The New Look Lakeshow Will Determine the Future of the Point Guard

Drama and storylines are essentially inevitable when it comes to anything and everything Los Angeles.  Not surprisingly, the Lakers are no exception. There are so many subplots surrounding this team, they’re a perfect fit for Hollywood.  Will Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma take the next step into stardom? How will they be able to balance all of the locker room personality between McGee, Stephenson, Caldwell-Pope, and Beasley?  Will they finally break their five year playoff drought? How much longer can Lavar Ball possibly continue to be silent? And, oh yeah, they recently signed that LeBron guy. How will that turn out?  But, all of that being said, I think the most interesting aspect of the franchise’s revamping surrounds their point guard situation. There are only two players on the roster officially listed as a point guard; Rajon Rondo and Lonzo Ball.  They are a very similar brand of player, pass first and shoot absolutely last, which is a dying breed in the NBA. The success of this team, the effectiveness of these players from this ever so important position on the court, will help determine whether the solely passing oriented point guards will continue to survive and thrive or if they will slowly wither away into extinction.  

Before diving into the relevance of the present day Lakers, let’s take a brief look at the changing dynamics of the point guard, as well as the league as a whole.  With regards to the NBA in its entirety, the positions used to be much more set in stone. The point guard was the guy who dribbled and passed, the shooting guard was the guy who would, not surprisingly, shoot jumpers, the small forward would often take it to the rack, and the power forward and center would rebound, block, and score from the post.  Those archetypes have been completely destroyed. There are players like Nikola Jokic, 7 footers who shoot, dribble, and pass like a point guard. Players like Ben Simmons and Giannis Antetokounmpo who bring the ball up at 6’10’’ plus. There are players like Kristaps Porzingis who stand at 7’3” but can also shoot threes and have a 37.5” vertical leap.  There are players like Marcus Smart who stand at 6’4” but spends a good amount of time in the post with his back to the basket. All of these and more represent the changing dynamic of the NBA which leads to the decline of the solely passing point guard.

Many people have noted the death of the traditional big man in the NBA, and see the shift towards more of a “stretch big” role, and don’t understand why.  I’ll tell you this much, it isn’t because of a sudden shortage of large people. The average height in the NBA has actually gone up since the 1980’s. It’s because of the declining rate of the pass first point guard, and that’s because of the changing positional roles.  

Let me give an example.  John Stockton was arguably the best passing point guard in NBA history, and the all time leader in assists.  He was so good because essentially every time down the court, he would run a pick and roll with Karl Malone, second all time in scoring, who would finish at the rim.  The formula is simple, yet effective. Now, the classic big man is no more, which means the pass first point guard is less effective. There’s nobody to run the pick and roll with anymore because 7 footers now dribble and shoot like a guard.  There’s less drive and kick due to the increasing rates of iso ball, which is due to the NBA’s decline of pure spot up shooters. Positions in the NBA are changing, and the pass first point guard is getting hit the hardest by it.

Now, analyzing the position a little further, ball dominance has become a larger trend in today’s NBA.  What I mean by that is that today’s NBA stars need the ball in their hands for extended periods of time to make good things happen at rates that are higher than ever.  Out of the 30 players who were selected as an All Star for the 2018 season, I would argue that three of them, or just 10%, don’t need the ball in their hands for a majority of the possession to be effective.  The first of these players is Klay Thompson whose game is predicated on the catch and shoot, which he does better than almost anyone in NBA history, and lockdown defense. Colin Cowherd put it well when he said that Klay is the only player who would fit perfectly into every team in the NBA.  He can shoot and defend, and doesn’t demand the ball. The second of these players is Kevin Love. He too brings much of his value from the catch and shoot, as well as putbacks on offensive rebounds and outlets on defensive rebounds. He catches the ball and shoots, gets the offensive rebound and puts it backup, or gets the defensive rebound and quickly throws an outlet to begin a fast break.  The ball is in his hands, then right back out, but still manages to impact the game immensely. The last of these players is Andre Drummond, whose offensive game is essentially predicated on putback dunks and catching lobs around the rim. He is an old fashioned big man, a hard nosed tough defender who gets rebounds and is the beneficiary of the pick and roll. He doesn’t take up too much of a possession, but is effective and efficient in the time he has with the ball.  The rest of these players are all ball dominant, either taking a lot of time to drive to the rim, dribble and create separation for a jumper, or work in the post. And, to clarify, I’m not saying this is a bad thing for their team, the NBA, or the game of basketball. I’m simply saying it’s bad for a pass first point guard. The days of the Steve Nash X Amare Stoudemire pick and roll, the Jason Kidd X Dirk Nowitzki pick and pop, the Mark Jackson X Reggie Miller drive and kick are over.  Today’s game is more methodical and takes up more of the shot clock, with the superstars controlling the ball at an all time rate.

