How the NBA Turned into a Point Guard's League

Kelly Scaletta@@KellyScalettaFeatured ColumnistDecember 4, 2014

NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 2:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder shoots the ball against the New Orleans Pelicans during the game on December 2, 2014 at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)
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The NBA has evolved over the years, and its latest evolutionary jump has made the point guard the most essential player on the court and the position as stocked as it has ever been. How that happened is due to a combination of rule changes and adaptations to those rule changes.

Too many times, discussions about today’s point guards stem from an antiquated notion of the game. Arguments about how many championships “scoring point guards” have won, for example, fail because they don’t account for the way the game has changed.

In a very real sense, it’s actual evolution at work here. But in order to understand how, we first have to have a quick science lesson.

Punctuated Equilibrium and the NBA

In evolution, there is a theory called “Punctuated Equilibrium” that was coined by Stephen J. Gould and Niles Eldredge. Without going into a lot of scientific jargon, the theory suggests that species remain stagnant until some extreme situation causes a dramatic change to the environment. 

When something like an earthquake, volcano or meteor comes along and suddenly changes the environment, things that used to help with survival suddenly no longer work.

Simultaneously, mutations that previously offered no advantages have major benefits in the new ecology. Then, natural selection starts working, killing off what can’t survive and picking out what does. Selected mutations lead to “Cladeogenesis,” which means the species is split.

For the purposes of this comparison, that’s all that needs to be understood (but this video above does a neat little job of covering more details). The NBA is a “punk-eek” league. There are three facets that have an analogous counterpart: the cataclysmic change, natural selection and Cladeogenesis.

 

Cataclysmic Changes

Over the last decade, the NBA has experienced a seismic shift, and that has precipitated a series of rapid evolution among point guards. It is therefore important to know just how big of a change the NBA experienced 11 years ago.

 

Rule Changes

There were a series of rule changes implemented from 1994 through 2004 that affected defense. The complete list is available at NBA.com, but for the purpose of streamlining things, these changes can be summed up in three categories:

  1. The abolition of hand-checking
  2. The permitting of zone defenses
  3. The introduction of three seconds

The changes were effected in part because the league was coming off its lowest-scoring, non-strike-shortened season since the introduction of the shot clock.

One seemingly innocuous phrase had a massive impact. Per the previous link, “New rules were introduced to curtail hand-checking, clarify blocking fouls and call defensive three seconds to open up the game.”

Those last five words were like a meteor hitting the earth. The rules changes were a cataclysmic event.

DENVER - DECEMBER 31:  Allen Iverson #3 of the Philadelphia 76ers drives to the basket during a game against the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center on December 31, 2004 in Denver, Colorado.  The Nuggets won 97-92.  NOTE TO USER:  User expressly acknowledges a
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

In fact, I would argue no rule changes have ever had as big an impact on the game without actually changing the court itself. And it’s even on the level of those changes—things like widening the lanes and adding the three-point line.

The effect was immediate, with scoring going up 3.8 points per game in one year. Apart from 1999-00, which was self-calibrating from the preceding strike-shortened season, the increase in 2004-05 marked the biggest scoring jump in the three-point era.

And the purpose of the rule was being fulfilled as well. According to Basketball-Refernece.com, nine of the 11 top scorers in the league were perimeter players. Per Greg Morrison of NBA Swish, Tony Parker led the league in points in the paint.

The court was literally “opening up,” making room for perimeter players to drive the lanes and score.

Defensive Adjustments to Rule Changes

That, though, was only part of the impact. As perimeter players rose to prominence, so did the means to stop them. This movement was championed by defensive guru Tom Thibodeau. Zach Lowe of Grantland argued in April of 2013:

Thibodeau didn't invent this system, and he's loath to take any public credit for it, but coaches, scouts, and executives all over the league agree he was the first coach to stretch the limits of the NBA's newish defensive three-second rule and flood the strong side with hybrid man/zone defenses.

Other coaches have copied that style, and smart offenses over the last two seasons — and especially this season — have had to adapt. The evolution will have long-lasting consequences on multiple fronts — on the league's entertainment value, the importance of smart coaching, and the sorts of players that GMs seek out in the draft and via free agency.

By flooding the strong side (the side that the ball is on) and utilizing a 2.9-second philosophy (maximizing the time a big can remain the in the paint), Thibodeau’s scheme worked wonders with the Boston Celtics.

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 12:  Assistant coach  Tom Thibodeau of the Boston Celtics yells from the sideline against the Los Angeles Lakers in Game Four of the 2008 NBA Finals on June 12, 2008 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. The Celtics won 97-9
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

In the 2007-08 season, while Thibodeau was the an assistant under Doc Rivers, the Celtics defense was the best in the NBA. In a second-round series against the Cleveland Cavaliers, they held the scoring champion, LeBron James, to 26.7 points on 35.5 percent shooting. In the Finals, they held the second-leading scorer, Kobe Bryant, to 25.7 points on 40.5 percent.

Other teams saw the way to slow down the elite perimeter players and adjusted accordingly, copying Thibodeau’s schemes with varying degrees of success. Scoring sagged back down as defenses adapted to the new strengths of perimeter players, as demonstrated in the chart below:

Stretching the Court

Most recently, the mantra is all about “stretching the court,” but more accurately, it’s the defense that is being stretched. This is done by utilizing the three-point line. Forcing opponents to protect the entire court hinders their ability to overload the strong side.

