Skip to main content

Main content


Evolution of the Point Guard: From small to big, back to small

POSTED: Dec 27, 2012 12:05 PM ET

By Isiah Thomas, for


Isiah Thomas led the Detroit Pistons to back-to-back NBA titles in 1989 and '90.

When I was drafted by the Detroit Pistons in 1981, the NBA was moving away from 6-foot small guards playing in the backcourt. The common thought at that time was that small guards could not win championships and be dominant in a sport that favored and valued size. Many basketball experts believed that the small man in basketball would become extinct. The point guard position had been given a new label: "point forward." This new term was the best way to describe a 6-foot-9, 240-pound player like Magic Johnson, who was his team's primary ballhandler. So the declaration went out. The NBA stood for "No Boys Allowed." The term "boys," of course, implied that small men could not lead a team to a championship in the Association.

Evolution of the Point Guard

However, after earning three consecutive finals berths, going to five straight Eastern Conference finals and winning back to back championships in 1989 and 1990 -- without a "point forward" -- the Detroit Pistons proved that there was an alternative route to championship-caliber play. In fact, the NBA point guard situation has evolved to where today the most dominant view is that every team must have a small guard who can play pick-and-roll basketball like the three small guards we had in Detroit.

Vinnie Johnson, Joe Dumars and I were all great pick-and-roll players as well as strong defenders and we dominated in the late 1980s. Similarly, players like John Stockton, Terry Porter and Kevin Johnson had incredibly successful careers and led their teams to the NBA Finals.

Today we might say that the NBA is an acronym for "No Bigs Allowed." There is a belief among some experts that the big man has no place in the game. In fact, the center position is not even on the NBA All-Star ballot! The point guard has evolved into the most dominant position on the floor, and high and side pick-and-roll basketball is the way the game is most commonly played.

Gone are the days when the 6-foot-9 "point forward" would throw inside to the 7-foot-2 center, quickly scamper to the other side of the floor and wait for a skip pass cross-court while the big fella maneuvered and scored: Two points for the center and an assist for the "point forward." In contrast, most teams today start two guards that can play pick-and-roll and shoot from the 3-point line. If need be they can post up. The small man plays inside and out.

The offensive style of play today goes against the traditional thinking that height equals might. "You can't teach size" was the phrase that used to carry the day. But now, the constructed box of the point guard has been shattered. It is no longer the position where you are not required to score. It is no longer the position where you pass to the big man and stay out of the way. Instead, it is the position where you are required to be complete in every aspect of the game.

Although every position is trained to be far more complete than in days past, generally speaking, only the point guard has come close to such completion. Only the point is required to take every aspect of the game plan off the board and make it come to life on the court. Only the point guard must be a threat to score from any area of the floor. From the 3-point line to the front of the rim, the small man must be good in every area. Depending on the position, completeness is either a goal or a necessity for all players now, which has made the game better.

Maybe no team better exemplifies this evolution than the streaking Los Angeles Clippers. With Chris Paul, Eric Bledsoe, Jamal Crawford, Chauncey Billups and Willie Green, they have the most complete set of guards on one team. Former Pistons General Manager Jack McCloskey had a saying: "You should never be guard-poor in this league," and the Clippers are definitely in the top 1 percent of guard-wealth in the NBA. Chris Paul, the small leader of the Clippers, has kicked the door down and boldly announced his team's arrival.

Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, a 6-foot-1 guard from Indiana University, was the second pick in the 1981 NBA Draft. He is a 12-time All-Star who played his entire 13-year NBA career with the Detroit Pistons, leading them to back-to-back championships in 1989 and '90. He won two All-Star Game MVPs and was the NBA Finals MVP in '90. Thomas also has been a part owner, executive and coach in the NBA.

He's now an analyst for NBA TV and will be a regular contributor to

You can follow him on Twitter at @iamisiahthomas.