February 12, 2016

Oral history / the point forward

The origin story of the point forward is disputed. The hybrid position — part point guard, part small forward and All-Star teammate — dates to the mid-1980s. Or the late 1970s. Depending on who you believe. John Johnson said he was the first point forward and that then Seattle SuperSonics coach Lenny Wilkens named the position. Point forward Marques Johnson said he coined the term, while longtime NBA coach Del Harris has always claimed ownership.

Harris is this story’s Kevin Bacon — the connective tissue in the biography of an idea. He was an assistant and later head coach with the Houston Rockets, playing Rick Barry and Robert Reid at point forward, and an assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks when Don Nelson started Paul Pressey at the position.

Nelson continued to build a reputation as the league’s mad scientist. He created Run TMC — the fast-paced trio of Tim Hardaway, Mitch Richmond and Chris Mullin — with the Golden State Warriors in the 1990s and developed 7-foot shooting forward Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash with the Dallas Mavericks in the 2000s. He also played Anthony Mason at point forward with New York Knicks and did the same with Stephen Jackson in his return to the Warriors. Nelson had five qualifications for his point forwards: (1) 6-foot-5 or taller (2) rebounding (3) 2.0 assist / turnover ratio (4) defense and (5) leadership.

Draymond Green meets all of Nelson’s criteria. The 6-foot-6 forward — who will play in his first All-Star Game on Sunday night — leads the NBA’s best team in rebounding (9.5) and assists (7.2) with a 2.5 assist / turnover ratio. He finished second in the Defensive Player of the Year voting last season, the tough guy conscience of the league’s best defensive team. He leads with his mouth, talking to opponents, teammates and himself. When the defending champion Warriors (48-4) visited the White House last week, President Obama praised Green for “showing us heart over height every night. Draymond’s also known to add a few more words that I can’t repeat.”

The point forward was born decades ago, in a gym somewhere, out of necessity. Or some other reason. This oral history — which is footnoted, no original interviews were conducted — is not a straight line. It starts and stops and starts again.

Rick Barry scored 25,279 points in 14 NBA and ABA seasons and led the Warriors to their first championship in 1975. He signed with the Rockets in June 1978.

MARQUES JOHNSON (All-Star forward, 1977-78 to 1989-90) | Rick Barry played [point forward] for Golden State when he ran their offense when Jamaal Wilkes was a rookie [in 1974-75]. (1. NBA.com, June 1, 2012)

Del Harris coached for more than 30 seasons in the NBA. He began his career as an assistant with the Rockets in 1976-77.

DEL HARRIS | Rick was one of the great passers of all time as a forward. We worked him with [Calvin] Murphy and Mike Newlin, neither of whom was true point guards — they were scorers. A lot of the stuff we ran, the guards would get it up the floor and then Rick would break into the middle, above the circle, get the ball, and then the main movement would begin. He would sort it out. He would make the plays. He was really the first guy to be utilized in that role very heavily. But there was no name attached to it.

RICK BARRY | I actually did that early in my career [played point forward]. In Houston, I ended up being totally misused. I was playing like a point guard, standing 30 feet from the basket, passing the ball and only shot 12 or 13 times a game. That team should have been so good. Even with John Lucas leaving, we should have been better. It was such a waste of talent it was unbelievable. Murphy and Newlin should have shared the two-guard position, Mike Dunleavy should have been used more and I should have been utilized more effectively, along with Rudy Tomjanovich and Moses Malone. (2. JockBio.com, 2003)

SLICK WATTS (Rockets guard) | [Rick] and John Johnson probably developed the position point forward. They were the players who could see the floor, get the ball to people, as well as score. (3. Slick Watts’s Tales from the Seattle SuperSonics by Slick Watts and Frank Hughes, 2005)

Barry led his teams in assists seven times — six with the Warriors and once with the Rockets.

Harris replaced Tom Nissalke as Houston’s head coach in 1979-80 and played Robert Reid at point forward.

