This is a guest post contributed to King James Gospel by Alec Lepage.
Does the shooting guard position as we knew it even exist in the NBA anymore? It sounds like a #HotSportsTake, until you realize it might already gone.
Before we even totally dive into the current state of the professional 2-guard, you have to ask yourself if it was ever that valuable to begin with. Did back-to-back decades of Jordan and Kobe tease us with something that was never even there?
Has it always been this way?
Anecdotally, it’s a proposition that’s hard to argue with. Save Jordan and Bryant, a whopping two players in Bill Simmons’ Top 30 “NBA Pyramid” fit the description of a 2-guard, John Havlicek and Dwyane Wade (And Wade is labelled a “shooting” guard mostly because it’s hard to call him anything else — most of his time is spent attacking the basket; not exactly Ray Allen-esque.)
Simmons’ opinion isn’t exactly scientific, but he has a point. It’s no secret that it took the game’s most transcendent talent in history (Jordan) for a shooting guard to win a title without a marquee forward or center by his side. For all of Kobe’s talents, the Lakers were barely competitive between the Shaq and Gasol eras. Dwyane Wade’s Miami Heat completely fell off after Shaq left town. And the other modern era franchise-level 2s? The two most prolific shooters in NBA History, Allen and Reggie Miller combined to reach a whopping two NBA Finals in 36 combined seasons (Ray Allen’s coming just last year as the fourth man on the Heat).
Impact 2s a rarity, today and yesterday
Since the modern era of professional basketball took over in the 1980s, there have maybe been four or five franchise-level shooting guards in the entire league if you look at Jordan, Bryant, Allen, Miller and Wade. That’s staggering.
The present trend was just as conspicuous in the 2014 All-Star game in New Orleans earlier this year. Both rosters were dominated by forwards, with several combo and point guards thrown into the mix. The shooting guards? James Harden.
Why the lack of shooters success?
It doesn’t take a basketball historian to notice that the shooting guard, perhaps the “sexiest” position in the game (who grew up in their driveway picturing themselves as a lumbering center or defensive wing?), seems to have the least impact on actual wins.
This wouldn’t be too interesting if the sport of basketball wasn’t the most offensive-oriented in the entire world of athletics. Good defense beats good offense in most sports, but this couldn’t be further from the truth in basketball.
So why is the position most seemingly primed for scoring so impotent when it comes to producing win shares? In fact, Michael Jordan is the only shooting guard in the top 15 in WinShare%, all time, in both the NBA and ABA.
Though shooters have never dominated basketball, the two-guard’s role has seemingly shrunk even more since the “Europeanization” of the NBA in the last decade. European clubs and players do place much more emphasis on conventional shooting while facing the basket, but the real noteworthy addition is that this isn’t limited to guards or traditional 6 foot to 6’5 wing players — everyone is expected to be able to shoot.
The advent of the “stretch 4” position (power forwards who can move out to the perimeter and face-up or shoot) from the European game has totally opened up the floor, and naturally lessened the importance of shoot-first and spot-up players in general. Indirectly, this has lead to the ultimate rise of the shooting guards best friend and yet — recently — his greatest enemy:
The Point Guard
Ball-handling guards have been the quarterbacks of basketball for decades, but the European “stretch 4” has taken their impact to a level Jerry West and Isiah Thomas would be jealous of. With an open paint, and more spread out defense in general, floor generals like Steve Nash are in control of the game even more. It’s not unusual to see Chris Paul slash through the lane in LA without any inclination to shoot whatsoever, but only to create gaps in the defense and rotation problems.
This wasn’t possible twenty years ago with guys like Kareem and Moses Malone clogging the paint. The natural result is, given more space, ball handlers are in control of the game to a level we’ve never seen.
And the stats back it up. Point guards rule the league right now. College “shooting guards” like Steph Curry become point guards or “combo” guards in order to make an impact these days. Even the term “scoring” guard seems to get thrown around more than “shooting.”
The New 2
Of course, the shift in NBA positions hasn’t rendered players without a job, just different roles. As stated above, guards with handling skills have been forced to play the 1-spot, or at least the backup on a second lineup.
Specifically for taller guards, a new position has completely taken its place — and it’s morphed into one of the more valuable positions in basketball, noted by Grantland just last season. The “Wing/Defender/3-point shooter” played by Danny Green, Jimmy Butler, Shane Battier and Kawhi Leonard are now invaluable to stop the elite scoring wings in the NBA, while also opening up the floor with their shooting for point guards and forwards.
Outside of Miami’s big three, these type of players almost constitute the entire Heat roster it seems.
Harden holding the torch?
James Harden seems to be the last remaining elite 2-guard in basketball. Naturally, a 2014 shooting guard isn’t going to resemble the Ray Allen’s of the world — and Harden led the league in free throws per game last season.
Harden’s success (he started in this year’s All-Star game) proves these players certainly have a place in the league, albeit a different one.
If anything, the changing nature of the shooting guard is simply a microcosm of the changing nature of the game of basketball. The phenomenon isn’t to be lamented, but simply appreciated and understood. It will be interesting to see how players and coaches respond in the years to come.
Alec Lepage is a 30-something sports writer and blogger in Denver who got his start covering high school basketball. He has contributed to multiple sports blogs, and covers the NBA for Cannon Satellite TV.