A combo guard is generally accepted to be a negative term in the NBA. It typically refers to a player with the size of a traditional point guard and the mindset and skills of a traditional scoring guard. It’s a quality that front offices are weary of come draft time. Rather than being able to play both positions, the thinking goes, they will be unable to play either.
Combo guards are rarely able to disprove this negative connotation. Their best hope is to actually discover and adapt into the position that best suits them, thus shedding the label altogether.
Rick Carlisle doesn’t believe his guards need a defined position, and that might not be because he is some sort of advocate for position-less basketball. It’s probably just because he has Dirk Nowitzki on his team, a man who has given careers to combo guards for over a decade.
Jason Terry, J.J. Barea and Monta Ellis weren’t touted as first option acquisitions expected to be natural fits alongside Nowitzki. Yet they have all successfully shouldered big offensive responsibility in Dallas, despite a track record of being unable to show sustainable efficiency anywhere else.
Terry has played 16 seasons in the NBA and eight with the Mavericks. His seven highest averaging field goal percentage seasons were all in Dallas. Barea started his career in Dallas, spent three seasons in Minnesota, and returned to Dallas in 2014. His three years with the T’Wolves were the three lowest field goal percentage averages of his career. Ellis led the roster in minutes played for two Dallas teams that won 49 and 50 games. In recent years, Devin Harris and Raymond Felton have managed to take a scorer’s mentality and use Nowitzki as their vehicle.
Terry, specifically, embraced the role of Dirk’s sidekick and together they played a two-man game that might have accounted for more made jump shots than any duo in NBA history (not to mention an NBA title). The success of all of these little, high volume guards is generally attributed to Nowitzki’s superstar ability to elevate the game of his teammates, and that’s absolutely an accurate way of looking at it.
But the theory that is typically left out of that equation is that, contrary to the NBA’s usual mindset, smaller combo guards are, in a vacuum, the perfect offensive complement to Nowitzki. It really boils down to one of the NBA’s most simple plays; the one most obviously suited for a seven-footer with a flawless shooting touch.
Combo guards for all their much-maligned flaws, are excellent at running pick-and-pop plays. They can handle the ball like a point guard, while also serving as dangerous scoring threats (hence the “combo”). That dual threat paired with a Nowitzki pick-and-pop is a theoretically unstoppable offensive attack. Unless the defending guard can fight through the screen every time (unlikely considering how often the Mavs will run it), Nowitzki’s height makes it impossible to guard.
Other players are less suited to maximize the play’s effectiveness. Traditional point guards (with obvious and elite exceptions) don’t have the scoring ability coming off a screen to force a man off Nowitzki, and larger guards aren’t crafty enough to operate Nowitzki’s screens quickly.
Look at how Ellis puts the defense on its heels and lets Nowitzki finish the job:
Ellis’ ball handling ability and speed (point guard traits) and threat as a pull up jumper or finisher at the rim (scoring guard traits) are what gave Nowitzki an open shot. Dirk can serve as the ultimate bail out because he’s easy to get the ball to, can shoot from anywhere, and requires such little space to get a clean look. It doesn’t take much to utilize him. Even a player like Chandler Parsons, who lacks ball speed or a dangerous off-the-dribble shot, could take advantage.
Dirk’s one-legged fade away jumper has already been cemented as the lasting image of his game. But the notion that we’re dancing around here, and the reason he is succeeding deep into his thirties, is that Nowitzki is probably the most utilizable pick-and-pop player in NBA history. Players like Karl Malone, Kevin Garnett and LaMarcus Aldridge have scored thousands of points out of the pick-and-pop, but those were very specific shots they had perfected. Nowitzki is not only more likely to make the shot, but as a pure jump shooter, he can pump-fake and step into a cleaner shot, swing the ball against a scrambling defense, or reliably hit an off-balanced jumper.
That’s all if he even touches the ball, as most defenses will be frozen by the mere threat of him. Barea, for example, often has Nowitzki set multiple screens for him in the same play until he catches the defenders in a vulnerable position, sometimes having Nowitzki hand the ball off to him like a quarterback read-option.
Once the defense is living in constant fear of Nowitzki popping out, he can catch them off guard by slipping to the basket:
That play is a result of chemistry between two players who understand how they complement each other. Barea might not be a heavy rotation player on most playoff teams, but it’s not hyperbole to say he can dominate stretches of games with Nowitzki, and he’s likely to do it again this year. But the new Maverick that’s perfectly billed to fit that same mold is Seth Curry, who can handle the ball, and has an off-the-dribble shot that demands respect. If he understands how to develop similar chemistry with Nowitzki, he really might evolve into the breakout player of next season.
That’s not to say that Nowitzki can negate all the risks of these types of players. Combo guards, by the nature of their size, are more often than not, poor or average defenders. In his prime Nowitzki was an average defender and in his twilight he’s less than that. Taking up two of the five spots on the floor with less-than-stellar defenders requires the presence of an excellent rim protector and athletic wing defenders to compensate. The Mavericks had that combination with their 2011 title team. They also have that combination now. There is, of course, much less talent on this team, but Andrew Bogut, Wes Matthews, Harrison Barnes and Justin Anderson provide the protection for the Nowitzki/combo guard pairing to survive defensively.
Dirk, often by sheer coincidence, has attacked defenses with the help of a combo guard his entire career. Barea and Curry might be his last partners in that pairing. They’ll enter 2016 in a position to succeed.