Tag Archives: Kevin Garnett

We frequently hear that basketball is evolving to a position-less game.  We hear about “combo guards,” “stretch 4’s,” and “modern centers.”  Well, I’m here to tell you that the game isn’t changing as much as popular opinion would have you believe.  Yup, me, the guy with three readers and no credentials, here to tell you that those folks with credentials and large audiences are wrong.

To examine whether the positions are changing, we should start by defining what the positions have historically been.  We often take for granted the idea that a starting 5 includes a PG, SG, SF, PF, and C, but it’s harder to define each of those positions than many would think.  I, the guy with three readers and no credentials, will try…

Traditionally, point guards did more passing than scoring.  They were asked to control the tempo of the game, and maximize the talents of their teammates, more than they were asked to score.  At the other end of the spectrum, centers had most of their impact near the basket – on offense, scoring from the low post, and on defense leading their teams in blocked shots and rebounds.  Some of them could shoot capably from the perimeter, but they only very rarely ventured far away from the rim.

In between, the roles were less clear.  As I’ve blogged previously, I’ve been watching hoops for many years, and I have no idea why anyone acts as if there’s a major distinction between a shooting guard and a small forward. I also don’t see a major distinction between a power forward and a center.  To the extent I can explain it, the best power forwards are generally more versatile than the best centers, but the best centers are more dominant.  Kevin Garnett, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, and Dirk Nowitzki were all excellent players, whom nobody thought of as centers. (Apologies, Dirk, for referring to you in the past tense, but anyone who’s seen you try to run up and down the court recently knows that it’s appropriate.) Shaq, David Robinson, Hakeem, and Ewing were also excellent players, whom nobody thought of as PFs. The guys who are both versatile and dominant are sometimes thought of as PFs and sometimes as Cs (Tim Duncan, Anthony Davis).

Even accepting that the lines between some positions are not always clear, I think most basketball fans would stipulate that the following players fit the mold of their respective positions, and played those positions at a high level:

Point Guard: Isiah Thomas (the one from the ’80s), John Stockton, Jason Kidd, Kevin Johnson, Mark Jackson, Steve Nash, Chauncey Billups, Tony Parker.  (I’d include Magic Johnson, but he fits into no molds for anything.)

Shooting Guard: Reggie Miller, Joe Dumars, Ray Allen, Kobe Bryant, Manu Ginobili

Small Forward: Scottie Pippen, Dominique Wilkins, Paul Pierce

Power Forward: Pau Gasol, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Webber

Center: Shaq, Dwight Howard, Ben Wallace, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo

I haven’t classified LeBron (I guess he’s a 3?), MJ (a 2?), or Tim Duncan (a 4?), which starts to lead me to believe that if you reach a certain level of performance you don’t have a position.

Get to the point, Kraver.

Ok, will do…

The point is that traditional positions aren’t gone at all.

Mike Conley, Chris Paul, Goran Dragic, and Kyle Lowry are traditional point guards.  Patrick Beverly, Lonzo Ball, and Ben Simmons – all starters on teams currently heading for the playoffs – might not be traditional point guards, but they sure ain’t shooting guards.

Klay Thompson, JJ Redick, Khris Middleton, CJ McCollum, and Danny Green are among the shootingest shooting guards we’ve ever seen – all heading for the playoffs.

Rudy Gobert, Steven Adams, Tyson Chandler, and Clint Capela are all traditional centers on teams heading for the playoffs.  Marcin Gortat and Boban Marjanovic are centers playing meaningful minutes on arguably the most surprising team in the league. Marc Gasol is holding down the middle for a surprisingly competitive Memphis team.  And, there’s Joel Embiid, who shoots more 3’s than we’re used to seeing centers shoot, but is grabbing 13 boards and blocking 2 shots per game, while shooting 48% from the field.  He’s a center.

I still can’t articulate how small forwards are different from shooting guards, but I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that Kawhi, Giannis, Paul George, Danilo Galinari, and Jayson Tatum fit the mold of traditional small forwards – to the extent there ever was a mold.

Certainly, there has been some evolution.  We have centers who shoot 3’s, and we have guards like Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry, who not only average double-digit assists, but who do it while taking 20+ shots per game.  But, that’s what it is – an evolution, not a revolution.  The best teams still balance their lineups, with a guy who creates for others, a guy who protects the paint, a guy who attacks the rim, a guy whose primary skill is outside shooting, and a guy who… uh… specializes in whatever it is that power forwards specialized in.

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Who’s A Good Coach?

