Leaving Las Vegas

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Where have you gone,Magic, Isiah and Cousy?

Page 2's Bill Simmons wonders what ever happened to the classic NBA point guard.

I was talking with my buddy Joe House last weekend — gabbing on the phone about sports, as usual — when the conversation turned to Jamaal Tinsley and his surreal 23-assist performance against the Wizards. You might have seen it. Thanksgiving night, TNT … and Tinsley pulled a Bob Cousy for two straight hours. Twenty-three assists! 23. And no cheapies, either.

bill simmonsWe ended up discussing Tinsley for the next 10 minutes, finally deciding the Pacers rookie reminded us why we fell for basketball in the first place, wondering why there weren’t more players like him, wishing that more NBA players instinctively knew how to use their teammates, even questioning the strange phenomenon in which every time you start resigning yourself to the fact that the NBA has evolved into a “shoot-first, me-first” league, somebody like Tinsley always seems to come along and give you that “Now, that’s how it’s done” feeling.

“Damn, it’s not that hard to play point guard!” Joe yelled. “Give up the ball, penetrate to create shots, make your teammates better, always make the extra pass, reward your big men on fast breaks … this isn’t rocket science!”

In a nutshell, that’s how you play the point. This isn’t rocket science. Tinsley’s success this season isn’t any more or less surprising than the success of the New Jersey Nets, who became an instant playoff team when they swapped Stephon Marbury for Jason Kidd (maybe the most important NBA trade since the Suns acquired Charles Barkley for Jeff Hornacek, Moe, Larry and Curly back in ’92). You think it was a coincidence that Keith Van Horn hooked himself up to the Juvenation Machine this season, or that Kenyon Martin has finally been showing why he was the No. 1 pick in the 2000 Draft? That’s all J-Kidd.

Give up the ball, penetrate to create shots, make everyone better around you, always make the extra pass, reward your big men on fast breaks … this isn’t rocket science.

And yet you can count the number of “old-school” point guards on one hand: John Stockton (and he’s 55 years old), Mark Jackson (hampered by a giant pitchfork sticking out of his back), Steve Nash (sometimes), Andre Miller, Kidd, Tinsley, and maybe Tony Parker (the Spurs rookie who shows flashes) and Baron Davis (who could go either way). That’s it. That’s the list.

So what happened? Where did all the point guards go? When did this become a “Shoot-first, pass-second” position? Why didn’t these younger players learn from the lessons of Isiah Thomas, Mo Cheeks, Johnny Moore, John Lucas, Tiny Archibald, Norm Nixon, Magic Johnson, Jackson, Stockton and everybody else who shined in the ’80s? How come you can find point guards at the local Y who have a better grasp of that position than 80 percent of the starters in the NBA? Why does someone like Tinsley jump out so much for die-hard hoops fans?

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To answer those questions, we need to examine the attributes of The Perfect Point Guard. Great point guards are like great women — you remember every one that crossed your path over the years. I learned how to play basketball from playing with my father’s brothers as a youngster, most specifically Uncle Chuck and Uncle Bob (a point guard out of the Stockton/Lucas mold). Everybody loved playing with them, especially when Bob was on his game.

When you were open, Bob found you. When he penetrated into the paint, there was always a reason. When he hoisted up jumpers, it was only because the defense was sagging down low, and he wanted to keep them honest. When you ran the floor on a fast break, he rewarded you. When he drove to the basket, you learned to keep your hands up for the no-look pass.

Thanks to my uncles and the once-in-a-lifetime Bird Era in Boston, I learned to “see the court” during my formative years. Passing became my biggest strength, the one thing that set me apart from almost everyone else. I wasn’t a particularly good shooter, I wasn’t fast, I wasn’t strong, I wasn’t a good defender … but I could see the floor. If somebody was open, I found them. And eventually, with the right group of people, good passing becomes contagious and everyone starts doing it, and those are the days when you play pickup hoops until your knees ache, your feet throb and your back feels like somebody took a two-by-four to it.

I probably peaked during my first two years in college at Holy Cross, when I was playing five times a week at the Field House (one of the contributing factors to my 2.5 GPA freshman year). I was never an All-Star or anything, but I was always fun to play with and always pulled at least one memorable pass out of my butt per outing. I was a fifth banana who filled in the blanks, a Jon Barry type. And I was just competent enough that I could play against the best pickup players at school and not totally embarrass myself.

