It's long been an article of faith that the most treasured commodity on any basketball team is a big man.
This goes back to basketball antiquity, right on up to Shaquille O'Neal. The big man had to be doubled-teamed. He would get you the rebounds. He was victory on the hoof. Most colorfully, per usual, Al McGuire called the big man an "aircraft carrier."
But with all due respect for the aging Mr. O'Neal and Kevin Garnett and other nimble giants, may I suggest that that mantle of positional pre-eminence has passed from inside to outside? The one player who can most improve a team, who can make it coalesce and thrive, is now the point guard. It's certainly no coincidence that when North Carolina and UConn won the NCAAs last week, they were guided by the finest two point guards in college — Ty Lawson and Renee Montgomery.
And point guard value-plus is to be seen everywhere in the NBA. Who would have predicted a decade ago that a skinny little unheralded kid from Canada, Steve Nash, would twice be voted MVP? Denver went up and Detroit went down as soon as the Pistons traded Chauncey Billups to the Nuggets. A 20-year-old rookie, Derrick Rose, has personally overhauled the Bulls. And I haven't even mentioned Chris Paul of New Orleans and Deron Williams of the Jazz, who may now be the best of all. Evidence abounds.
Of course, the point guard is hardly a new force. Bob Cousy, a half-century ago, was the first glamour boy at the position — although then it was called "playmaker." But the role grew in importance with the introduction of the three-point shot — a factor that cut down on the strategy to force the ball inside. The three-point shot also obliged the point guard to be more of a shooting threat himself. The classic old playmaker was supposed to look first to set somebody else up — ideally under the basket. Now, it's much more of a legitimate option to, in effect, feed himself the shot.
I think, too, that if one man had the greatest effect on changing the job description, it would be Magic Johnson. He, after all, was 6-feet-9. Suddenly, the physical ideal was thrown into a cocked hat, and I'm sure that many of the best young basketball athletes who once might have grown up with a shooter's mentality developed as taller point guards. I mean, what kid who's good wouldn't want the ball?
The old philosophy went that a great big man would get you the ball. Sure, that still holds, but since there are fewer missed shots now, the big guy doesn't have as many rebound chances as he used to. If someone could break down basketball more statistically, as the number-crunchers have divined baseball, then I have the feeling that the numbers would say: Who's more vital — a guy who can get you the ball sometimes, or a guy who handles it every time? If Al McGuire were still around, the aircraft carrier would now be in the backcourt. After all, that's where the game is launched ... and won.
Commentator Frank Deford weighs in from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Conn.