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Changing of the Guard

Change is something that is inevitable. Without change, life would be nothing but incessant stagnation. The Boston Celtics know a lot about change. Their players have changed, their coaches have changed, even their court has changed. But the most poignant change involves their guard position.

From 2009-2019, the Boston Celtics have had four different All-Star starting point guards (note: guard that has been selected to an All-Star game in their career): Rajon Rondo, Isaiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving, and Kemba Walker. Each point guard has had some level of success in their career and with Boston (in the case of Walker, the Celtics are one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference so far).

Something that may not leap out to you, is that each point guard is a perfect representation of the league at the time of their Celtics campaign.

Rajon Rondo was never thought of as a potential All-Star point guard when he burst on the scene in 2006 (to casual fans at least). However, to Danny Ainge and scouts, Rondo was a steal. Per scouting platform DraftExpress’s NBA Draft Scouting Report:

“If given the green light, Rondo will be an excellent shot creator at the next level, as he is extremely difficult to stay in front of….”

“Extremely quick off the dribble, and an excellent ball-handler with either hand…Heady playmaker who plays with great maturity and calmness and rarely forces the issue”

The Kentucky-born prospect initially was a mid-volume rotational player in his rookie season, only averaging 23.5 minutes per game. He would find himself thrust in the starting lineup for his sophomore campaign, playing alongside Paul Pierce and newly-acquired Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. Rondo’s ability to facilitate and play off of the stars helped the Celtics that season, as they secured their first championship in over twenty years.

At this juncture, the point guard position was looked at as the “facilitator” position. True to the definition and expectation of a point guard, the best from this position included names such as: Magic Johnson, John Stockton, Jason Kidd, Oscar Robertson, and Bob Cousy. These players, who could score, were remembered and lauded most for their ability to open up the court for teammates, and set up winning plays. This is the idea of the “floor general”, an extension of the de facto commander of teams, the head coach. In regards to building a championship contending team (historically), the point guard was important, but not looked at as a scorer. That is not to say there weren’t point guards who became high-volume scorers, but rather, it wasn’t looked at as their primary role.

In fact, when Rondo won his first championship, the last starting point guard to win an NBA Championship while averaging twenty or more points per-game in the regular season was Magic Johnson in the 1986-1987 season. Also, out of the seven point guards to win the MVP at that time, the only one not to average at least ten assists per-game was Bob Cousy (7.5).

Rondo would ultimately be considered one of the NBA’s best point-guards between 2009 and 2015. Not only that, out of popular names such as Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, and Deron Williams, Rondo was considered the “true point guard”. He was not a sufficient perimeter shooter, but was perhaps the best facilitator at that position. From the 2009-2010 to 2013-2014 season (Rondo’s last full season in a Celtics uniform), he averaged (per-game):

  • 12.3 points
  • 4.8 rebounds
  • 10.7 assists
  • 2.0 steals
  • 47.2% field-goal percentage

Rondo would manage to become a four-time All-Star and NBA Champion in Beantown. But his style of play correlated with the expectations of your point guard at the time: making plays for others at an elite level. It is the thing that hindered players such as Allen Iverson from being considered a point guard, despite their miniature stature. Ultimately, Rondo would be traded to Dallas after the glory days of the Big 3 had expired. This would lead to the arrival of one of the previously referenced miniature dynamos, in Isaiah Thomas (the second one).

If people didn’t consider Rajon Rondo a potential all-star guard, then Isaiah Thomas wasn’t even supposed to make an NBA roster. At 5’9, 180 pounds, Thomas was selected with the 60th pick of the 2011 NBA draft….and to Sacramento out of all places. To put the proverbial cherry on top, if he did make the opening day roster, he was expected to play second/third fiddle to a man who was the NCAA’s National Player of the Year, drafted after averaging 28.9 points in his senior season: Jimmer Fredette.

People who didn’t watch college basketball between 2009-2011 do not recognize how important Jimmer Fredette’s legacy is. To put it simply, what Stephen Curry is now, is what people expected Fredette to be in his early NBA career. Jimmer had the audacity to take perimeter jump-shots from an egregious distance, and made it look so easy. This was before the days of players such as Trae Young, Buddy Hield, and Carsen Edwards. It could be argued that Jimmer was more prolific and popular as a college athlete than Stephen Curry. That is what Isaiah Thomas had to deal with. Luckily for him, Jimmer could not rise to those expectations, and Thomas managed to beat him out as a starter.

