Positionless basketball is the craze of the NBA: constant switching, offensive versatility, point guards that play off-the-ball and learn to wait for the kick out, big men that pile up assists feeding cutters are all trends that NBA coaches salivate over.
But is it really positionless basketball approaching us, or are we just changing the landscape of certain roles? Is there a revolution in store or just a minor shakeup?
We’ve grown accustomed to 5 positional labels that have more or less always been around: point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, center.
While labels have stayed, a modicum of flexibility has never failed to surface: even in the ’90s it was hard to encapsulate Chris Webber, Karl Malone and Dennis Rodman into a single paradigm, yet calling all of them power forwards never shook anybody’s convictions despite their radically different playing style.
To this day, had Tristan Thompson, Draymond Green and LaMarcus Aldridge enjoyed the opportunity to play their natural position at PF we wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow at the elasticity the label would have gained.
Let’s get the first doubt out of the way: have the players changed the game? Or has the opposite been true?
We are lucky enough to be witnessing this state of flux as it unfolds before our eyes, and most of the players that incarnate today’s changing habits have entered the league before its watershed moments. Tristan Thompson was a lottery pick as a non-spacing power forward, Draymond Green played over 13 minutes per game as a rookie small forward for a playoff team and the only two second-rounders from the 2012 NBA draft that played more minutes per game than him as rookies both ended up being NBA starters just as quickly as him (Jae Crowder and Khris Middleton).
Players who have adapted to the transitioning style have stayed with different roles. Players that haven’t been able to cater to it have progressively been ostracized (and there’s more than a few names there: Kenneth Faried, Derrick Favors, Greg Monroe…).
But the fact that each and every player has had to adapt somehow leads me to believe that the game has changed on everyone, and the fittest – rather than the strongest – have survived.
How much has this changed impacted our perception of position, nonetheless, is still unclear. Brad Stevens has reduced the common theorem of the five positions to a three-headed system: handler, wing, big.
While there may be a tad too many players than fit in between those definitions without sensibly tilting one way or the other (for instance: does LeBron fit as a handler, a wing or a big? There’s reason to believe he’s all three and none of the three.), this is a convincing starting point.
We humbly suggest to take a step further: Point Guard, Shooting Guard, Swingman, Forward, Big.
There’s no doubt Stevens hit it right on the nail in suggesting that a handling position is still very much central in the Association and that almost every team plays one big man at a time. Yet, shooting guards are far from expired: they still handle the ball at times, isolate, create shots for themselves and occasionally spot up. They often get off-ball screens and benefit from plays in which they may not touch the ball for more than a few seconds. However, on the other end of the floor their defensive range goes from 1 to 2/3. They are the J.J. Redicks, the J.R. Smiths, the C.J. McCollums and the Bradley Beals of the world. Reducing basketball to three main roles may take care of the offensive end, but doesn’t fully expand on the different defensive roles of players like Bradley and Crowder, who both aptly fill the role of wings offensively (Bradley handles the ball rarely nowadays despite starting his career as a point guard) but guard very different opponents on D.
The swingmen, on the other end, are the defensive anchors, the specialists with all-including range (often 1-4). Their offensive role varies: they may present themselves in the form of the marvelously gifted Kawhi Leonard or the savvy Andre Iguodala. They almost always have to be more flexible than anybody else: whether it is Harden, Curry, Antetokounmpo, DeRozan or LeBron they’re trying to stop, it’s up to them to take the challenge.
Forwards require some further explanations: there’s pretty unanimous agreement over the death of the power forward, partly incorporated in the hybrid “big man” label and partly spread out like a small forward. Of the many players that have been slowly alienated from high-level basketball, a notable number fills that position. That disappearance has also lead to a hybrid concept of forward that does not look anything like old school power forwards, but retains no traits belonging to small forwards either: small forwards were not expected to contribute on the board and in terms of protecting the rim as much as today’s forwards are.
What a forward does in today’s basketball is spread the floor with shooting, switch out on the perimeter on defense, contribute on the boards as the second-biggest member of his on-court team, and play some sparing minutes at center if need be.
They are the LeBrons, Durants, Draymonds and Melos of the game. When their offense doesn’t warrant stardom, they are the Aminus, the Morrises, the Jamychal Greens.
They used to be stuck between 3 and 4 and labeled as “tweeners”. They are among the most sought-after commodities now.
