Orville Higgins | It's not how big you are
Over the past week or two, I have been having heated discussions with my callers about the current trends in the NBA. I have been at pains to tell them that the game is much different from what it was in a previous generation. The game is now predominantly for jump shooters and three-point shooting, and no longer about big men who break you down with sheer size and strength in the paint.
I pointed out that because the game is more about outside shooting than ever before, and because players more and more are developing all-round games, traditional positions have morphed into one. There is now not that big a difference between what a shooting guard does from what a power forward does. The power forward and the small forward are now interchangeable. Many disagreed, although in many cases it is clear that they see the point but are just being wilfully stubborn, or being a little disingenuous.
It is obvious that there has been a seismic shift. No longer is the game dominated by the 'bigs' - towering centres like Shaquille Oneal, who was an unstoppable force. The game is now being taken over by the point guards who are faster, more skilful and more athletic than ever. No longer are point guards people who merely dribble the ball up court, dish it out to people in good scoring positions and then get out of the way. The modern-day point guard is now seen as a bona fide scorer himself. A couple of seasons ago, there were nine point guards who finished in the top 20 scorers. This would have been unheard of before.
Russell Westbrook was a regular season MVP last year. With over 30 points per game, he was leading the whole league in points per game. This wasn't an aberration. It is a trend. The point guards in the NBA, taken as a collective group, are averaging over seven points a game more than they were averaging 10 years ago.
No era in the NBA history has seen the kind of scoring juggernauts in the point guard position as the crop currently playing. Westbrook, last year, was being challenged for that MVP title by James Harden, another point guard. The other dark horse was Isiah Thomas. When you add names like Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Derek Rose, Damian Lillard, John Wall and Kemba Walker, then it is clear that the point guards in the modern game have seen their jobs as more than just facilitators.
In the 1984-85 season, 17 of the top scorers in terms of average per game were playing in the small forward position. There was not a single point guard among them. Ten years after, in the 1994-95 season, there were two point guards among the top scorers. Those were Gary Payton and Dana Barros. In the 2016-17 season, there were five point guards in the top 20 in scoring - Westbrook, Curry, Lillard, Irving and Lowry. There were nine point guards in the league last season who topped their teams' scoring charts. Never in history was it ever like that.
One of the theories is that the NBA isn't producing the kind of 'bigs' who used to be so prevalent in the league two or three decades ago. Another theory is that the point guards have become smarter and more talented, and are therefore trusted to do more. Whatever it is, the game is now being run by these 'small' players in a way that it wasn't before. Those who were disagreeing with me are just quite simply wrong!
- Orville Higgins is a sportscaster and talk-show host at KLAS ESPN Sports FM. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.