NBA basketball has undergone drastic, albeit gradual, change in its 66 years of existence. A league once dominated by the big and the strong has begun to favor the small and the quick, in one way or another. It is a point guard’s game. Names like Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, and Chris Paul occupy the pool of the elite; multifaceted distributors with a deadly scoring edge—a far cry from their positional predecessors. So how did this come to be?
Jerry Brewer of the Washington Post pens an in-depth piece about this point guard evolution. From Oscar Robinson to Nate Archibald; from Isiah Thomas to Allen Iverson; from Steve Nash to Stephen Curry, Brewer follows the game’s progression—first examining the rule changes that catalyzed the shift.
The point-guard renaissance began at a basketball summit in Phoenix. The year was 2000, and NBA Commissioner David Stern had appointed a special committee to improve a stale game. Some of the sport’s greatest minds gathered in a room.
The dignitaries included Jerry Colangelo, Jerry West, Bob Lanier, Jack Ramsay, Dick Motta and Wayne Embry. By the turn of this century, the NBA realized it had become a diminished product. The greatness and skill of the 1980s gave way to the brawn of the '90s. When Michael Jordan retired for a second time in 1999, it became clear that the league had turned into a boring, slow and physical contact sport instead of the athletic, beautiful and fast-paced entertainment it was meant to be.
"The league had basically slowed to a grinding halt," said Stu Jackson, who was the NBA senior vice president of basketball operations back then. "Scoring was down, and the skill level and success of players was seemingly dependent on how much they could lift in the weight room. Something needed to be done quickly."
Many creative and radical ideas were discussed, but the special committee ultimately decided upon four significant rule changes: the elimination of old illegal-defense guidelines, which would allow teams to play zone defenses; a new defensive three-second rule so that centers couldn’t turn into human basket lids; reducing to eight seconds the 10-second rule to bring the ball past midcourt; and redefining the way officials interpreted rules of contact to allow players more freedom of movement, especially on the perimeter.
There was intense debate over the proposed changes. Opponents accused Stern of fixing the committee and only appointing those who’d be open to radical change. Active coaches were upset that they weren’t represented. Pat Riley, then the Miami Heat head coach, warned that the rules would drop scores into the 70s.
The NBA board of governors approved the changes for the 2001-02 season. Three years later, the league made one more adjustment to allow freedom of movement, essentially abolishing hand-checking. Now, defenders cannot use their hands or bodies to push ball-handlers, or players moving without the ball, off their path.
The intent was to open up the game, increase scoring and take the league away from isolation basketball. Incidentally, it also unleashed this era of incredible point-guard play.
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