Walt "The Wizard" Williams played eleven seasons in the NBA before retiring in 2003. In the latter part of his career, Walt served as a steadying veteran presence for the Dallas Mavericks, a promising young team led by Dirk Nowitzki. Williams recently joined Basketball Network to discuss his basketball career, providing some valuable insight about the game back in the 90s and possibly how unexpectedly similar it is to today's game.
Drafted in 1992, Williams joined the league when Michael Jordan was beginning to dominate the NBA despite playing against some of the greatest big men ever to play the game. Of course, Jordan didn't achieve his immense success on his own. He had the help of some excellent teammates, most notably Small Forward Scottie Pippen. Walt was a steady defensive player and quite the all-around force, so we asked Walt which position he thought was most challenging to defend against back in his day.
"I think it's the Small Forward position, man. These guys could do everything. They could shoot, pass, and post. You had to be able to guard all of that."
Walt Williams, 1-ON-1 with Basketball Network
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Let's not forget that "The Wizard" played the small forward position, so there might be some bias in his answer. How is it that the toughest position to guard is not the one that Michael Jordan or Hakeem Olajuwon played? The best players of the 90s were either guards or big men, so it's hard to take Walt's point seriously unless we dig deeper into what he might have been trying to say.
The ability to do everything on the floor.
NBA basketball was not considered "positionless" back then, and in fact, much of the success the Bulls achieved was born out of the precise definition of roles for each of its players. MJ is going to come for your neck and try to score fifty; the big men will pass out of the post and try to be physical in the paint, while their point guard will look to spot-up and keep you honest on defense. Scottie Pippen? Well, he was going to do everything and dial up whatever the team needed that night. If you look at the other great small forward of the 90s, they were mostly glue guys that provided that extra punch for teams to be successful, providing whatever is needed on any given night.
Not only is this tough to prepare for, but it is also not the main focus of the team. You know Jordan is going to get his, but the whole team is focused on trying to prevent that from happening. If you're guarding the Small Forward, you're likely on your own without the benefit of a defensive scheme to try and cover for your mistakes. On the flip side, playing the opposing small forward to perfection can disrupt a team's flow to gain an advantage.
We often say that today's NBA is a guard-oriented league, but by leaning into what Walt said, it's possible that we have been looking at the current league incorrectly. The guards put the fans in the stands, but are they truly the most challenging players to guard in the NBA? They are quick, can shoot from anywhere, and can get many calls that bigger players can't, but does that mean that they are the league's most feared position?
The answer is no, simply because guards are more often than not the most efficient members of their team despite their high usage rates. They can dazzle you with their moves, but the league's best teams have star players playing one or two positions, the forward spots.
Think about it - the rise of young talent in the NBA gave birth to many new MVPs and fan favorites, but when we are picking the best players in the world, it's constantly a battle of forwards. LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and even Luka Dončić is virtually a small forwards in his own way. These guys also happen to be the best in the business.
Like Walt said, these players can all shoot (some better than others), pass the ball, and attack you from the post. Nightmares on offense and all physically imposing that you're going to need an ice pack or two after going up against today's forwards for 48 minutes. It's questionable whether Walt's point is valid when referring to the 90s, but in today's NBA, it's clear that forwards rule and not the guards.