To anyone whose basketball sensibilities were shaped in the 1990s, when Michael Jordan and his Chicago Bulls treated the rest of the NBA like a hill to be scaled in a morning workout, the shooting guard, as Jordan defined it, was the paramount position. Revising the work of Jerry West and George Gervin, the game’s greatest player turned the role into an all-encompassing one, a perch affording quick access to any part of the game requiring immediate attention. Jordan fulfilled the position’s first duty with famous ease, scoring in vigorous bunches, but also fired sharp passes, burned in for rebounds, crept into passing lanes, blocked centers’ shots. One felt, watching him wait in some corner, ready to call the game to his attention, that the floor bent in, as around a drain, to the point where Jordan’s feet stood; the game collected around him. He had complete agency, able to engage any court’s other nine players on his terms alone, resistant to and dismissive of any obstacles the opposition would devise. It was a role his 78 inches and 195 pounds were built for; he moved from spot to spot, fortifying this, disassembling that, until the mood struck him or the moment demanded it and he displayed his graceful, glorious, Nike-stamped autonomy, moving in a way that turned television cameras slow-motion. Pure, unaided triumph.
Some of the people who watched Jordan, who saw what a focused genius could do as a shooting guard, became NBA players and paid obvious and inadequate homage to their inspiration. The league became overfilled with players who stood between 6’4’’ and 6’7’’, who fired remorseless fadeaways, who defended their offensive independence as a birthright. The ablest and most stubborn (qualities Jordan himself possessed in high volume) of this generation, Kobe Bryant, became the game’s most accomplished post-Jordan player, and most of the rest – Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Jerry Stackhouse, Allen Iverson – are either retired or far removed from the days of All-Star selections. As facsimiles of Jordan sprouted, the previous mold of the shooting guard died, the wily cool of Gervin and Earl Monroe lost. In recent years, as super-athletic point guards and forwards have taken over, the pool of notable shooting guards has dwindled, Bryant and Dwyane Wade followed in order of importance by the oft-injured Eric Gordon, perhaps, or aging inventor Manu Ginobili. Now, the position largely houses not engines but specialists – knock-down shooters, lock-down defenders – with neither Jordan-like supremacy (or a lesser version of it) or the preceding generations’ quieter flair.
Thankfully, the trend has not yet spread to every corner of the game. Two crafty players, this year in two new locales, still play the simmering, sniping game popular before Jordan’s Revolution. Miami’s Ray Allen and Houston’s James Harden, on opposite ends of their careers, reintroduce the charms of the non-transcendent shooting guard.
Allen, brought to Miami from Boston over the summer, finds himself in a new role for probably the final time in his 19-year NBA career. He has been used, over his career in Milwaukee, Seattle, and Boston, as a franchise cornerstone, an equal collaborator, and an overqualified complement. Now, he joins the Heat to help build their futuristic, up-is-down offense, his famous three-point stroke and preternatural sense of floor spacing making him the perfect recipient of LeBron James’ passes from the heart of a dismantled defense.
Granted greater freedom by the Heat than he had been by the Celtics, who late in his tenure used him in monochromatic fashion, running him off baseline screens and leaving the creative work to point guard Rajon Rondo and forward Paul Pierce, Allen has also redeployed the all-around game that made him one of basketball’s most capable scorers throughout his early career. Burdened with that singular three-point stroke, Allen has long fallen victim to the assumption that that tool alone accounts for his success, but the other components of his game reveal a patient, keen, and learned basketball mind. In Miami, Allen shows his midrange talents more often, gauging an approaching defender’s momentum and taking the opportunity to drive past the defense’s epidermal layer. Here, he utilizes his savvy and balance, his body like a quick and comfortable automobile. His initial defender on his hip, Allen subtly contorts his shoulders and measures his steps, the opponent as controlled and harmless as a sack slung over his back. The ball stays tethered to his hand by an easy dribble, and Allen studies what is left between him and the basket, divining the spot to end proceedings. Then he drives to the basket – defenders kick themselves at letting the old spot-up artist beat them for a layup – or rises for a leaning but calibrated midrange jumper, the ball dripping, easy, into the net.
With two minutes left in a game against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday, November 24, the Heat trailed 108-101. After a timeout, James scored to bring the Heat within five. Allen, displaying his assorted lethality, then scored Miami’s final seven points on a sneaking baseline drive, a three-pointer from the right wing, and two free throws. The Heat won by two on the strength of their mean, potent defense and Allen’s offensive guile. It was just the latest in Allen’s string of early-season heroics that includes a game-winning four-point play against Denver, and each accomplishment legitimizes both Miami’s experimentation and the 37-year-old’s remaining talents.
If Allen’s presence in Miami is part of a team’s trial, then James Harden’s arrival in Houston was a side effect. After winning the Sixth Man of the Year award in 2012 and helping Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook drive the Oklahoma City Thunder to the NBA Finals, the guard’s contract negotiations with the team stalled, and general manager Sam Presti shipped Harden to the Houston Rockets for guard Kevin Martin and future draft picks. For the unaligned fan, it was an unfortunate occurrence, as one of the league’s most exciting and familiar teams was dismantled on the heels of its greatest triumph. In Oklahoma City, Harden’s clever, giving game had complemented the rash Westbrook and ethereal Durant, and the union dissolved too soon.
As a consolation, though, we have been treated to an untethered and assertive Harden in charge of his own team. In his first game with Houston, a road win against Detoirt, Harden tallied 37 points and twelve assists, and he followed this game with 45 points in a victory in Atlanta. The games featured staples of Harden’s Oklahoma City repertoire – clever pick and roll play, precise passing, a knack for sneaking into the lane – working as well as ever as he shouldered an increased burden.
Though the steady early flow of success has come in spurts since that opening pair of games, the Rockets now sitting at 6-7, a center-stage Harden remains a welcome sight, affording regular opportunity to witness one of basketball’s more unique collections of skills. Sleepy-eyed and bushy-bearded, Harden hides an alert and intuitive game with a relaxed demeanor. In his fourth NBA season already a pick and roll master, he receives a screen and manipulates the defenders with ease, stepping back and launching a smooth three or stepping forward and, with one or two long, unhurried strides, getting to the rim. Harden uses this standard fare to balance his seeming encyclopedia of trickery; one suspects that early in his career, he bribed some retiring veteran to teach him every bit of subterfuge he knew. Harden flicks crisp skip passes; he has a convincing pump fake. On drives to the hoop, he mimics Ginobili’s discombobulating Euro-step, taking one of his two allotted steps in one direction before tossing his whole weight, with his second step, back over his defender’s knee and jumping for the layup. He reaches the free-throw line with maddening regularity, due in large part to an original maneuver consisting of carrying the ball, as he approaches the basket, a mere foot or two off the ground with his arms fully extended, inviting defenders to take a thwack at it. They do, and they catch his wrist, and he collects his reward. To watch Harden work over 48 minutes is to become aware of all of the game’s back allies, spots of hidden treasures accessible to only the lightest feet and coolest temperaments.
Though his game could use some flushing out – while full of smarts, he seems at times to lack a capacity for true, instant innovation and relies a bit heavily on the screen to free him – Harden, like Allen, carries on a dimming tradition of good, heady shooting guards. The league has declared the position fit for superstars and role players, but these two, infiltrating instead of exploding defenses, show that some space in the middle remains. They do not try to recreate Jordan’s thrills – catch Kobe for that, bulling and spinning into the lane, tangling the strings of marionette defenders – but play even, sharp, and, nowadays, rare basketball.