“Shoot First, Pass Later” – A History of Score First Point Guards

In 2015, the Lakers selected D’Angelo Russell as the second overall pick. Standing at 6’5, his official position is point guard. In previous years, he would have been a shooting guard who would have been hailed as a combo player, like James Harden – the player of whom he elicits the most comparisons to. However, like his fellow draftee Emmanuel Mudiay, he is part of the current trend of shoot first players who quarterback the entire offense.

Like the term “tweener,” “combo guard” used to be a pejorative in many basketball circles. It signaled that a player was neither good enough passer to be a point guard nor tall enough/aggressive enough to be a scorer. This label was used to describe players like Dwyane Wade and Monta Ellis, both of whom we now accept as legitimate shooting guards. It was also used, at times derisively, to designate players like Curry, Harden, and Lillard.

However, combo guard is no longer an adequate label for many of these players. We just call them point guards. After all, if one thing is apparent, the top point guards in today’s game are score first players who can make plays for their teammates. Back in April, Washington Post’s Jerry Brewer wrote an excellent long-form column “It’s a Point Guard’s Game,” detailing the evolution of the game and the rule changes that allows for Curry and all his peers to dominate the game. As such, the term “true point guard,” which used to be labeled for pass first guys like Bob Cousy, Isiah Thomas, and Jason Kidd, now has evolved to include scorers like Curry, Westbrook, and Lillard.

Let’s go down the list of some of the top point guards (in no particular order) in today’s game. Stats are updated as of (11/12/2016):

  • Steph Curry – 26.0 ppg, 6.0 apg
  • Russell Westbrook – 30.9 ppg, 9.4 apg
  • Chris Paul – 19.0 ppg, 8.6 apg
  • James Harden – 30.6 ppg, 13.0 apg
  • Damian Lillard – 30.6 ppg, 4.5 apg
  • Kyrie Irving – 24.5 ppg, 4.3 apg
  • John Wall -22.8, 8.3 apg
  • Kemba Walker – 25.9 ppg, 5.6 apg
  • Isaiah Thomas – 26.1 ppg, 6.8 apg
  • Kyle Lowry – 17.5 ppg, 6.9 apg
  • Mike Conley – 19.4 ppg, 6.7 apg

 

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James Harden, the Rockets newest starting point guard.

 

James Harden is a relatively recent addition, since he played shooting guard prior to D’Antoni’s arrival. However, it is important to understand how players, particularly the great ones, aren’t easily pigeonholed into one position. Harden was already the primary playmaker, a combo guard who spent most of his time at the 2. Nevertheless, it can be argued that Harden essentially fulfilled that role as the leading assist man for the Rockets.

However, with only a handful of games played, is the only one on the list with double digit assists. This will likely change as the season progresses, since Chris Paul, John Wall, and Russell Westbrook have averaged double-digit assists before. Yet, the scoring averages, many of whom dropping over 20 ppg, confirm the value that coaches and general managers are placing on scoring guards over set up men. Of course, the best players can do either effectively, but the floor general in today’s space and pace style of play needs to be able to individually break down the defense if they want to survive on a nightly basis.

Of course, every point guard’s team situation is unique. For example, Kyrie Irving and Steph Curry benefit from not having to be the primary passers on their teams, since they have LeBron and Draymond, respectively, to fulfill that role as point forwards. This is remarkably different from Westbrook and Lillard, who are the primary playmakers for their teams. In turn, both sets of guards have a different situation from Chris Paul and Mike Conley – two guys who play with primary scorers like Blake Griffin and Marc Gasol, respectively. This isn’t to say that their style of play would change if each were traded to each other’s teams (i.e., Chris Paul would be an alpha scorer on the Warriors and Curry would be an assist man for the Clippers). However, the success of these players in contingent upon the fact that GMs and coaches are willing to construct a team that suits the talents and specialties of their floor generals. It would make little sense to make Mike Conley an isolation scorer anymore than it would be logical to force Kemba Walker into a pass first player.

Understand, that the phenomena of score first guards is somewhat remarkable considering the history of how coaches and analysts reacted to these players. Executives weren’t always as giddy to construct rosters around these players like they are today.


OSCAR ROBERTSON
Oscar Robertson

Score first point guards have been around since before the NBA had a three point line. Players such as Oscar Robertson – the first and only player to average a triple double for a season – and Tiny Archibald – the first and only player to lead the league in scoring and assists in the same season – are some Hall of Famers who fit this description. Of course, it was remarkable that they were able to score without the benefit of three-point shooting, hand-checking rules, and heavy doses of high screen-and-rolls.  Yet, they were celebrated for their ability to break down the defense and pass the ball at the same time. Other players like Jerry West, Walt Frazier, and Jo Jo White were also similar in their abilities to score the basketball while having a low assist average.

