Changing of the Guard
Assessing the state of the point guard in the association.
by Pardeep Toor
More than inevitable, change is constant. The game is said to be changing as rumblings of a transition from the traditional NBA line up – big, big, combo, small, small – to a more fluid, identity-less one, persist but have long been exaggerated. Evidence of change is anecdotal not statistical — the 2007 Golden State Warriors, Atlanta Hawks of the last three years and this year’s Oklahoma City Thunder being examples of a new brand of high-energy small-ball that diminishes dogma in favor of revolution.
Looking closer at the Thunder’s success this year in the absence of a traditional lineup and one discovers the root to be the man running the point: Russell Westbrook.
The point guard position is at the helm of change in the League as the multitude of styles and overlapping eras has culminated in diversity destroying the categorization and purist pass-first image that is usually attributed with the position.
“It’s tough,” Westbrook said. “I think the point guard is the one of the toughest positions in the League and it always will be.”
Westbrook, drafted fourth overall in the 2008 Draft as a combo guard by the Thunder, has blossomed this year, averaging 16.5 points and 7.8 assists a game as the primary ball handler for a playoff-bound team. He has seven or more assists in each of his last fourteen games, has recorded two triple-doubles, has seven double-doubles in the last 10 games and 16 on the year overall. Westbrook scored in double-digits in all but one game in February, averaging a season-high 19.3 points a game for the month.
“Last year was tough me. Losing a lot of games, I felt like I wasn’t getting better but coach kept telling me that I was getting better each and every game,” Westbrook said. “The game is a lot slower this year than last year. I feel a lot more comfortable.”
Slower for him, but much faster for the guard in front of him as Westbrook spends as much time slashing and finishing in the paint as he does dishing to other teammates. Rare is a defender that can stay in front of him this year.
Contrast that with the aging games of Jason Kidd, Chauncey Billups and Steve Nash – three of the four starting point guards for the Western Conference All-Star team – having age-defying impacts for their respective teams this year. Once left for dead by their former teams, the age-less ones are leading the Mavericks, Nuggets and Suns to three of the top five spots in the conference.
“They are on winning teams and they are doing what they used to do,” said Westbrook, about Kidd, Billups and Nash. “Probably not at a great speed, but they are still doing what they can do and are doing great things for their teams.”
Despite the emphasis on speed at the point guard position, Nash, Billups and Kidd refuse to relieve their stranglehold on being the games’ best at the position. Much time has been spent crowning Deron Williams and Chris Paul as the games’ next but their staggering numbers are balanced with the salary cap purgatory created and lack of imagination implemented by their general managers. Before Williams and Paul plateau during their primes to usurp the top of the positional rankings, the next generation is already arriving in the form of Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo and Westbrook.
Westbrook is molding a young athletic team in the image of his desires on the court.
Rondo is playing a step faster than his geriatric teammates who have taken as many steps back as he has taken forward throughout the course of this season.
Rose is transitioning from a team that has refused to reach its potential in the last five years to potentially hitting it big in the upcoming free agent market, possibly giving him a running mate that will finally allow the city to achieve sustained success in the post-Jordan era.
“I think as Rose and Rondo get better, it makes us more the elite group,” said Westbrook, not ranking himself amongst other point guards in the League. “Honestly, I don’t really try to compare myself to them or make sure they are better than I am. So I don’t really know (where I rank).”
The point guard position is evolving from controlled to chaotic, the perimeter to the paint, below the rim to above it — yet the learnt ones like Kidd can still post a 19/16/17 night, grounding the position in experience rather than acrobatics. The transcendent skills of the next generation are in perfect balance with the stability of the generation past that is still producing at a championship level.
The accomplishments of Kidd, Nash and Billups this year are quite remarkable considering heightened athleticism at their position. Far from dwindling, they are maintaining their status as the best point guards this year despite the flashier and younger legs on their heels and in most cases blowing by them off the first dribble. The resolve of the older point guards highlights the importance of intelligence in the game as they have been able to hold off the next generation of guards more by mind than body.
Of course, everything changes again next year with the potential addition of John Wall who may have the ability to already trump the Westbrook/Rondo/Rose group to begin an era of his own. Until then, is Westbrook’s combo-game the future of the point guard position?
“It might be, it depends on how long guys stay in the League,” Westbrook said.
The old constants rule the new variables, again, for now.