An Unnoticed Era

1 03 2012

The Era of the Point Guard.

Anyone related to the NBA over the past decade will tell you that basketball has been and is currently filled with point guards that control the trend of the association. It is the era we are in. Correct?

This notion easily has evidence flowing from team to team as most have an elite point guard leading the way.

Steve Nash. Derrick Rose. Jason Kidd. Chris Paul.

These are just a few of the veterans and young guns that have captured the media’s heart with their play on the court and leadership for their respective team.

I am in full agreement with the power a point guard’s impact has on an NBA team. To put it in simple terms, who starts the half-court offense by bringing the ball up the court? The high quality of point guards that continues to show up in the NBA can’t be disputed. (Might as well throw Jeremy Lin into that mix…)

This position has changed from a player that simply sets up the play and gets the ball in the hands of the scorer to someone that does it all. Realizing that Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook and Kemba Walker all put up triple-doubles this season puts it in perspective. Point guards are becoming an integral part of all aspects of offenses; a transformation is in full effect.

Even with this change, does it mean point guards command the current NBA era? Does it mean we should point to the many point guard stars when we think about this time in basketball 20 years from now? When I take a second to step back and analyze all positions during the past decade, I discover something different. I come to a different conclusion. I see a different era.

The Era of the Power Forward.

Sounds weird, right?

 

The Era Begins

After the Lakers won their third straight title in 2002, San Antonio decided to begin their streak of winning championships in odd years (2003, 2005, 2007). In that 2002-2003 season, Tim Duncan, who tacked on his sixth straight season averaging at least 20 points and 10 rebounds, acted as the offensive and defensive focal point and led the Spurs to their championship. What about the other two of the big three? This core had not even been established yet since Manu Ginobili was only a rookie while Tony Parker only had one year under his belt.

The Spurs would not have made it anywhere close to the NBA Finals that year without all of those Duncan bank shots. He took the reins from David Robinson (a player from another position’s era) and pushed the Spurs to another level. He was their “player.” Even though San Antonio never played exciting, highlight reel basketball during their championship run, they sent a statement to the league with The Big Fundamental in the front seat.

Aside from this one player taking his team to a championship, the rest of the league saw a plethora of power forwards have their way.

Amare Stoudemire was about to start a new era in Phoenix.

Dirk Nowitzki was only a few years away from becoming the sole leader in Dallas.

Chris Webber was in the prime of his career with a thriving Sacramento Kings squad.

Kevin Garnett was one season away from taking the Timberwolves to not only their first playoff series win but all the way to the Western Conference Finals.

Pau Gasol was about to take the Grizzlies to three straight playoff appearances… even though they didn’t win a game in any of those first round series.

These are only some examples of the dominant power forwards playing at that time. (Karl Malone, Antawn Jamison and Juwan Howard also come to mind as some solid power forwards at the time that personified their team.)

All of these mentioned players did play well for their successful team, but it’s much more than that. Statistics can only say so much.

They led the way. They took command. Every single one of these 4’s acted as the image for his team and became an undeniable leader for his franchise. Sports fans started to identify many franchises with these main power forwards. (The fact that many of these players seemed to end up in the Western Conference is an interesting topic, but I see it as pure coincidence.)

This ascendancy was only the beginning…

 

The Era Continues

Sometimes the NBA goes through quick phases when certain positions or teams excel for a season or two.

In The Era of the Power Forward, this was in no way the case.

The Suns, Spurs and Mavericks dominated the Western Conference the next four years while fighting each other for spots in the Western Conference Finals. During three of those four seasons, they had three of the four best records in the NBA.

All three of these teams had a power forward leading the way. Dirk. Timmy. STAT. They provided the scoring, the leadership and the heart that drove these teams to success. (The argument could be made that Steve Nash had a larger overall impact than Stoudemire, but this would be the only possible exception.)

Kevin Garnett and Pau Gasol - NBA Finals Game 6:  Boston Celtics v Los Angeles LakersLater on, two other power forwards mentioned in the first list went on to new teams – Kevin Garnett and Pau Gasol.

These players had different impacts than the previous three.

Since the Truth left Kansas, The Celtics had never found a way to put the correct pieces around Paul Pierce – the face of that team – in order to push them even somewhat close to a championship. Pierce scored many points year after year throughout his first nine seasons with the C’s (23.3 ppg during that time period) but the losses piled up just as fast.

Sometimes the answer to any team’s consistent struggles may be a change in coaching. (It’s also a great scapegoat.) However, current head coach Doc Rivers joining the team in 2004 did not bring glory back to the town that had grown accustomed to winning basketball as their losing ways persisted.

What was the answer?

With the insertion of Kevin Garnett, along with Ray Allen, prior to the 2007-2008 NBA season, they transformed into an entirely different team.

No disrespect to the all-time leader in three-pointers made, but Garnett provided the indispensable missing piece for this team. He instilled a relentless defensive approach every game on every defensive possession that made it a challenge for any opponent to put the ball in the basket. As the overused sports maxim tells us, “defense wins championships,” and KG pushed to ingrain this correct team mentality, helping bring a 17th championship to Boston.

During the offseason when the Celtics picked up two of their big three, Kobe Bryant showed clear disinterest with the only team he had ever played for, even going as far as to say he would welcome a trade. Something needed to change with one of the most renowned NBA teams in the league or that franchise would watch yet another superstar with a unique first name walk out of the Staples Center to play for a different team.

The Lakers organization did not bite on this dissension from Bryant and eventually landed Pau Gasol in a blockbuster trade involving his younger brother, Marc Gasol, who has made a name for himself in Memphis.

