Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it's off to the postseason we go. And leading the charge: an army of diminutive, driving point guards who have wrested control of the game from the big men
This is an article from the April 18, 2011 issue
Darren Collison used to do more than dream of becoming taller. He was a tiny teenage point guard growing up (or trying to) in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., in the lingering shadow cast by the Lakers' former 6'9" playmaker, Magic Johnson, who had dominated the 1980s as the biggest star to ever run an NBA team. It was not so long ago that size meant everything at every position, which left Collison trying anything to reach his goal of a pro career. "I would even do regular stretches to see if I got taller," he says. "I'd heard if you stretch before you go to bed, you get taller." Quick frown. "But it's not true."
Now 23, Collison can afford to laugh. At a relatively diminutive 6 feet and 160 pounds, he has not only emerged as a starting point guard in the NBA but has also helped lead the Pacers into the playoffs for the first time in five seasons. Little did he know a decade ago that the league he aspired to join would shrink down to his level.
But it has: The Lilliputians have taken over. The 7-foot centers who used to control the paint have been replaced in importance by the smallest of all players, the point guards. They initiate each set as they've always done, but more than ever they're finishing what they've started by shooting off the dribble or driving unmolested to the hole, thanks to rule changes that have afforded them clear paths to the basket in much the same way that the NFL has enabled its wide receivers to jet freely downfield. Who would have guessed that such a vertically oriented sport would be dominated by the players who thrive closest to the floor? "It is, most definitely," says Collison when asked if the NBA is being hijacked by undersized players. "There's too many good point guards in this league not to say that."
The two exceptions to this trend are the Heat, whose point guard, Mike Bibby, plays off the ball while LeBron James does his best Magic impression, and the two-time defending champion Lakers, whose highly skilled front line of 7-footers Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, along with 6'10" sixth man Lamar Odom, will be swarmed by endless sorties from the perimeter starting this weekend, when the playoffs begin. Los Angeles's most dangerous opponent could be the Celtics' 6'1" Rajon Rondo, whose traditional blend of penetration and playmaking has been so formidable that 6'6" Kobe Bryant has taken responsibility for trying to stop him. Before L.A. and Boston can reengage in the NBA Finals for the third time in four years, however, the Lakers must win the West by either avoiding or dispatching Chris Paul of the Hornets, Jason Kidd of the Mavericks, Russell Westbrook of the Thunder and Tony Parker of the Spurs—All-Star point guards all.
Which point guard is best equipped for a postseason run? "It depends on the type you're looking for," says Celtics coach Doc Rivers, a former All-Star point guard himself. "If you're looking for a pure point, then it's Rondo. If you want a power point guard it's Derrick Rose. Then there's... ." And off he goes, referring to Chauncey Billups of the Knicks, Andre Miller of the Blazers, Kirk Hinrich of the Hawks and Gilbert Arenas, the onetime all-NBA talent who serves as Jameer Nelson's backup in Orlando. Not even postseason rookies like Mike Conley of the Grizzlies and Jrue Holiday of the 76ers can be ignored in this everyman era of undersized basketball. "Seven or eight years ago everybody was talking about how there were no point guards, but now if you don't have a good one you're in trouble," says Sixers president Rod Thorn. "When Holiday is playing well, we play well."
That's the new bottom-line truth: Instead of playing through the post, the majority of teams now launch their offense from the perimeter. The 6'3", 190-pound Rose is the new face of this imposing generation. With his consistency from the three-point line this season, defenders must now close out on his jump shots, which in turn opens up a frightening array of options. Rose can either power in and pull up, or slash between defenders like a skier slaloming at Kitzb√ºhel, bursting through the lane and either finishing at the basket or creating open shots for forwards Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng. Rose's humble point guard instincts make him especially dangerous because he is so clearly interested in propelling the team more than building up his own stat line. His dazzling skills have transformed Chicago and made him a threat as dangerous (almost) as the young Michael Jordan a quarter century ago.
A point guard who scores as much as Rose would have been vilified for selfishness two decades ago, but not in the new, quarterback-driven NBA. "These guys are so much more talented then I ever was," says Thunder assistant Maurice Cheeks, who made four All-Star teams as a pure pass-first point guard for Philadelphia in the 1980s. "Back when I was doing it, you would pass the ball and then move out of the way. These guys today can pass and score and rebound. They can do a lot of things."
The value placed on do-it-all floor leaders has been evident in recent drafts. If, as expected, 6'2" Duke freshman Kyrie Irving is the No. 1 pick in June, he will be the third point guard—after Rose and 6'4" John Wall of the Wizards—to go first in the past four years. (In the 31 drafts before the Bulls took Rose, in 2008, only once was the first pick shorter than 6'6", Allen Iverson in 1996.) The market for little men was never more bullish than in '09, when nine of the first 21 picks were point guards. The ninth was Collison, who was taken by the Hornets. He became a hot commodity during his rookie season by averaging 12.4 points and 5.7 assists while starting 37 games in place of an injured Paul. The Pacers, who had bypassed Collison in the draft, picked him up in a four-team trade and declared him their point guard for the present and the future. At week's end he was averaging 13.3 points and 5.1 assists while helping the Pacers, the No. 8 seed in the top-heavy East, back to the playoffs after a four-year absence. And he's done it without a growth spurt, something he couldn't have imagined as a kid splayed out across his bedroom floor in suburban L.A.
