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.
Thinking about role players is interesting. Boston got it right when it found Rondo and Perkins to complement their 3 stars. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem that Miami has found what it needs. I think of role players as guys who are useful because they do one or two things really well, but don’t have enough other skills to become stars. The key is putting a role player in a position to succeed – a situation where he is asked to do what he is good at and not asked to do what he is not good at. The Pistons asked Ben Wallace to rebound a play D – that worked and Wallace was great. Team USA asked him to score – that didn’t and Wallace looked like a guy who would have had trouble in the NBDL. Now thinking about Landry Fields, I don’t see what his one or two things that he does really well are. He’s ok at everything, but great at nothing. I think he was just lucky to fall into a situation on pre-Carmelo Knicks where his hustle and team play were valued and his skills were secondary. Carmelo changed the vibe on the Knicks. Team play isn’t the priority anymore, the individual is what’s valued now. The Knicks are about getting Carmelo his shots and A’mare his, and then worrying about the team after that. In this new environment, where Fields best skills are no longer valued, he’s lost and thus no longer a useful role player. If Fields can find a team that needs a hustle player or “glue” guy, he may still make it in the NBA.
Good stuff, Novak. I generally agree with you, up to your comment that, on the current Knicks “team play isn’t the priority, the individual is what’s valued now.” I don’t think we can test that statement until we see what the Knicks look like after surrounding Carmelo and Amar’e with the right kinds of role players (e.g. a center who rebounds and blocks shots on D, and operates down low on offense, a shooting guard who can shoot, and a healthy point guard who creates good shots for his ‘mates).