What Happened to the NBA's Great Shooting Guards?

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What Happened to the NBA's Great Shooting Guards?
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NEW ORLEANS — It is a cherished midseason exercise, a sacred indulgence of fans and commentators alike: the annual selection of NBA All-Stars. Pick your starters, name your reserves and let the barstool debates begin.

Jon Barry was having some trouble this year, though. The ESPN analyst kept scouring rosters, East and West, in search of worthy candidates who stood 65” to 67, guys who could shoot and drive and pass with the best of them.

You know, shooting guards.

“We were thinking about it the other day, trying to figure out 2-guards,” Barry said recently. “And there’s no 2-guards.”

The 2-guard still technically exists, of course. They just don’t make them like they used to. Sunday night’s All-Star Game illustrated the point.

There were 14 All-Stars who stood 68 or taller—forwards and centers, scorers and bruisers. There were six point guards, all skilled scoring machines. But with Kobe Bryant injured, there were just four All-Stars who self-identify as shooting guards: James Harden, Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson and DeMar DeRozan.

Of that foursome, only Harden, the Houston Rockets’ bearded wonder, was a clear-cut choice. Wade and Johnson are in decline. DeRozan earned his ticket by default.

“Really, Harden’s the only true 2-guard that’s in the West,” Barry said. “And in the East, it’s just like, nobody.”

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It wasn’t always this way. Shooting guard was once the NBA’s glamour job, a position stocked with high-flyers, deadeye shooters and daring slashers. They dominated the scoring charts.

In 1997-98, eight of the NBA’s top 25 scorers were shooting guards: Michael Jordan, Mitch Richmond, Allen Iverson, Michael Finley, Steve Smith, Isaiah Rider, Ray Allen and Reggie Miller. Five of those players are either in the Hall of Fame or will be.

At the All-Star break this season, just four shooting guards ranked in the top 25: Harden, DeRozan, Arron Afflalo and Monta Ellis. Kevin Martin fell just outside the top 25, ranking 27th in the league in points per game. There isn’t a surefire Hall of Famer in the bunch.

In 1997-98, Jordan was the NBA’s No. 1 scorer, with Richmond fifth and Iverson ninth. This season, Harden is tied for seventh.

In 1997-98, eight shooting guards averaged at least 19.5 points a game. This season, there are two.

Two of the all-time greats, Bryant and Wade, are still around, but they might not reach an elite level again.

The league is now dominated by powerful small forwards (Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George), skilled big men (Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge) and potent point guards (Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving).

The shooting guard is an afterthought, a role player standing in the corner, waiting for a kickout. The Jordans and Richmonds have given way to the Thabo Sefoloshas and Gerald Hendersons.

Is the elite shooting guard going extinct? Is this the end of the position as we know it? And what the heck happened? Ask 10 experts and you’ll get eight different theories. The other two will shrug.

“Boy, I wish I could (explain it),” said TNT’s Steve Kerr.

“I don’t know,” San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said flatly.

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The search for answers starts with the NBA’s rule changes over the last 15 years.

In 2001, the NBA abolished its illegal defense rules, which forced defenders to stay with their man virtually at all times. That rule made it easy to run “clear-outs,” with eight players standing on one side of the court, and one star scorer—usually, a quick-footed shooting guard—isolating against his defender and taking him off the dribble.

Eliminating illegal defense meant eliminating isolation chances, which meant eliminating a specialty of the old-school shooting guard.

“I think there’s some validity to that,” said Kerr.

Today’s game is now driven heavily by the pick-and-roll, which usually involves a highly skilled point guard who can shoot and drive, and a big man who can hit a mid-range jumper or finish at the rim after setting a screen. It is no coincidence that Harden, currently the highest-scoring off-guard in the league, is also a great pick-and-roll player.

“The majority of the game is pick-and-roll or transition now,” said Sam Presti, the general manager of the Oklahoma City Thunder. “That’s generally happening with a point guard and a big. Those are possessions that are getting cut out (from the shooting guard’s opportunities). ... A lot of those guys were isolation guys.”

In the past, coaches designed entire sets to cater to their shooting guard, with teams setting multiple screens to free them up for a shot. That’s how Miller got open in Indiana, how Allen got his shots off in Seattle and how Richard Hamilton became a star in Detroit. Those sets are rare now.

“The truth is, there are a lot less off-ball screens, a lot less ‘pindowns’ for shots,” said Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle. “Now the pindowns are for a catch and a penetration and a kickout. Because teams got too good at defending pindowns. That’s why the game has evolved to where it is now.”

The proliferation of the three-point shot has also had an effect. The three-pointer used to be rare and mostly the domain of shooting guards. Now every player shoots them, often.

“There’s still 2-guards that are good one-on-one players and off-ball screens,” Carlisle said, “but what we have is a game that’s healthier to watch, because it now requires movement by all five players on the floor. Because of that, it’s a more fun and energetic and unpredictable game to watch.”

So, to review: The rules evolved, the game evolved, coaches evolved and players evolved. Somehow, this evolution skipped the 66 guys, which brings us to our final theory: that colleges have failed to develop them.

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Several executives and scouts pointed to the proliferation of two-point guard backcourts in the college game. The players who stand between 65 and 67 are often pushed into the frontcourt, especially in smaller programs. No one is training them to be NBA shooting guards.

“I don’t think there’s any question that a fundamental like shooting is not being developed and taught quite like maybe it used to be,” said Fran Fraschilla, an ESPN analyst and former college coach. “There are a lot of guys playing shooting guard at the college level who can’t make a jump shot.”

Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said the NCAA’s 35-second shot clock stunts player development, because there are at least 30 fewer possessions per game. Kerr agreed.

One Eastern Conference executive asserted that the shooting guards of the 1990s were “the last generation of skilled scorers” at the position—that is to say, players who grew up in structured basketball programs and spent at least two or three years in college.

“College basketball is about the incomplete player,” Fraschilla said.

He pointed to DeRozan, who entered the NBA in 2009 as a hyperathletic but low-skilled player and has only recently blossomed into a reliable shooter.

“His skill level is starting to catch up to his athleticism,” Fraschilla said.

Portland’s Wesley Matthews is another prime example, a player who went undrafted out of Marquette in 2009, but has since become one of the NBA’s better three-point shooters.

Some of this may be simple labeling. The NBA game is evolving, and positions are more fluid. In a prior era, the 63 Curry might have been a shooting guard. Buford said the 69 Durant is really a shooting guard, given his skill set.

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But where is the next Michael Jordan, the next Ray Allen, the next Kobe Bryant, the next Vince Carter? Maybe, as Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said, “it’s cyclical.”

Or maybe we’re just waiting for the next generation to blossom. Optimists will point to Indiana’s Lance Stephenson, Washington’s Bradley Beal, Orlando’s Victor Oladipo and Golden State’s Klay Thompson as potential standard-bearers.

But can any of them carry on the legacy?

“No,” Barry said. “Not when you’re talking Kobe, Michael, Reggie. I don’t see any of that. I don’t see any of those guys. I really don’t.”

The game has changed. There are more scoring point guards now than ever. Today’s big men shoot more three-pointers than yesterday’s off-guards. All of this is true. Yet none of it explains why there is a sudden dearth of players measuring between 65 and 67 who can average 20 points a game.

Barry shook his head. “I can’t explain it.”

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