Electric youngpoint guards such as T.J. Ford, Kirk Hinrich, Chris Paul and Sebastian Telfairwould seem to be unusual candidates to conjure up an anachronism in hightopChuck Taylors named Bob Cousy. To this generation of ballplayers, the Cooz isnothing more than a grainy blip in black-and-white, if, indeed, he is anythingat all. But as those schooled in ancient NBA history know, Cousy's BostonCeltics played the game at warp speed compared with today's NBA teams, whichtoo often get stuck in the mud of one-on-one play. Current players are for themost part faster than their predecessors--they just don't play faster.
But things arelooking a whole lot more old school since the league started tweaking rulesfive years ago to encourage a more wide-open game. Hand checking by defenderswas severely curtailed; the embargo against zone defenses was relaxed(encouraging teams to put more shooters on the floor); and the time an offensehas to get the ball to midcourt was cut from 10 seconds to eight.
The Suns, underthe always-push-the-ball commandment of coach Mike D'Antoni, were the firstteam to take full advantage, showing how much fun it can be to play (and watch)a fast-paced style, what Timberwolves guard Troy Hudson calls "structuredpickup ball." In the past two seasons Phoenix has won 116 games and guardSteve Nash has won two straight MVP awards.
Now comes a newcrop of point guards who don't want to run isolation plays, pull up on a breakand waggle two fingers in the air to call a set play or leisurely dribble to aspot on the wing, wait for a cross-screen under the basket and then toss theball to a low-post scorer--assuming they have a low-post scorer, which theyprobably don't. They want to play like Nash: get it and go; make decisions onthe fly.
Although it'strue that scoring has been rising, the increases have not been precipitous(from 91.6 in 1998--99 to 95.5 in 2001--02 to 97.0 a year ago). The Sunsaveraged a league-high 108.4 points last season, but that's still a leisurelystroll in the park compared with, say, the 124.5 points put up by Cousy'sCeltics in 1959--60, one of their championship seasons.
Still, anotherheadline year for Phoenix, a rapid ascent up the standings by a team led by oneof the young sprinters and greater appreciation for transition basketball fromfans, and more NBA teams will be fast-breaking ... back to the future.
AS SOON AS theexpanded roster of the U.S. national team was announced last March, NBAinsiders began penciling in likely starters for the 2008 Olympics, and Paul'sname came up almost as often as those of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and DwyaneWade. A near-unanimous choice as Rookie of the Year (he got 124 out of 125first-place votes) after he averaged 16.1 points and 7.8 assists, Paul cancertainly push the ball up the floor, but he also has the most well-roundedgame of anyone in this group--he's an accomplished scorer, has change-of-paceability, knows the game and possesses a steady temperament and a relativelysmall ego. That's why he will likely be on the floor for Team USA's opening tipin Beijing.
SHOULD THEproceedings in Madison Square Garden remain dismal this season, at least theywill move along more quickly. Knicks coach Isiah Thomas is planning to up thetempo significantly, and that means second-year lightning bug Robinson will getmajor minutes. How much he will be at the point is undecided, but the 5'9"Robinson's skill set (he's a 39.7% shooter from long range and a muscularleaper) makes him a candidate to log some time on the wing. So even if he isn'tleading the break, he could very well be finishing it.
FOR THE firsttime the Celtics will have a dance team. They will also have a flashy newplaying style, which is why Boston traded for Telfair, who's at his best in theopen court. Telfair was a bit of a disappointment with the Trail Blazers in hisfirst two years in the league, the inevitable result, perhaps, of being thesubject of a book halfway through his rookie season and of a documentaryshortly thereafter. But the Celtics had enough faith in Telfair to give up alottery pick for him. The team still may not make the playoffs, but at least itwill be more fun to watch.
NO OTHER ROOKIElast season was as unheralded as Felton, the fourth-highest scorer (11.9points) and the second-highest assist man (5.6) among yearlings. Yet heremained in the shadow of his former ACC rival Chris Paul and spent a lot oftime on the wing in deference to veteran point guard Brevin Knight. But ifcoach Bernie Bickerstaff wants to get the most out of his young team, he willturn over the team's reins to Felton, who is as fast as anyone in the leaguewith the ball in his hands.
MANY SCOUTS didnot know how good Hinrich was going to be when the Bulls made him the seventhoverall pick in the 2003 draft--and they also weren't sure what he'd be. Scoutshad him pegged as the classic combo guard, a throwback to players such as DannyAinge and Dennis Johnson, who manned the backcourt for the Celtics in themid-1980s. But Hinrich, the oldest player in this group (he spent four years incollege), has emerged as a steady point guard with a rugged, pell-mell stylethat has made him a fan favorite in the Windy City. He's also a surprisinglystout perimeter defender, helping to create turnovers that lead to fast-breakopportunities.
T.J. FORD, 23
BRYAN COLANGELOloves speed, so one of his first moves when he took over as Raptors presidentwas to trade for T.J. Ford, who some believe is the fastest player in theleague. The deal is a major gamble because Ford is an unproven commodity whohad surgery in 2004 for a congenital spinal condition that was aggravated by aninjury. But he says it hasn't slowed him down. His new teammates will find outquickly whether he's right, because that's the only way Ford knows how to doanything on a basketball court.
IN PREPARING toface the Mavericks in the Western Conference finals, the Suns' staff determinedthat Harris can be devastating going to his right, which is why a big part ofits game plan was to force him left. Yet in the opener Phoenix defenders wereunable to stay in front of Harris, who repeatedly went right, got to the basketand laid 30 points on the stunned Suns. Harris's backcourt mate, Jason Terry,may go by Jet, but around the league everyone knows that Harris is the Mav whocan really fly. The offense still revolves around Dirk Nowitzki, but when coachAvery Johnson needs to pump up the transition game, fans will get a ride fromBig D's fastest jet.
DEE BROWN, 22
SO HERE'S ascenario to consider if you're a Jazz fan. Rookie Dee Brown has just grabbed adefensive rebound--he's not a great leaper, but he has a knack for coming upwith the ball in a crowd--and is taking off on a one-man fast break, which heoften did at Illinois. Does he continue on his aggressive charge to the hoop ordoes he pull up and wait for instructions from his coach, Jerry Sloan, who isnot a fan of one-man fast breaks? Brown will probably do the latter in theearly going, but if the Jazz is going to play a style at all in keeping withits name--and why did the team draft the speedy Brown if it wasn't looking fora little improvisation?--you will eventually see more of the former.
Keep track of your favorite team's ups and downs inMarty Burns's Power Rankings, every week at SI.com/nba.
PHOTOGRAPH BY DARREN CARROLL;
PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY (2);
PHOTOGRAPH BY GREG NELSON;
PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL FRAKES;
PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY;
PHOTOGRAPH BY DARREN CARROLL;
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH