When people talk about positions on a basketball team, they generally refer to a point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, and center. People generally refer to these positions as if the roles they are associated with are as clearly defined as the roles on, say, a baseball team, where a second baseman is responsible for a different part of the field than a shortstop. Unlike in baseball, however, the differences between some of the positions are not clear – at least they aren’t clear to me.
Can anyone tell me the difference between a shooting guard and a small forward? Some people have tried to, but none have been able to. (I’m also looking to learn what the difference is between a power forward and a center, but I won’t go there for now.) Whenever I have the conversation with someone, the closest I come to getting an answer is that shooting guards are generally good at shooting, and that small forwards are generally good at driving to the basket.
That answer would suffice, if it were accurate. Consider a few specific players, to bring the discussion into focus. Rip Hamilton is generally thought of as a shooting guard (for what it’s worth, his player page on nba.com lists him as a guard). I guess Hamilton is the prototypical shooting guard: he shoots well from the outside, and is not much of a threat to attack off the dribble. In contrast, Gerald Wallace is generally thought of as a small forward (and his player page on nba.com lists him as a forward). I guess he is a prototypical forward: he is a capable scorer, but not a pure “shooter”; nobody expects to see Wallace in the 3-point shootout anytime soon. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that Hamilton is a shooting guard and Wallace is a small forward.
The problem is that it makes no sense to define positions by what players can’t do; it makes no sense to say that a shooting guard is a guy who can’t drive and a small forward is a guy who can’t shoot, because it doesn’t help explain what a shooting guard does differently than a small forward. If I’m an NBA GM trying to build a championship team, I’m not going to want to build my team around one guy who can’t shoot and one guy who can’t drive. Consider a few other players, who can shoot and drive: Paul Pierce. Is he a shooting guard or a small forward? Kobe Bryant. Which one is he? Tracy McGrady? For what it’s worth, nba.com lists Kobe as a guard, Pierce as a forward, and McGrady as a guard-forward. If someone can explain those classifications to me, I’ll be impressed.
I won’t ramble on about this point until I see what people have to say in the responses. For now, I’ll leave it at this: I think it makes much more sense to talk about the standard 5-man-starting lineup as containing one point guard, two wing players, and two post players than it does to talk about shooting guards, small forwards, power forwards, and centers. Even if we talk about it as a point guard, two wing players, and two post players, there will be some players who defy classification (Jordan, for example, did plenty of damage from the post). But, to me, that would at least be more descriptive than continuing to use the terms “shooting guard” and “small forward.”
I look forward to reading your comments.