And finally, the big man.
Both power forwards and center have always posted up extensively. The low post game has lost most of its fanbase among decision makers in the league for variously legitimate reasons (among which one of the more compelling is rule change: back in the 90’s you either double teamed or played single coverage, while today’s defenses often pick an in-between solution – often having one guy pick up the back-to-the-basket player, another shadow in case the opponent gets too close to the rim or gets a good position to take his shot and the remaining three defenders float in between their 4 perimeter opponents; before the rule changes that would have been called an illegal defense), but most teams still use the high post proficiently as a means of both creating for others and isolating against a defender perceived as a favorable matchup. Declined as such, the post-up game is regularly implemented in the Association and big men are far from the only beneficiaries, as nearly every star player with good strength and a big enough body will get multiple post-ups per game (LeBron, KD, at times even Westbrook, Leonard and so on).
But the times of Shaq, Ewing, Hakeem and Robinson are certainly gone, supplanted by a hybridized and generic big man that fulfills his team’s defensive needs, whether it be switching on pick and rolls (less than a forward), protecting the rim and covering for any form of penetration (noticeably more than a forward, who may often come as a secondary help) while attacking the paint as a roll man and being a target and a finisher on the offensive end. Some big men can shoot the basketball and spread the floor even further, which effectively makes them stretch 5s, but most playoff teams have so far been content with defense, athleticism and target potential (which is a scale that encompasses a number of sub-traits such as finishing ability, touch, vertical spacing, hands, agility and length – it is virtually impossible to find a target excelling in all or even most of these categories: DeAndre Jordan excels in vertical spacing and length, for example, but struggles at finishing when forced to use his touch or rudimentary post moves; Enes Kanter is relatively pinned to the ground in comparison, but has touch, footwork and great hands to catch every pass destined to him; Draymond Green when playing the roll man spot has good footwork, good touch and fairly good athleticism, but lacks the superior height – not length – to tower over opponents helping on him).
A good example of how broad this category can be: Marc Gasol, Tristan Thompson, Steven Adams and Robin Lopez are 4 drastically different players at varying levels of relevancy in the NBA landscape, yet they all fit the big man role.
Once having clarified the nature of each role, let’s see if we can make some sense of certain lineups we’ve seen all-so-frequently during these NBA playoffs. Let’s analyze those that jump out in terms of usage and plus-minus, first:
Washington Wizards – PG Wall, SG Beal, S/F Porter, F Morris, B Gortat (13 GP, 19.3 MPG, +\- 8.0, highest in NBA Playoffs)
It is likely that Porter would play minutes at the 4 in most teams, at 6’8″ and with all the traits of a forward. But as Beal can effectively only play as a 2 even in very small lineups (it would be interesting to see what he’d look like as a player in a different team, as he is in many aspects a combo guard more than a SG) and the only swingman in Washington, Kelly Oubre, is still a ways away from contributing – 29% from three on two and a half attempts per game in the regular season is very unsatisfactory – Brooks has to play a two-forward lineup hoping that Porter is versatile enough to be a de facto swingman. Markieff Morris is a pure modern forward in stark contrast with the not-so-long-ago days of the Nene and Gortat tandem.
Chicago Bulls – PG Rondo, SG Wade, S Butler, F Mirotic, B Lopez (2 GP, 15.6 MPG, +\- 6.5, 2nd highest in NBA playoffs among qualified lineups)
Butler is a stereotypical star swingman that started off as a 2/3 and flourished as a pure modern 3 with endless defensive range. Mirotic had a very underwhelming shooting outing in the playoffs (34% FG on 8.3 attempts, 28,6% from deep on almost 6 attempts per game) but fits the modern forward position fairly well despite not being a former SF and has played some minutes at C when needed. Lopez is exactly the pick ‘n’ roll target, hard-nosed defender most teams look for in that big man spot – perhaps with slightly less athleticism than some, but far more technique than many. The relevance players like Wade, Beal, McCollum and others still retain without being exceptionally versatile on defense (but don’t be mistaken: versatile and good are two entirely different concepts, and being good has never run out of fashion because of versatility) speaks volumes about the role of the shooting guard and how it still matters a lot.
