This year will forever be known as the Year of the Point Guard in the NBA. What began six years ago with the relaxation of the hand-check rules has now been realized. We will forever remember 2011 as the year a 22-year-old scoring point guard (Derrick Rose) won the MVP (it seems like a certainty now) and ushered in a new era led by a gang of small men that are taking over a game big men once dominated.
This is becoming a conclusion that is impossible to deny. It's a given that Rose will be an all-NBA performer, and he will have deserved the MVP he received. Assuming he wins, it will be a fine choice. Beyond Rose, though, lies an incredibly deep group of point guards that all do different things.
Quick, name two other point guards to make up the spots on the other two all-NBA teams. Your choices: Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Russell Westbrook, Rajon Rondo, Steve Nash and Tony Parker. Looking for up-and-comers? Don't forget about Stephen Curry, John Wall, Kyle Lowry, Darren Collison, Ty Lawson, Jrue Holiday, D.J. Augustin, Mike Conley, Brandon Jennings (despite his struggles), Tyreke Evans (despite his struggles) and Stuckey. Need some ol' reliables? There's Jameer Nelson, Chauncey Billups, Andre Miller, Jose Calderon, Devin Harris, Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd in the picture. When 24 of the league's 30 teams have at least an above-average point guard, you know the league is in a place it has never been. Oh, and don't forget the new blood coming, in the form of Kyrie Irving and Brandon Knight.
The bigger question, though, is what this means for the future of the league. What does it mean for talent evaluators and general managers when there are so many great point guards in this league? Does it change the way they build their teams going forward? Now that the revolution is complete, we need to consider those questions.
But first, let's consider what makes this a revolution at all. There have been other periods when there were tons of great point guards in the league. The late 1980s and early 1990s saw Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, John Stockton, Kevin Johnson, Mark Price, Tim Hardaway and Terry Porter. The early part of this century included guys like Jason Kidd, Stephon Marbury, Steve Francis and Gary Payton. But the new breed of point guard is a different kind of point guard, one that scores more than his predecessors and, more importantly, tries to score more than his predecessors.
Take a look at this chart, which averages out the production of starting point guards in three different eras of the game: 1991, 2001 and 2011.
(chart by Ziller).
There's a mild jump in scoring compared to the point guards in 1991, but the big jump is in usage rate. Point guards today take a much bigger slice of the offense for themselves than they did two decades ago. Gone is the romantic idea of a point guard whose sole job is to get his teammates involved. In its place is the idea of the point guard as the heavy lifter of a team's offense.
So yes, there are just as many great point guards in 2011 as there were in 1991. They're just different great point guards.
This all begs the obvious question, though: if there are so many great point guards, how important is it for a team to have a really good one? There are two ways you could look at this.
One way would be to suggest that it's more important than ever before. With the rules favoring slashing point guards like Rose and Westbrook more and more, you'd think it would make sense for teams to have somebody who can take advantage. This is the logic that caused Rose and Wall to be the No. 1 picks in two of the last three NBA Drafts, and it is the logic that could cause Irving to go No. 1 this year.
What we're seeing happening in the NFL certainly supports this point of view. Now that it's become so easy for anyone to complete a pass, quarterbacks are becoming even more important than before. Aaron Rodgers, for example, was so good that the Packers didn't need a running game to win the Super Bowl. To apply the same logic to the NBA, this would make Rose and the Bulls the favorites to win the title, because he essentially is their offense.
But here's another way to look at it, one that I think more teams should think about with a hard salary cap coming. If the new rules have enhanced the production of point guards, does it really make sense to spend most of your resources finding a great one?
We still have yet to see a team dominated by a point guard win an NBA championship in this supposed modern era. The Spurs, with Parker, came closest, but Tim Duncan was still the anchor of that team. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Lakers, who have Derek Fisher as its point guard and have won with size, are gunning for their third straight title. We've reached the point where great point-guard play is a plentiful resource. Size, especially the kind best suited for the modern era, remains rarer that ever.
If I'm building a team, I still am looking for the dominant big man. The game may not be suited to them anymore, but they're still the scarcest resource on the market. Maybe they can't score as much anymore, but they give teams a huge advantage at the position. To put it another way: the difference between Dwight Howard and the average center (say, Samuel Dalembert) is greater than the difference between Rose and the average point guard (say, Conley). Rose, once his rookie contract ends, will be given the same maximum contract as Howard currently has. Assuming a hard cap is put in place, both teams have to allocate equal resources to finding parts around the player. Finding a point guard to be good enough for the average salary seems much easier than finding a center to do the same.
Keep in mind: this is a purely theoretical exercise. The Bulls are a better team than the Magic, Rose is arguably more impactful than Howard depending on your perspective and you can build around either player if you are smart. But in an era where general managers everywhere are leaping to join the point guard craze, I'm wondering whether taking a Moneyball-style approach and placing less of an emphasis on finding greatness there may be the better play.