Detroit's Isiah Thomas heard the whispers during the first few seasons of his career.

Critics conceded he was a captivating presence but argued he wasn't a true point guard. They claimed he was too selfish, that he would rather dominate than direct the offense.The Pistons' consecutive NBA championships, along with the new wave of point guards sweeping the league, has altered that view.

"I guess," Thomas said, flashing his impish grin, "I was ahead of my time."

Times certainly have changed. The point guard once existed primarily to distribute the ball. He broke down a defense with penetration. His role required him to pass first, pass second and shoot only as a last resort.

The contemporary definition is not that altruistic. The point guard still is charged with getting his teammates involved. But no longer is it considered taboo to initiate a play for himself. In fact, the complexion of today's NBA requires the point guard to be a vibrant, jump-shooting part of the offense.

Thomas, Kevin Johnson, John Stockton, Tim Hardaway, Mark Price, Terry Porter, Derek Harper, Sherman Douglas and Pooh Richardson are some of the point guards who have broken the traditional mold.

More will follow. The point guard has evolved to this new, more dangerous stage, and it's unrealistic to think he will return to his one-dimensional roots.

"He has the ball the whole time," said Kevin Johnson, who runs the Phoenix Suns' fast-breaking show. "He's going to make the decisions as to what is going to take place. There are so many different things that we're in a position to do, and we have the ball the majority of the time.

"Whether you want him to be or not, the point guard is vital to a team's success. Maybe moreso than in the past."

That has been proven this season. Cleveland cratered once Price went down. Philadelphia slipped from elite status the moment it lost Johnny Dawkins. Detroit has struggled without Thomas.

Point guards who score are not entirely new. Oscar Robertson, Nate Archibald and Gus Williams are a few who held that role in past eras. But as Phoenix coach Cotton Fitzsimmons said, those players "were few and far between."

Most teams wanted to find two taller guards to put in their backcourt, with little premium placed on ballhandling skills. Coaches tried to create a size mismatch.

Earvin "Magic" Johnson helped revolutionize the position when he joined the Los Angeles Lakers during the 1979-80 season. He became the ultimate point guard, someone who got his teammates involved but still was able to score. Johnson would use his 6-9 frame to post up smaller guards and disrupt the defense.

This made coaches and general managers more firm in their resolve to go with big guards. But once they started to realize the lack of 6-9 hybrids who possessed Johnson's skills and instincts, a new wave of smaller, quicker point guards began to develop.

Thomas, the second player drafted in 1981, led the way.

"It definitely started with Isiah," Stockton said. "Slowly, more players with his sort of skills started to emerge."

The Mavericks drafted Harper in the first round in 1983. Utah took Stockton in the first round the next year. Portland grabbed Porter in 1985. Cleveland went with Price in 1986, and Phoenix landed Kevin Johnson in 1987. Hardaway (Golden State), Richardson (Minnesota) and Douglas (Miami) entered the league last season.

These are not players who sit back and read defenses. They attack, forcing defenses to react. Kevin Johnson compares his role to the way Randall Cunningham quarterbacks the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles.

"You have to attack," Magic Johnson said. "You have to be two-dimensional now. The person has to be able to shoot."

Ten NBA point guards average at least 17 points. Nine are among the top two scorers on their teams. Denver's Michael Adams, Hardaway and Kevin Johnson score more than 20 points per game.

"If you have a point who can pass, defend, run the offense and at the same time take pressure off the other players with his perimeter play, that's another weapon at your disposal," New York Knicks coach John MacLeod said. "Look at guys like Isiah, Price, Magic, Harper. All those players not only run the show, they can score.

"And we're not talking 12 to 14 points a game. They can bust loose for 25 or 30."

And it's more than the number of points. It's when the point guard scores them.

He initiates the offense. At the end of a game, when the defense tries to take away as many options as possible, the man with the ball has the advantage. That's why more point guards find themselves taking crucial shots.

"At the end of the game, the point is one of your main guys," Portland coach Rick Adelman said. "His role is not just to get the ball to someone else. He's often your clutch player."

Several factors have contributed to the evolution of the position. Defense tops the list.

The point guard once was considered one of the weak links in the offensive chain. Defenses responded by dropping a man off him and using that player to double-team the main scoring threat.

Left open on the perimeter, the point guard still found it difficult to penetrate because the defense was packed inside. The best way to counter that was to make the outside shot.

"That's why now, everyone is looking for someone who can score at that spot," Magic Johnson said.

MacLeod agrees the point guard had to become a better shooter, primarily to protect the post. In a halfcourt game, the defense will drop off the point guard to jam the inside offense. If the point guard is unable to make his outside shot consistently, the offensive flow often is ruined.

"Defenses have simply gotten better," Utah coach Jerry Sloan said. "If you don't score, you will always find yourself open. Then, you can't throw the ball inside because there's not enough spacing."

And spacing is another key.

The three-point arc has changed the game's dimensions. All a team needs now is one outside shooting threat. That stretches a defense and creates more of an open-court game.

Spread the defense and hit the soft spots. That's where today's quicker point guards excel. That's why the attack mentality has gained greater acceptance.

"If you have a point guard who can throw down the three, that's a devastating weapon," said Adelman, who has one of those players in Porter. "You can swing it to him, and he'll usually have a wide-open shot. If you cover him, he can make the pass to the right man."

Adelman says the game is more wide open in the Western Conference than in the East. West teams, he said, make the pick-and-roll a staple; East teams prefer to post up.

That helps explain why most of these new point guards reside in the West.

"Some of us coaches have opened the game up," Fitzsimmons said. "The only time the game is ever complicated is when we as coaches, or players, complicate it. You need to make it simple, and that's what we're doing now."

Purists will argue that some of today's point guards abuse that freedom. They will point to the fact that Adams has taken almost 250 shots more than any player on the Nuggets' front line. They will ask how Hardaway can lead the Warriors in field goal attempts playing next to such scoring threats as Chris Mullin and Mitch Richmond.

Adelman said a point guard who can take over a game in that way isn't selfish. He's valuable. He singles out Harper, saying the Mavericks are at their most dangerous when Harper has a big offensive game.

"I'll tell you what," said Kevin Johnson, who averages 15 shots. "I think a point guard who shoots a lot, to not be called selfish, has to be able to get a lot of assists and has to make sure his team wins."

Johnson & Johnson - Magic and K.J. - meet those requirements. So do Thomas and Porter. All play on teams given a reasonable chance to win an NBA championship this season. Fitzsimmons argues there's nothing selfish about that.

"Your point guard ought to be one of your better scorers," Fitzsimmons said. "I think those who thought otherwise were all wrong. It failed.

"I wish Isiah was more of a point guard and never thought about scoring. I don't think the Pistons would have won two championships."

This new style of guard has made the point the NBA's glamour position, but historians will warn the game runs in cycles. Small forward was the strongest position in the early 1980s. Houston's Akeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson briefly popularized the Twin Towers concept.

Teams emulate whatever works. The balance of power - and talent - almost certainly will shift to another position.

Which doesn't mean the point guard's role will regress. The sport has reached the athletic stage at which a point guard who simply runs the offense and contributes little else has become obsolete.

"I think we've passed that era," MacLeod said. "We've seen an expansion of his responsibilities.

"I don't think we'll ever go back to where all he does is pass and set up someone else to score."