Of course, it didn’t last. Unless you’re prenaturally gifted, you need to play basketball pretty consistently to stay afloat at that level. Once I stopped playing as much my junior year, my game went south — I could still see the court, but the skills you take for granted (especially dribbling and shooting) slipped just enough that I couldn’t survive at that level anymore. So much of passing is predicated on movement — creating situations where you’re anticipating the movements of multiple players at once, then making a decision on what will happen before it even happens. Once your skills slip and you’re reacting instead of acting, there’s no going back. And that’s the main reason I stopped playing basketball. Too frustrating.

But there’s a silver lining here: I can still see the court when I’m watching NBA games. So when somebody like Jamaal Tinsley comes along, it puts an absolute hop in my step. He sees things. He knows. Most importantly, he adheres to the essential “Rules of Thumb” for The Perfect Point Guard.

Here they are:

Rule No. 1: Think “pass-first,” not “shoot-first”
Easier said than done. During their formative years, young players who score points are rewarded with attention, so they build poor habits that become inpossible to break. When everyone is gunning for their own benefit, it’s almost impossible to consistently play unselfish basketball — why pass the ball if you’re not getting it back? So that “shoot-first” mentality becomes ingrained from an early age and never entirely disappears. That’s why the Jamal Tinsleys are the exceptions, not the norms.

For instance, during the Wizards game last Thursday, the Pacers swung it around to Tinsley at the top of the key, who beat his man off the dribble and barreled into the paint. Since Washington center Jahidi White was standing under the basket and guarding Jermaine O’Neal, Tinsley easily could have pulled up and lofted an open 12-footer.


Tinsley dribbled toward the basket, trying to draw White away from O’Neal. As soon as White lurched forward to stop him, Tinsley whipped a pass over White’s shoulder to O’Neal, who was patiently waiting with his hands up for the free dunk (he knew it was coming). In other words, Tinsley passed up an open 12-footer — which he probably would have made, but you never know — for a nice assist on a slam by O’Neal.

After the play, O’Neal skipped back up the court, the fans were fired up, everyone was high-fiving on the bench … and it all happened because Tinsley penetrated into the paint thinking to himself, “I’m gonna draw the defender over and get my big guy a dunk.” Sometimes basketball is that easy.

Along those same lines…

Rule No. 2: Always reward the Big Guy
Goes without saying. Nothing drives me crazier than watching a Celtics game when one of the Boston big men runs the floor and fills the lane on a fast break, yet Kenny Anderson — the bane of my existence as a basketball fan — decides to attempt one of his “Split two guys and throw a twisting lay-up off the bankboard and hope it goes in” shots. Always reward the Big Guy. When the Big Guy is happy, he’s more prone to start rebounding and blocking shots. Again, this isn’t rocket science.

(Don’t even get me started on Anderson, a “shoot-first” point guard who can’t shoot, makes more than $9 million a year and happens to play for my favorite team. Ugh. The Celtics held three picks in the top 21 last June and somehow ended up with three shooting guards, even selecting Joe Forte at No. 21 over both Tinsley and Parker. Double ugh. Now they’re converting Forte to point guard — a painstaking process which could take years … or might not ever work out. And if that’s not enough of a kick in the teeth, Boston GM Chris Wallace admitted this summer that Red Auerbach’s high opinion of Forte directly influenced the team’s decision. Of course, Red Auerbach turned 84 years old this year. I will now light myself on fire.)

Rule No. 3: Don’t pass just for the sake of it
It’s amazing how many NBA players see the floor, possess a nice passing touch and somehow can’t get over the hump. For instance, Antoine Walker should be a terrific passer, yet he makes poor decisions at least five or six times per game — attempting dangerous alley-oops in traffic, giving the ball up to the wrong guy on a fast break, and going for highlight film passes on fast breaks when a simple bounce pass would suffice (there are a number of forwards in the league like this — Lamar Odom, Derrick Coleman, Jalen Rose and Chris Webber, to name a few).

When your point guard suffers from this problem, you’re in trouble. Sacramento gave up on Jason Williams because of his appalling lack of judgement. The Lakers gave up on Nick Van Exel for the same reasons. Portland will inevitably follow suit with Damon Stoudamire, probably this year. And you’re fooling yourself if you think that Stephon Marbury won’t get traded again before his career’s over.

Rule No. 4: Always sacrifice a basket for an assist

This corresponds to fast breaks and one of the following two scenarios:

  • 1. Point Guard X gets a steal and finds himself on a two-on-none breakaway with one of his teammates for a free basket. If he doesn’t give the freebie to his teammate, he’s not a true point guard. Period.

