Originally posted on Fox Sports Arizona  |  Last updated 3/5/12
It was as if the fraternal order of point guards had declared war on the rest of the league. The names involved weren't surprising, but the numbers and conspiratorial overtone in having so much positional firepower unleashed on one NBA Sunday was as a reminder of what we've been witnessing for a while. First up in the roll call was Boston Celtic Rajon Rondo, who took another star turn on national television, serving up a heavy triple-double to Linsanity and the New York Knicks. Deron Williams of the New Jersey Nets stepped in to provide the shock and awe, slapping 57 points on the Charlotte Bobcats. Chicago's Derrick Rose, who rocketed to league MVP status a year ago, dropped 35 points on the stingy Philadelphia 76ers. As the night bounced along, L.A. Clipper Chris Paul -- considered by many to be the most-accomplished, contemporary point guard of 'em all -- gave 28 points and 10 assists to the Houston Rockets. Aging sorcerer Steve Nash chipped in with 19 points for the Phoenix Suns in a triumph over the Sacrameneto Kings, while frequently-overlooked Ty Lawson was a whisker away from posting a triple-double in leading the Denver Nuggets past the San Antonio Spurs. Awash in sneaker-wearing quarterbacks, we definitely seem to be in the midst of a point guard revolution. And while we've seen impressive gatherings of playmakers in past decades, the volume of those demonstrating the potential to become top tier is hard to ignore. To the aforementioned lineup we can add veterans San Antonio's Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook of Oklahoma City and Houston's Kyle Lowry of Houston. The whippersnapper list includes Washington's John Wall, Ricky Rubio of Minnesota and Cleveland's Kyrie Irving. But before examining reasons why we now have a legion of statistically-overhauled lead guards, please note that NBA glory continues to seem more associated with wings such as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Dwyane Wade. It also should be noted that over the past 21 seasons, championship-level teams have relied on the dominance of low-post players andor talent constellations massaged to greatness by Coach Phil Jackson within the contours of his triangle offense. Working with Michael Jordan in Chicago before playing referee to Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal in Los Angeles, Jackson's system -- which sidesteps what has become the usual point guard job description -- has yielded championships in 10 of those 21 years. This adds a dose of moderation to the notion -- recently proffered by NBA.com, among others -- that point guards rule the league. Parker did achieve Finals MVP honors during one of the San Antonio Spurs' four title runs, but -- in those days -- all things flowed from a low-block reservoir named Tim Duncan. Chauncey Billups also reached Finals MVP status as a Detroit Piston, but was working as just one member in an equal-opportunity ensemble. So, with those positional qualifiers on the table, we still must admit the NBA often seems to up to its ears in outstanding point guards. Explanations for their rise to prominence may be abundant, but a dribble-oriented style of offensive play seems to hold the most weight. Quite simply, the prevailing nature of basketball offense has an evolutionary arc that's much like what we've seen in football ... creating opportunities for talented athletes to work in space. Spread offenses in football have been mimicked in basketball, leading to dribble-drive interpretations of the old motion offense at all levels. With the 3-point line providing a spatial threat for defenses hoping to discourage dribble penetration, the art of winning one-on-one battles in order to either score or draw help defenders away from teammates prepared to catch a pass and shoot (the old drive and kick) flourished. But coaches realized traditional NBA on-ball screens created even more trouble for defenses without sacrificing the drive-and-kick options. "The high pick is such a big part of the NBA," said one scout employed by a Western Conference team. "It forces the defense to make decisions on how to deal with it, and offenses already are prepared to exploit whatever the defense does. But we're seeing more college teams use screen and roll than ever before, too ... and that puts an even greater emphasis on point-guard play because those tactics require better ballhandling and decision-making and point guards, generally, are the best at both." The need for wise point guard play also has been created by myriad gimmick defenses -- not hamstrung by a three-second rule preventing NBA defenders from clogging the lane -- that require even more quarterbacking chops from elite athletes during their short stays in college. Another explanation for the rise in point-guard importance is the diminished population of elite low-post prospects. The issue has two categories. The first can be tracked to Boston Celtics star Kevin Garnett, a near-7-foot athletic marvel whose ability to wreak havoc all over the floor has inspired scores of lean, lanky kids to adopt a similar approach. Since KG jumped from high school to the NBA Draft in 1995, his ability to impact a game in various ways -- often on the perimeter -- has been noticed by upcoming players ... and those attempting to steer them toward the professional ranks. "Being able to do multiple things on the floor is appealing to a lot of young players," the scout said, "and this versatility just adds to a prospect's value." The second category that explains the decrease in low-post numbers is tactical. "It's a lot easier for defenses to prevent the ball from getting to a really good post player than it is to control a really good ballhandling guard," the scout said. Without getting into double-team strategies and the attempted sophistication of rotations, just note that trapping an elite ballhandler working in the middle of the court creates bigger headaches for defenses. "That and the NBA rules to help keep the lane open make having a guy who's great getting into the lane even more important," the scout said. "It's harder to take them out of a game than it is to stop an inside player. (Orlando's) Dwight Howard is a great player and usually puts up tremendous numbers, but there are things you can do to prevent him from getting the ball. But if you devote too many defensive resources to stopping Dwight, his teammates just might wreck you from the outside." So where are all of these hotshot point guards coming from? Well ... everywhere. But mostly from the United States. Only four of point guards currently starting in the NBA arrived from outside whatever qualifies as the American system. With the sport's rise in popularity, expect that number to increase. While domestic development has shifted from unstructured pick-up games to heavy emphasis on the club scene (still unstructured, in many cases), the American style continues to be highlighted by the ability to go from point A to point B through use of the dribble. European and South American programs have achieved considerable international success by adopting an offensive flow that includes frequent use of the entry pass to initiate the offense and more movement off the ball. Young American players -- with clubAAU systems now holding more sway each year over passingcutting styles often preferred by high school coaches -- have been making their bones in NBA-oriented schemes since their early teens. And the expanding range of clubAAU basketball is providing a deeper pool of point guards attempting to dribble their way to fame and fortune. "There's just so many great athletes who learned the game by breaking down defenders off the dribble," the scout said. "But some of this is cyclical. By that I mean we had Irving and a couple of other pretty decent guys in the last lottery. Although it's still early in the process, I don't see a point guard on the horizon who will go early in this summer's draft. I try not to spend too much time on the high school kids yet, but with the one-and-done rule, you have to be aware of who's coming up ... and I don't see anything spectacular yet. "But nobody expected Westbrook to become what he is now, and even though Rose went first overall, how many people thought he'd be MVP within three years?" And then there's Jeremy Lin. "Yeah, that's an amazing story," the scout said of former Harvard player who went from NBA fringe player to New York Knick hero in about a week. "But, as I said earlier, that was a perfect storm. Confidence is such a crucial element in the NBA, and had Carmelo (Anthony) and Amar'e (Stoudemire) been on the floor with him during the first few games, he would've deferred to them. As it was, they needed someone to make plays. He had the skills to do it, the Knicks had nothing more to lose and it became the perfect storm." Now that he's another of its marked point guards, Lin must deal with the nightly challenge of playing a position loaded with gifted performers. "It's a trend that'll stay around for a while," the scout said.
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