If the stars need the ball in their hands, and they are the ones doing all of the creation, where does that leave the passing guards of the world?  If their main talent is distributing, but their passes end up leading to a 9 second isolations or 5 seconds in the post, what value to they really bring?  The kings of the drive and kick or the pick and roll are beginning to lose their value to the ball dominant James Hardens, Lebron James’, and Russell Westbrooks of the world.  The day that Steph shot like does from the point, Russ drives like he does from the point, Kyrie isolates like he does from the point, and Ben Simmons decided to play point guard whilst standing at 6’10” was the end of an era as we know it.  The point guard is changing, and many past first guys may be losing hope.

On to the present.  Like I’ve said time and time again, the passing point guards are slowly but surely coming to a close.  I will be shocked if we see another Steve Nash any time soon, winning back to back MVPs while scoring under 20 PPG both seasons.  That being said there have been players in recent years keeping the play style alive. One of my all time favorite players, Pablo Prigioni, the notorious 35 year old rookie for the Knicks, literally often looked scared to shoot the ball, but was a major contributor on a playoff team due to his passing.  He was a wizard with the ball, often looking like he had eyes in the back of his head making incredible pass time and time again, including my favorite play in Knicks history. Andre Miller played for what felt like a gazillion seasons in the NBA (although it was just 21) and had an extremely successful career almost solely passing the ball. He only averaged just over 12 PPG for his whole career, but clearly brought enough value for teams to want him for 21 consecutive years, playing into his 40s.  No, he didn’t shoot that much, and, when he did, it didn’t often go in. That being said, his value was passing the rock, and he did that at an all time rate. With 8,524 career assists, that puts him at number 10 all time, more than LeBron James, Tim Hardaway, Bob Cousy, Tony Parker, Jerry West, Allen Iverson and more. These players, while rare, have been able to leave their mark on the league in recent years, but it is still difficult to confirm or deny if they will survive.

I would say that there are currently only four players in the NBA who bring almost all of their value from passing the ball.  These are Milos Teodosic of the Clippers, Ricky Rubio of the Jazz, and Rajon Rondo AND Lonzo Ball of the, you guessed it, Los Angeles Lakers.  Teodosic doesn’t really have enough of a sample size to analyze, playing limited minutes per game in a season that was limited as a whole due to injuries.  That being said, in his limited time in the league, has been effective passing the ball around the court even with his limited offensive arsenal. Digging a little deeper into Ricky Rubio, while he may not have necessarily lived up to his draft hype, drafted number five overall at just 18 years of age and dubbed the “Spanish Pete Maravich,” he has been a productive player in the NBA for close to a decade although he barely averages double digit point totals for his career.  He has hovered around 10 PPG for the entirety of his eight year NBA career, which is well below average for a respectable NBA starting point guard, but he brings value elsewhere, namely defense and passing. He has tied for the NBA lead in steals per game twice, averaging 2.4 in 2012 and 2.1 in 2015, and came in second in 2013 with 2.3 steals per game. The defense is there, even if the shooting isn’t. Looking at his passing, Rubio has been able to orchestrate offenses like almost nobody else, pairing with superstars such as Kevin Love and Rudy Gobert to form dynamic and often unstoppable duos.  But, the other non Rubio player in the duo is the key. Kevin Love was one of just three players I mentioned before who is a non ball dominant all star. The reason the Rubio X Love connection was so effective in Minnesota is because Rubio could handle and control the ball for much of the clock while Love was still the eventual beneficiary. Whether it be the pick and roll, pick and pop, or a Rubio to Love drive and kick, while it was Love who did the scoring it was Rubio who did much of the work. The same could be said for Rubio and Gobert during his time with the Jazz. If Gobert was an all star last season (he wasn’t mostly due to injury), he would have been a fourth player on my list of “non ball dominant superstars.”  He is very similar to the Andre Drummond mold of providing most of his value through dunks, rebounding, and defense. Rubio has been able to run the pick and roll or throw him lobs very effectively, and the two play off each other nicely. Rubio dominates the ball, and Gobert can score off of his dimes. It’s like clockwork, and it’s effective.