When Thomas arrived to Boston, he already proved to doubters that he could “hang” with other players in the league, despite his smaller stature. He managed to already register a season averaging twenty or more points-per-game, and now had a chance to be a starting guard for one of the most storied franchises in basketball history.

But Thomas was a peculiar type of point guard when he arrived in Boston. At this point he never averaged more than seven assists per-game. He could score, but his facilitating wasn’t to the level of someone like Rajon Rondo. When he arrived, he was by far the best player on the team. Although the Celtics were rebuilding, they were in desperate need of a bonafide scorer. Prior to Thomas’ arrival, the leading scorer on the team was Jeff Green (17.6 points per game). This led to some questioning if the team could be successful with Thomas as the star of the Celtics’ future.

Thomas would be that, for at least two full seasons. From the 2015-2016 season to the 2017-2018 season, he would average (per-game):

  • 25.5 points
  • 2.8 rebounds
  • 6.1 assists
  • 1.0 steal
  • 44.6% field-goal percentage

The Celtics would make the Eastern Conference Finals under Thomas, their first since 2012, and first since Rajon Rondo’s departure.

Isaiah Thomas reflected a budding brand of point guard that would begin to define the “new era” of basketball. It became more common to see score-first point guards instead of pass-first point guards. Instead of averaging ten or more assists, most elite point guards hovered in the five to eight range.

The year Thomas arrived to Boston, Stephen Curry would win his first MVP, averaging (per game):

  • 23.6 points
  • 4.3 rebounds
  • 7.7 assists

The following season, Curry would win the MVP unanimously. Something to note is that out of the five point guards who received MVP votes for that season, only two averaged ten or more assists per-game: Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul. The other point guards, besides Curry, to receive votes were: Damian Lillard (6.8 assists per game, 25.1 points per game) and Kyle Lowry (6.4 assists per game, 21.2 points per game).

Thomas would ultimately be traded for Kyrie Irving in controversial fashion (Thomas played in the playoffs days after the tragic death of his sister, Chyna). But what Kyrie Irving, and his brief tenure would define was a new era of the NBA, the super-team era.

July 4, 2016.

In an article featured on The Players Tribune, Kevin Durant would announce to the NBA that he would join the Golden State Warriors. This would form the greatest assembly of talent on one NBA team in a long time. Previously, the Golden State Warriors set the new record for wins in a season with 73. The addition of a former MVP, and one of the greatest players of all-time, would push the Warriors to new heights, and it did.

The result would lead to NBA general managers attempts to “load up” on talent, where to be a contender, a team would need a minimum of two All-Stars. The trade for Kyrie Irving (which also included role players and assets moving to Cleveland), was about placing a building block. However, it wasn’t about a facilitating building block, but one of offensive firepower.

To compete against Golden State meant being able to “match-up” with Golden State: Did your team have an elite guard to defend or out-score Stephen Curry, or Klay Thompson, or Kevin Durant, etc? If it didn’t, then dreams of competing were nothing but a mere fantasy.

Trading for Kyrie Irving was what would be called, a “shrewd” move. Irving was the perfect player to replace Thomas, due his premier ball-handling and scoring abilities. The former first overall pick (2011) previously became an NBA legend by drilling a clutch three pointer in Game 7 versus the Curry-led Golden State Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals. It is quite often argued that the defeat of Golden State, directly led to the decision of Kevin Durant to join them. Also, by the time of his arrival in Boston, Irving had posted per-game career numbers of:

  • 21.6 points
  • 3.4 rebounds
  • 5.5 assists
  • 1.3 steals
  • 45.7% field goal percentage

In just six seasons, Kyrie Irving was an: NBA champion, four-time All-Star, and a recognized elite scorer. Also, he was looking for an opportunity to prove his worth outside of Cleveland, to get out from under LeBron’s “shadow”. For Danny Ainge, and the Boston Celtics, they found one of the pivotal building blocks: a point guard that can match-up with Stephen Curry. Boston already had their versatile big-man to match-up with Draymond Green or whichever big Golden State placed on the floor: Al Horford. So they had two pieces. The team had also acquired an All-Star forward in Gordon Hayward. So they were set with three core pieces to compete in the NBA. Or so we thought.

