Back in the 1980s, Don Nelson authored the term “point forward” when he was coaching the Milwaukee Bucks.
That occurred when Nelson ordered his athletic small forward, Paul Pressey, to handle point guard duties and run the offense. Critics viewed the move as quirky at best, but fast-forward some 30 years later and folks are hailing Nelson as a visionary.
In today’s NBA, athletic forwards such as LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Blake Griffin and Paul Pierce have all taken their turns bringing the ball up the court. It’s a wrinkle that gives the offense an edge, with a taller player who can see over the defense directing plays.
The formula is all too familiar to Donnie Nelson, the president of basketball operations for the Dallas Mavericks and the son of Don Nelson. Donnie Nelson also acknowledged that Don Nelson had power forward Chris Webber bring the ball up the floor when the duo was with the Golden State Warriors in the 1990s.
“My dad was the first guy to unveil the ‘point forward’ in Paul Pressey,” said Donnie Nelson, who used to be a scout for the Bucks and Warriors. “And with Chris Webber we had the ‘point power forward.’
“My dad always said the perfect team for him would be five guys that are 6-[foot]-7 or 6-8, and all are interchangeable. He would want one who can play point guard and the other one can post up and play center, and they switch everything.”
Interchangeable, athletic players are on NBA teams’ most-wanted lists as they prepare for Thursday night’s draft.
Today’s game reflects Don Nelson’s vision. James often brings the ball up the floor for the Miami Heat and directs the offense, as does Durant for the Oklahoma City Thunder.
James is flanked by an athletic guard in Dwyane Wade, while Chris Bosh, a natural power forward, plays as Miami’s starting center.
Meanwhile, Durant’s sidekick is Russell Westbrook, who arguably is the most athletic point guard in NBA history. And Thunder power forward Serge Ibaka is often seen hanging around the 3-point line when Oklahoma City is on offense.
In Leonard’s case, he was named the Most Valuable Player of the NBA Finals after helping San Antonio defeat Miami in five games this month. Despite displaying his own athleticism in leading the Spurs’ offense while containing James on defense, Leonard gives credit to 38-year-old teammate Tim Duncan, who has made the switch from power forward to center, for having a huge influence on his game.
“Just seeing him at that age just inspired me,” Leonard said. “Just coming here and seeing him prepare every day and having that drive and will to want to win at the age he is — and after winning all the championships he’s won before I got here just motivated me to go even harder.”
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said Leonard is so shy that he sometimes tries to be too careful about stepping on the toes of teammates Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Duncan.
“I mean, he is there early [for practice and] he’s there late,” Popovich said of Leonard. “He wants more, he wants me and the coaches to push him, so I just talked to him about not being in that deferment sort of stage. The hell with Tony, the hell with Timmy, the hell with Manu, you play the game. You are the man, you’re part of the engine that makes us go.”
Said Donnie Nelson: “Now all of a sudden even the center spot is becoming more of a versatile position. Look at Tim Duncan. He’s really not a center, but he plays center, and if you look at the West and the league in general, there’s a lot of guys that play center that are really power forwards.
“I think the trend is to get more quickness, to get more talent and to get more versatility on the floor, which I think is a healthy thing for our game.”
A “healthy thing” that Mavs free agent Devin Harris enjoys since he’s athletic enough to play both guard positions.
“Obviously, big guys are doing a lot more of what we do now in the game,” Harris said. “You don’t see too many back-to-the-basket players like you used to. So I think it’s definitely going in that direction.”
Indeed, players who are interchangeable and can play multiple positions are all the rage.
“The power forward position used to be players who were 6-9, get rebounds, set picks, knock you down,” Donnie Nelson said. “Now all of a sudden you’ve got finesses [power forwards], you’ve got stretch [power forwards], you’ve got power [power forwards], you’ve got guys like [rookie-to-be] Julius Randle that are kind of point forwards.
“It’s really been a position that metamorphosed in new creative fun ways. I think it adds to the talent level of our game and, in a lot of respects, it’s kind of getting to that, because everyone is looking for bigger point guards and everyone is looking for more skilled frontcourt positions.”