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Short in stature, not in play (cont.)

Posted: Tuesday March 14, 2006 12:45PM; Updated: Tuesday March 14, 2006 4:50PM
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By Kevin Pelton, 82games.com, Special to SI.com

This season, six small backcourts have seen substantial minutes, including Boykins and Miller. They were joined in Denver this year by a third small point guard, Earl Watson, who played more than 400 minutes with Boykins and Miller before being traded to Seattle last month. Milwaukee's T.J. Ford and Maurice Williams also have paired up for plenty of time after Ford's return from a back injury that sidelined him last season. The other three small lineups all include rookies: lottery picks Chris Paul (with Speedy Claxton with the Hornets) and Raymond Felton (with Brevin Knight in Charlotte) and late first-rounder Nate Robinson (teaming with Marbury in an even smaller Knicks backcourt).

Evaluating the success of these lineups is a bit more challenging. The best way to do so may be to compare the performance of each pair's team in terms of plus-minus per 48 minutes with these backcourts on the floor (also available on 82games.com's player pairs pages) with the team's overall performance (again, through Monday):

Little Engines That Can
Player pair Team Min +/- per 48 Team +/- Difference
Claxton, Paul NOK 774 1.6 -1.3 2.9
Boykins, Miller Denver 743 1.7 0.8 0.9
Felton, Knight Charlotte 613 -5.3 -4.7 -0.6
Miller, Watson Denver 598 5.9 0.8 5.1
Ford, Williams Milwaukee 530 -0.6 -1.6 1.0
Boykins, Watson Denver 484 0.3 0.8 -0.5
Marbury, Robinson New York 442 5.1 -6.0 11.1

The 5-11 Claxton and 6-foot Paul are the quintessential example of a backcourt that coaches might have considered a novelty in the NBA prior to the new rules interpretations. In today's modern climate, though, they are the key to the Hornets' surprising success, averaging 17.6 minutes per game together when both players have been healthy.

"I think it's a big factor," says Hornets coach Byron Scott. "It puts a lot of pressure on teams, especially on individual defense, to guard two very quick point guards that can both handle the ball, both get to the basket. It's been big-time for us."

Scott is insistent that the new rules interpretations have made it easier for him to play two small guards together.

"I know it's easier," he says. "[When] those two guys start to break you down and get by you just a little bit, nowadays it's a foul. So it puts a lot of pressure on the defense to stay in front of them."

Claxton and Paul might also be the league's fastest backcourt in addition to its smallest one, and few teams can match up with the two. Opposing teams have generally tended to put their bigger defender on Paul, meaning the likely Rookie of the Year has reaped more of the benefit individually. Alongside Claxton, Paul's scoring average has risen from 18.3 points per 40 minutes to 20.4, an increase accomplished at the free-throw line, where he's attempting 9.1 free throws per 40 minutes alongside Claxton, versus 6.9 overall.

Denver's Boykins and Miller may not have the speed the Hornets' pair possesses, but they are the longest-running small backcourt in the league and have had a strong plus-minus relative to the Nuggets' overall performance in all three seasons they have teamed up in the Denver backcourt. Miller and Watson were also a successful backcourt for the Nuggets before the trade deadline, though the NBC-approved all-Earl backcourt of Boykins and Watson was not as potent. When on the court together, Boykins and Miller have combined to average 12.1 free-throw attempts per 40 minutes, as compared with 10.4 overall.