Posted Dec 5 2009 8:53PM
So Allen Iverson is back, returned to Philadelphia and ready to strengthen his hold -- or loosen his grip -- on the unofficial title bestowed upon him last week by one of his former coaches, Denver's George Karl. On the night Iverson declared his short-lived "retirement,'' Karl responded to the news with a few spontaneous thoughts, including this one: "He'll go down in history as the best little guard ever to play the game of basketball.''
In the moment, it sounded right. And it still might be. But with a few days now to ponder, it seems the title might not be undisputed. The field actually is rather crowded, and it always is wise when tossing around superlatives to remember that significant things were being done by considerable people long before you bought the ketchup that's currently in your refrigerator.
Just two days after Iverson prematurely said he was done, Grant Hill cast the little-guard discussion in a different light, one shining in Steve Nash's direction. "Certainly their games are very different. I haven't played with Allen and I've played with Steve,'' Hill said. "But he's the best little guy I've ever seen, no disrespect to Allen. Especially that he's still doing it at 35.''
Look, Karl was being nice. He surely wasn't trying to start any arguments. But he did spark some conversation, which really is all the NBA has on the matter. This league might have a streak of size-ism running beneath its surface (bigger is almost always assumed to be better), but it doesn't have a "6-foot and under'' division or hand out an actual annual award to the best shorty.
It's different in college, where the Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award [named for the daughter-in-law of the fellow who first nailed up peach baskets] honors the top male and female players each year who are "shorter than average.'' For the guys, that's 6-foot or less. For the gals, no more than 5-foot-8. Among current NBA players who have won it: Earl Boykins, Jameer Nelson, Nate Robinson and Darren Collison.
Lacking official hardware, the NBA is left with an informal title and a whole lot of semantics. Best little guard? That might not be the same thing as "best little man.'' In some circles, adjusting for the size factor has been the only reliable way to get around an automatic and debate-snuffing answer to the question, "Who is the NBA's best point guard of all time?'' [That's Magic Johnson, who stands 6-foot-8, not little by anyone's standards.]
For years, Iverson has been lauded in boxing terms as "pound for pound, the game's best player.'' Which is different still from a literal cutoff at 6-feet tall. Measurements of NBA players are shaky enough -- with shoes? without shoes? -- that it would be folly to stick entirely to published heights.
None of which is going to stop us from offering our thoroughly subjective ranking, in countdown style, of the NBA's best little guards ever.
Care to quibble? That's what e-mail is for:
These guys have been the most recently successful of the NBA's Mini Coopers, pocket rockets who dart past, around and seemingly through the legs of their towering opponents. Think of those insect-scarfing birds in the African travelogues, the ones that somehow flit around the rhinos and elephants without getting squashed. "In some ways, those guys are even more amazing than Iverson,'' one Western Conference coach told me. "How is it, really, that a guy Muggsy Bogues' size (5-foot-3) could play in our league?''
Play? Bogues blocked 39 shots in his NBA career. The 5-foot-7 Webb literally soared to fame by winning the 1986 Slam Dunk contest. Boykins is averaging 10 points for Washington with an efficiency rating (9.67) better than Derek Fisher, Rasheed Wallace or Rudy Fernandez. And just to keep things in perspective, all of these guys owe a little (wink, wink) something to Charlie Criss, the 5-foot-8 product of New Mexico State who played eight seasons, mostly with Atlanta, and opened NBA doors and eyes again to the short set.
It's too early to consider Paul anywhere near the top of this list, but the New Orleans Hornets' fifth-year point guard has the potential to move up. He's been a Rookie of the Year, an all-NBA first teamer, an All-Star and a member of the U.S. Olympic gold-medal winners in 2008. For now, he'll serve as our stand-in -- or should it be stand-on for these guys? -- for active rivals such as Nelson, Aaron Brooks, Will Bynum, Speedy Claxton, Earl Watson and others who all see things eye-to-eye, about 68 inches from ground level.
The Mayor -- no, really, he is, in Sacramento -- was head-snapping quick through a 12-year career ended at age 34 by injuries incurred coping with bigger foes. He helped Phoenix to 11 playoff appearances. This is a good place to mention 5-foot-11 Terrell Brandon, another little guard who made the 6-foot Mark Price expendable in Cleveland after Price had done the same to the 6-foot-1 Johnson. In 1997, Sports Illustrated had Brandon on its cover, calling him the best point guard in the NBA.
Before Criss, before most of them, there was this guy. Murphy spent 13 seasons with the Rockets, first in San Diego and then in Houston, averaging 17.9 points and 4.4 assists. Five times he topped 20 ppg in a season and he was automatic from the foul line (career 89.2 percent shooter). The 5-foot-9 graduate of Niagara never stood taller than in 1993, when he went into the Hall of Fame.
Maybe Archibald should be higher on this list, just because of his nickname: Tiny. He's a Hall of Famer too, and one of the NBA's Top 50 players as named in 1997. But the gold standard for New York point guards has an even greater claim to fame: In 1972-73 -- back when giants such as Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar roamed the NBA -- Archibald led the league in both scoring (34 ppg) and assists (11.4). First and last dude of any size to pull that off.
The legendary Boston Celtics point guard has gotten shorter through the years. No, not from osteoporosis but from the increased size of NBA players overall. Back in the 1950s and '60s, the 6-foot-1 Cousy wasn't much shorter than many peers. But he looks small enough in the black-and-white footage of the time for this list, especially playing so much bigger. Beyond his ballhandling wizardry, Cousy was a part of six NBA title teams and entered the Hall in 1971.
No championship rings and definitely not a regular on highlight reels for flashy play. But Stockton led the NBA in assists for nine consecutive season and has a career total (15,806) that dwarfs others in the category. It only adds to his status that he came from a little school (Gonzaga) as well.
Nash might be bigger than some others here but he wouldn't tower over any of them. Except, of course, in his double duty as NBA Most Valuable Player. And in the way he used the entire offensive half of the court, all the way to the baseline to orchestrate the attacks in Phoenix and Dallas. Nash dribbling under the rim feels like the great Gretzky working from behind the goal, if only the NHL had 7-footers bearing down on him.
Oh, and if you have a problem with Nash being too tall for this club, here's an easy fix: Just snip him out and shorten the list, an appropriate move with these guys.
Let's be honest, no little guy this side of Barry Sanders has gotten knocked down and bounced back up again, ready to go, like Iverson. Run your index finger down the NBA's career scoring list and, when you get to Iverson at 24,020 points, it's like finding a guppy in the salmon run. Yet there he is, ahead of Charles Barkley, Elgin Baylor, Larry Bird and so many other big guys. Now we'll see if his career has as much bounce in it as his 165 wiry pounds.
So much of what Thomas has done or been involved in since his playing days (Knicks, CBA) has dimmed or tarnished his NBA star. But as the Detroit Pistons' playmaker and heart, Thomas was David in a league of Goliaths, deep into May and June most years. Other Bad Boys during their run with coach Chuck Daly were bigger, scowled more and got more physical, but the smiling point guard from the mean streets of Chicago dragged the lugs where he wanted to go.
"Isiah Thomas is my guy. He was a fantastic leader,'' said Bill Laimbeer, the nasty Pistons center turned Minnesota assistant coach. "And he had the great skills. You can have great skills and not be a great leader -- I'll let you figure out who we're talking about. ... Isiah had, I wouldn't call it a Napoleon complex, but he had a chip on his shoulder to be successful [because of] where he came from. He was always going to be the best. And win. That was the chip on his shoulder.''
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here.
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