction to the rule changes of 2002 that enabled teams to play zone defenses. When 6-4 Kidd arrived in the NBA as a No. 2 pick in 1994 (behind 6-9 scorer Glenn Robinson), man-to-man defense was mandatory and therefore his defender couldn't automatically sag away from Kidd. Now that the rules have changed, Kidd had to command the respect of defenders on the perimeter as a spot-up shooter.
Kidd embodies the need for point guards to be scorers as well as playmakers. When Kidd was in his 20s, the common thinking was that Iverson and other scorers were too obsessed with creating their own shots and therefore couldn't create for others. In those days, point guards were expected to score as an afterthought, when other options had been exhausted.
One of the first coaches to grasp the new reality was former Mavericks coach Don Nelson, who demanded that young Steve Nash become more aggressive as a scorer. At first Nash was reluctant to look for his own shot, but eventually he learned to pioneer the new dynamic while winning a pair of MVP awards in Mike D'Antoni's offense in Phoenix.
Brandon Knight and Kemba Walker -- both scoring point guards -- are among Amick's projected top pick picks, while Jimmer Fredette, the 6-3 BYU shooting guard who led the nation with 28.9 points per game as a senior, is expected to make the transformation to point guard in the NBA. One decade ago, few NBA executives would have given a scorer like Fredette any hope of learning to become a pro quarterback, but now his scoring is viewed as a strength on the verge of his new role. "He's the best shooter in the draft, and he has good vision and a good feel for the game," said a GM who will be picking in the lottery. This GM is among many who believe Fredette can succeed as an NBA point guard.
The other new dynamic that has liberated point guards has been the need for penetration off the dribble. This accounts for the decision by Dallas coach Rick Carlisle to promote Jose Barea -- listed at 6-feet but closer to 5-10 -- into the starting backcourt alongside Kidd for the last three games of the NBA Finals. The Mavs won all three as Barea pierced the Miami defense with dribble-drives to create layups for himself or open shots for teammates, including Kidd.
Barea is benefiting from two changes in the rules, beginning with the ban on hand-checking on the perimeter. "If you're a small point guard you can play in our league now," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "Before those rules, you struggled in our league."
A decade ago a bigger point guard would have gripped a strong hand on Barea's hip and held him back from launching his drives to the basket. On those occasions when he might have broken free, the big defenders protecting the rim would have slammed him hard to the paint in deference to the "no layups" rule that used to be unspoken law throughout the NBA playoffs. Iverson used to be clobbered incessantly when he drove the ball inside, but now Barea is entitled to go wherever he pleases with the understanding that a hard hit may be whistled as a flagrant foul that could result in the ejection of the violent defender. Ask Lakers' forward Ron Artest and center Andrew Bynum, who was tossed after hard fouls against Barea during the Mavs' second-round sweep.
"If you have a quick point guard or a guard who knows how to play, you've got the advantage because there's no hand-checking, and if there's any bumping it's a foul on the defense," said Kidd. "So you're definitely giving the 6-3 or under guy the advantage, and that's just because of the rule changes in the league and the way they're going."
In 2006 Barea was undrafted after four years at Northeastern. Now the NBA teams that don't have a penetrator like him -- including Miami -- will be seeking someone to create off the dribble as he did during the Finals. Imagine the driving lanes that could open up for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade after the defense has been collapsed by a slashing penetrator.
Ricky Rubio, virtually everyone in the NBA believes there will be a lockout, and many believe it will eat into next season. This is not bad news as far as you should be concerned. On the contrary, this is an opportunity for you to work with an NBA-styled trainer to improve your strength, your conditioning and your jump shot. You've been playing year-round for a long time, so use these months to prepare for the new demands of your next job.
Forget all about playing for Barcelona or another club in Europe in case of a lockout. Focus instead -- and intensely -- on the NBA. This is a league with open-court room for all styles of point guards, and you're going to do very well here. But you need to be confident upon arrival, and the best way to earn that confidence is to spend the next several months turning your areas of concern into strengths.
Michael Jordan, you made the best move of your 15-month ownership of the Bobcats -- you hired Rich Cho, who will help define your front-office strategy for years to come. When the new collective bargaining agreement is enacted sometime next season, it is expected to create opportunities for small-market franchises like yours to compete against the richer teams. Cho will help you analyze and exploit the new rules in order to spend your money wisely.
