RIP Shooting Guards

Growing up, I wanted to be Michael Jordan. He was the greatest basketball player for the greatest team in the league, and his intensity was unrivaled. Ray Allen was “Jesus Shuttlesworth”. Now, fans see Allen as a deadeye shooter for various title teams, but back then, his explosiveness allowed him to get to the rim in a hurry. Reggie Miller was the reason I practiced my foul shots for hours. Kobe Bryant came into the league with his afro, and it wasn’t long before he was one of the most cut-throat scorers in the league. I remember watching all of those guys, along with Dumars, Drexler and Richmond. The shooting guard position was the sexiest in the game. I knew I would never be tall enough to be a dominant post player, so I was always drawn to the sharp shooters and off guards.

In Game 6, last Tuesday, the ageless Ray Allen swished a corner three-pointer to tie the game late in regulation. Moments later, it was Allen who contested Manu Ginobili’s buzzer-beating layup attempt. The Heat went on to win the game. In Game 7, Miami got a boost from Dwyane Wade’s double-double (23 points, 10 rebounds), and the team was able to outlast the Spurs in the decisive match. The win meant a second ring for Allen and a third for Wade.

Those two have managed to contribute to winning teams, but gone are the days when organizations build around shooting guards. In the ‘90s and early 2000s, you could not win a title without a bona fide two guard. The league has changed. In today’s NBA, point guards and swingmen are phasing out the shooting guards. Take the OKC Thunder, for example. Russell Westbrook brings the ball up, in addition to running the offense. Unlike typical point guards, Westbrook is not afraid to create his own shot, or drive to the rim. Westbrook’s uber-athleticism creates a mismatch. He’s too strong to be covered by a typical point guard, but he’s too quick for shooting guards to cover. Alongside him, is Kevin Durant, a 6’10” small forward. Durant has won two of the last three NBA scoring titles, and he is known as one of the premiere shooters in the world. Durant plays like a shooting guard, but his height creates a mismatch for defenders. The pair combined for close to 55 points per game. Because both players can assume the scoring role when needed, the Thunder are able to use Thabo Sefolosha as their starting two guard. Sefolosha is a lanky, 6’7” guard that is very effective on the defensive end of the court. His offensive duties are limited, and he is able to utilize his energy playing excellent defense. Basically, he’s a shooting guard that doesn’t need to shoot.

This past season, only one shooting guard (James Harden) was among the top 15 in points per game. The only other SG in the top 30, was Andre Iguodala. In today’s game, it’s all about length, speed and athleticism. Guards like Allen are no match defensively for swingmen like Paul George, Paul Pierce, Chandler Parsons and Harrison Barnes because of the size differential. Also, they don’t have the speed to contain Westbrook, Steph Curry, Tony Parker or Ty Lawson. Sure, the Heat won with two prominent shooting guards, but the team relied heavily on the performance of LeBron James. LBJ’s production allows for Wade and Allen to pick their moments – or Erik Spoelstra to pick their moments for them.  

Age and injuries are stamping out what is left of the “textbook” shooting guards. Allen will be 38 next season. Wade’s knees have forced him to sit out more than ever. Kobe Bryant has played seventeen seasons, and he suffered a torn Achilles this past season. The Hornets/Pelicans have Eric Gordon, but he has missed the majority of the past two seasons with injuries. That leaves OJ Mayo (DAL), JR Smith (NYK), Monta Ellis (MIL), Klay Thompson (GS), Bradley Beal (WAS) and James Harden (HOU) as the upper echelon of shooting guards in today’s NBA. Brandon Knight is a point guard that doesn’t have the ball handling skills required to play the position. Tony Allen can’t score. DeMar DeRozan has yet to master the mid-long range shooting, and he plays more like a small forward.

The once premiere position, is now the weak-link of a starting five man rotation. What happened to the great shooters? Well, they grew taller. Big men in the league have more range than ever, especially as they age. A nice 15 to 18- foot jump shot will prolong the careers of NBA bigs. The game is evolving, and teams are using less traditional shooting guards to keep up with teams like Oklahoma City. Honestly, it’s hard to argue with successful results. I just hope that one day when I have children, they won’t be looking up to JR Smith and Monta Ellis.