5 Rules for Being a Successful NBA Point Guard in Today's Game
The NBA is currently in the midst of the golden age of point guards. Players like Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Rajon Rondo, Deron Williams, Steve Nash, Ty Lawson and more all play basketball at a ridiculously high level and have two major things in common: They all line up at point guard and will thrive during the 2012-13 season.
So, how do they achieve this high level of success?
There are a certain number of rules that a point guard must follow to thrive in today's game. While the methods of following these rules might vary, each player has to understand all five of them in order to be elite.
Other rules out there certainly exist, so don't be shy. Leave any personal rules that you might have in the comment section below.
Offense Can Be Created in Multiple Ways
Not every fan realizes it, but point guards can create offensive flow in a variety of ways. As long as the scoreboard operators are being forced to increase the point totals at a rather quick rate, it doesn't matter how the point guard goes about his creation.
There's a reason that three different All-Star-caliber point guards are prominently displayed in the main image of this slide. All three of them understand this principle, but go about their work in vastly different ways.
Russell Westbrook doesn't play like a traditional point guard, or "pure" point guard as that type of player has come to be known. Whereas 1-guards have historically generated offense through their passing, Westbrook has done so with his scoring.
He gets criticized for his tendency to call his own number and pull up for a jumper early in the shot clock, but his dynamic offensive game does help to create offense. It's hard to imagine the Oklahoma City Thunder making it to the NBA Finals without him at the helm.
The threat of Westbrook's shot serves the same function that other point guards' passing does. Defenders are forced to respect his ability to put the ball in the bucket, which lowers the amount of attention that can be paid to players like Kevin Durant and James Harden.
Rajon Rondo takes the exact opposite approach.
Because of his scoring limitations and brilliant court vision, Rondo creates offense with his passing skills and ability to squeeze the rock into the tiny passing lanes that only he can find. He increases his teammates' scoring outputs simply by putting them in the best position possible to score.
Westbrook and Rondo might be polar opposites in terms of style, but they're both insanely effective at creating offense.
As for the third point guard in the picture, well, we'll get to him later.
Maintain Control of the Ball
If you're going to be responsible for controlling the offense and taking possession of the ball, then you can't afford to lose the ball and turn it over to the opposition.
Of all the rules explained in this article, this is easily the most cut and dried. Point guards simply can't afford to hand the opposition extra chances to score while detracting from their own team's scoring potential.
On average, an NBA team allows right around a point per possession, which means that each team scores just about one point per possession as well. Essentially that means that each turnover is worth approximately two points, provided that both teams are hovering around the league average in point production and prevention.
During the 2011-12 campaign, Jeremy Lin took some heat for his inability to maintain control of the rock. He would drive into the paint, get caught among the trees of the other team and cough it up or kick it out to the wrong man.
The breakout player was able to make up for his control deficiency by scoring and assisting at a historic level, but that's not a luxury that most players have. It's also a pace that Lin wasn't able to maintain.
Lin's turnovers are slightly excusable because of how often he had the ball in his hands. Players with high usage rates are naturally going to commit more turnovers, but each and every mistake still hurts.
So, what's the point of the Lin example?
At the end of the day, we're going to try to find excuses whenever a player turns it over. Sometimes those excuses are more valid than others.
However, we have to make excuses for a reason. Turnovers are universally perceived as negatives, and it is a point guard's job to reduce the amount of times they hand the ball over on any given night.
Understand the Pick-and-Roll Defensive Strategies
The pick-and-roll has become one of the most effective and prevalent offensive plays of the modern era. If a duo like Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love hopes to challenge John Stockton and Karl Malone for PnR supremacy, the point guard will have to possess a nearly perfect understanding of the defensive strategies against the league's most popular play.
There are essentially five ways to defend the pick-and-roll, although the first one just involves preventing it from ever happening by forcing the point guard away from the screening big man. So really, we're dealing with four legitimate—and common—defensive strategies.
The first is for the defender to fight over, under or around the screen, leaving the defense in its original man-to-man matchups. This is also the least popular strategy because it really doesn't work too often.
An intelligent point guard can drive to make the defense play if the defender takes too long to get past the pick. A sharpshooter can make his man pay if he chooses to go under the screen, leaving the point guard open for an easy three-point shot without much of a contest.
Shows make up the next two types, as a defense can employ either a hard or a soft show.
A hard show involves the defensive big man coming around the screen quickly, essentially faking a trap to force the point guard into a hasty decision. The immediate presence of a large body in his driving lane forces the point guard to slow his momentum, either grinding to a halt or retreating backwards as the big man catches up to the player he started out guarding.
If a point guard recognizes that a hard show is coming, he can drive into the big man quickly and create a blocking foul, or at the very worst cause him to stay out in no-man's land, far away from the basket and his original man. The point guard can also slip through the two defenders and create a mini-fastbreak opportunity.
Soft shows are slightly different, and this is the standard pick-and-roll defense employed by NBA teams.
Essentially, the big man involved in the play starts to play de facto zone defense, waiting to react to the point guard's initial move as the man guarding the point guard fights past the screen. The onus is on the floor general to make the first move, and he must read the defense properly or risk a quick turnover.
