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Are We Finally Catching Up to Magic Johnson?

In the beginning there was Earvin: a point guard in a center’s body who could see over defenders and hand out dimes. Now, finally, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ben Simmons are picking up his legacy and changing the way we think about the game in the process.

LeBron James, Ben Simmons, and Giannis Antetokounmpo all holding basketballs Getty Images/Ringer illustration

No one daydreams about standing in the corner to take a spot-up 3. Sports fantasies usually don’t revolve around receiving a pass in the post. But everyone has imagined themselves playing point guard. It’s natural. Before the vagaries of talent and genetics separate the guards from the centers and the skilled from the not-skilled-enough, everyone wants the ball in their hands. You daydream about doing stuff. Throughout the history of the game, point guards have been the doers and the deciders. The quarterback, the coach on the floor.

In basketball, the ball is the power, and having it means having agency. A point guard gets to bring up the ball and call, or break, plays. A point guard decides who gets the spotlight in a particular moment. A great point guard is a leader and a therapist—giving orders, but doling out affirmation and praise when needed. Who needs an easy basket to break a cold streak? Who has the hot hand? Who’s going to start pouting if they don’t touch the ball soon? What, chemistry issues aside, is the best option in a given moment? After running through these and countless other variables, the point guard can simply call their own number. After all, they have the ball.

Rule changes in the early ’00s legislated away the physical, grip-and-grind brand of basketball practiced by Pat Riley’s Knicks and Heat. That, along with the tactical revelation that 3-point shots were worth more than 2-pointers, opened up the game, allowing for freedom of movement along the perimeter and ushering in a golden age of point guards. Creativity blossomed. Offenses—despite Riley, the author of a decade of 80-79 playoff games, warning that scoring would dip into the 70s—bloomed. Steve Nash won consecutive MVP awards (though many have retroactively called bullshit on these citations, particularly the 2005-06 award, which came at LeBron’s expense). That streak harkened the first waves of the sea change. Before the new rules went into effect, only two players under 6-foot-5 had won MVP—Bob Cousy in 1957 and Allen Iverson in 2001. Since then, we’ve seen Nash (2005, 2006), Derrick Rose (2011), Stephen Curry (2015, 2016), and Russell Westbrook (2017) lift the statue.

In the ’90s and early 2000s, Phil Jackson’s Bulls and Lakers teams dominated the league, winning 11 titles, using a succession of caretaker guards—B.J. Armstrong, John Paxson, Steve Kerr, washed Ron Harper, and Derek Fisher, among others—whose job was to initiate the triangle offense, then run to the corner to wait for the ball. The LeBron-Wade-Bosh Miami Heat won back-to-back chips in 2012 and 2013 with Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers at the 1. But today, the teams that make the conference finals will almost certainly have an All-Star-level point guard on the roster.

The position is deeply stocked throughout the league. Last season, 25 guards averaged five or more assists per game. In 2011-12, there were only 15. This season—and again, yes, it’s early—there are 26 guards doing it.

The point guard golden age has now entered the “I’m the point guard now” phase. Because the game is so perimeter-oriented, and success on the perimeter is predicated on guard skills, those skills have naturally proliferated across positions. Whether LeBron is officially listed as a point guard or not, he regularly, and by necessity, initiates the offense for the Cavaliers. Blake Griffin added a 3-pointer and often dons the Point Blake cape for the Clippers. Giannis Antetokounmpo's transformation from long-limbed, smoothie-lovin’ wunderkind to destroyer of worlds, bane of Aron Baynes, and MVP candidate was sparked by a move to the point guard position two seasons ago. James Harden spent most of his career as a wing before last season’s move to point guard. He came in second in MVP voting for his troubles.

The shift to positionless point guard style is evident in the numbers, even at this early stage of the season. Eight of the top 20 most frequent passers in the league, as of Tuesday night, play as occasional converted point guards or play another position entirely: Marc Gasol, Lauri Markkanen (!!!), Giannis, Nikola Jokic, LeBron, DeMarcus Cousins, Blake Griffin, and Draymond Green. At a similar point at the beginning of last season, only two non-point guards made the top-20: LeBron and Draymond. By the end of the season, Giannis had joined them, making it three.

In 2013-14, the first season for which tracking data is available, there were three non-guards in the top 20—Josh McRoberts, Joakim Noah (one of the best passing bigs ever), and Kevin Love.

