There are a couple of developing storylines in the NBA, like the Hornets being awesome and the Heat being mediocre, that I’ll be hoopserving about over the next few weeks.  Before getting into the specifics, it’s necessary to set the table with a general discussion about the 5 positions on a basketball team.

Basketball is different from other sports, like baseball and football, where distinct positions have clearly defined roles, and correspond to specific places on the field.  In baseball, for example, the first baseman stands in a different place than the second baseman, who stands in a different place than the center fielder, etc.  In football, the offensive linemen block the opposing defenders, the wide receivers run routes to get open, and the quarterback puts his hands on the center’s gluteus muscles at the beginning of most plays.  There is some room for flexibility — think infield shifts in baseball and the Wildcat offense in football — but not much; if a WR lined up for a play with his hands on a teammate’s gluteus muscles, well… let’s just say that it would throw the other team for a loop.

Our game, basketball, is different.  On any given possession, guys are moving around, regularly occupying multiple spots on the court.  People often talk about 5 distinct positions on a basketball team, but those positions are not nearly as distinct as they are in other sports.

Partially because of this flexibility, teams started taking liberties with the positions, almost disregarding them in some instances.  Now we have “combo guards” like Tyreke Evans.  We have teams that try to play without a center.  The Raptors, for example, start a “center” who averages more 3-point-attempts than blocks per game.  (There’s probably some kind of joke to make about the fact that HIS NAME IS ANDREA, but nothing is coming to me at the moment.)  And, as I’ve already blogged, I have no idea what the difference is between a shooting guard and a small forward in today’s game.

I’m no traditionalist, but this movement away from traditional positions strikes me as a problem.  The positions exist for a reason; there are different roles on a basketball team that need to be filled.  Basketball teams need a guy to control the tempo, pressure the ball on D, and break the opponent’s D down with dribble penetration — typically, the PG.  They need a spot-up shooter, to take advantage when defenders go help out on the ball — typically, the SG.  They need a guy to create his own shots from the wing — typically, the SF.  And, they need two guys responsible for the paint; posting up on offense, rebounding and intimidating on defense — typically, the PF and C.

Theoretically, the roles are not specific to any position.  Teams can rely on a “point forward” to create shots for teammates (think Anthony Mason, when the Knicks were good in the ’90’s).  They can rely on a small forward to rebound and block shots (think Shawn Marion from his days on the Suns).  But these attempts generally fall short.  The positions are not completely interchangeable.

To be sure, it’s true that some teams have won without some of the roles being filled. Jordan’s Bulls, Shaq’s Lakers, and Kobe’s Lakers generally won without getting major minutes from an excellent, traditional point guard.  This doesn’t prove that it’s a good idea to play with glaring voids, as much as it proves that, when you have Jordan playing with Pippen, Shaq playing with Kobe, or Kobe playing with Pao, you’ve bought yourself some flexibility to depart from the typical template.

So… that’s a very long-winded way of saying that the impressive play of the Hornets, who have the game’s best true PG (CP3), a center who rebounds and blocks shots (Okafor), a low-post scorer (West), and guys who fill in around them, is not so surprising.  Nor is the disappointing play of the Heat, who have a subpar PG and no interior presence.  More on that to come.

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