Finally, on to the Lakers.  While Rajon Rondo and Lonzo Ball are very similar in play style to the likes of Ricky Rubio, their surrounding cast is not, and it seems to be set up in a way that doesn’t bode well for our old fashioned point guards.  Magic Johnson, Lakers’ President and former pass first point guard extraordinaire, has decided to go a different route than previous LeBron James led teams, and a route that sets up absolutely horrifically for our friends Lonzo and Rajon.  Previous successful “James-centric” teams have essentially been LeBron and then a ton of shooters to open up the lane for LeBron to drive and finish, or kick it out. The Heat had the likes of Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers, James Jones, Mike Miller, and of course, Ray Allen.  Following a similar trend, the Cavs had James Jones, Channing Frye, J.R. Smith, Kevin Love, and the epitome of a spot up shooter, Kyle Korver. This system has worked exceptionally well, LeBron going to eight straight finals and such, but it didn’t come without an extreme physical toll.  LeBron did so much of the heavy lifting as, with the exception of Kyrie and D-Wade, everyone essentially stood still ready to shoot. This would be a perfect role for the likes of Ball or Rondo. It plays right into their drive and kick or pick and pop expertise. But, Magic decided to change it up for LAbron.  His new strategy is to surround ‘Bron with other “playmakers,” which is a euphemism for people who actually do something besides take jumpers. This is an attempt to take much of the emphasis off LeBron when it comes to creating scoring opportunities. This is reflected in the playstyle of many players on the roster, namely Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and the two point guards this article is centered around, Lonzo Ball and Rajon Rondo.  While this system may work for LeBron, it may be difficult for the two point guards to thrive. There’s not enough shooting surrounding them for the drive and kick to be effective, and their only true big man on the roster is Javale Mcgee who, while he can dunk three balls at once and almost dunk from the free throw line, is somewhat of a living meme and has never come close to reaching his full potential, so the pick and roll will be difficult to execute as well. They will take the ball up the court (if LeBron doesn’t do that for them too) and then be forced to pass to a player who will then try to take his man off the dribble himself.  The fact that they will be passing into an isolation many plays takes away much it not all of their value in passing the ball. It would be the same as if say, Lance Stephenson, took the ball up himself and then began his iso, rather than receiving a pass from Rondo. This offense won’t feature much movement, cutting, screening, and jump shooting, which is a nightmare for the likes of Rondo and Ball who make their money off creating from those situations.

So, it is difficult to predict how Rondo and Lonzo will do, but it is also difficult to be optimistic about the situation.  In a league where the reigning two MVP’s hold on to the ball more than anyone in NBA history, it is clear that this is where the league is trending, and the Lakers want to follow suit.  So, if Lonzo Ball and Rajon Rondo can find their niche in this new brand of basketball, great. The passing oriented point guard may just live on. But, if they get lost in the action, rendered useless by Magic’s other “playmakers” and “creators,” we just may have seen the end of the solely passing point guards.  

 

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