As quickly as Ainge’s plan came to fruition, the building blocks started to crumble. Hayward went down in the first regular season game of his Celtics career, suffering a gruesome injury. Irving would later be shut down for the season after a needed medical procedure to remove a stress wire from his knee. This left Al Horford and the Celtics’ youth (Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Terry Rozier) to finish the remainder of the season and try to compete in the playoffs. To the surprise of most, the undermanned Celtics squad fell just short of making the NBA Finals, losing to the LeBron James-led Cavaliers in Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals.

The performance of that squad led some to believe the Celtics would be the premier team in the Eastern Conference the following season, and would be the team to beat Golden State. However, things didn’t work that way the following season. Rumors of Kyrie Irving and Al Horford’s free agency decisions clouded Celtics-related news. Additionally, it was hard for players such as Rozier and Brown, who were pivotal in the playoffs, to go back to a supporting role. The Celtics would make the playoffs, but lost in the second round to Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks.

The following summer, Irving and Horford would depart Boston for Brooklyn and Philadelphia, respectively. For a brief moment the Celtics had hope, and watched as one of their best chances of an NBA championship since 2010 faded away.

Kyrie’s departure from Boston also correlated with the end of the super-team era. The Toronto Raptors would end up winning the 2019 NBA Finals, although against a heavily under-manned Warriors squad (due to injuries to Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson). But the Raptors’ squad wasn’t pegged as a contender by “sports analysts”. There were question marks about the team from the beginning of the season:

  • Would Kawhi Leonard be healthy enough for the duration of the season?: Kawhi Leonard became somewhat of a problem for San Antonio, due to a back-and-forth between his camp and Spurs medical officials on his health.
  • Would the personnel assembled be a good fit?: Kawhi Leonard’s acquisition came via the sending off of long-time Raptor and fan favorite, DeMar DeRozan. Also, the supporting cast of Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, and later acquired Marc Gasol was decent, but didn’t strike pundits as good enough to compete against other squads.
  • Did the Raptors trade away the right player?: The Raptors had prior regular season success, but would constantly underwhelm in the playoffs. Questions lingered on whether Kyle Lowry would be able to perform at an elite level in the playoffs.
  • Would new head coach Nick Nurse be able to devise winning plays?: In the summer of 2018, Raptors had relieved former head coach Dwane Casey of his duties. Casey had formulated a reputation as one of the best coaches in the league. His ultimate dismissal was surprising, and some felt was a step in the wrong direction.

What would help the Raptors is team chemistry. The Raptors personnel fit together, and it quickly became apparent that teams should no longer try to shoehorn All-Star caliber players on a team for success. Teams that looked poised to be contenders in the season that just concluded, had their fair share of chemistry/personnel issues between top talent:

  • Houston: Could Chris Paul’s ball-dominant style of play, and fiery personality, coincide with James Harden?
  • Philadelphia: Should the team keep Jimmy Butler and have him play a key role behind Joel Embiid? Or should the team keep Tobias Harris and have him play a tertiary scoring role.
  • Portland: Could a backcourt of smaller guards (Lillard and McCollum) push the Trailblazers to an NBA Finals berth?
  • Milwaukee: Could the team rely on Khris Middleton as the primary shooter to play off of Giannis Antetokounmpo?

The Raptors win, ultimately led to the aforementioned contenders retooling to build a perfect fit:

  • Houston: trading Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook (a more athletic point-guard, who just happened to be Harden’s friend).
  • Philadelphia: engaging in a sign and trade, sending Jimmy Butler to the Heat in exchange for Josh Richardson, signing Al-Horford as a viable back-up and frontcourt partner for Embiid, and re-signing Tobias Harris.
  • Portland: trading Meyers Leonard and Maurice Harkless to Miami and the Los Angeles Clippers, respectively in exchange for a needed big-man in Hassan Whiteside.
  • Milwaukee: signing George Hill, Wesley Matthews, and Kyle Korver to reduce the shooting burden on Khris Middleton, while picking up a decent backup point (in Hill).

