Today’s NBA backcourts have slowly become more versatile than they’ve ever been. There are primary ball-handling guards like Dame Lillard, Luka Doncic, and Jalen Brunson. Next to them are shooting guards; scorers that don’t need to handle or at least don’t need to be the initiators of the offense, Klay Thompson, Devin Booker, and Kevin Huerter. But what about those players that really don’t fit into either category, rather, they have one foot in each camp, the combo guards?
Combo guards, as the name suggests, split their time between point guard and shooting guard. They don’t handle the ball enough to be considered primary ball handlers but aren’t pure shooters and scorers either. These guards are becoming more and more prominent as the league evolves, with players like Jamal Murray and Donovan Mitchell at the forefront.
In the past, combo guards had a negative connotation. They were thought of as in-betweeners that were average at two positions instead of outright good at one position. Their games were too ambiguous for coaches to know what to do with them.
Today, things are a little different. Combo guards are elevating the game, Murray is the second-best player on a title-favored team. Mitchell gave Cleveland real contender aspirations. Even Markelle Fultz, thought at one point to be a bust, has quietly become Orlando’s most important guard. It almost happened so gradually that no one realized it.
All of a sudden, more than a few teams have highly talented, highly adaptable backcourt players. Tyrese Maxey, Fultz, Murray, and Mitchell, are only some of the relatively young faces of this movement, but it actually can be traced back further to Steph Curry, James Harden, and even Allen Iverson to some degree. Which brings an important point.
In 2023, athletic wings are the type of player that everyone wants, but the combo guard shouldn’t be far behind. In Denver, two-time MVP Nikola Jokic makes everyone better, but having Jamal Murray to provide spacing, scoring, and supplemental facilitation has made them heavy favorites. In Golden State, with how they move the ball in their read-and-react offense, Curry can work off the ball as much as he pulls up off the dribble. His off-ball gravity makes life much easier for his teammates and makes the offense work.
What makes combo guards so valuable is what makes them combo guards in the first place– versatility. Each one has their own specialties and ways they like to play, but being able to find production in almost any area can be a safety net for the offense. If a big is the main facilitator, such as in Denver, the combo guard can be the scorer that also gets the big the ball when they need it. If a team needs to get out in transition more while still having shooting and spacing, a player like Tyrese Maxey can race off of misses while also spotting up in the half-court.
What has allowed these players to shine is the mesh between what a team needs from them and the unique talent that they bring to the table. Today’s league focuses on pace and space, making a good combo guard almost a necessity. These players aren’t just stars either. Boston has had both Derrick White and Marcus Smart mix-and-match combo roles with their two ball-dominant stars. Miami has Tyler Herro alongside Kyle Lowry. More and more, the players that have the adaptability, show their value.
This really speaks to the league’s current state of talent and the growth of basketball as a sport. Combos went from being indeterminate, lackluster players to crucial pieces of teams. As this trend grows, backcourt players with both the ability to play on and off the ball will become more valuable. They could be the piece that pushes a contender over the edge, as Denver has waited two years for Murray to get healthy, and is on the verge of their first championship.