Assist totals in the NBA are up, but opinion is divided over whether today's point guards are better passers and playmakers than their talented forebears
October 14, 1979

He has one advantage. He has the ball. Everything begins with him.
General Manager, Philadelphia 76ers

If the game were baseball, of course, he would be the pitcher. If it were football, he would be the quarterback. But it is basketball, and the man to whom Williams is referring is the point guard.

The point guard? Aren't we talking about the playmaker, the direct descendant of Bob Cousy, Dick McGuire and Slater Martin, those wizards of the fast break, the give-and-go and the back door? Aren't we speaking of the man who is responsible for, as Cousy used to say, "passing out the sugar"—setting up the shot for the right man at the right time by putting the ball in his teammate's hands just where and when he can best use it?

Well, yes and no. There were play-makers, but that was way back before one-on-one, the 20-foot jumper and the mystical pleasures of slam-dunkery replaced the boring—ugh!—pass.

Now, as all basketball fans know, the pass is back—and it's anything but boring. As if by Magic it came flying in on the wings of a Bird. That's Earvin (Magic) Johnson and Larry Bird, who as collegians did for the pass what Dr. J and David T did for the dunk.

"People have told me that Magic and Bird are going to have a tremendous impact on the game," says Williams. "That they will have an infectious effect all the way down to the playgrounds for the next 10 years. Personally, I hope so. I hope we are entering a passing era. The good pass is about the most exciting play in basketball."

True enough, but let's spread the credit for all the excitement around. While the college boys have been the best P.R. men for the pass, of late a bunch of guys have come to the fore in the NBA who, while perhaps less publicized than Magic and Bird, are their equals as deft passers. Because the game has become so specialized since Cousy's day, giving us the high-post center, the low-post center, power forwards, small forwards, big guards, little guards, shot-blockers, intimidators, rebounding specialists, steal specialists, defensive specialists, and let's all welcome—trumpets, please—the three-point field-goal specialist, these fancy passers needed a job description, too. Hence the term "point (or, sometimes, 'lead') guard."

The point guard does many of the things that the classic playmaker did, especially pass, but so do many of today's centers—Alvan Adams and Bill Walton, to cite a couple—and forwards John Johnson and Rick Barry, to name just two. But the point guard is more than a mere passer. For one thing, he seems to fit a certain profile: he's generally the smallest player on the starting five, quick and peppery (although this season we will see a point guard who is 6'8", quick and peppery, named Magic). He most certainly must be a superb passer, but to keep today's increasingly complex and effective defenses honest, he must be able to score as well, even though he probably has a man 6'5" or taller who is a 50% shooter (and, therefore, known as the "shooting guard") sharing the backcourt with him. He must, as Williams says, "have a minimal ego without a lot of hangups, keep everyone happy and get everyone involved. If he creates animosity on his team, he fouls everything up."

"He must control the tempo of the game," says Atlanta's Coach Hubie Brown. "When the defense closes one offense down, the good point guard can go to something else and keep the tempo of the game moving."

Good point guards are tough to come up with. "The easiest player to find is the shooting guard," says Bullet General Manager Bob Ferry, "but try to find one who is willing to give it up on the break."

"They're harder to come by than centers, if you want to be honest about it," says Williams.

"Above all," says Washington Coach Dick Motta, "he must be completely unselfish. And that lets most of the players in the NBA out."

The place to find the best point guards is at the top of last season's list of assist leaders. Phil Ford, 6'2", of the Kansas City Kings, the North Carolina star who was the second player selected in the 1978 college draft, takes an outlet pass from Center Sam Lacey and barrels toward midcourt, dribbling the ball behind his back once to shake off his defender. Then he launches a perfect bounce pass to Forward Scott Wedman, breaking to the basket from the wing. Two points. In his first pro season Ford pumped new life into the previously dormant Kings, led them into the playoffs, and was voted the NBA's Rookie of the Year.

Norm Nixon, 6'2", of the Los Angeles Lakers, a little-known plugger at Duquesne despite having smashed all that school's assist records two years ago, brings the ball across the 10-second line and sets up on the point—that is, the top of the free-throw circle—while three teammates run their defenders into Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in hopes of forcing a defensive switch that will leave Abdul-Jabbar matched against a relative midget. The defense doesn't fall for the strategy; four men collapse around the giant center, leaving Nixon with the ball. Swish goes a 20-footer. Nixon's .542 shooting percentage in 1978-79 was the highest among guards, and this season he may have to become the shooter if Johnson takes over the point.