So how does Boston fit, pun intended, in this?

Boston managed to acquire All-Star point guard Kemba Walker in a sign-and trade, sending Terry Rozier to Charlotte. Kemba Walker was thought of as the player who most equated to Kyrie in terms of level of play and abilities on the floor. But more than that, it is Kemba’s personality that fit with Boston.

Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker are perfect representations of the cities they are from, and the colleges they made their name at.

Kyrie Irving, throughout his career had a chip on his shoulder, wanting to prove himself as an elite player. Although he was born in Melbourne, Australia, he grew up in West Orange, New Jersey. Jersey is a particular state when it comes to the northeast. It is often thought of as New York’s “ugly stepsister”. People from New Jersey have an edge about them, where they want to prove they are just as good or even better than New Yorkers. At Duke University, Kyrie wanted to prove that he was indeed elite, and capable of taking his game, and name, to the next level.

Kemba Walker, on the other hand, is a New Yorker, through and through. Born in the Bronx, Kemba Walker’s mentality has been about winning, being tough, being able to get rough and rugged. That is how most New Yorkers operate. New Yorkers want to be the alpha dogs, but don’t mind doing the “dirty work” to do so. Playing at UConn, Walker developed a winning mentality, that led to a National Championship in 2011. Most importantly, Kemba knew how to win in New England, and the importance of winning in that region.

Personality-wise, Kemba Walker has never been considered a problem. He’s been considered a leader, at UConn and at Charlotte. Walker has also been considered engaging with teammates. Kyrie has always had a superstar persona that followed him in the NBA. He was featured in television commercials, had his own name-branded sneakers, and even dated a popstar in Kehlani.

Even their purpose arriving to Boston showed stark constrasts between the two.

Kyrie wanted to prove to LeBron James that he could lead a team, and wasn’t just “the kid”. Irving achieved most of his success under LeBron. Before James’ heroic return to Cleveland, the Cavaliers were a perennial lottery team. Irving never had the chance to be the focal point of a good Cleveland team. In Boston, he had his chance to show to James and the world that he was a force himself.

Kemba’s arrival was not about proving merit to anyone. In arriving to Boston, Kemba had a chance to lead a well-constructed team. The Charlotte Bobcats/Hornets were always poorly built under Kemba’s tenure, but he always pushed through and attempted to lead the team as best as he could. Kemba never had a player of LeBron’s level of play to play with, or never sniffed the playoff depth that Irving did. So for Kemba, Boston is a chance to do what he did in Charlotte, but with a better cast of teammates, and that is lead and aid them on a path towards winning.

This is the final change that is going on in the NBA. The league is returning to a team-based philosophy instead of a solo-star driven one. By team-based, I don’t mean piling up All-Stars on a team, but rather gathering talented players that play well with each other. If one looks at the makeup of teams across the NBA, one will find duos or trios of players who fit in one way or the other.

As it relates to the point guard position, teams want to construct a team in which the point guard will be a fit to the style of play the team wants to operate. A point guard could have either elite level scoring, elite level facilitating, or both. But, if that specific point guard does not fit with the team in regards to play-style and personality, then the team will not achieve an elevated degree of success.

It could be argued that Kyrie Irving is a better player than Kemba Walker, but Kyrie does not fit the style of play Brad Stevens feels will be successful for the Celtics: ball-movement, player movement, cutting, and communication. Kyrie Irving may be a better fit with what Brooklyn wants to do in the future: generate offense through Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, allowing players such as Joe Harris, Jarrett Allen, and Caris LeVert to get open and efficient shots off of double teams and pressure on Durant and Irving.

Basketball has evolved into a “positionless” form of the game, in which each player, regardless of height and size, is expected to do a little bit of each category. If one takes a look at the changing of point guard perspective from the Rajon Rondo-era Celtics to the era of Kemba Walker, one will see how the league as a whole has changed. The Boston Celtics have seen this first hand, and it will be interesting to see if there is more change coming to the NBA.

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