Saturday, June 16, 2007

Rise of the Combo Guard

In a twist that would have been unforeseen a few months ago, Tony Parker was named MVP of the 2007 Finals. There are a lot of ways people could spin this event, a lot of narratives were furthered when young Mr. Parker was picked. Some might say that this shows how the balance of NBA talent is shifting in favor of international players. Others claim this as evidence that the NBA is becoming a little man’s game. One overlooked factor, however, is the fact that Parker is the third combo-guard to win Finals MVP in the past four years.

In 1996, the Philadelphia 76’s picked Allen Iverson with the first pick in the draft and the era of the combo guard was officially born. Combo-guard usually refers to a shooting guard in the body of a point. Sometimes, combo-guards are simply described as ‘scoring point guards,’ but this definition does them a disservice. I never liked either of these definitions. A combo guard is a player with point guard skills who is as or more adept at creating for himself as he is for his teammates. Combo-guards in the league include Gilbert Arenas and Deron Williams, bigger point guards who use a combination of speed and strength to be 20+ scorers, as well as players like Iverson, who would be too small to play shooting guard. What makes these players different from traditional point guards such as John Stockton and Magic Johnson isn’t that they could score, Stockton had a terrific jumper and Johnson was averaged 20ppg at one point in his career, they differ in their superior ability to get themselves open. So while Johnson’s drives often took place as part of the Lakers’ transition offense, Iverson is more comfortable penetrating off an isolation play. Once thought of as a coach’s nightmare because they dominate the ball and often have a faulty shot selection, combo-guards have quickly become an integral part of the NBA, and this is manifested no where more clearly than in three of the past 4 NBA finals.

In 2004, Chauncey Billups, a prototypical ‘big’ combo-guard won the MVP due to his ability to balance creating points for himself and his teammates. At home dribbling up the court and jacking a 3, Billups is equally happy to penetrate, draw defenders, and pass off to Rasheed Wallace stalking in the corner. 2006 saw Dwayne Wade take home the MVP. Wade played the 2 on that Heat team, and will likely play 2 the rest of his career, but he handles like a point guard and is adept at orchestrating offense in transition. Wade plays like the prototypical shooting guard, only he stands two inches shorter than most. Finally, this year we saw Parker take home the trophy. Parker is as adept a playmaker as they come, he always operates within the Spurs offense. However, when teams take away Duncan’s shot, Pop is as happy with Parker taking the shot as he is with his big man. This is what defines a great combo-guard, the ability to be the first or second option and do it within a set offense. What some see as selfishness a good coach will identify as a weapon.

The rise of the combo-guard goes beyond the finals, these playoffs also saw the coming to prominence of Williams, whose size/speed combination rivals that of Billups, and who runs a near flawless 2 man game with his big man, Carlos Boozer. Still, when faced with undersized guards, Williams can muscle his way to the basket with the best of them, he is an even stronger scorer than he is a playmaker.

When Iverson came into the league, he was revered for his talent but mangled for his scorer’s mentality. Today, we can look back at the 1996 draft as one of the important moments in the evolution of the point guard position.

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