You’d think a revolutionary player like Magic Johnson would’ve opened the floodgates for big guards. Or that his massive success—five NBA titles, three MVP awards, 12 All-Star appearances—would put coaches on the lookout for forward-size players skilled enough to handle playmaking duties. After all, being able to see over the defense is a huge advantage to have. But it didn’t happen. Playmakers the size of Magic are rare. The list of guards 6-foot-9 or taller is Magic, JaKarr Sampson, someone named Rawle Marshall, and Sun Yue for 10 games. None besides Johnson made a significant impact or even managed to string more than three seasons in the league together. That is, until Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons took the floor this season.

On Monday night, Ben Simmons, a 6-foot-10, fast-breaking cruiserweight and one-and-done graduate of Process University, hung a LeBronesque 24 points, seven rebounds, and nine assists (with five turnovers) on the Houston Rockets. He ran the floor like a deer, dove to the cup for those weird-looking layups he takes because he uses the wrong hand, and crushed two-handed dunks. He shot 63 percent from the field and even stroked a few rickety jumpers from around the free throw line. He tossed look-away dimes, dropped an over-the-head pass for an Amir Johnson layup, threw pocket passes off the pick-and-roll and an alley-oop to Jojo Embiid. He threw 76 passes for the game, 18 more than James Harden, the next-highest mark for either team, and was a plus-10 in 38 minutes. The Sixers beat the Rockets 115-107.

Simmons, your small-sample-size clubhouse leader for the Rookie of the Year Award and the bright silver lining to distract Sixers fans from the cloud that is Markelle Fultz’s (possibly imaginary) shoulder woes, is emblematic of the changes the point guard position is undergoing. He played mostly forward at LSU, but declared himself a “starting point guard” in July. The statement speaks both to Simmons’s versatility and skill and the fact point guard is the game’s glamour position. Showing an ability to run an offense is how many modern stars separate themselves from the pack.

Simmons’s combination of size, skill, athleticism, and unselfishness makes him fascinating. He’s the first player since Scottie Pippen to average 18 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists over the first nine games of a season. Despite the easy parallels with LeBron (they’re both repped by Rich Paul, Simmons’s game is what James’s would look like if he decided to play point guard full time), Ben is, in a sense, better compared to Giannis.

Both are devastating perimeter players with shaky jumpers in an era when having a 3-pointer is considered a necessity. Giannis may never be even an adequate deep shooter (he’s currently at 40 percent but on a small-sample-size-theater 15 attempts for the season), but times have changed, almost overnight. Only last season, a consistent jumper was thought of as the missing piece in the Greek Freak’s game; this season it’s clear: He doesn’t need one.

He’s shooting 63 percent from the field because he can see over every defender and he takes off for dunks and layups around the dotted line. He’s an irresistible force driving to the basket.

Simmons isn’t in Giannis’s class as a driver, but he has transcended his limitations in a similar way. Simmons’s wonky jumper seemed like a liability; teams would just lay 5 feet off of him, we thought. That hasn’t happened. He’s shooting 53 percent from the field and, with shooters (including Joel Embiid!) around him, he can get anywhere he wants on the floor.

The opening up of the game and resulting migration of size to the perimeter represents a philosophical return of sorts. Big men pounding away inside was the NBA’s overarching style for more than half a century. Yet the game has always been spoken about in terms of ball movement and unselfishness. It’s a state of grace that never existed. Until recently, isolation basketball and grinding post-ups have been, with exceptions, the way basketball has been played.

We should have known the big-man era was coming to a close when 7-footers like Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett flat-out lied about how tall they were so as not to be consigned to a lifetime of standing in the paint. In the ’80s, Ralph Sampson, who flashed the skills to lead fast breaks and had a nice jump shot, was constantly criticized for not getting under the basket. Such play was considered soft. Now, it’s normal to see Kristaps Porzingis, who, at 7-foot-3, stands an inch taller than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, lofting softly arcing jumpers from the Knicks logo 30 feet from the hoop. Blake Griffin’s career went to another level when he took over the playmaking duties in the absence of the injured Chris Paul. Three decades after Magic Johnson’s heyday, the game has finally caught up to him.

Considering Giannis and Simmons through this lens is fascinating. Is the Greek Freak his generation’s Magic Johnson? A weird, brilliant outlier without a jumper in an age of shooting who dominates because of his novel mashup of size, length, and skill, or is basketball in the future full of 7-foot point guards with 7-foot-2 wingspans? And if there are players who can be like that, who needs shooting?