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Steve Aschbruner

LeBron James, while averaging 24 points, is also dishing out seven assists a game.
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LeBron a point forward? Well, he wouldn't be the first

Posted Dec 21 2010 9:21AM

Even when things weren't going so well for the Miami Heat, the concept held little appeal for LeBron James. Point guard? Him? James typically would scrunch up his face at the suggestion as if he'd just found something fuzzy and crawly in his cornflakes.

"Running the point guard is like playing quarterback," he would say, flashing back to his St. Vincent-St. Mary days in Akron. "I decided not to play quarterback in high school. I'd rather play wide receiver and get out in the open."

Except that the image of James controlling the ball, directing traffic and initiating the Heat's offense seemed so natural and appealing. It was implicit, in all the preseason speculation that the two-time NBA Most Valuable Player might average a triple-double a la Oscar Robertson, that he might channel his inner Magic Johnson and welcome the opportunity to set up scorers and finishers as accomplished as Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. As opposed to, oh, J.J. Hickson and Daniel Gibson.

As Miami muddled through its first 17 games at 9-8, having trouble especially with traditional point-guard matchups, what once was intriguing gained some urgency. James at point guard? Why not? Do something!

But coach Erik Spoelstra held firm. Mario Chalmers and Carlos Arroyo alternately had some shining moments. And the Heat are 21-9 now, with James, Wade and Bosh in their traditional spots.

But the concept isn't totally dead. Tinkering for tinkering's sake always holds some allure. Innovation is good. Creativity is cool.

What if James played not as the Heat's point guard but as its point ... forward?! It's a legitimate role. It's been done before with similar, even "lesser" players. The potential for Miami to eschew a traditional configuration and negate any point-guard matchup headaches would seem great.

To grasp the concept of point forwards in the NBA, it's worth looking at a timeline of key individuals and moments in the development of the hybrid role:

Rick Barry

Barry wasn't the first guy to be called a "point forward" -- the term hadn't been coined yet -- and he might not have been even the first guy to play the role. But he was the first to get noticed and consistently get good results from directing his team's offense from the forward position. From 1973-74 through 1978-79 -- Barry's last five seasons with Golden State and his first in Houston -- he averaged 6.0 assists. He topped the Warriors in scoring and assists each year he was there, and famously led them to the 1975 NBA championship without either a dominating center or a flashy backcourt playmaker.

When Barry got to Houston, his scoring average -- 26.9 points a game through his first 12 NBA and ABA seasons -- fell to 13.5 in 1978-79, fourth among the Rockets behind Moses Malone, Calvin Murphy and Rudy Tomjanovich. In signing Barry as a free agent, the Rockets had lost point guard John Lucas as compensation to Golden State, per league rules back then. So Barry took over as playmaker -- from the wing.

"Rick was one of the great passers of all time as a forward," said Del Harris, an assistant on Tom Nissalke's staff then. "We worked him with [Calvin] Murphy and Mike Newlin, neither of whom was true point guards -- they were scorers. A lot of the stuff we ran, the guards would get it up the floor and then Rick would break into the middle, above the circle, get the ball, and then the main movement would begin.

"He would sort it out. He would make the plays. He was realy the first guy to be utilized in that role very heavily. But there was no name attached to it."

Robert Reid

By 1980-81, Harris was in his second season as Nissalke's replacement in Houston. And Reid, a 6-foot-8 swingman in his fourth season, was emerging as Barry's successor. The Houston backcourt was heavy on combo guards and an aging Tom Henderson, whose lack of shooting range was a concern when his defender sagged to help on Malone.

"Robert could dribble, he could pass," said Harris, who had a 556-457 record as an NBA head coach. He was the 1995 Coach of the Year with the Lakers and is general manager now of the Texas Legends NBA Development League team.

"He had a pass-first mentality. He was an unselfish player but he could make a shot -- you had to guard him. We would have Tommy bring it up the court and get it to Robert, then cut on through so his guy couldn't just drop off in front of Moses."

Allen Leavell actually led the Rockets in assists that season and in 1981-82, but Reid wasn't far behind. He averaged 14.7 points, 6.9 rebounds and 4.1 assists in the two best seasons of his career and helped Houston reach the 1981 Finals before retiring in 1982 (temporarily) to become a minister.