HARRIS | Robert could dribble, he could pass. He had a pass-first mentality. He was an unselfish player, but he could make a shot — you had to guard him. We would have Tommy [Henderson] bring it up the court and get it to Robert, then cut on through so his guy couldn’t just drop off in front of Moses [Malone]. … I came up with a name for the position. Robert was our point, but he was a forward, so I called him point forward.

Reid never led the Rockets in assists.

Lenny Wilkens coached 32 seasons, winning 1,332 games and one championship. As Seattle’s director of player personnel, Wilkens fired Bob Hopkins in December 1977 and named himself coach. He started John Johnson at small forward.

LENNY WILKENS | The small forward is supposed to be an offensive position supplying 15 to 20 points a game, but we needed our small forward to run the offense, like a point guard. (4. Unguarded: My Forty Years Surviving in the NBA, Lenny Wilkens and Terry Pluto, 2000)

JOHN JOHNSON | Lenny coined that phrase [point forward].

WILKENS | I knew JJ had a great understanding of the game, and so, after he’d rebound, I’d tell our guards: Just take off, and he’ll find you.

MARQUES JOHNSON | Johnny Johnson, we played Seattle in the playoffs [in 1980] … and he was the one who would bring the ball up the floor while Gus Johnson and DJ [Dennis Johnson] would curl off screens.

JOHN JOHNSON | I was a point forward before they called it a point forward. I ran the show — took all the weight off the guards. (5. The Associated Press, Jan. 9, 2016)

Johnson led the SuperSonics in assists twice. They won the NBA Finals in 1979 and lost in the conference finals in 1980. Johnson died last month.

Marques Johnson was a five All-Star forward with the Bucks and Clippers.

MARQUES JOHNSON | At the start of the playoffs, [Bucks coach] Don Nelson came up with the idea to initiate the offense through me at small forward. So after we went through how we were going to make the adjustments to different plays, my response to Nellie was, ‘OK, so instead of a point guard, I’m a point forward.’ I remember his response clear as mud, like it was yesterday, saying back to me, ‘Yeah. I like that. You’re my point forward.’ … I’m not so hung up on the whole deal to think that I’m the original point forward. … But my claim to fame is just coming up with point forward. The coinage of the term.

Johnson never led the Bucks in assists during the regular season or the 1984 playoffs.

Don Nelson — who won a record 1,335 games in 31 seasons with the Bucks, Warriors, Knicks and Mavericks — was in his ninth season with the Bucks in 1984-85.

Paul Pressey was in his third season with the Bucks.

NELSON | Both Marques and Press have done a good job at it, but Press has a better feel for the position. ... [Marques] didn’t feel confident being a point guard. So when he advanced the ball, we could only run a couple of offensive sets. With Press, we can run any of our sets. (6. Milwaukee Journal, Nov. 6, 1984)

Harris was an assistant on Nelson’s staff.

HARRIS | I remember it clearly. We were at a meeting at the American Club in Lake Geneva (Wis.), and Nellie said, ‘I’ve got Pressey and he’s got to play forward, but he’s not really a forward. He can pass. He can see over people. But I don’t know what to do with him.’ I said, ‘Well, you could use him as a point forward like I did with Robert Reid.’ Nellie just jumped all over that. He loved it and that’s the way it was from then on. Nellie was not shy and he talked a lot about it, so he gets credit for it. But Tom Nissalke started it, I named it and Nellie popularized it. That’s the honest truth.

PAUL PRESSEY | I loved it. Nellie put the ball in my hand, and he trusted that I was going to do the right thing as far as getting the ball to our scorers. It went over well with the other guys, because they knew I wasn’t going to be taking a whole lot of shots. I was going to be a playmaker. They were going to get their shots, so they were all for that.

NELSON | We did it to get the maximum out of Press’s skills. It allows us to release our guards, who are not real quick, earlier, and alleviates some of the pressure on them and gives me a chance to play two non-ball-handling guards, like Kevin Grevey and Sidney Moncrief, together. (7. The New York Times, Jan. 3, 1985)

HARRIS | I wouldn’t want to call Marques a liar, but when he saw what Paul was doing, he probably said, ‘I used to go up there and make plays. I was a point forward.’ But he was never called that, because I remember Nellie’s reaction when I told him about it.

