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THE MODERN NBA point guard flows from one of two distinct prototypes. The Bob Cousy model is small and cerebral, a creature of quickness and savvy, darting around and through the dangerous big men who can do him harm. The Oscar Robertson model is oversized and forceful, dominant in body as well as mind, at home both on the perimeter and in the paint. This is classic oversimplification, of course, and does not speak to those branches of the evolutionary trail that are dead ends, such as the Magic Johnson model—6'9" transition-oriented quarterbacks having proved to be sui generis. ¶ But the best contemporary representatives of the BC and OR models fit their molds pretty well. They are, respectively, Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns and Jason Kidd of the New Jersey Nets. "As long as you allow for some variance within the models," says Nash, "[the theory] has a lot of truth to it." And as they age gracefully—Nash is 33, Kidd is 34—two worthy descendants are ready to slip into their gold-standard sneakers: Chris Paul of the New Orleans Hornets (Cousy-Nash) and Deron Williams of the Utah Jazz (Robertson-Kidd). Paul and Williams are umbilically connected, having been drafted back-to-back in 2005, and endlessly compared, the progress of one weighed against the progress of the other. Through Sunday, Williams was averaging 21.2 points and 8.9 assists for the 13--8 Jazz, which made it to the Western finals last year, while Paul was at 21.0 points, 9.8 assists and a league-high 2.89 steals for the 14--7 Hornets, who are the bigger surprise this season.
Williams and Paul are good friends who frequently exchange text messages and late-night calls—"We talk a lot about point guard play," says Paul—but also inveterate competitors whose rivalry is fueled by bad memories. Paul remembers that he, the bubbly Wake Forest star, was supposed to go ahead of Williams in the draft, while Williams, who took a backseat at Illinois to Dee Brown, recalls that Utah fans booed his selection at No. 3 and that Paul went on to beat him out for Rookie of the Year. Their rivalry is not nasty. But that doesn't mean it isn't personal.
So which is the point guard of the future? "They both are," says Kidd.
"There's so much good about both of them," says Nash, "that it's impossible to pick."
It should be noted, incidentally, that the BC-OR classifications do not account for one active point guard who, unlike any of these four, has actually won a championship—three of them, in fact. But the quickness of the San Antonio Spurs' Tony Parker, and the brilliance of his teammate Tim Duncan, through whom the Spurs' offense sometimes goes, puts Parker, as Paul sees it, in a different category. "You just can't learn to get in the lane as quick as Tony does and put up all those weird shots," says Paul. "I love watching Tony, but it's tough to try to be him."
NOT THAT emulating Paul or Williams is any easier. In the case of Williams, he is a playground-style guard tasked with running the trains-on-time system of Jerry Sloan, the NBA's most fundamental and entrenched coach. Williams also plays in the shadow of Jazz immortal John Stockton, who orchestrated that system for 19 seasons. Paul, meanwhile, has been charged with reinvigorating a franchise troubled by low attendance, poor performance (the Hornets haven't won a playoff series since 2002 and have never gotten beyond the conference semis) and the looming possibility that the team will flee the Crescent City. On a recent day the face of the franchise was at the Hornets' training facility in suburban Westwego by 8 a.m. Paul did his daily weight workout, filmed a PSA for the city of New Orleans, did a magazine interview, lifted some more, did a spot for NBA TV about the 2008 All-Star Game (in New Orleans), then went to practice.
But both players were to this manner born, point guards by desire, inclination, personality (both have utter confidence in their decision-making abilities) and, in the case of the 6-foot, 175-pound Paul, body type. "I've always been vertically challenged," he says with a smile. "I never grew at all until my junior year of high school. If you call this growing."
Williams, 23, was the biggest kid on his suburban Dallas middle school team, but he still played point. "I never thought of myself as anything but a passer," says Williams, now 6'3" and 210 pounds. "The guys I looked up to were Magic and Jason. They could score, but they weren't shooters."
Paul, 22, played youth basketball in Winston-Salem, N.C., for his demanding father, Charles, who wouldn't allow him to shoot unless he went inside and got a rebound. He watched tapes of Kidd, Magic and Isiah Thomas. "I loved how feisty Isiah was at that size," Paul says of the 6'1" Thomas. In his two years at Wake Forest, Paul concentrated on analyzing Nash from the tapes that his coach, the late Skip Prosser, would give him.
They lead in different ways. Williams, inked to the max (he wears a NO GUTS tat on his left triceps and a NO GLORY marking on his right), is all about coolness. He seldom shows anger or joy, and he commands with an I'm-in-control-here demeanor that suggests Kidd and, in a way, Stockton, though the intensity was more palpable on Stockton's strictly-biz face. "Deron's in his third year, and he plays like he's in his eighth," says teammate Carlos Boozer, the recipient of much of Williams's offensive largesse. "It's going to be scary what he'll be doing when he is in his eighth."