For the first several decades of its 65 years, the NBA was controlled by big men—George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Celtics coach Red Auerbach, architect of the most successful dynasty in pro sports, used to say he never envisioned a "cornerman" being able to rule the world's tallest league from the perimeter, yet that trend was launched in the 1980s when Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas and Jordan hoarded 16 championships over a span of two decades. Their dominance was offset by gigantic champions Moses Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal. But once again the balance of power has shifted to the perimeter, and it shows no signs of moving back inside. "The big man has gone," says Boston's 39-year-old Shaq, who is approaching the end of his career. "There will be no one ever in the history of the game to do what me and Tim Duncan did, to lead teams to four championships [each] and have a [nine-year] span where either Tim or myself was at the Finals. It will never be done again."
"The rules demand that it's a perimeter league now," says San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, who happens to be a most ironic visionary for the new style. After all it was Popovich's Spurs who launched their championship era in 1999 with the Twin Towers of Duncan and David Robinson, and they spent most of the new millennium trying to deal with the behemoth Shaq. But now the team's extended run is culminating with Duncan in the role of complementary big man to Parker, swingman Manu Ginóbili and other nimble scorers hovering outside.
The first event that conspired to help speed trump size came in 1979--80, when the NBA instituted the three-point shot. "It was put in as a desperation maneuver for teams that were trying to come back in the fourth quarter," says Kings coach Paul Westphal. But over the years the deepest shot has become more of a weapon. This season teams are shooting a record number of threes per game: 18.0 at week's end, or 4.3 more than they were 10 years ago. There is a good reason that more than one in every five field goals is attempted from behind the arc: Made at a rate of 35.9% through Sunday, the three-pointer is as productive as a two-point shot converted at 53.9%.
That was followed by two more significant changes in the last decade, with scoring and TV ratings in decline. In 2004--05, the NBA issued new rules to curtail hand checking on the perimeter, three years after it enabled zone principles on defense. The latter provision permitted the best scorers to be double-teamed before they received the ball, which forced point guards to become scorers in order to keep defenses honest. The prohibition on hand checking and the punishment of flagrant fouls has provided small guards with safe driving lanes from the three-point line all the way to the basket—though it's all too late for the 6-foot Iverson, who in his day was punished relentlessly for challenging big men in the paint. Along the way the big 6'5" point guards who were so prevalent in the 1980s and '90s have been replaced by the likes of Paul, Rondo, Nelson, Collison and Conley, all having led their teams into the playoffs, all 6'1" or tinier.
Conley's breakthrough underlines the trend from big to small. The No. 4 pick in the 2007 draft, he joined Memphis amid persistent doubts that his stock had been inflated by his lengthy partnership with former Ohio State and high school teammate Greg Oden, who was hyped as the center of his generation. Four years later Oden—like Yao Ming, another potentially transcendent giant—has seen his career ruined by injuries, while Conley has improved to earn a five-year, $40 million extension from the Grizzlies. "I've had to deal with that [criticism] that I was riding Greg's coattails to the NBA," says Conley, who has put the issue behind him.
Since the rule changes, scoring has risen by 12.2 points per game and TV ratings have ballooned as much as 45% in no small part because the courts have been opened up and the driving lanes filled by slashers like Conley. Yet the cheers are not unanimous. "The game is becoming very simple," says 37-year-old Kidd, a 10-time All-Star. "If you have a quick point guard who knows how to play, you've got the advantage because if there's any bump it's a foul on the defense. So you definitely give the 6'3"-or-under guy the advantage."
When 35-year-old Ray Allen was growing up, point guards typically served an inglorious setup role. "Now the best position is point guard because of all of the guys in the league who can play and can score," says the Celtics' shooting guard, the NBA's alltime leader from the three-point line. "Most of the small point guards couldn't play 10 years ago, because we would have posted them up with bigger guards and they would have been out of the game. But now it's so open that you can get to the free throw line easier, there's less contact. It gives a smaller guy better capability."
These days the NBA operates less like chess and more like a video game. "It used to be your smarts would get you through, but now it's strictly talent and athleticism—if you've got that, you can play in this league," says Miller, 34. "In college you're forced to think, you're taught how to play basketball. Get to the NBA, and you can just come in and run with your head cut off, and that's what makes the league. When I came in, you couldn't just run and jump all over the place. You were going to get hit eventually, or somebody was going to tell you to slow down."