Oklahoma City Thunder – PG Westbrook, SG Oladipo, S Roberson, F Gibson, B Adams (5 GP, 16,2 MPG, +\- 6,4, 3rd highest in NBA playoffs among qualified lineups)
Here’s the first defiance to the paradigm we just presented: is Gibson a forward or a big man? We’d be inclined to say he’s the latter, as his versatility on D really ranges from 4 to 5, he doesn’t shoot threes (neither does Roberson to be fair, but that is a different issue) and fits the pick ‘n’ roll big man mold on offense. He’d be a pretty efficient big man on most teams provided he still offers the athleticism that captured many eyes in his Bulls days. Everything else is on point: Roberson is a prototypical swingman on both ends of the floor and if only he’d possessed any touch (his deficiencies are clearly not just a shooting form issue, as his lack of touch hinders every aspect of his game: passing, tip-ins despite being an efficient rebounder, ball handling) he’d likely have been offered a max contract this offseason.
He may one day find a niche as a forward given his rebounding, but it’d be an adjustment and now that OKC has George having the former Pacer as a F makes just much more sense when Donovan plans on using smaller lineups (he’ll be a SF besides a power forward like Patterson in the starting 5, in all likelihood), which he has done frequently both in the regular season and in the postseason, with Grant and McDermott alternating as forwards (sometimes even slotted alongside each other, a move no stranger to teams like the Trail Blazers as well) and Gibson playing the big man spot (21% of his time during the last playoffs was at center despite Donovan already having Adams and Kanter).
What about the Finals contenders, then?
The Cavs’ most used lineups during these playoffs has been the starting 5: PG Irving, SG Smith, SF James, PF Love, C Thompson. No revolution here, although Thompson is easily more of a big man than a true center (in fact, he started his NBA career as a PF. But then again, he also started as a left-hander…).
Let’s dig a bit deeper, then. The second and third most used lineups by Coach Lue are: PG Irving SG Shumpert SF James PF Love C Thompson – identical but with Shumpert as SG – and PG Williams SG Korver S Shumpert F James B Frye.
There’s a familiar blueprint.
Other relatively frequent lineups that distinguish themselves in terms of plus-minus are PG Irving SG Smith S Jefferson F James B Thompson (6 GP, 5,3 MPG, +\- 2,3), PG Williams, SG Korver, S Shumpert, F James, B Love (6 GP, 2,8 MPG, +\- 3,3), PG Williams, SG Korver, S Shumpert, F Jefferson, B James (7 GP, 2,5 MPG, +\- 2,3) and many more. Lue has used 110 lineups just during the playoffs and 250 during the regular season, so it’s fair to expect a little bit of everything.
Those who expected Cleveland to spearhead the lineup revolution, of course, clash with their payroll, a luxury-tax number that features the pure PF Kevin Love and Channing Frye, a 6’11” PF/C that has averaged at least a block per game only twice in eleven seasons and regularly shoots 44% from the field for his career, making him effectively a tall perimeter player at this stage of his career.
To some extent they also clash with LeBron’s possible preference for the small forward spot for most of his career (although he seems to have come to terms with his power forward mold), a preference that would partially justify his eagerness to acquire Kevin Love at the expense of then-newly-drafted no. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins, a pure SF coming from Kansas who now marvelously fits the mold of the swingman despite playing for Minnesota (although the prevalent motives behind that request are surely due to age and title readiness), where Thibodeau never really let the common PG-to-C creed go – if anything, he runs the opposite way, with stretch PF Bjelica playing minutes at the 3 and F Wiggins occupying the 2-spot.
What about the Warriors?
As for the Cavs, the most used lineup during the playoffs has been the starting 5: PG Curry, SG Thompson, SF Durant, PF Green, C Pachulia. The second most used fits our formula but has a negative plus-minus and no Curry nor Durant (a -0,6 for PG Clark, SG Thompson, S Iguodala, F Green, B West). Third time’s a charm, however, because we’re presented with the infamous Death Lineup: PG Curry, SG Thompson, S Iguodala, F Durant, B Green.
Green fits the role of the big man in this lineup, but in reality he’s the prototype for the modern day forward: a hybrid SF/PF when he entered the league, a capable stretch-5 but by no means a player who should spend time exclusively at that position, a versatile defender with unlimited switching range but preferably slotted against big men or forwards (while smaller players are usually guarded by Thompson or Iguodala).