  • 2. Point Guard X finds himself on a classic fast break situation (3-on-1, 3-on-2 or 2-on-1). If he doesn’t attempt every trick in the book to get a teammate an easy basket, he isn’t a true point guard (he should only take it himself when the defense leaves him no other choice). In fact, that’s the coolest part about playing point guard — you invent ways to reward your teammates for busting their butt down the floor with you on a fast break. That’s your obligation. Get them the rock.

    Rule No. 5: Get your teammates involved, then take over down the stretch

    Nobody was better at this than Isiah, who realized midway through his career that he wouldn’t win a championship averaging 25-30 points a game. So he picked his spots, distributed the ball, made everyone happy… and when the Pistons needed him in crunch-time, Isiah asserted himself offensively and took over the game. He learned this routine from Magic in L.A. — once Kareem started to fade in the mid-’80s, Magic upped his scoring and managed to remain unselfish, no small feat.

    So why can’t guards as gifted as Stephon Marbury, Stevie Francis and Baron Davis figure out the “Get your teammates involved, then take over down the stretch” axiom? Hard to say. I’ve given up on Marbury … it doesn’t seem like he “gets it.” Francis worries me, because his coach encourages one-on-one basketball — and rightly so, because it gives a mediocre, undersized team a better chance to win — but that offense has turned Francis into a “shoot-first” guy. Davis could go either way … it’s too early to tell with him. Other than Tinsley and possibly Duke star Jason Williams, they represent our only hopes for the Next Generation.

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    The situation might seem bleak … but it isn’t hopeless. In case you haven’t noticed, fast breaks have made a startling comeback this season, thanks to defensive rule changes (allowing zones, which make scoring in a half-court offense more difficult) and the savvy “you have eight seconds to get the ball over midcourt” rule (which put teams in the habit of pushing the ball upcourt).

    It has been fascinating to watch some of these teams pick up their pace. Even if teams aren’t as deep as they were in the ’80s, the players are bigger and more athletic — more and more “Darius Miles/Jermaine O’Neal” leapers stream into the league every season, and athletic, multi-dimensional shooting guards of the “Kobe/McGrady” mold seem to be jumping off an assembly line. Players like James Worthy and Dominique Wilkins stood out in the old days; now every team seems to have two or three superb athletes like that. It’s a different world.

    The zone defenses have even affected half-court offenses, preventing one-dimensional teams like Boston and Utah from surviving on a steady diet of picks-and-rolls and isolation plays (because their stars can be quickly double-teamed). Teams featuring players who penetrate into the paint, draw defenders and kick it back out for open jumpers (like Milwaukee, Orlando, Sacramento and Dallas) have thrived even more than usual.

    Still, I have one suggestion that might even encourage more passing than normal: The NBA should create a new statistical category called the “Mega-Assist,” which would be awarded for any assist that directly leads to a lay-up, a dunk or a teammate being fouled before making the lay-up/dunk. The last part is crucial, because players never get credited for passes that lead to “I had to foul him or else he would have scored” fouls (you could get a ½-mega-assit for every made foul shot). By rewarding the superior passers in the league with a specific statistic, maybe that would encourage even more passing than normal. Stranger things have happened.

    And just for the record, Larry Bird was the mega-assist master; he probably had 15 mega-assists in Game 6 of the ’86 Finals alone. And yet he only averaged six or seven assists per game during his career, which doesn’t even begin to describe how much his passing affected his teammates. Much like Magic, Bird was such a generous passer that it actually became contagious — even less well-rounded players like Kevin McHale and Robert Parish learned to look for their teammates.

    So why couldn’t we quantify Bird’s influence with a specific statistic? Makes sense, no?

    The good thing is that we’re even talking about this stuff again. Combine the rule changes with the overall upgrade in athleticism and passing might actually — gasp! — make a comeback. At least Jamaal Tinsley and Jason Kidd have us off to a good start. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

    No matter what happens, I heard NBA crowds making that distinct “Wow! What a pass!” roar more times in four weeks than all of last season, especially on Thursday night, when Tinsley was slicing and dicing MJ and the Wizards in front of a raucous Indiana crowd. Basketball can be a beautiful sport when it’s played the right way. If you’re not old enough to remember this, you’ll just have to trust me.

    And who knows? Maybe the passing bug will even inspire me to launch a comeback some day.


    Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2. He’ll be writing a weekly column about the NBA throughout the remainder of the season.

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    Bill Simmons is the founding editor of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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