However, it was rare for a team with championship aspirations to make their primary ball handler the go-to option for scoring. It was only out of necessity, such as injury or trade, that the point guard would assume such responsibility like Magic did whenever Kareem or Worthy were hurt. Neither Big O nor Tiny won champsionships during their respective tenure on the Royals. Only once they left their team to support other great players like then-Lew Alcindor on the Bucks or Larry Bird’s Celtics, did they win their elusive rings.

In fact, players who led the league in scoring at any position were somewhat frowned upon by the league – who believed that winning championships required teamwork and sacrifice over outstanding individual numbers. Wilt Chamberlain, David Thompson, and George Gervin, to name a few, were frequently derided for perceived Randianesque levels of individualism and selfishness. As long as they hogged the ball from the rest of their teammates, their teams could never beat dynasties like Bill Russell’s Celtics in the 60s or Magic Johnson’s Lakers in the 80s. While Wilt might have been an exception, since he won twice (albeit under different roles from his usual dominant scoring), it seemed as if volume scorers, regardless of position, were never going to be as successful as Russell, Magic, and Bird.

This mindset was somewhat shattered with Michael Jordan – an isolation heavy scorer and a six time NBA champion who is arguably the greatest player of all time. As a shooting guard, he singlehandedly embarrassed defenses to the point where Larry Bird likened him to Jesus. Audiences became enamored with his style of play, and he is responsible for the league’s highest television ratings ever in the 1990s. Game 6 of the 1998 NBA finals, his last game as a Bull, is still the most watched game ever almost twenty years later. Ratings haven’t come close to what they used since Jordan retired the second time.

Of course, being that the NBA is a copycat league, teams started looking for their own isolation wing scorers. That’s why the 2000s was littered with MJ wannabes like Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter, and Tracy McGrady. At one point, all three of those men were hailed by analysts and sponsors to be “the next MJ.” Kobe may have been the closest in terms of style and on-court success, although neither he or any other player (not LeBron, KD, or Curry) has reached Jordan’s iconic status as a global brand.

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Allen Iverson stepping over Tyron Lue.

 

Yet, the score first mentality that Jordan popularized resonated with audiences, including the crop of point guards who grew up watching him. Two PG’s that came about in the 90s became trendsetters as score first in the Jordan era – Penny Hardaway and Allen Iverson. Upon first glance, the differences are obvious. Penny was a 6’7 swingman and A.I. was barely 6 feet tall. Their careers were stunningly different as latter was a solo act who became a hall of famer while the former was a sidekick whose career was derailed by injuries.

However, their similarities cannot be overlooked. Neither could be pigeonholed into one position. Penny’s size meant that he could play the 1, 2, or the 3, like Magic. The difference was that he was a score first player who aggressively attacked the basket and posted up smaller guards. His style of play, as well as the commercials with Chris Rock as Lil Penny, helped elevate him into popularity before his career succumbed to his dearth of injuries.

Allen Iverson might have been too small to be a conventional 2 guard and too trigger happy to be a “proper” point, but his speed, tenacity, and superior ball handling (exemplified by his killer crossover) allowed him to thrive as the 2000’s best combo guard. He nabbed four scoring titles and an MVP award in an illustrious career that brought him into the Naismith. He was also the most controversial player and a scapegoat for the league’s problem during that decade.

Along with contemporaries like Stephon Marbury and Steve Francis, Allen Iverson’s style of play was cited as the reason why he could never win a championship. “He didn’t pass the ball enough.” “He didn’t make his teammates better.” “He was selfish.” To their credit, Iverson never was an efficient scorer and there were moments he could have deferred to his teammates. He also had off court issues that helped paint the perception of who AI was as a person – which followed him on the court later in his career.

Nevertheless,  it goes without saying that A.I. never had much of a supporting cast during his days in Philly where he could have had a chance to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy. In 2001, when A.I. received his MVP and went to the Finals, the next best players on his team were Eric Snow, who averaged 12 points per game, and Aaron Mckie, the then Sixth Man of the Year who averaged 11 points per game. Their opponent in the Finals? Shaq and Kobe – two hall of famers and arguably the best duo of the 2000s. Allen Iverson needed to average 60 just if he wanted a chance to push the series to 6 games. They lost in 5.