However, a quick-thinking point guard can exploit this method of defending. It's possible to both drive or kick the ball to a teammate and exploit the defense. Whether it's the rolling screener or an open teammate on the wing that ends up with the ball, the entire defense has to shift quickly because it's committed two players to stopping the point guard for a moment.
Next is the trap, which is an even more aggressive defense than the hard show. Instead of recovering to the original responsibility, as is the case in a hard-show defensive strategy, the non-screened defender sticks with the point guard and forms a double-team with the man who was screened.
Although this move can create some frantic action from a point guard, an intelligent and disciplined player can break this strategy down in the same way he can exploit a soft show. Two defenders are now assigned to one player, which means that someone has to be left open. It's just all about finding that guy quickly.
The final defensive strategy against a pick-and-roll is hedging, which isn't used too often. And when it is used, it doesn't work too well except in very small doses. The non-screened player helps out then immediately retreats to his original man.
Of course, this leaves an easy decision for the point guard, who must keep his dribble active and remain patient. Once the second defender is retreating and the screened player is recovering, that's when he should explode to the basket or take a jumper.
No matter what defense is thrown at a pick-and-roll point guard, he can take advantage of it. The key is knowing what to expect and how to react. NBA teams aren't going to stick with the same strategy for prolonged periods of time, especially when that strategy fails to promote success.
Given the prevalence of the pick-and-roll game in the current version of The Association, point guards must be familiar with all of these defensive strategies and how to render them ineffective.
Don't Crash the Boards Excessively
When Chris Paul pulls down a rebound and gets the fast break started, it's a positive for the Los Angeles Clippers. However, note that this rule contains the word "excessively."
While it's fine for CP3 to crash the boards on defense, it would be detrimental to the L.A. effort if he were to hustle into the paint in a valiant attempt to grab an offensive rebound. By doing so, he'd leave the back of the Clippers defense quite susceptible to a fast break.
There's a negative aspect to overaggressive attempts on the defensive end as well. The point guard should be the one leading a fast break, but it's harder to find him on an outlet pass if he's amongst the trees, fighting to gain control of a shot that's clanged off the iron.
If he's content to hustle to long rebounds and wait for the big men to pull down the short ones before kicking it out to him, he'll be more effective in transition.
I'm not saying that the point guard should ignore rebounding entirely. Just proceed with caution when crashing the boards.
Additionally, 1-guards' rebounds tend to be overvalued. Sometimes, if a team is unselfish enough and not worried about padding stats with easy rebounds, the other four players will back off an easy board and allow the point guard to corral the loose ball. That way the outlet pass is unnecessary, and the risk of a turnover in transition is drastically reduced.
If you watch enough Oklahoma City Thunder games, you'll notice that Russell Westbrook tends to elevate for quite a few rebounds that the taller players on the court could easily grab. However, when Westbrook can do the work himself, it's just not as beneficial if someone like Serge Ibaka has to get his paws on the rock and then kick it to his point guard.
There will always be some glamour associated with rebounding totals by point guards because of the potential for triple-doubles and jaw-dropping, glass-cleaning stats. However, it's essential that the fans and media are the only ones getting caught up in the hype.
Point guards must recognize that over-crashing the boards is detrimental to the team's efforts.
Embody the "Floor General" Moniker
Whenever Derrick Rose dribbles the ball up the court, he takes note of the situation and plans his course of action accordingly. Credit for this observation must go to B/R's own Kelly Scalleta, who discussed this with me in detail via email a while back.
If there's an open lane to the basket, Rose is going to take it and finish at the rim in style. However, he can also recognize developments that enable him to increase the Chicago Bulls' chances at points. Even though D-Rose isn't the greatest long-range shooter, he won't hesitate to pull up for a three-point attempt if the Bulls are set up for an offensive rebound.
Suppose someone like Joakim Noah is set up in position to box out his man and reel in any missed shot. Rose knows that there's a good chance at two points even if he misses, so he fires away from the outside to allow himself a chance at a triple. Best case, he gets three points. Worst case, he gets two.
If he doesn't recognize the opportunity, Rose might continue to drive and knock one point off his earning potential.
This is playing to the strengths of a team and truly embodying the "floor general" moniker that point guards have earned.
Tony Parker is another great example of a point guard who understands how to direct his team, acting as a general does with his army. The speedy French point guard runs Gregg Popovich's offensive system to perfection because he recognizes the strengths of his team.
Using ball screens and swinging the ball around to the corners for the shortest possible three-pointers, Parker maximizes his team's chances of success. He knows that he's a good midrange shooter, so he curls off picks to give himself that opportunity.
Just like Rose, Parker understands how to play to the strengths of both his game and his team. Honestly, though, all elite point guards excel in this area.
Of the five rules elaborated upon in this article, this is the most important. No matter how talented an individual may be, he won't be as successful if he doesn't become that floor general.
It doesn't matter whether he scores or passes to do so, as long as he's playing to his strengths.
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