NELSON | We gave it a name really to help give some identity to what Press is trying to do for us.

Pressey led the Bucks in assists three times and made three All-Defensive teams. The Bucks averaged 55 wins, losing in the conference finals in 1986.

Larry Bird is probably the only player to use “point forward” derisively. In November 1989, Boston Celtics point guard Dennis Johnson criticized his teammates, including Bird, for selfish play.

BIRD | I’m always hot when I get the ball, when they call my play and let me shoot. I had no opportunity to shoot the ball in the first half. But I’m just going by what they tell me to do. I’m a point forward now. They want me to move the ball around and get it to open guys, so that’s what I’ll do. (8. Chicago Tribune, Dec. 3, 1989)

Bird led the Celtics in assists five times, including the 1989-90 season.

Scottie Pippen was a 6-foot-1 point guard when he walked on at Central Arkansas. Then he grew seven inches in college, becoming a forward with point guard skills. Pippen led his teams in assists nine times — eight with the Chicago Bulls and once with the Rockets — and helped lead the Bulls to six championships.

PRESSEY | I didn’t see him initially being that player. But he definitely could pass, he could shoot, he could handle the ball at 6-8. He played with Michael [Jordan] and B.J. Armstrong, guys who could make shots. [John] Paxson. All they had to do was spot up and be ready to shoot when he brang the ball up the floor.

SCOTTIE PIPPEN | I was LeBron James before LeBron James. (9. Northeast Ohio Media Group, June 29, 2015)

LEBRON JAMES | I’ve always looked at Scottie Pippen and of course Magic [Johnson]. Magic was a 6-9 point guard who could also play different positions. Pip played point forward in the triangle offense. Grant Hill, when he was in his prime in Detroit, was also kind of that point forward guy. (10. ESPN.com, Sept. 28, 2012)

Grant Hill led the Pistons in assists five times.

DOUG COLLINS (Pistons coach, 1995-98) | [Hill] can dominate a game more subtly by getting the ball to open people, by rebounding and, with two dribbles, getting his team into the open floor the way Magic did as a rookie.

LeBron James has led his teams in assists every season of his career. On Feb. 25, 2015, he broke Pippen’s record for most assists by a forward.

JAMES (on the assists record) | When I started to shape my game, I kind of knew that that point forward was something that was going to be my trademark. Obviously, I looked up to Michael Jordan. That’s someone that gave me a lot of inspiration, but as a kid I never thought that I could get to that point. You know, Jordan just felt so surreal. Pippen and Anfernee Hardaway and Allen Iverson were those guys that I kind of really, really thought that I could be. (11. ESPN.com, Feb. 25, 2015)

MARQUES JOHNSON | LeBron is probably better than anybody, and one of the best in the league at any position, in pushing the ball up with sheer speed.

JAMES | Honestly, even if I say I don’t want to play it, I am playing it. I play it on the court every night, being the point forward. I bring the ball up a lot for this team. I initiate a lot of the offense. At the same time, I can create for myself also. Just like Pippen did. People look at Grant Hill in his heyday when he did a lot of those things, too.

Point forwards have marked the history of the game. On ESPN.com’s recent list of the best small forwards of all time, five fit the profile of a point forward: LeBron, Bird, Pippen, Barry and John Havlicek, who led the Celtics in assists six times. Among the leaders in career triple-doubles, four are point forwards: Bird, LeBron, Havlicek and Hill. Draymond Green leads the league with 10 triple-doubles this season.

In the lineage of point forwards, Green is most similar to Pippen — a versatile two-way player, the indispensable guy beside the guy, the wingman for the best player in the game. Michael Jordan, Pippen and the Bulls won a record 72 games in 1996. Stephen Curry, Green and the Warriors are on pace to break that record this season.

The Warriors win with pace and space and a point forward who sometimes plays center. Like the game itself, the point forward is constantly evolving.

This article originally appeared on Raleigh & Company.

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