If your first reaction to seeing this is, “LeBron is not a guard!,” please do us all a favor and stick to watching the other Finals going on right now, the one in the National Hockey League.
Because despite being listed as a forward, LeBron actually plays a number of positions at an All-Star level. And chief among them, which tickles me that most folks don’t recognize it, is his team’s main floor general and distributor. Which means that he’s a point guard.
And for all of the talk about whether Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, John Wall or Damian Lillard is Steph Curry’s main competition, the real question should be, “Who’s the NBA’s best point guard. Steph or LeBron?” Because the two of them are, by far, the best and most impactful, in terms of franchise greatness, than any other floor general playing the position in the game today.
Over the last two years, Curry and Klay Thompson have earned the right to be included among the best NBA backcourts of all time. With Irving now healthy and hungry and finally ready to prove himself on the championship stage, folks will soon recognize that the same needs to be said for him and LeBron.
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This backcourt matchup will not only define and shape the outcome of the 2016 NBA Finals between the Warriors and the Cavaliers, it will reverberate in the annals of history because of supreme skills, effervescence and the Black-Boogie-Bravado that each player brings when the ball is in their hands.
We’ll let history dictate what happens next. But for now, please know that what we’ll witness over the course of this series should measure up, and perhaps surpass what we’ve already seen in terms of phenomenal guard play in the Finals.
Don’t get stuck in certain players being placed in the box of a defined position. If they operate on the wing effectively, they might be classified as a small or even a power forward, but they’re also a guard. Just throwing that in for the curmudgeons who lack the capacity of open-mindedness.
There are plenty of players who are not classified as guards, but have elite guard and perimeter skills that are included in this discussion.
Here’s a sample of the type of greatness from the ’80s and ’90s that we can expect to see en route to the popping of the bottles this year in the victorious locker room.
1980 – The Los Angeles Lakers with Magic Johnson, Norm Nixon and Michael Cooper vs the Philadelphia 76’ers with Maurice Cheeks, Lionel Hollins and Julius Erving. Magic’s 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and three steals in the decisive Game 6 remains the Gold Standard of modern point guard play in an NBA Finals game.
1982 and 1983 – Same matchups as above, with Andrew Toney displacing Lionel Hollins for Philly. The Lakers won in ’82, but Toney ate ’em up like Hannibal Lecter. Philly and Doc finally won their ring in ’83 and the perimeter play was exceptional, but that 76’er title run was all about The Chairman of the Boards, the incomparable Moses Malone.
1984, 1985 and 1987 – The Lakers again, with Magic, Cooper and now Byron Scott took on the Boston Celtics with Dennis Johnson, Danny Ainge, Gerald Henderson, Scott Wedman and the incomparable Larry Bird. “Scott Wedman???” Yeah, I’m hearing some of you laugh and scream at me. Check it out, though.
Boston lost, 4 games to 2, in 1985, but Wedman was Steph Curry-esque as a reserve in that series, knocking down an insane 64% of this 3’s. And Dennis Johnson is the best NBA guard that no one ever talks about, outside of Massachusetts.
1988 and 1989 – Same Lakers crew, headlined by the greatest point guard ever in Magic, against the Detroit Pistons with Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Vinnie Johnson and Fennis Dembo (not really on Dembo, just wanted to see who was paying attention).
L.A. took it in ’88, and the Bad Boys got the first of their back-to-backs in ’89, when Dumars got busier than a horny rabbit! You can talk all you want about Magic’s bum hamstring and Byron Scott missing this series with his own hammy injury, but nothing will take away from Dumars’ MVP performance.
I can still see Joe D lighting up the Lakers for 24 in the first half in Game 2. And for anyone who blindly rides Kobe as the greatest Laker ever, they must not possibly understand how utterly astonishing Magic was, especially in championship series’. In ’84, ’85, ’87 and ’88, The Magic Man averaged 14.0, 13.6, 13.0 and 13.0 assists per game in the NBA Finals.
1990 – Same Pistons crew against the Portland Trail Blazers with Terry Porter and Clyde Drexler. And I don’t care if this Blazer team couldn’t win it all, Drexler and Porter was one of the dopest backcourt pairings ever.
1991 – Byron Scott couldn’t hit a bird in the ass with a bag of rice in this series, shooting a miserable 28% from the field overall and 20% from deep. But any backcourt with the great Magic Johnson (I don’t care if he was teamed up with Reece Gaines, Smush Parker and Marcus Banks!!!) going up against the “Future of the Funk” in Michael Jordan was worth the price of admission. The myth of MJ has grown so large, people tend to forget how amazing Scottie Pippen was, and how John Paxson played his role to perfection.
1992 – The Bulls, with MJ, Scottie and Paxson joined by young buck B.J. Armstrong, went up against the aforementioned Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter, with the often slept-on Danny Ainge thrown into the Blazers mix. Jordan was otherworldly, scoring 39, 39, 26, 32, 46 and 33 in Games 1 through 6.
1993 – Chicago got their first three-peat against Phoenix, but the Suns backcourt of Kevin Johnson and Dan Majerle was illmatic. And folks often forget how special Richard Dumas was.
1995 – The perimeter play of Clyde Drexler, Sam Cassell, Mario Elie and Kenny Smith was exceptional for the Houston Rockets. But despite getting swept, Orlando’s Penny Hardaway went down swinging like Thomas Hearns! This was the series where Rockets coach Rudy T reminded us to, “Never underestimate the heart of a champion.”
1996 – Steve Kerr, Toni Kukoc and Ron Harper were now in Chicago’s perimeter flow along with Jordan and Pippen for their 72-win squad. Seattle’s Gary Payton was the toughest individual defender Jordan ever faced in the Finals, but his coach George Karl did not allow him to guard MJ one-on-one for the first three games due to some lingering leg injuries.
And the Sonics also got some exceptional wing play on the offensive end from Detlef Schrempf, Hersey Hawkins and Sam Perkins.
1997 and 1998 – The Jordan Machine added to its legacy with The Flu Game in Game 5 in ’97. The Utah Jazz played Chicago tough in this series, thanks to its vicious backcourt of John Stockton, Byron Russell and Jeff Hornacek. I’ll never forget Pippen’s mind-game on Karl Malone as the Jazz forward went to the free throw line with less than 10 seconds remaining in ’97’s Game 1 and a chance to give Utah the lead.
“Just remember, the mailman doesn’t deliver on Sundays, Karl,” Pippen told Malone before he proceeded to miss both free throws.
Other than Jordan’s dominance, the thing I remember most from these matchups was the subtle brilliance of Stockton’s passing. That, and Jordan’s push-off on Russell to seal Game 6 in ’98.
Buckle up your seat belts and get ready for some supreme action by Golden State and Cleveland’s guards, along with their players that might play other positions, but still possess guard skills.
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Between Curry, Thompson, Draymond Green, Shaun Livingston, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, LeBron, Kyrie, Kevin Love, Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith, the perimeter play in this series promises to be exceptional, and possibly even historic.