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The evolution of the point guard position in the NBA

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How has the position changed from the 1940's to now, and who, from Cousy to Magic, helped change it.

Christian Petersen

When the game of basketball began many years ago, the point guard was traditionally seen as the player who would take the inbounds pass, bring the ball up the floor, call a play and run the offense; passing off to the player in the best position to score, sometimes scoring himself, but usually not acting as the first scoring option.

Over time, the point guard position has evolved and has perhaps changed much more than any other position in the history of the NBA, and it also might be the most important position in the game.

Sure, the "pass-first" floor general type of point guard still exists, but so do the point guards that refuse to be held in a box and refuse to conform to the label of "just a facilitator."

The position has a plethora of players to thank as it has evolved over the past few decades; Bob Cousy, Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Gary Payton, Steve Nash and Derrick Rose, just to name a few.

But how did the point guard become a position of versatile wild card-ness that it is today?

The man behind Mikan:

In the early days of the NBA, before the shot clock came about, big man George Mikan and the Minneapolis Lakers ruled the scene winning five titles between 1949 and 1954. Mikan was a dominating center and towered over opposing defenders at 6'10" and was able to revolutionize the center position with his rebounding, shot blocking and scoring around the rim.

But someone had to get Mikan the ball, and his name was Slater Martin.

Martin played professional basketball from 1949 to 1960 and won five titles, four with the Lakers and one with the Hawks, and as a member of those Lakers teams he embodied what a traditional point guard was meant to do; facilitate and run the offense.

Martin was also a hell of a defender during his time in pro hoops and was named to seven all-star teams for his flashy passes and hard-nosed defense. Martin also had his battles with another great, Bob Cousy.

"Slater was the only one I used to call for help on. I used to tell my big people to set picks as often as they felt like it." - Bob Cousy

"Cousy could do all that stuff, going behind his back and everything, but of course they let him get away with palming the ball, but he went behind his back on me, and I told him that if he did that again that I would break his nose. He didn't do it again." - Slater Martin

The first revolution, courtesy of The Cooz:

The Cooz. The Houdini of the Hardwood.

Bob Cousy was a point guard ahead of his time playing through the fifties and early sixties. Cousy had it all; the handle, the passing, the scoring from inside and out. What he was doing with a basketball then hadn't been done before and if it had, fans only saw passes like his in a Globetrotters game; he led the league in assists eight straight times.

But Cousy was unable to lead the Celtics to a title until the arrival of Bill Russell.

Once Russell arrived in Boston, he and Cousy helped create the modern day fast-break. Russell grabbed the rebound, hit the outlet to Cousy, he passed once more and boom, easy points that helped these Celtics win five straight titles and created a more fast-paced enjoyable style of basketball that helped keep the league entertaining and alive during the late 50's.

Some would say that Cousy was to the NBA what Babe Ruth was to baseball, and some might disagree, but at least everyone can agree that he was at the very least the Babe Ruth of point guards.

Ahead of his time:

When Cousy's reign as the top point guard was coming to an end, another point guard was ready to take over, except, this guy wasn't built like one.

Oscar Robertson stood tall at 6'5" and 205 ibs and at first glance you would have pegged him as a small forward in that era of the NBA. But Oscar was a point guard; and a damn good one too.

He's still the only player to average a triple-double, in 1962, and barely missed the mark on four other separate occasions as well. The Big O was not only a magnificent passer and scorer, but he was able to use his size to battle with the bigs down low for tough rebounds and dominated just about every other point guard at the time because he was bigger than the run-of-the-mill guard.

Over his career, The Big O averaged 25.7 PPG 9.5 APG and 7.5 RPG, and helped pave the way for bigger and more versatile point guards like Magic Johnson and Penny Hardaway.

Lenny; the defender, the coach, the floor general:

Before he was a great coach, Lenny Wilkens was one of the NBA's best point guards from 1960 to 1975. Wilkens was balanced and played a text-book style of traditional point guard with a bit of elite defending sprinkled in.