This was a pivotal moment in point forward history, Harris said. "I came up with a name for the position," the coach said. "Robert was our point but he was a forward, so I called him 'point forward.' "

Paul Pressey

According to NBA legend, Milwaukee coach Don Nelson was the mad scientist who experimented with the "point forward" role and Paul Pressey was his monster. Pressey, a 6-foot-5 swingman from Tulsa with a pterodactyl wingspan, was a 1982 first-round pick who didn't fit naturally into a Bucks rotation that already had Marques Johnson, Sidney Moncrief, Brian Winters and Junior Bridgeman as skill players.

Enter Harris, between coaching jobs and by that point a consultant to his pal Nelson in Milwaukee. "I remember it clearly," Harris said. "We were at a meeting at the American Club in Lake Geneva (Wis.), and Nellie said, 'I've got Pressey and he's got to play forward, but he's not really a forward. He can pass. He can see over people. But I don't know what to do with him.' I said, 'Well, you could use him as a point forward like I did with Robert Reid.'

"Nellie just jumped all over that," Harris said. "He loved it and that's the way it was from then on. Nellie was not shy and he talked a lot about it, so he gets credit for it. But Tom Nissalke started it, I named it and Nellie popularized it. That's the honest truth."

Pressey's point-forward duties fully blossomed in 1984-85. His assists more than doubled from 252 to 543, then to 623 in 1985-86 when he averaged 7.8 setting up Moncrief, Terry Cummings, Ricky Pierce and titular point guard Craig Hodges.

In a Nov. 6, 1984 story in the old Milwaukee Journal, Nelson said: "We gave it a name really to help give some identity to what Press is trying to do for us."

"I loved it," said Pressey, now an assistant on Byron Scott's Cleveland staff. "Nellie put the ball in my hand and he trusted that I was going to do the right thing as far as getting the ball to our scorers. It went over well with the other guys because they knew I wasn't going to be taking a whole lot of shots. I was going to be a playmaker. They were going to get their shots, so they were all for that."

Harris coached Pressey in his last three Milwaukee seasons but Jay Humphries and Alvin Robertson passed him as the Bucks' assist leader in 1989-90. He was traded that summer to San Antonio, where Larry Brown had Rod Strickland at the point and used Pressey more conventionally.

Marques Johnson

Johnson, a teammate of Pressey who got to Milwaukee and to Nelson five years before him, remembers the derivation of "point forward" differently. Winters had retired prior to 1983-84 and Tiny Archibald, finishing up with the Bucks at age 35, got shut down by a bum hamstring in a backcourt light on ballhandlers.

"At the start of the playoffs, Don Nelson came up with the idea to initiate the offense through me at small forward," Johnson said. "So after we went through how we were going to make the adjustments to different plays, my response to Nellie was, 'OK, so instead of a point guard, I'm a point forward.' I remember his response clear as mud, like it was yesterday, saying back to me, 'Yeah. I like that. You're my point forward.' Junior Bridgeman was there -- you can ask him."

When contacted, Bridgeman, the former Bucks sixth man turned successful restaurateur, remembered the role and the results more than the label. Johnson, who averaged 21 points a game in seven Milwaukee seasons before his 1984 trade to the Clippers, chipped in 4.6 assists in 1980-81 (second to Quinn Buckner's 4.7) and led the Bucks with 4.5 apg in 1982-83. In the 1984 postseason, Moncrief actually topped their team with 68 assists, with Johnson and Bob Lanier tied at 55.

In the clincher of Milwaukee's playoff series victory over New Jersey in 1984, the Associated Press game story chronicled Johnson's work as a playmaker and quoted Nelson about the strategy -- without ever mentioning the term 'point forward.' That fall, in the story about Pressey as the team's "point forward," Nelson said: "Both Marques and Press have done a good job at it, but Press has a better feel for the position. ... [Marques] didn't feel confident being a point guard. So when he advanced the ball, we could only run a couple of offensive sets. With Press, we an run any of our sets."

Said Johnson: "I'm not so hung up on the whole deal to think that I'm the original point forward. Rick Barry played the position for Golden State when he ran their offense when Jamaal Wilkes was a rookie. Johnny Johnson, we played Seattle in the playoffs in '79-80 and he was the one who would bring the ball up the floor while Gus Johnson and DJ [Dennis Johnson] would curl off screens. But my claim to fame is just coming up with 'point forward.' The coinage of the term."

Harris disagreed, politely but firmly. "I wouldn't want to call Marques a liar," the longtime coach said, "but when he saw what Paul was doing, he probably said, 'I used to go up there and make plays. I was a point forward.' But he was never called that because I remember Nellie's reaction when I told him about it."