In addition, while it’s been a less advertised effect of the rule changes, three-point shooting is easier now than it was. Without the hand check allowed, opponents can’t crowd the ball-handler on the line.

Based on data from Basketball-Reference, prior to the rule changes (excluding the time from 1993-94 to 1996-97 when the line was shortened), the league averaged 33.0 percent from deep. Since then, that’s risen to 35.7 percent.

Also, the league hasn’t just been shooting more accurately. It has been shooting a lot more often:

Natural Selection

New strengths and abilities were needed to survive in this new NBA environment. The traditional “pure” point guard was no longer the ideal for many teams.

So the point guard’s role has changed. He now needs three primary attributes:

  1. He needs to be able to find his teammate and feed him the ball when he’s stopped.
  2. He needs to be able to score when his teammates are covered.
  3. He needs the intelligence and vision to know when to do which.

Players accomplished the same things in different ways. Some are drivers and some are shooters, for example. But the ability to “take what the defense gives you” became the essential quality of the point guard, whether it’s scoring or passing.

The combination of abilities is becoming more and more important. In the 69-year history of the league, there have been 167 occasions where a player who qualified for the scoring title averaged 20 points and six assists in the same season.

Jim Urquhart/Associated Press

Prior to the rule changes, that happened an average of 2.1 times per season. Since then, it’s transpired an average of 4.0 times per season. Most of the players who have achieved that recently are known as point guards, e.g. Derrick Rose, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook and Kyle Lowry, to name a few.

Some, though, are guys who technically play other positions but are functionally point guards, such as LeBron James or James Harden. By that, I mean they are the ones who actually run the offense. In other words, a rose by any other name will smell as sweet.

That the frequency of such events has nearly doubled since the implementation of the new rules emphasizes just how much the role of the point guard has changed.

Cladeogenesis

Cladeogenesis is the point that mutations split into two species, which scientifically means that they can no longer produce offspring together. In other words, they stop being same thing. The different types of point guards have reached a similar level of distinction.

Seth Partnow of NylonCalculus.com recently examined all the different styles of point guard play. He examines them based on things like how often they shoot versus pass, where they shoot from and whether they play on or off the ball.

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

He then breaks them down into different categories and gives examples of each. Click the link above to get more details (it’s very much worth the read).

  • The Game Manager (Jose Calderon)
  • The Undersized Two Guard (Patty Mills, Aaron Brooks)
  • Scoring (Isaiah Thomas)
  • The Slasher (Reggie Jackson, Jeremy Lin)
  • The Drive and Kick (Ricky Rubio, Rajon Rondo)
  • The Jack of All Trades (Mike Conley)

I would add “the non-point guard point guard” to his list, such as the aforementioned James and Harden.

Partnow then offers a pair of warnings:

Of course, these are just a few examples of the typologies. Using sliding scales allows for a bit more refinement than simply describing a player as shoot first — there are gradations. Both Kyrie Irving and Steph Curry are “shoot first” players, but Irving to a much larger degree. The degree to which LeBron James being back in Cleveland alters that tendency is a mystery to be solved over the course of the coming season.

This also illustrates a caveat of going too far down the rabbit hole of this analysis: there is only one season’s worth of data on many of these metrics, and it is impossible to determine how a point guard’s “type” changes over time or across various situations until there are more seasons of data. The degree of change most players who were traded last season experienced suggests there is still a fair amount of context at play here.

Putting what Partnow said in evolutionary terms, there are some point guards who are different “breeds” of the same thing, but there are some who are more definitively distinct.

But natural selection is always right. If a style is working, don’t mess with it, even if it’s resulting in the duck-billed platypus of point guards. The fact that it has survived proves it can.

Conclusion

However they play, point guards are now the critical facet of an NBA team. In fact, of the top 10 offenses, all but one have a point guard (actual or de facto) who averages 15 points and six assists:

NBA's Top Offenses and Their Effective Point Gaurds
TeamOffRtgEffective PGPTS/GAST/G
Dallas Mavericks113.4Monta Ellis20.74.8
Toronto Raptors112.4Kyle Lowry20.66.8
Los Angeles Clippers110.0Chris Paul17.99.5
Atlanta Hawks107.5Jeff Teague18.07.2
Portland Trail Blazers107.4Damian Lilard19.76.7
Cleveland Cavaliers107.1LeBron James24.97.4
Golden State Warriors106.7Stephen Curry23.77.6
New Orleans Pelicans106.1Jrue Holiday 15.56.4
Denver Nuggets105.9Ty Lawson16.610.3
Memphis Grizzlies105.8Mike Conley16.26.3
Basketball-Reference.com

The lone exception is the Mavericks. Monta Ellis leads the team in dimes, but Devin Harris (4.6), Jameer Nelson (4.4) and J.J. Barea (3.9) all contribute significantly.

In the current NBA, without a quarterback who can both score and pass, there is virtually no chance of having an elite offense.  And without an elite offense, there is virtually no chance of winning a title. This truly is a point guard’s league, even if the notion of a pure point guard is extinct.

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