The one thing that was clear with Wilkens, a nine time all-star during his playing days, was that he was the commander on the court. Yes he brought the ball up, yes he ran the offense, but he also played with confidence and swagger and was an extension of the coach on the hardwood, much like how a quarterback is an on-field extension of a coach in football.

Those traits and more helped Wilkens become one of the league's first successful player-coaches, and helped him lead the Seattle SuperSonics to a title in 1979.

Clyde:

"It's Clyde's ball, he just lets us play with it once in a while." - Willis Reed

Walt Frazier, or Clyde as he was known by teammates and fans, was the floor general of the New York Knick teams of the 1970's. When the Garden was Eden, was when Clyde was running his show.

Clyde was more of a dictator of the offense than a general though; as Reed said, it was his ball; he just sometimes let the other Knicks play with it. Still, if he was the dictator, or the general, or whatever, he was an artistic one. Frazier possessed quick hands, peripheral vision like no other, a smooth handle and he stepped on and off the court with more swag than anyone in the city of New York.

But his biggest strength may have been his defense. On that end of the floor, Frazier was relentless and aggressive; using his quickness, hands and anticipation to sniff out passes and turn them into points for the Knicks. Frazier was named to seven consecutive All-Defensive First Team's for plays like when he stole the ball from Jerry West in the second quarter of game seven of the 1970 NBA Finals. Frazier finished that game with 36 points, 19 assists and five steals on his way to winning his first of two titles with the Knicks.

"It's not only that Clyde steals the ball, but that he makes them think he's about to steal it, and that he can steal it any time he wants to." - Bill Bradley

Frazier was really the first complete package at the point guard position. He defended like Lenny, ran the fast break like Cousy, could grab rebounds, score and be versatile like Oscar, and he also was one of the first players to get a turnover, and then act like a one-man fast break.

Frazier was just as revolutionary off the court as he was on. He was one of the first players to sign a shoe deal, with Puma, and was known for his off-the-court style, swag and party habits just as well as he was known for his steals and scores on the court.

The Magic Man:

"Magic is head-and-shoulders above everybody else. I've never seen [anybody] as good as him." - Larry Bird

All the previously mentioned point guards were great, but none of them can hold a candle to Magic Johnson. He's the greatest point guard of all-time, and along with Larry Bird, he helped save the NBA.

Through all of the trash talking, behind the back and bounce passes, three-point shots, double-digit rebound games and half-court alley-oops, Magic wore a smile on his face as big as the LA Forum itself.

But why was Magic the greatest? Why was he so special? Why was he one of a kind?

First of all, he was a winner; during his career Magic went to nine NBA Finals and won five titles to go along with three MVP awards.

Secondly, he was six-foot-nine playing the point guard position, and was really one of the first point guards who could defend and play multiple positions; even center. Still, for his large size, Magic could run the fast break as quick as a small guard like Cousy, dish out perfect passes and could contain other speedy guards on the defensive end.

When it came to making sure that the team got a high percentage shot on any given play, Magic had no peer. He would put himself or another player in a near perfect position to score.

"There have been times when he has thrown passes and I wasn't sure where he was going. Then one of our guys catches the ball and scores, and I run back up the floor convinced that he must've thrown it through somebody." - Michael Cooper

Coming out of college, scouts said that Magic was slow and that he couldn't score. But he quickly proved them wrong as he sat in the driver's seat of Pat Riley's Showtime offense of the 80's. Johnson's up-tempo style of play, combined with flashy, yet perfect passes made for one of the most entertaining offenses in the history of the association and also made for some great battles with the Celtics, Pistons, Bulls, Rockets and 76ers throughout the decade.

Magic helped transcend the Lakers and because they were winning, and their best player was a point guard, this resulted in the NBA valuing the position higher. Isiah Thomas, Mo Cheeks, Doc Rivers, Mark Jackson, Fat Lever, John Stockon and others were all seen as either the stars or a very important piece of their team, and younger point guards like Mookie Blaylock, Tim Hardaway and Gary Payton started popping up and making a name for themselves in the 90's. Point guard was becoming the NBA's new glamour position.