As for Pressey -- the first Bucks player to be referred to in media accounts as a "point forward" -- he seems to enjoy his status as the prototype in many folks' minds. "They're trying to steal my thunder," he said, laughing. "Don't let them steal my thunder!"

Scottie Pippen

Pippen gets plenty of mentions for moving the point-forward role into the 1990s. Players such as Latrell Sprewell and Penny Hardaway ran the break and dominated the ball from the wing, too, without quite fitting the mold. Or hearing the term.

Certainly the way Pippen played, with career stats of 16.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg and 5.2 apg, speaks to his versatility and play-making. With Chicago, Phil Jackson's triangle offense turned each wing player into a point guard of sorts, both creating and finishing. But Pippen also averaged 5.9 assists for Houston in 1998-99 and 5.9 for Portland three years later at age 36.

"I didn't see him initially being that player," said Pressey, who got to the NBA five years ahead of Pippen. "But he definitely could pass, he could shoot, he could handle the ball at 6-8. He played with Michael [Jordan] and B.J. Armstrong, guys who could make shots. [John] Paxson. All they had to do was spot up and be ready to shoot when he brang the ball up the floor."

Grant Hill

Miscast as one of the first "next Jordan" candidates when he arrived in 1994, Hill averaged 7.0 assists in his second through fourth seasons with the Detroit Pistons. His coach those years, Doug Collins, focused on Hill's versatility and leaned on him as a playmaker over Lindsey Hunter, Allan Houston or Joe Dumars.

Contrasting Hill to Jordan in a 1996 Sports Illustrated article, Collins said: "He can dominate a game more subtly by getting the ball to open people, by rebounding and, with two dribbles, getting his team into the open floor the way Magic did as a rookie."

Hill's subsequent injuries and, later, his second career with a Phoenix team that already had a nifty playmaker reduced his point-forward responsibilities.

LeBron James?

All of which gets us back to the present. Kobe Bryant often plays as a "point forward" for the Lakers, but he never gets called that and, like Pippen, he does it from within Jackson's triangle offense. The primary reason Orlando re-acquired Hedo Turkoglu Saturday was the way he and Dwight Howard ran 3-5 pick-and-rolls all the way to the 2009 Finals, with Turkoglu as the Magic's "point forward."

Could James be an effective point forward for Miami? Some think he could be the quintessential one, for anybody, if he and his coaches were so inclined.

"LeBron is probably better than anybody, and one of the best in the league at any position, in pushing the ball up with sheer speed," Marques Johnson said. Johnson, who coached the Belize national team last summer, also noted that Arroyo was Puerto Rico's shooting guard to J.J. Barea's point. "But you don't want to wear LeBron out. You'd want to be careful how many minutes he plays. Because it does take a lot of energy."

Skiles, who averaged 6.5 assists in 10 NBA seasons as a 6-foot-1 playmaker, recalled Magic Johnson's advantage at 6-9. "If you've got guys with size who can put it on the floor and have good vision, who can make plays, it's a lot easier for a guy that size than it is for a small player," the Bucks coach said. "These guys are all big, so much like a tall quarterback, you can see over the defense. It's a valid way to play if you have that type of person."

Pressey cautioned that, if James were starting plays so often for the Heat, he might not be in position to finish them. Or he wouldn't do justice to his playmaking duties. "It's hard to be the playmaker and passer, and also to score 25 every night," he said. "For me, it was getting 10 or 12 assists and eight or 10 points. They need him to score more than that."

But then, so did Cleveland when James was that club's franchise player. And he somehow managed to balance 27.8 points and 7.0 assists in seven Cavs seasons.

"Honestly, even if I say I don't want to play it, I am playing it," James told me before the Heat's recent game in Milwaukee. "I play it on the court every night, being the point forward. I bring the ball up a lot for this team. I initiate a lot of the offense. At the same time, I can create for myself also. Just like Pippen did. People look at Grant Hill in his heyday when he did a lot of those things too.

"You don't have too many guys now ... Lamar Odom is one of those guys, too, who can bring the ball up and get teams into their offense, get their guys into their spots and at the same time, be aggressive."

The key seems to be having faith, and trust among teammates, that the ball will end up in the right places -- including back in the initiator's hands. "You definitely want to continue to be a threat on the court," James said. "It's always good when you get can the ball from one side to another and then it also comes back to you. You're shifting the defense and, at the same time, I can be aggressive once the ball comes back to me. We've done a great job of doing that."

Whether he's labeled a point forward or not.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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