Prior to this trade, Los Angeles had not been to the NBA Finals in four years and had not won it in six. Even though this doesn’t sound that excruciating, the quality of players on this franchise year in and year out should lead to continual success. (They spoiled Californians…)

Once Gasol came to town, they appeared in three straight NBA Finals, winning the last two. Even though many point to both of the Lakers two big men, Andrew Bynum being the other, as the missing parts for a championship, Gasol had the much bigger impact at this point in their careers. He averaged 11.5 more points and 5.7 more rebounds than Bynum in the playoffs during their two championship runs.

Obviously, every team since Shaquille O’Neal left has been Kobe’s team. No discussion. But after Shaq left the Lakers, that franchise went through seasons when it was apparent something was awry. Gasol provided that missing piece at the power forward position. Just as Garnett did for the Celtics, he came in and quickly helped Los Angeles become a champion’s city once again.

All of these illustrations only give a glimpse into the impact power forwards had on the game. Identifying exactly what the power forward should bring to a team can’t easily be explained since there have been an abundance of different types of players with different skill sets at this position. (Then again, can’t that be said about any position?) No matter the style of play, a multitude of power forwards emerged to take command of their respective team, and they sustained this throughout their time on the court.

 

The Era Resumes

That’s right – it’s still happening today.

Yes, I see Derrick Rose winning MVP. Yes, I see Russell Westbrook filling up the highlight reels. Yes, I see Rajon Rondo continuing to blossom into a do-it-all, do-it-yourself elite point guard.

However, does an alteration of a position directly translate into a period of time heavily featuring players of that position leading their teams?

Instead of being The Era of the Point Guard, it should be referred to as The Metamorphosis of the Point Guard. Teams are beginning to expect more from their point guards, and they are beginning to bring new skills to the court.

Now of the six key forwards I mentioned at the beginning of The Era of the Power Forward (Duncan, Stoudemire, Nowitzki, Garnett, Webber, Gasol), five of them still play today and three of them play at a very high level. By the way, the odd man out – Webber – has become a highly regarded sports analyst! Is there a better way a set of players could epitomize what “impact” means to a sports league?

While many of the power forwards from the start of this period have sustained their greatness, many more have emerged as potentially – if not already – highly forceful players.

Those that have kept up with the NBA the past two seasons have undoubtedly heard about a certain guy by the name of Blake Griffin or seen him in an awkward KIA commercial. After missing his entire first season with the Clippers due to an injury, he burst onto the NBA scene the very next season and he burst while pounding… pounding the ball down the hoop. Not only did he win the Slam Dunk Contest with quite a show, but he also handily won Rookie of the Year.

Chris Paul has made this little-brother-of-the-Lakers squad into a playoff contender. But before CP3 arrived, Griffin brought a certain level of entertainment that had never been present in any prior Clippers’ season. Not one. With his constant and embarrassing posterizations of opponent after opponent in game after game, the redheaded freak of nature will surely continue to be the heart and get-you-up-out-of-your-seat player for his Los Angeles team.

The Portland Trail Blazers haven’t won a playoff series since the 1999-2000 season. They have had constant injuries (specifically Greg Oden and Brandon Roy) derail any chance for their franchise to make significant progress toward a championship.

Aside from these negatives attached to the organization, one player has been successful every year he has put on a Blazers uniform – LaMarcus Aldridge.

Including this year, Aldridge has only missed eight games due to injury during the past four and a half seasons. He has never averaged fewer than 17.8 points and 7.4 rebounds in any of those seasons. Many pieces have been brought in and shipped out during Aldridge’s time in Portland, but he has remained the backbone of the team, providing those raucous fans three straight playoff appearances.

This season, he has finally been recognized for his consistent play that includes an excellent back-to-the-basket game that so few can boast these days. He became an All-Star for the first time and completely deserved this nod. Becoming the only face for this franchise, he will continue to be just that for as long as he stays in Portland.

A man that put together 53 straight double-doubles (an NBA all-time record) might be considered to have made an impact on the NBA… Kevin Love probably would agree with this notion.

Timberwolves fans seemed to have no real reason to attend games since their team traded Garnett.

No star. No energy. No wins.

That all changed when Minnesota drafted Love in 2008.

Since he came to the team with few expectations and a few too many pounds, Love has grown into one of the top power forwards currently in the league. He constantly crashes the boards by simply boxing out and does the dirty work while easily providing 20+ points a night.

During the past two seasons, he has averaged 22.4 points and 14.5 rebounds. Other than Dwight Howard, no other player can say they have done anything close to that.

Aside from the statistics, Love has put a spark back into the Timberwolves fanbase. Ricky Rubio might play a large part in this revitalization for years to come, but Love started it with his breakout season last year. He imposed his will and his boxing out on the NBA.

Similar to both Griffin and Aldridge, Love has now created an identity for his team which directly relates to him as a player and as a man.

 

In the end, The Era of the Power Forward has little to do with stats, wins or championships. Those play a factor for each player and their team, but when you get down to the meaning of an era, that’s not what it’s about.

This is about a time when the power forward position has overwhelmed the NBA with player after player becoming the face of his franchise and establishing himself as the leader for the team. Point guards have played an important role in the league’s success throughout the past 10 years, but those players have not had the same enduring impact that the power forwards have had.

When it is all said and done and every single one of the mentioned players has retired, they will all be remembered. They will be remembered for what they brought to their teams. They will be remembered for what they brought to the league. And if enough people come around to realize this, they will be remembered for what they brought to The Era of the Power Forward.

 

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4 03 2012
Rondo Does it All… Literally « jay's jems

[…] NBA is currently in a time when people are beginning to expect point guards to do it all. Rondo took this notion to the extreme and did so in 48 […]

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