Iguodala is the perfect swingman and his success as a post All-Star player is a testament on the seminal role of the position. Thompson is a testament himself from a positional standpoint, a caveat on not forgetting the importance of shooting guards and their unchanged nature: while players like Klay (and back in the day Kobe) have the necessary size to play SF – Kobe has late in his career – it is not always best for them to oblige: size mismatches are not about sheer height or weight, but power. Thompson has tried to face against LeBron multiple times during these Finals, but it’s always proven much more useful to have him guard Irving while Iguodala would face the 6’8″ LeBron (nb: Iguodala is one inch shorter than Thompson). Green, meanwhile, is as tall as KT but during these 3 years of Golden State dominance in the West has defended successfully against the likes of Marc Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge and Dwight Howard.
Some of the most successful lineups for GSW have also featured Livingston as a faux-2, the young McCaw as a swingman, former PF David West as a big man (no novelty: Speights used to be a power forward before playing in the Bay), the infamous JaVale McGee as a vertical spacer at the big man spot. Almost no lineups have seen Thompson at any position other than SG nor Iguodala outside of his swingman/SF spot. No lineups feature David West at his preferred PF position he’s been an All-Star in. Even the seldom used SF Matt Barnes, a mid-season acquisition, has never played as anything but a forward (by which, in PG-to-C notation, we indicate power forward). Outside of the starting lineups and its derivations – a.k.a. lineups that retain the same structure with just one different member who is perceived as interchangeable, in this case the center – Golden State has abided by swingmen and shooting guards being two different animals, by power forwards and centers being hybridized as “big men” and by forwards being a once per lineup commodity.
These are, in short, the stepping stones of where we believe positions in basketball are heading.
Beware: this is our view. There is no indication that all coaches will at any point have to follow the lead, nor does a lineup analysis indicate that the vast majority of NBA teams use this peculiar annotation.
Coaches will tell you that in order to beat Golden State you may have to avoid playing like them at all costs, as you’re unlikely to gather the assets they have acquired over time to cater to this system.
But it is true that such a positional view is a much more plausible way to guide a basketball team through the near future of the NBA than the blunt positionless basketball label, due to the simple reason that if you’re a great player you’ll still assert yourself as a star even if you’re under 6’5″ or over 6’9″. Scoring ultimately takes all shapes and forms and can’t be denied. The Damian Lillards, Isaiah Thomases and DeMarcus Cousins’ of the world will still power and finesse their way to relevance despite all trendy labels taking place. That’s way it is desirable to encompass that unbridled talent in any scheme or set of positions and duties. They will be recognized whether you personally do or not.
The PG-to-C set is going to stay, undoubtedly, and this model doesn’t plan to supplant it. It is a post-event, possibly ad-hoc way of recognizing new trends in an Association where things happen, change your perspective and then may be recaptured in a technical report one or two months after the fact.
It is a series of generic guidelines to help summarize better what is happening to positions without claiming their disappearance as a whole when facts do not warrant it.
By all means, it’s a small tool that we – forget about the pluralis maiestatis, I – encourage you to use.
Use it when they tell you about Milwaukee having a non-positional future, like being defended by Maker, Brogdon or Antetokounmpo is the same thing (Milwaukee is not even especially faithful to our model, as they regularly employ swingman Tony Snell as a 2 and forwards Antetokounmpo and Parker alongside each other).
Use it when you’re wondering what coaches and executives mean when they say “we’d like to space the floor more” and mention the “modern basketball era that’s all about switching around”.
Use it when you see Memphis go from Randolph to JaMychal Green at PF and wonder what’s gonna happen to back-to-the-basket players (n.b.: they’ll be fine).
Use it when you wonder why so many people are unconvinced by positional fits that 3 years ago would have been dubbed ideal (ex. Anthony Davis and Cousins, Taj Gibson as a PF in both OKC and Minnesota, etc.).
Use it even more when trying to portray a realistic picture of what rookies will bring to the table in this league – in order, for instance, to understand why the 6’6″ Lonzo Ball may end up playing the 2 or a faux-2 but he’ll never be a 3 because he’s not quite a swingman – without getting carried away because “oh, do positions even matter anymore?”.
Or, you know, take it all the way to the trash bin if you don’t like it. I know some coaches would.
But whenever a lineup strikes you as unusual, feel free to come back here and consult this small tool before calling it wrong or positionless, and you may find in it more sense and possibly tradition than you’d have thought. Not all we fail to recognize is automatically new or strange, after all.