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Electric young point guards such as T.J. Ford, Kirk Hinrich, Chris Paul and Sebastian Telfair would seem to be unusual candidates to conjure up an anachronism in hightop Chuck Taylors named Bob Cousy. To this generation of ballplayers, the Cooz is nothing more than a grainy blip in black-and-white, if, indeed, he is anything at all. But as those schooled in ancient NBA history know, Cousy's Boston Celtics played the game at warp speed compared with today's NBA teams, which too often get stuck in the mud of one-on-one play. Current players are for the most part faster than their predecessors--they just don't play faster.
But things are looking a whole lot more old school since the league started tweaking rules five years ago to encourage a more wide-open game. Hand checking by defenders was severely curtailed; the embargo against zone defenses was relaxed (encouraging teams to put more shooters on the floor); and the time an offense has to get the ball to midcourt was cut from 10 seconds to eight.
The Suns, under the always-push-the-ball commandment of coach Mike D'Antoni, were the first team to take full advantage, showing how much fun it can be to play (and watch) a fast-paced style, what Timberwolves guard Troy Hudson calls "structured pickup ball." In the past two seasons Phoenix has won 116 games and guard Steve Nash has won two straight MVP awards.
Now comes a new crop of point guards who don't want to run isolation plays, pull up on a break and waggle two fingers in the air to call a set play or leisurely dribble to a spot on the wing, wait for a cross-screen under the basket and then toss the ball to a low-post scorer--assuming they have a low-post scorer, which they probably don't. They want to play like Nash: get it and go; make decisions on the fly.
Although it's true that scoring has been rising, the increases have not been precipitous (from 91.6 in 1998--99 to 95.5 in 2001--02 to 97.0 a year ago). The Suns averaged a league-high 108.4 points last season, but that's still a leisurely stroll in the park compared with, say, the 124.5 points put up by Cousy's Celtics in 1959--60, one of their championship seasons.
Still, another headline year for Phoenix, a rapid ascent up the standings by a team led by one of the young sprinters and greater appreciation for transition basketball from fans, and more NBA teams will be fast-breaking ... back to the future.
CHRIS PAUL, 21
New Orleans Hornets
AS SOON AS the expanded roster of the U.S. national team was announced last March, NBA insiders began penciling in likely starters for the 2008 Olympics, and Paul's name came up almost as often as those of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. A near-unanimous choice as Rookie of the Year (he got 124 out of 125 first-place votes) after he averaged 16.1 points and 7.8 assists, Paul can certainly push the ball up the floor, but he also has the most well-rounded game of anyone in this group--he's an accomplished scorer, has change-of-pace ability, knows the game and possesses a steady temperament and a relatively small ego. That's why he will likely be on the floor for Team USA's opening tip in Beijing.
NATE ROBINSON, 22