In the early 1990’s, Golden State Warriors Coach Don Nelson tinkered with forward Tom Tolbert bringing the ball across the timeline. This iconoclastic maneuver occurred when the league had more defined roles, on a roster that included five-time All Star PG Tim Hardaway no less.
The experiment was short-lived.
At the time, “tall” guards like Magic Johnson had found success running the point, but the Showtime-era Lakers had a group of forwards that included Kurt Rambis and A.C. Green, who were more focused on dirty work than facilitating the offense.
Today, a new generation of pivots has emerged that bring passing excellence that was rarely seen among old-school power forwards like Charles Oakley (2.5 APG career) and Otis Thorpe (2.2 APG), who made their living underneath the rim.
Here’s a look at the top Point Forwards whose repertoires are currently on display in the 2017-18 NBA Playoffs:
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia Sixers
While the debate continues as to whether he qualifies as an NBA rookie, Simmons has taken the league by storm. After beginning the season in the frontcourt, it was apparent that his talents were better served running the point, and Dario Saric took his spot. Simmons never reverted after that, averaging 8.2 assists per game over the course of the season as the Philadelphia 76ers made their first playoff appearance since 2011-12.
At 6-foot-10, Simmons’ size and passing ability allow him to be a triple-double threat on any given night, as illustrated in Philly’s Game 4 playoff victory over the Miami HEAT in round one. The only limitation to his game seems to be shooting from beyond the arc, as he attempted a grand total of one three-point field goal (which he missed) during the regular season.
Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
As the reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year, Green always (for better or worse) seems to be in the middle of the action when it comes to rebounding, blocking shots and even steals (1.4 per game this season).
But Green also plays a critical part in the Golden State Warriors’ exotic offensive sets, which require multiple passes to set up open shots; to that effect, it’s usually Green or Kevin Durant who gets credited with the assist on the resulting score. The Warriors lead the league in secondary (or “hockey”) assists by a wide margin, and Green is a big reason why.
Green’s passing ability was on display in game two against the New Orleans Pelicans, as he racked up 12 assists in the narrow victory (KD added another seven dimes himself). Stephen Curry was only credited with two assists in his return, but chances are he played a key role in helping the offense find paydirt too.
Joe Ingles, Utah Jazz
An unlikely contributor coming into the season, the 30 year-old Aussie has carved a niche for himself for a Utah team that focuses on defense. Despite the slower pace and the presence of Ricky Rubio at point guard, Ingles managed four double-doubles (all 10-assist games) over the season en route to a career-best 4.8 APG overall.
With ROY candidate Donovan Mitchell grabbing most of the headlines, Ingles has proven integral to the Jazz’s playoff success as well, with a couple of five-assist games prior to Wednesday night’s surprise 27-point eruption that included seven treys.
LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Since LeBron excels in so many categories, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he is among the top passing forwards in the league. But what sets the 2017-18 NBA season apart is that he set a career high with 9.1 assists per game, which was well above his 7.2 career average. What’s even more impressive is that he achieved this feat with a subpar supporting cast that was impacted by injuries as well as numerous roster moves at the trade deadline.
James has continued to deliver assists in the 2017-18 NBA Playoffs, averaging slightly fewer (8.4) to date, but still ahead of his 6.9 APG during the post-season in general. In the Cleveland Cavaliers’ overtime thriller in game one versus the Toronto Raptors, the King’s 21st career playoff triple-double included 13 assists, which (unlike Golden State’s scheme) often resulted from James himself being the “point” of origination.
The emergence of the Point Forward in today’s NBA may eventually be looked upon as a stepping stone towards becoming a league without positions. But for now, it’s time to acknowledge the prevalence of bigs who can do more than convert high-percentage shots and clean the glass. Tom Tolbert must be proud.
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