Collison began the year playing for Indiana coach Jim O'Brien, who ran a passing-game offense that discouraged Collison from dribbling. Then O'Brien was fired in January and replaced by interim coach Frank Vogel, who put the ball in Collison's hands in pick-and-roll situations and empowered him to seize command. "Everything initiates with the point guard now," says Vogel. "I want him being a coach on the floor. Every day I say, 'Run your team. Who's not involved? Are you being aggressive enough in pick-and-rolls?' " The results have been impressive: The Pacers were 17--27 under O'Brien. Since Vogel took over and turned Collison loose, they were 20--17 at week's end. "It's easier," says Collison of the NBA pace in comparison to the more controlled college game. "Some people may disagree, but I think it's easier."
This liberating era creates an interesting question: How in the name of Bruce Bowen does anyone stop an opposing point guard? There is no simple answer, but the best defense on a slasher like Rose is a long-armed defender who will play off him and dare him to shoot jumpers. (That's how Bryant has attempted to curtail Rondo.) Collison is going to have his hands full—or wish he could have use of them under the old rules—in the opening round against the top-seeded Bulls while trying to prevent Rose from bullying past him. Defense has been Collison's biggest weakness this season. "He's been O.K., he's been nothing spectacular," says Bird, now the Pacers' president, of Collison's overall body of work, as if trying to humble him for the job ahead.
Based on their 1--3 record against Chicago, Collison's Pacers don't figure to seriously impede Rose's path. But Rose's journey becomes far more difficult as Chicago moves deeper into the postseason. The newfound strength of the little man is that everything runs through him. But what happens when the most exceptional opponents load up their defensive assets to overwhelm him? The Bulls' postseason fortunes may well rely on the success of their perimeter shooting, as opponents do all they can to jam Rose's lanes to the basket.
The great irony of these playoffs is that the team that everyone is chasing is one of the few that hasn't embraced small ball. The Lakers continue to operate in an old-fashioned, two-guard front within the triangle offense. Point guard Derek Fisher handles the ball less than Bryant, yet his role remains indispensable as a late-game shotmaker. And if Fisher does drill one of his signature, series-shifting threes, it will be fitting: a little man starring in the game's biggest moment.
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LITTLE MEN BY THE NUMBERS
Point guards (the Bulls' Derrick Rose and the Thunder's Russell Westbrook) who are in the top five in usage percentage, which measures how many of a team's possessions feature a certain player.
Seasons since 1977--78 (as far back as the stat can be calculated) in which two point guards ranked in the top five.
Percentage of starting point guards (10 of 16) in the postseason who are 6'2" or shorter.
MVP awards won by a player 6'3" or shorter since 2001 if, as expected, Rose wins this year's trophy.
MVP awards won by a player 6'3" or shorter between the trophy's inception in 1956 and 2000: by Bob Cousy in '57.
LOOKING AHEAD ...
The championship race has never had more title-worthy teams. Here are the questions they'll be answering over the next two months:
1. Who will be the Lakers' main challenger in the West?
Pay no attention to the worst losing streak—six games, through April Fools' Day—of Tim Duncan's 14-year career. The Spurs have earned the easiest draw in the West and will carry home court advantage into the conference finals against Los Angeles, which hasn't won a series against a higher seed since 2004. While San Antonio's defense is no longer intimidating, Tony Parker and Manu Ginóbili are as lethal as ever, and they can count on a relatively fresh Duncan, who averaged a career-low 28.3 minutes this season.
2. Which higher seed is most vulnerable to an upset?
The Mavericks have the firepower, experience and—thanks to center Tyson Chandler—D to win the championship. But they haven't advanced past the second round in the last four years, and that discouraging trend creates hope among the underdogs. Nuggets coach George Karl voiced a widely held sentiment last week when he said he'd rather face Dallas than the Thunder in the opening round.
3. Can Derrick Rose run the table?
The last point guard to win a championship without deep playoff experience was Lakers rookie Magic Johnson in 1980, and he leaned on 11-year veteran Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to reach the Finals. The suspicion among the Bulls' rivals is that Chicago won't be able to make big shots over the tighter postseason defenses. It'll be up to Rose, Luol Deng and Kyle Korver to disprove that theory.
4. Will the Heat peak in the playoffs?
Miami went 4--7 against the Spurs, Bulls, Celtics and Lakers, and LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh still need to improve their chemistry in the half-court. Despite all the ups and downs this season, the Heat still ranked No. 2 in shooting (48.1% at week's end) and field goal defense (43.4%), and an underdog's role in the playoffs may relieve James & Co. of the burden of expectations and make them especially dangerous. They are a real threat to reach the Finals.
5. Who will win the title?
The threepeat-seeking Lakers have never entered the postseason looking more formidable: In '09 they were coming off their blowout Finals' Game 6 loss to the Celtics, and one year ago they were vulnerable because of Kobe Bryant's lingering knee problems. Now, they are healthy and the second unit is especially deep and versatile with Lamar Odom, Shannon Brown and Matt Barnes. No one can compete with the size and skill of their front line, and no finisher is more ruthless than Bryant (especially as he seeks a sixth title, to equal Michael Jordan's haul). This most entertaining year will conclude with the Lakers beating Boston to win their 17th title, at long last equaling the record held by the Celtics.