I’m old enough to remember when Jeff Hornacek was an exciting young coach, and Derek Fisher was given a big multi-year contract. Now, armed with all the wisdom and experience that go along with being my age, I look at trends in the way NBA coaches are analyzed and wonder Does anyone know how to spot a good coach when they see one?

In the last year:

  • Tom Thibodeau was fired by the Bulls, after bringing them to the second round of the playoffs last season, where they lost to a better team;
  • Scott Brooks was fired after barely missing the playoffs with a team that played without Durant or Westbrook for most of the season;
  • Fisher was fired by the Knicks, who were showing signs of improvement, and had become a team kinda-competing-for-a-playoff-spot even though Jose Calderon was their best point guard;
  • David Blatt was fired when his Cavs were atop the Eastern Conference standings (the season after his team beat Thibodeau’s Bulls in the playoffs);
  • Kevin McHale was fired less than 20 games into the season following his team making the Western Conference Finals; and
  • Hornaceck was fired by the Suns, who were terrible, and had no business being anything better than terrible due to the lack of talent on the roster.

To be clear, I don’t claim to be able to give a deep, thorough analysis of a person’s ability to coach at the NBA level. I have some clues of what to look for, sure. For example, if you choose to play Sasha Vujacic any time there are 5 other living humans in the building, I know enough to question your lineup decisions. Fisher did that – repeatedly – so I have my questions about his ability to coach at the highest level. Or, if you decide, as Thibodeau did, to play Jimmy Butler for an average of 39 minutes per game, I question whether you’re overworking your players. Or, if you have Kevin Love, one of the game’s best offensive players, standing stagnant behind the three-point line, I question whether you’re getting the most out of the talent on your roster. But, in general, I don’t know enough about coaching at that level – or have enough time to watch – to give a detailed X’s and O’s analysis of why one coach is good and another is not.

That lack of knowledge seems to situate me to run an NBA team, because apparently none of the people hiring and firing coaches knows how to spot a good coach when he sees one, either. Consider this, hoopservers: the only coaches whose teams consistently win in the NBA are coaches with top level talent on their rosters.  In fact, the active coaches who have won NBA championships all had Hall of Famers on their title teams. That’s Pop (Duncan, and probably others), Carlisle (Dirk and Kidd, while acknowledging that Kidd was past his prime), Spo (LeBron, Wade, and Bosh), Doc (KG, Pierce, Ray Allen), and Kerr (Curry, and, at the rate the Warriors are going, maybe 7 or 8 other guys). Nobody else who’s coaching today has won a title.

Even among those guys, there are reasons to doubt their collective coaching brilliance. I’ll put aside Pop and Carlisle, and stipulate that they’re excellent coaches. Still, Doc’s Clippers teams have hardly overachieved, Spo missed the playoffs in a weak Eastern Conference last year, and Kerr’s Warriors opened their season with a better start than any team in the history of the NBA, while Kerr sat out and Luke Walton coached them. Maybe Luke Walton’s the next great coach. I dunno. Or, maybe the Warriors were so good because of what Kerr had taught them previously. But if we’re inclined to give Kerr credit for what the Warriors did without him, we at least have to consider whether Mark Jackson deserves credit for what they’ve done since he left.  At that point, we have good reason to question whether the Warriors are great because of coaching, or because they have the best shooting backcourt of all time, and a roster that fills out perfectly around them.

I’m not saying that any of those guys is not a good coach, just that their teams’ results seem to be more directly connected to the talent level on the roster than anything else.

The current coaches who have raised their team above the level we’d expect based on talent seem to be Brad Stevens, Mike Budenholzer (last year, at least), and, um… uhh…. I don’t know. Maybe Steve Clifford?  Even among those guys, Bud’s Hawks are 31-25, and Clifford’s Hornets are 28-26. That’s what excellent coaching counts for? Meanwhile, 2006-07 Coach of the Year Sam Mitchell has the Wolves at 17-39, 2007-08 Coach of the Year Byron Scott has the Lakers at 11-45, 2012-13 Coach of the Year George Karl has the Kings at 23-31, and 2009-10 Coach of the Year Scott Brooks has the Thunder at… oh, wait, dude got fired.  (If you’re reading this, thinking “I’d like to see a list of Coaches of the Year,” I gotcha: Coaches of the Year.  It’s what I’m here for.)

If given the choice, I’d rather have an above-average fourth starter on my team than a purportedly excellent coach.  But, hoopservers, maybe I’m overlooking someone.  So, I ask you: any coaches I’m overlooking, who have proven that they can consistently make their team competitive without top level talent on the roster?

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