Column: Point guard is a passing fancy in NBA with wings like LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard
Four of the five Lakers’ starters in their two games this season knew they’d be announced as starters over the Staples Center speakers.
Anthony Davis. LeBron James. JaVale McGee. Danny Green.
The fifth, Avery Bradley? He wasn’t expecting to join them.
“I mean, we all know LeBron’s the point guard,” Bradley said.
Since James is so adept at handling the ball and he’s such a dynamic playmaker, Bradley’s found himself as the fifth of five.
“I didn’t think about it when I signed. I didn’t think it was a possibility. I didn’t even think it was a possibility that I would even start,” Bradley said. “I just knew that I was going to come in, play hard and do whatever they wanted me to do.”
Both teams in Los Angeles aren’t asking their “point guards” — Bradley and Patrick Beverley of the Clippers — to run the offense. Those duties will fall to James, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. That opens the door for players such as Bradley and Beverley to make their point in other ways.
Will it work?
Dwight Howard isn’t making a big impact when it comes to scoring for the Lakers, but his attitude and effort are having a positive effect on the team.
The last four discrete teams to win an NBA championship — Toronto, Golden State, Cleveland and San Antonio — each had an All-Star point guard. But history has shown that with the right roster construction, players such as Mario Chalmers, Derek Fisher and Ron Harper can be NBA champion point guards without playing the position in traditional ways.
“You don’t need a ‘point guard’ when you have great wings that would handle the ball. You don’t need a ‘point guard’ who can handle the ball,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “You just need a couple of other guys who can do it.”
The best contenders around the NBA, though, all either have stars at that position such as Ben Simmons, Kemba Walker, Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook or rock-solid veterans like Mike Conley or Eric Bledsoe.
Beverley might be the template for going at a title without a traditionally established point guard — a defensive maniac who is also quietly a very good three-point shooter. His 37.9% career shooting from three-point range is better than Larry Bird’s mark.
After playing alongside James Harden in Houston, Lou Williams last season and Leonard and, eventually, George now, Beverley is an expert at his job.
“If I can do it with James Harden, I think I can do it with anybody in the league,” Beverley said. “It was an easy adjustment. I can do less work and get more, better shots. Set good screens. It’s all about sacrifice, and over time, it’ll all even out.”
Early in games, Beverley said he will help Leonard conserve some energy by picking his spots to act as the offense’s engine, to breathe life into the other four players to make sure the ball is getting pushed up the floor. Late in games, he knows that he should step aside.
So far, it’s worked for the Clippers because they have multiple players who can initiate their offense — Leonard’s a mid-range cyborg who has looked terrific so far and Williams is a pick-and-roll maestro.
Beverley, Landry Shamet and others can act as supplemental ballhandlers instead of primary ones, making it an ideal situation.
Pairing a slow-it-down, offensive orchestrator with a high-powered wing doesn’t make a lot of sense in the NBA. Remember the vetoed Chris Paul trade to the Lakers that would’ve put him in the same backcourt as Kobe Bryant?
“It never would’ve worked,” one NBA coach said. “Too much dribbling — it would’ve been a disaster.”
The Lakers’ don’t have that problem. If anything, it’s the opposite.
With Kyle Kuzma and Rajon Rondo injured, the Lakers don’t have any true playmaker besidesJames, leading coach Frank Vogel to turn to Alex Caruso in the second half Friday to give James a break.
Bradley thinks he can spell James, though his impact, he said, likely will be felt on defense where he can expend more of his energy because he doesn’t have the ball on offense that often.
“They didn’t say it when I signed,” Bradley said of starting at point guard. “They told me it was a possibility before we started training camp and then it was something that I made sure I was focused on, knowing every single spot. I was going to put my mind to it.”
The Clippers spent preseason preaching a wait-and-see approach. Two games into the season, it’s apparent that with Kawhi Leonard the team is a force even without Paul George.
For him, the comfort of still being called a “point guard” matters — it helps define the role, reminds him to get everyone into their spots on offense and forces him to learn everything in precise terms to enable the Lakers to be as flexible as possible.
The Lakers are still in figure-it-out mode, with Vogel and his staff still trying to find the right fit at point guard around James.
“I think what’s been very important and very key to the amount of winning I’ve done in my career is the coaching staff putting the players that complement each other on the floor,” James said.
For Beverley, this all doesn’t matter. He’s done it so long and so well that it’s just how he plays.
“There’s no ‘point guard.’ The game has changed so much,” Beverley said. “It’s 6-foot-8, 6-foot-9 guys that can handle it and they changed the dynamic. But it actually makes it easier for guys like me to stick around, have jobs.
“I’m going to go ride that wave out.”
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