The NBA basket is still 10 feet off the ground, and the court looks smaller than ever as players at all positions seem taller and longer while also quicker and more athletic. There are tighter openings and less space in which to operate, with more action now having to occur well above the rim.
So what’s with all the dominating little guys?
Call them what you will, but let’s dispense with old positional notions as best we can. The league has even gone to “guard” and “frontcourt” for All-Star purposes, with that still allowing for some uncertainty. Scoring point guards became “lead guards” about 15 years ago, but postmodern offenses have obviated even that term. Some analysts believe there are now 13 actual NBA positions, with five of them being some subgroup of ball-handler, before accounting for those with talent that defies categorization.
So to keep some kind of objective standard, we’ll just go with a listed height of 6-5 or less. This isn’t scientific, just merely an observation of how markedly the game has changed.
We are watching Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, John Wall, Kyle Lowry, Damian Lillard and Chris Paul. And Mike Conley (the league’s highest-paid player) Isaiah Thomas, CJ McCollum and future Hall-of-Famer Tony Parker. That accounts for more than a third of the league’s teams, without mentioning the next-tier guys like Eric Bledsoe, Goran Dragic and George Hill, or the still raw material of D’Angelo Russell, Victor Oladipo, Emmanuel Mudiay and Kris Dunn.
And before you point it out, Dwyane Wade is also just 6-4.
Long gone are the days of the point guard tasked merely with dribbling the ball upcourt, then looking for the “shooting guard” around a series of screens before passing to him or feeding the post. Also gone is the ability of the defender to use a hand on a hip to steer and deter a ball-handler of any kind, the critical rule change that paved the way for the game to evolve as it has. These guys cannot be stopped anymore, and coaches know it.
The internationalized game is about floor balance and angles, utilizing more ball screens than ever from the corners to the wings to the top of the circle. A better understanding of the relative value of the three-point shot has prioritized it correctly, too, with the same pick/roll actions now seeking to create an open look from beyond the arc for someone other than the dribbler or screener.
Since the 2014-’15 season, at least three of the top five players and four of the top seven in Value Over Replacement Player at BasketballReference.com have been 6-5 or under. It is a striking contrast to the list of players from the 1992-’93 season, chosen pretty much arbitrarily. In the year the Bulls completed their first of two three-title runs, the final list of VORP did not feature a player 6-5 or under until all the way down to John Stockton at #16. That’s 15 players objectively more valuable and all fitting the classical definitions of centers, power forwards, small forwards and shooting guards. Stockton is the only point guard in the top 20, and the only other player 6-5 or under to be found was 6-3 Hersey Hawkins at #18.
That’s a basketball lifetime ago, a picture of how differently the game is played now.
Counterintuitive as it may seem, what will always be a big man’s sport has increasing opportunity for everyone.