One knock on Magic was his dribbling skills, but he made up for it everywhere else. Johnson could handle the ball very well, was intelligent, an excellent passer, could run the fast break alone or with his entire team and have every player touch the ball, played well under pressure, won in big moments, excelled in running a half-court offense and showed that, big guys can run the point too.

I could try and keep writing about Magic for days, but instead I'll let you witness how great he was:

These players above were all the original guys, but as the league moved on from here, we as fans would see different versions or remixes of some of these players.

The most notable ones for what they brought to the game:

Zeke

The league was growing not just by the number in teams and fans in the 80's, but the actual players were getting bigger too. Still, at 6'1", Isiah Thomas showed that the little guy could still get the job done too.

Zeke was tough as nails, had a handle that would make you lose your shoes, and played defense that would make an opposing player lose his mind. His most important asset was his desire to win; he was going to do it by any means necessary and didn't care who stood in his way. He helped lead the Bad Boy Pistons to two titles, played a few games on one foot and one with stitches in his head.

The Glove

"You can't back down on [Jordan]. If you do, he's like a wolf, he's going to eat everything. He knew I wasn't going to back down. I had to realize or see if he is really about being a dog, about this neighborhood stuff. I went at him. It was just me being me." - Gary Payton

Gary Payton was the first (and the only) point guard to ever win the NBA's defensive player of the year award and earned the nickname "The Glove" for keeping opposing point guards firmly planted in the palm of his hand for the duration of a game. Payton is fourth all-time in steals and never backed down from anyone, even Michael Jordan.

If Payton knew something about your mom, sister, dad or knew that you just got a DUI or anything really, he'd use it to get into your head and then force you into making a mistake.

Not only was Payton one of the best trash talkers and defenders at his position, but he was also a leader, a scorer and a good passer during his time running the Seattle SuperSonics offense. When he wasn't stealing the ball or barking at an opposing player, he was swishing a three, throwing an alley-oop to Shawn Kemp, dishing it out to Detlef Schrempf in the corner or dunking the ball himself.

The UTEP Two-Step

Tim Hardway was a five-time all-star, the point guard of the RUN TMC show in Golden State, and partnered with Alonzo Mourning to lead those tough Miami Heat teams in the 90's.

Hardaway was a solid defender and could hit the three, but he's on this list because he was really one of the first players with a signature crossover move, The UTEP Two-Step. He'd use it to drive, to create space for a shot, to create space for teammates; everything. It was unstoppable and influenced other guards, like Allen Iverson and Dwyane Wade, to implement signature moves of their own.

The Prototypical Pass-First Point Guard

John Stockton wasn't the first "pass-first" point guard, but he might be the best.

Stockton was a 10-time all-star and accumulated the most assists in NBA history from his time in the league from 1984 to 2003. He was an awesome defender as well, holding down the number one spot in the record books for career steals, and a good three point shooter, but Stockton was best at passing and perfected the point guard's role in the pick and roll with hall of fame teammate Karl Malone.

The best now?

The debate is interesting. Sure, an argument could be made for Steve Nash, but the Laker is past his time and hasn't been healthy in some time. Some may say Rajon Rondo or Derrick Rose, but like Nash, they haven't been healthy either.

The cream of the current crop of point guards includes players of all shapes and sizes. The NBA today has speed demons like John Wall, scorers like Damian Lillard, Steph Curry and Russell Westbrook, dime droppers like Ricky Rubio, creative veteran leaders like Tony Parker and all-around versatile point guards like Chris Paul, who most would agree is the league's current best right now.

CP3 is a seven-time all-star and is already 29th all-time in career assists and third in assists-per-game with 9.9. Still, the Clipper is searching for an MVP award and his first title. Despite that, Paul comes ready to battle every night on both ends of the floor, is tough to defend and throws the prettiest alley-oop in the league right now.

Can Paul or one of these other current guards become the next to revolutionize the position or staple their name up next to the greats?

We'll have to wait and see. The 2014-15 NBA season is just about a week away.