Allen’s inability to capture a title continued to blame on his attitude and style of play – not on his lack of a supporting cast, who couldn’t have gotten better even if the basketball gods wanted them to. No amount of assists were going to elevate Eric Snow into an all-star. No passes were going to turn Dikembe Mutombo into Hakeem Olajuwon. No great player has ever won without much help. It’s just not the way that basketball works. But that didn’t stop Allen from becoming a pariah for all score first point guards.

Yet, this attitude didn’t deter executives from drafting more score first point guards. The tide was about to turn in these players favor, as they would make their imprint on the looming 2010s decade.


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Westbrook and Rose

In 2008, Chicago found itself with the number 1 overall pick for the draft. They had the lowest chances of winning the draft lottery but won anyway. Like Cleveland did with LeBron James five years earlier, they selected their home town prodigy, Derrick Rose, to lead them into their first forays of franchise greatness since Jordan left them a decade prior.

Rose had all the tools to be a franchise player. He was 6’3, could jump out of the gym, and possessed lightning fast speed. He was an aggressive score first style player who took the ball to the cup more often than he passed it. He had just come off a disappointing national championship loss with Memphis, but this didn’t deter the Bulls from selecting him with the first overall pick.

Three picks later, the then-Seattle Supersonics selected another 6’3 guard who could jump out of the gym and run faster than everone else. His name was Russell Westbook and he was brought to be a complimentary piece to another nascent superstar and then-reigning Rookie of the Year Kevin Durant.

As fate would have it, both of these two point guards would travel completely different paths while redefining the position for today’s era.

Rose would capture a Rookie of the Year title in 2008 while Russell was still struggling on an awful and newly christened Oklahoma City Thunder. Russell had still been transitioning from being a shooting guard on UCLA to being a true point guard for the Thunder. Rose had other worries. The Celtics and the Cavs were running the Eastern Conference and, although his team had improved, there was little he could do to get past these giants.

Then in 2011, during the midst of the LeBron taking his talents to South Beach, Rose would become the youngest MVP ever at the age of 22. With injuries to Boozer and Noah, Derrick Rose singlehandedly kept his team afloat while finishing with the best record above the Boston Celtics and the Miami Heat. His ridiculous dunks, floaters in the lane, and crossovers only increased his popularity on television.

Westbrook on the other hand would face praise for his athelticism and tenacity while receiving criticism for shooting the ball too much. Pundits would line up to chastise him for being trigger happy on a team where he had the privilege of playing alongside Kevin Durant and James Harden. His team had the NBA’s leading scorer and yet, Westbrook was leading the Thunder in shot attempts. Regardless, the Thunder were clearly rising stars in the stacked Western Conference, where the Lakers, Spurs, and Mavericks were the class of the NBA.

The year 2011 ended in disappointment for both point guards in their conference finals, where both lost in five games to laughably superior teams. Westbrook would lose to the Dallas Mavericks, whose future-hall of famer, Dirk Nowitzki had decimated OKC’s bigs with his one-legged fadeways and three-point shooting. Derrick Rose would face the juggernaut named LeBron James…literally. LeBron, being a freak of nature with the size of a power forward and the foot speed of a guard, would lock up Rose every chance he got during the fourth quarter. LeBron’s teammates Bosh and Wade would add to the scoring columns. Rose’s teammates Boozer and Noah were predictably disappointing.

Though neither reached the Finals that year, the future seemed bright for Rose and Westbrook. They were instrumental in helping their teams reach the conference finals whereas they couldn’t even get past the firt round before. It seemed as if they were about to climb new heights and that champions like the Lakers, the Celtics, and the newly crowned Mavericks were going to bend the knee to them sooner than later.

The two also proved their value as score first players who helped elevate their team with their aggressive play. The difference between them and many of their predecessors was the quality of their supporting cast. Obviously, Westbrook benefitted from Durant being the go-to guy, similar to Penny benefiting from Shaq in Orlando, but Serge Ibaka and James Harden were also instrumental in the Thunder’s success. On the Bulls, Joakim Noah and Luol Deng were paramount to the Bulls success as a well oiled defensive machine. All they needed was better offense and another go-to scorer to help alleviate Rose’s role.