John Lucas, 6'3", of the Golden State Warriors, the multitalented lefty who in 1976 gained the distinction of being the first pure playmaking guard ever chosen No. 1 in the entire draft, dribbles with his eyes on the action developing around the Warriors' basket. Phil Smith, his backcourt partner, moves down low, swings across the baseline and moves off a double screen into the left corner. The instant he's open, the ball is in his hands as the result of perfect anticipation and a lightning-quick pass by Lucas. Just as quickly the ball is emerging from the bottom of the net.

Now here comes Kevin Porter, 6' even, in his seventh season, the old man (29) of the group. He is back in the uniform of the Bullets after two stints in Detroit and part of a season in New Jersey. He is coming up the floor hard, an intense, burning look in his eyes. He executes his trademark stutter dribble and the flashy high-kicking goose step. His defender is thrown off stride, and in a blink Porter is by him, soaring right down the middle of the lane, deftly penetrating the no-little-man's-land around the basket with the ball held high for a layup attempt. The big guys converge on him, with visions dancing in their heads of Commissioner Larry O'Brien's signature tattooed on Porter's face as the basketball caroms off it. But—aha!—Bob Dandridge is momentarily left open, and instead of shooting. Porter dishes the ball to his right. Dandridge is literally presented with an easy layup. Two points.

It is, of course, an assist for Porter, just as it was for Lucas and Ford. Nixon took the shot, but don't make the mistake of thinking that he didn't perform as a good point guard should.

Phoenix Coach John MacLeod doesn't employ a point guard, but instead wants all his players to share the ball and the passing duties equally. "Players who fire from 15 or 20 feet when they have a teammate wide open underneath are obviously selfish," says MacLeod. "But the hungry passer who ignores a wide-open 12-footer because he'd rather have the assist is every bit as selfish."

There are many people in the NBA who are not Kevin Porter fans. Atlanta's Brown flat out calls him "a loser." Porter attracted much attention last season when he piled up 1,099 assists, shattering Tiny Archibald's 1972-73 record of 910, and his average of 13.4 assists per game also surpassed Oscar Robertson's 11.5 in 1965 and was far better than Cousy's best average, 9.5, in 1960.

Ironically, these big numbers led many NBA people to call Porter selfish, because he controlled the ball too much.

"I'd like to see Porter's turnover totals," huffs Philadelphia Assistant Coach Chuck Daly. "He had a 12-turnover game against us."

Porter indeed led NBA guards in turnovers (337), but he more than made up for them with all those assists—each of which, it must be remembered, was worth two points to his team. In fact, Porter was worth more points to the Pistons last season than any other guard in the league was to his team, including the NBA scoring champion, George Gervin of San Antonio, who pumped in 29.6 points a game. Porter's productivity is determined by adding his scoring average (15.4) to the points resulting from his assists (26.8 a game), and then subtracting one point for each turnover—in Porter's case, 4.1 a game. (The Elias Sports Bureau, which keeps NBA statistics, has figured that for every two turnovers, one basket is scored by the opposing team.) The final tally on average points produced: Porter 38.1; Gervin (including his 2.7 assists and 3.6 turnovers a game) 31.4.

Few are ready to accord Porter a place in a pantheon with Cousy, Robertson, Jerry West and Lenny Wilkens. "Let's not even mention Porter and Cousy in the same breath," says Kansas City Coach Cotton Fitzsimmons. But there are reasons other than sheer passing skill for Porter's assist numbers being remarkably better than those of the alltime greats. The most significant is the higher proficiency of today's shooters. "Years ago each team had a few good players and the rest were garbage," says Boston President Red Auerbach. Adds Wilkens, now the coach of the Seattle SuperSonics, "Today a guy who has the ball knows he has four people he can hit with a pass, each of whom has an excellent chance of scoring a basket."

Cousy's 1960 Celtics were the NBA's second-best shooting team that season, with a .417 percentage. Porter's 1978-79 Pistons ranked in the bottom third and still hit .475. Another difference is that until 1970 all defensive fouls resulted in free throws, eliminating the chance for an assist. Today, if an offensive player is fouled when he isn't shooting and if the bonus rule is not in effect, his team takes the ball in from out of bounds, so there is a good chance for an assist. A third factor, and by no means the least important, is the change in scorekeeping.

