How NBA morphed into little man's world
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson has two wishes: Keeping the Kings in Sacramento past next season and having a second career in the NBA.
“Sign me up!’’ Johnson joked at Tuesday night's draft lottery, where he represented the Kings during the drawing. “I look at how the guys at my old position are dominating the sport and it’s great. I wish I was out there now with these rules.’’
As successful as K.J. was as a five-time All-NBA selection who helped Phoenix get to the 1993 Finals, he can only imagine how good he’d be playing in today’s NBA, where point guards are virtually free to roam and score and win MVP trophies.
“It’s great to see a guy like a Chris Paul dominating the sport,’’ Johnson said. “It really is a point guard’s league now, in a lot of ways.’’
From all indications, it will continue to be, with Duke freshman Kyrie Irving projected to go No. 1 to Cleveland in the June 23 draft, despite playing only 11 games for the Blue Devils. Rules changes in recent seasons have opened up the game and turned the point guard into the most sought-after position in the draft.
If David Stern calls Irving’s name first in Newark’s Prudential Center, that will make three point guards taken with the No. 1 overall pick in the last four seasons, with Memphis’ Derrick Rose and Kentucky’s John Wall taken first in 2008 and 2010, respectively. Compare that to the number of point guards taken No. 1 overall before Rose: Oscar Robertson in 1960, Magic Johnson in 1979 and Allen Iverson, who was more of a shooter than a playmaker, in 1996. That’s just three in almost 40 years of drafts.
But times have changed, as has the point guard position. Only 22, Rose is coming off an MVP season for the Bulls. Russell Westbrook, also just 22 and a former No.4 overall pick, has had a huge season in helping the Thunder get to their first conference finals in only the second playoff run of the Kevin Durant Era. Combine their success with the way that Paul, Deron Williams and Rajon Rondo, among others, have become dominant players in recent seasons, it’s little wonder that everyone is looking to draft point guards these days.
It matters little that Cleveland already has Baron Davis. If the Cavs come to the same conclusion as most teams, Irving will be the top pick, over Arizona forward Derrick Williams. No one from Europe comes close. After Irving, Kentucky’s Brandon Knight, another point guard, might go as high as No. 3, to Utah.
“I think people will always look to take the best players available in the draft and now they just happen to be point guards,’’ said Utah executive VP of basketball operations Kevin O’Connor, who turned the Deron Williams trade with the Nets into the No. 3 pick, thanks to the favorable bounce of the Ping Pong balls. “Guys like Deron, Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo, and go right down the list with guys like John Wall. Rondo has really learned how to play these last few years. Wall has a great future. And now Irving might turn into a real good player, too.’’
It’s not just that point guards are now often the most important players on their teams. Thanks to year-round training and conditioning, look at how Jason Kidd, 38, and Steve Nash, 37, are still performing at a high level, with Kidd playing an integral role in helping Dallas return to the conference finals for the first time since 2006.
“This is the era for point guards,’’ O’Connor said. “It used to be that point guards couldn’t shoot. But these guys can shoot the ball much better now than they could in the past. And in the last seven-eight years, there have been a lot of good ones who have come out. Because you’re not allowed to put your hands on them, it’s made them even more important in today’s game. They opened up the game, which was good for the sport. So now, it’s all about getting guys who can turn the corner.’’
Teams today aren’t just looking to take advantage of the rules. There’s also a notable lack of quality big men coming into the league.
“We’re devoid of having centers,’’ O’Connor said. “Every time you list a big guy now, you’re listing guys who are 6-8, 6-9, 6-9½. You’re never listing 7-footers. I know I’m dating myself, but where are the Bill Cartwrights and the Zelmo Beattys? Everyone talks about how you can’t play big guys these days. I think you can. But where are they?’’
If they were available, as they were in the '80s, when the draft yielded such future Hall of Famers as Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing and David Robinson, the big guys might go to the head of the draft class. Even with the recent championship teams boasting some of the game’s elite perimeter players in Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce and Dwyane Wade.
“All things being equal, I’d rather have the big guy,’’ said Charlotte coach Paul Silas. “There’s no question in my mind, you need size. But I think part of it, too, is that there might be a reluctance for some teams to draft a big guy because of what they’ve seen out in Portland, with Greg Oden.
“Now Kevin Durant is a superstar and Oden has had all those injuries and doesn’t play,’’ Silas continued. “Maybe that’s a reason people are shying away from taking a big guy. But then I ask: 'Where are all the big guys these days? Where have they gone?' You don’t see them coming out like you used to. It’s amazing, because years ago, we had a lot of great big men in this league.’’
But other than Dwight Howard, drafting big men at the top has been a risky proposition in recent years. Since the Spurs landed Tim Duncan with the No. 1 pick in 1997, these are the big men taken with the No. 1 overall pick starting in 1998: Michael Olowokandi, who was a bust and is out of the league; Kwame Brown, who has done very little in his career; Yao Ming, who was an All-NBA performer before he broke down; Andrew Bogut, whose Bucks career has often been sidetracked by injuries; and Andrea Bargnani, who has had little impact for Toronto since coming over from Italy.
“When I played, you had all those great big men, with every one winning a ring except for Patrick Ewing,’’ Kevin Johnson said. “But we’ve all seen the sport change.’’
Having said that, once he gets a new arena for the Kings, Sacramento’s mayor might want to consider a comeback.
Mitch Lawrence covers the NBA for the New York Daily News.