Unfortunately, as fate would have it during a lockout season in 2011-12, Derrick Rose would tear his ACL in game 1 against the 76ers in the first round. Like Penny Hardaway all those years ago, the injury robbed Rose of his potential at the age of 23. After sitting out more than a year, he came back only to suffer a meniscus tear that sidelined him for the 2013-2014 season. Rose has now become a poster child of “what if?” players. He’s also suffered hits to his public image as a result of his injuries and a lawsuit from an alleged sexual assault victim. He currently plays for the Knicks, where he averages 16 points per game on a pedestrian team.

Rose has now become a poster child of “what if?” players, supplanting Bill Walton, Penny Hardaway, and Grant Hill in that respect. He’s also suffered hits to his public image as a result of his injuries and a lawsuit from an alleged sexual assault victim. He currently plays for the Knicks, where he averages 16 points per game on a pedestrian team.

Westbrook, on the other hand has assumed the title of “most athletic point guard in NBA history.” He is a perrenial all star, a triple-double threat, and now the go-to guy for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Since coming back from his own ACL tear, he’s made the All-NBA first team twice, won the scoring title once, and earned a massive $100 million deal. He is also a hell of a dresser who does whatever he wants.

However, with or without Rose and Westbrook, the league became wide open for scorers at their position. One such point guard has taken their league by storm.


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Steph Curry, the two time NBA MVP

It goes without saying that the most prolific scoring point guard is not someone who could be in a dunk contest or beat teams in a foot race. Instead, he’s a babyfaced assassin with the deadliest shot in NBA history.

Steph Curry has overcome a history of being undersized and having bad ankles to become a two-time MVP and one of the most popular players today. Like Westbrook, he played the shooting guard position in college before transitioning to the point. However, unlike Westbrook, he wasn’t highly touted coming out of high school or college. Many doubted that he had the athleticism for the next level. They also questioned whether or not his high volume three-point shooting style of play would translate well for college and the pros. Finally, in many pre-draft analyses, scouts and GMs assessed that he was a “shooting guard trapped in a point guard’s body.”

This label of combo guard followed him well into his first all-star appearance. In 2013, a survey of GM’s ranked Steph Curry as the third best shooting guard. Thanks to hard work and dedication and two MVP seasons later, Steph Curry has become a superstar point guard of whose ability almost no one questions. His barrages from beyond the arc are now highlight reels for the internet. His stepback crossover dribble and flick of the wrist release has upgraded everything for him, from his Under Armour deal to his jersey sales. By winning the championship in 2015 with an offense that moved the ball as well as any before it, he proved in the eyes of many that a score first guard could, indeed, lead a team to the title – thus shattering the narratives that plagued Iverson throughout his career.

Fascinatingly, he is not the only volume three-point shooter playing the position today. Two years after he was drafted in 2009, Cleveland drafted Kyrie Irving with the first overall pick. A year later, Portland selected Damian Lillard. All three of these guards are similar in their approach to the game. They’re prolific outside shooters with excellent ball handling ability. They’re also low-assist total guys when compared to their peers such as Chris Paul and John Wall. High screen-and-rolls are the bread and butter in which these guys operate. Instead of dumping passes off into bigs like Stockton to Malone, they’re shooting threes from the outside or attacking the basket. It’s simple, effective, and highlight reel worthy.

Their style of play has also attracted scorn from some of the older players, who believe the rule changes give guards like Curry advantages of which they didn’t enjoy in their heyday. Last February, the Big O dismissed Curry’s play as a result of bad coaching and lax defenses. They would be correct, but the damage is already done. Like lumbering post up centers, pass first prodigies like Rondo and Payton are becoming NBA dinosaurs.

This current fast paced league is wide-open for guards like Curry, Kyrie, and Lillard to do well in. Fans want to see these smaller floor generals take their opponents off the dribble and score on them. Whether it’s Steph Curry with the shot, Uncle Drew with the handle, or Dame D.O.L.L.A.  on the attack, these score first point guards are the highlight reels that fans love to watch on repeat. Kemba Walker and Isaiah Thomas, two prospects from the 2011 draft, have done the unthinkable and led their teams in scoring while taking them to playoffs twice. Young stallworths like D’Angelo Russell and Emmanuel Mudiay are bigger versions of guards who run the point and shoot before passing. There will be more players like this to come.

So, score first point guards are going to be around to stay. We’ll still have purists who argue that these players aren’t “traditional” 1’s like or that they would do better as 2’s. That’s been the narrative around Curry, Westbrook, and all alike for the past five years and it will continue to be until they’re retired. Luckily, none of their coaches is considering to change their positions. Why? Because that’s beside the point.

 

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