Once upon a time the job of an NBA point guard was very different. John Stockton is one of the greatest point guards of all time, and he never averaged more than 17.2 points per game. Steve Nash’s best season was 18.8 points per game. Magic Johnson 23.9. Yet they had many seasons averaging 10, 11, 12, 13 — even 14 assists per game. Once upon a time, those were the best point guards in the NBA.
No longer. The second round of the Western Conference playoffs features a clash between two of the best point guards in today’s NBA in Steph Curry and Ja Morant. Curry is a two-time MVP and the leader of the Golden State Warriors, and Morant the reigning Most Improved Player in his third year for the Memphis Grizzlies. They represent two of the best point guards today, and they play dramatically different from the best of yesteryear. Both averaged more points per game this season than Stockton, Nash, or Johnson ever did. And neither has ever cracked the double-digit-assist barrier.
Today’s star point guard ain’t your grandma’s star point guard. However, Curry and Morant could not be more different from each other, as well. Curry, 34 years old, is the old guard, while Morant at 22 is the new. But beyond their career situations, they still are near opposites. Today’s NBA is focused on two things above all else: 3-pointers and layups. Two sides of the same analytics coin. But that coin has two heads: Curry, the 3-point god, and Morant, god of the rim.
Distinctly different styles
Each player has his share of lookalikes. Curry may have begun the pull-up 3-point era, but Damian Lillard and James Harden have followed closely in his footsteps. Morant was preceded by jump-over-you guards like Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook. However, Curry and Morant may be the two most platonic representatives of their disparate player types.
Curry is universally recognized as the greatest shooter of all time. He has the most 3-point makes in NBA history, and he’s done it on some of the most difficult shots of anyone, shooting dramatically more off the bounce and against contests than his predecessors. It’s all been written before about him, but shots that would land other players on the bench are layups for the trailblazer. The NBA still exists within the shadow of his jumper.
Morant attempted 8.6 shots at the rim per game in the regular season, making 65.2 percent. The only point guard to have exceeded his frequency of layups in the 21st century is Westbrook, who averaged 11.0 per-game attempts at 60.2 percent accuracy in 2019-20. In Morant’s three seasons, he has been 98th percentile, 97th, and 97th in driving a higher frequency of layups when he’s on the court versus the bench. His dunks are akin to the work of Umberto Boccioni: artwork of violence and beauty. Call them Dynamism of (dunks on) a Man’s Head.
The contrasts between the two are stark. For all Morant’s levitational ability, Curry’s last dunk in an NBA game came in 2019. He has just 35 in his career. For all Curry’s shooting prowess, Morant has shot only 32.7 percent from deep in his career. If Curry and Morant represent the twin forms of today’s NBA, their series against one another thus represents an era-defining wrestling match for the soul of the point guard position. This series is the sports version of a Hegelian dialectic. So far: dead drawn on the court. Fun, rather than either player, is winning.
The battle so far
In Game 1, Curry sank five triples, one pulling up while darting around a screen, and another stepping back behind the arc with a live dribble. It brought his career total of playoff games with five or more made triples to 50, almost double second place (who is his teammate, Klay Thompson). Morant missed a left-handed scoop layup at the buzzer that would have won the game. Even when Curry isn’t shooting, the threat he provides opens up the floor below the arc, and teammate Draymond Green is a master at turning that one-man advantage into a layup.
In Game 2, Morant’s vision of the position won the day, as he scored 47 points, driving to the rim with impunity. He has dominated the ball, attempting 31 shots in each game, but he drew 13 free throw attempts in Game 2. Guarding him inside the arc is a choose-your-own adventure for defenders, but with every path leading to failure. Morant is deadly with the floater, shooting by my count 5-for-7 in the series. And if defenders try to meet him early to take away the floater, he can simply jump, float past everyone, and make his decision in midair.
Similarities in the differences
It helps of course that Morant has mimicked DiCaprio in his impression of Curry, as he’s shot 9-of-23 from deep against Golden State — Curry himself is only 8-for-23. Morant had as many 3-point makes in Game 2 as Curry and fellow sharpshooter Thompson combined. Just because Curry and Morant have strengths in individual components of offense doesn’t mean they can’t get hot elsewhere.
In fact, as much as Curry and Morant appear to separate the rim from the 3-point arc, the two locations on the court are always connected. That’s reality for a sport as fluid as basketball. And because of Curry’s shooting, the rim is a better option for the Warriors; this season they shot 71.6 percent at the rim with Curry playing and 68.4 percent with him on the bench. That gap was the largest among rotation Warriors’ players in the regular season and has maintained at an equal rate into the playoffs. Similarly, the Grizzlies have shot 36.7 percent from deep with Morant on the floor in the playoffs and only 32.8 percent with him on the bench. Every good Hegelian dialectic ends in synthesis, after all.
A changing of the guard?
And so modern point guard play may seem like there are two disparate visions, but in fact they’re intertwined and inseparable. Point guards today still have to organize the offense and keep the structure of their teammates solid on that end. The duties for which Stockton was responsible remain in the job description for Curry and Morant. But both now have a variety of other burdens. They have to lead their teams in scoring while also opening up the floor for their teammates. For Curry, that means shooting the seams off the ball to open the rim for everyone else. For Morant, that means pressuring the rim endlessly to open the arc for his teammates. Either way, the result remains the same.
And so the two remain locked in combat, each fighting for his own vision of the future of the point guard position while ultimately using the same tactics. The Western Conference series has all the drama required for a classic series: old versus young, shooter versus dunker, and champion versus newcomer. So far, the two protagonists haven’t disappointed. The series to this point has been a coin toss. In fact, go ahead and toss a coin right now. Throw it nice and high. The amount of time it’s spinning in the air undecided is about the same as the amount of time the ball takes to get from Curry’s wrist to the rim, the amount of time that Morant’s body soars through the air before he dunks. Whichever drops first, jumper or dunk, may well determine which philosophical approach to the point guard position triumphs.