"In the old days, the pure assist was a pass that led directly to a layup, period," says Morry Moorawnick, who has been the official scorer for the Pistons since they moved to Detroit from Fort Wayne in 1957. "Sometimes the shooter would be allowed one dribble, but the shot had to come immediately. It had to be the pass that made the basket and not the shot."

Among the players who occasionally complained to scorekeepers that they were being shorted in their assist totals was Al Attles, whose job with the Warriors was to feed Wilt Chamberlain for slam dunks and fadeaway jumpers.

"You only have me down for three assists," Attles griped to Moorawnick during one halftime. "Wilt had eight baskets and I passed for all of them."

"That doesn't mean they're assists," said Moorawnick. "For you to get an assist, Wilt must shoot immediately, without movement or fakes."

"Well, at home they're assists," said Attles.

This illustrates some important points. First, what is and what is not an assist varies from scorer to scorer. Second, because the official scorer is the hireling of the home team, he may apply a more generous standard for assists to the local players than to the visitors.

In an effort to keep assist statistics honest, the Elias Bureau recently determined, using statistical analyses, that there should be one assist for about every 1.8 baskets. If Elias receives box scores that don't fit the formula, suspicious glances are cast. Under the rules, an assist is credited to the player who makes the last pass leading directly to a basket, as long as the shooter demonstrates "immediate reaction" to the pass. This holds for lay-ups as well as 50-foot heaves. Thus, Nixon, say, would pick up an assist for: a) hitting Jamaal Wilkes for a fast-break layup; b) tossing a high lob to Abdul-Jab-bar, who head-fakes twice before pivoting for a sky hook; and c) handing the ball to Don Ford, who somehow manages to sink a full-court buzzer beater.

But what of today's assist champions? Is a Porter or a Ford as good as a Cousy or a Robertson? "The only skill which has improved in recent years is shooting," says Cousy. "All other areas of fundamental basketball have regressed. Until I first saw Magic Johnson and Bird, I had not seen a true playmaker in a long time. Ernie DiGregorio was probably the last."

West, who is such a perfectionist that he ran out of patience coaching the less-than-perfect Lakers and gave up the job after three seasons, thinks the game has changed so much that now it belongs as much to the outstanding ball handler as to the seven-footer. "The traps and zone presses all over the floor have made for a looser game," he says. "When your team is being zone-pressed, you're going to give the ball to a player who's able to run by people. You hope he'll pick out someone to pass to. I don't particularly like that. I'd prefer that all players be able to handle and pass the ball."

As for the differences in the statistics between old and new passers, Moorawnick, whose strict standards probably cost Porter some assists in Detroit last season, believes Cousy or Robertson today would easily attain average-assists figures in middle to high double figures.

There are some other important facts regarding assists and assist leaders that must be noted here: 1) since Cousy last led the league in 1960, only one assist champion, West in 1972, played on an NBA championship team; 2) in none of the last four seasons has the NBA champion had a single player among the top 10 assist leaders; 3) in the NBA's 33 years, only five championship teams led the league in assists. Seattle last season ranked 17th. Washington in 1978 ranked 16th. Portland in 1977 ranked ninth.

What does all this mean? "It means that you're not going to have a winning team with one person controlling the ball," says Portland Coach Jack Ramsay. "In my opinion, the ball has to be moved all the time, which makes it incumbent on every player to be a good passer."

Few would disagree, but Motta pushed hard to bring Porter back to the Bullets. "Kevin is the premier fast-break guard in the league," he says, "the finest play-maker. He can bring the ball up quickly, and he knows how to get it to the right people. He's a creator. I don't want to get too bubbly, but it's hard not to get excited when I think of him running our offense."

PHOTO ILLUSTRATION THREE PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONSFord (left) was just a blur to Kansas City's opponents, while L.A.'s Nixon was double trouble with his passes and deft shooting touch. Lucas (page 45) kept Golden State's offense streaking. PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONKevin Porter, traded by Detroit back to Washington, broke the assist record with 1,099 last season, 189 more than Tiny Archibald had in '72-'73.

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