Don't worry about Cho's unexpected firing by the Blazers, because no one has complained about his job performance in Portland. Owner Paul Allen sacked him because they didn't develop a personal connection. Since there is little to complain about Cho's demeanor -- he is quiet, respectful and speaks only when he has something to say -- that move remains much more an indictment of Allen's personality than of Cho's.
Chris Bosh, I foresee no chance of the Heat dealing you, Wade or LeBron -- unless the new CBA creates a hard cap that prevents Miami from holding onto all three of you. But commissioner David Stern has said he doesn't anticipate a new system that sabotages the league's most popular rosters.
For 1 ¾ games of the NBA Finals, you had the best team in the league. Doc Rivers had said your defense was as tough as any team since the 72-win Bulls of Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman. You, James and Wade each had big moments throughout the postseason.
When the Lakers had their troubled moments in the 1980s, coach Pat Riley and GM Jerry West convinced owner Jerry Buss to hold onto James Worthy instead of trading him for Mark Aguirre. That was a smart move then, and I expect Riley to apply the same long-term wisdom to your team. He invested years in developing Erik Spoelstra as coach, as well as in developing a payroll structure that enabled him to pull off the coup of recruiting you and your fellow stars last summer. You were very close to winning the championship in your first year together, so why not work on the finishing touches rather than an overhaul?
Nowitzki became the first non-American to lead an NBA team to the title. This was the last frontier for world basketball, and Nowitzki is its champion.
Tim Duncan (Virgin Islands) and Hakeem Olajuwon (Nigeria) won NBA championships after being raised outside the 50 states, but each was transformed by three or four years at a U.S. college. They had been channeled through the American system before they arrived in the NBA.
Nowitzki's path was entirely different and groundbreaking. He arrived in the NBA as a 7-foot German with an entirely foreign, perimeter-based style of play. After the Mavericks acquired his rights as the No. 9 pick in the 1998 draft, Nowitzki had serious doubts about moving to the NBA as a 20-year-old. He was afraid for good reason: No one in the NBA played the way he did, and no foreigner had ever succeeded in the NBA as a young, highly chosen draft pick. There was no example for him to cite, and no concrete reason to believe he could be the first of his kind.
Think about all of the negative labels that have been ascribed to European players over the years -- that they're too soft, unathletic and uncompetitive to deal with the best American-raised stars. Those stereotypes were reinforced when Nowitzki's Mavericks surrendered a 2-0 lead to Wade's aggressive Miami Heat in the 2006 Finals. Nowitzki spent the next five years working to improve his low-post game and leadership skills with the hope of earning another chance to prove he's worthy.
Now that he has finished what he started, Nowitzki has raised the hopes of every young player in every corner of the planet. They, too, can now aim to become the best player in the world, regardless of where they learn to play basketball. LeBron's blend of skill, size, athleticism and vision make him the most talented player this sport has ever seen, according to many experts, and last week he was beaten by an underdog from the German second division.
The impact of Nowitzki's breakthrough cannot be overstated. He has accomplished something that was considered impossible 20 years ago. At that time no one could imagine a U.S. "Dream Team" losing in the Olympics, and no one could imagine a non-American beating the best of America -- Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and LeBron, one after the other -- to win the NBA championship.
This is one of those triumphs that will bring out the best in everyone. It will inspire millions of potential NBA players on foreign continents, and it will demand responses from Bryant, James and Durant (whose own style of play has been influenced by Nowitzki).
"You're looking at the best basketball team on the planet," coach Rick Carlisle told Dallas fans during the Mavs' victory rally Thursday. "It's also very clear we have in our presence the greatest basketball player on the planet."
Nowitzki cried when he heard those words, but they were no exaggeration. I am certain he is too humble to recognize what he has accomplished. That same humility enabled him to fulfill himself as no other non-American has done before. Others will follow from Europe, Asia and Africa, and they will be inspired by Nowitzki. He will always be the first.
Dirk Nowitzki (1)
Kobe Bryant (5)
Kevin Garnett (1)
Tim Duncan (4)
Shaquille O'Neal (4)
Dwyane Wade (1)
Michael Jordan (6)
Hakeem Olajuwon (2)
Isiah Thomas (2)
Magic Johnson (5)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (5 in this era, 6 overall)
Larry Bird (3)
Moses Malone (1)
Julius Erving (1)