Darren Collison used to do more than dream of becoming taller. He was a tiny teenage point guard growing up (or trying to) in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., in the lingering shadow cast by the Lakers' former 6'9" playmaker, Magic Johnson, who had dominated the 1980s as the biggest star to ever run an NBA team. It was not so long ago that size meant everything at every position, which left Collison trying anything to reach his goal of a pro career. "I would even do regular stretches to see if I got taller," he says. "I'd heard if you stretch before you go to bed, you get taller." Quick frown. "But it's not true."
Now 23, Collison can afford to laugh. At a relatively diminutive 6 feet and 160 pounds, he has not only emerged as a starting point guard in the NBA but has also helped lead the Pacers into the playoffs for the first time in five seasons. Little did he know a decade ago that the league he aspired to join would shrink down to his level.
But it has: The Lilliputians have taken over. The 7-foot centers who used to control the paint have been replaced in importance by the smallest of all players, the point guards. They initiate each set as they've always done, but more than ever they're finishing what they've started by shooting off the dribble or driving unmolested to the hole, thanks to rule changes that have afforded them clear paths to the basket in much the same way that the NFL has enabled its wide receivers to jet freely downfield. Who would have guessed that such a vertically oriented sport would be dominated by the players who thrive closest to the floor? "It is, most definitely," says Collison when asked if the NBA is being hijacked by undersized players. "There's too many good point guards in this league not to say that."
The two exceptions to this trend are the Heat, whose point guard, Mike Bibby, plays off the ball while LeBron James does his best Magic impression, and the two-time defending champion Lakers, whose highly skilled front line of 7-footers Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, along with 6'10" sixth man Lamar Odom, will be swarmed by endless sorties from the perimeter starting this weekend, when the playoffs begin. Los Angeles's most dangerous opponent could be the Celtics' 6'1" Rajon Rondo, whose traditional blend of penetration and playmaking has been so formidable that 6'6" Kobe Bryant has taken responsibility for trying to stop him. Before L.A. and Boston can reengage in the NBA Finals for the third time in four years, however, the Lakers must win the West by either avoiding or dispatching Chris Paul of the Hornets, Jason Kidd of the Mavericks, Russell Westbrook of the Thunder and Tony Parker of the Spurs—All-Star point guards all.
Which point guard is best equipped for a postseason run? "It depends on the type you're looking for," says Celtics coach Doc Rivers, a former All-Star point guard himself. "If you're looking for a pure point, then it's Rondo. If you want a power point guard it's Derrick Rose. Then there's... ." And off he goes, referring to Chauncey Billups of the Knicks, Andre Miller of the Blazers, Kirk Hinrich of the Hawks and Gilbert Arenas, the onetime all-NBA talent who serves as Jameer Nelson's backup in Orlando. Not even postseason rookies like Mike Conley of the Grizzlies and Jrue Holiday of the 76ers can be ignored in this everyman era of undersized basketball. "Seven or eight years ago everybody was talking about how there were no point guards, but now if you don't have a good one you're in trouble," says Sixers president Rod Thorn. "When Holiday is playing well, we play well."
That's the new bottom-line truth: Instead of playing through the post, the majority of teams now launch their offense from the perimeter. The 6'3", 190-pound Rose is the new face of this imposing generation. With his consistency from the three-point line this season, defenders must now close out on his jump shots, which in turn opens up a frightening array of options. Rose can either power in and pull up, or slash between defenders like a skier slaloming at Kitzbühel, bursting through the lane and either finishing at the basket or creating open shots for forwards Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng. Rose's humble point guard instincts make him especially dangerous because he is so clearly interested in propelling the team more than building up his own stat line. His dazzling skills have transformed Chicago and made him a threat as dangerous (almost) as the young Michael Jordan a quarter century ago.
A point guard who scores as much as Rose would have been vilified for selfishness two decades ago, but not in the new, quarterback-driven NBA. "These guys are so much more talented then I ever was," says Thunder assistant Maurice Cheeks, who made four All-Star teams as a pure pass-first point guard for Philadelphia in the 1980s. "Back when I was doing it, you would pass the ball and then move out of the way. These guys today can pass and score and rebound. They can do a lot of things."
The value placed on do-it-all floor leaders has been evident in recent drafts. If, as expected, 6'2" Duke freshman Kyrie Irving is the No. 1 pick in June, he will be the third point guard—after Rose and 6'4" John Wall of the Wizards—to go first in the past four years. (In the 31 drafts before the Bulls took Rose, in 2008, only once was the first pick shorter than 6'6", Allen Iverson in 1996.) The market for little men was never more bullish than in '09, when nine of the first 21 picks were point guards. The ninth was Collison, who was taken by the Hornets. He became a hot commodity during his rookie season by averaging 12.4 points and 5.7 assists while starting 37 games in place of an injured Paul. The Pacers, who had bypassed Collison in the draft, picked him up in a four-team trade and declared him their point guard for the present and the future. At week's end he was averaging 13.3 points and 5.1 assists while helping the Pacers, the No. 8 seed in the top-heavy East, back to the playoffs after a four-year absence. And he's done it without a growth spurt, something he couldn't have imagined as a kid splayed out across his bedroom floor in suburban L.A.
For the first several decades of its 65 years, the NBA was controlled by big men—George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Celtics coach Red Auerbach, architect of the most successful dynasty in pro sports, used to say he never envisioned a "cornerman" being able to rule the world's tallest league from the perimeter, yet that trend was launched in the 1980s when Johnson, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas and Jordan hoarded 16 championships over a span of two decades. Their dominance was offset by gigantic champions Moses Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal. But once again the balance of power has shifted to the perimeter, and it shows no signs of moving back inside. "The big man has gone," says Boston's 39-year-old Shaq, who is approaching the end of his career. "There will be no one ever in the history of the game to do what me and Tim Duncan did, to lead teams to four championships [each] and have a [nine-year] span where either Tim or myself was at the Finals. It will never be done again."
"The rules demand that it's a perimeter league now," says San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, who happens to be a most ironic visionary for the new style. After all it was Popovich's Spurs who launched their championship era in 1999 with the Twin Towers of Duncan and David Robinson, and they spent most of the new millennium trying to deal with the behemoth Shaq. But now the team's extended run is culminating with Duncan in the role of complementary big man to Parker, swingman Manu Ginóbili and other nimble scorers hovering outside.