Forward Thinking

Darius Soriano —  August 20, 2010

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In recent weeks, the topic of the “positional revolution” has become a hot topic amongst basketball thinkers.  It started with a thought provoking post by Drew Cannon at Basketball Prospectus and has been expanded upon by more thought provoking entriesby Rob Mahoney at The Two Man game.  The concept is a simple one (at least my cliff notes version is): as basketball players become more skilled and are able to perform multiple (and varied) tasks on the basketball court, the confines of traditional positional labeling is becoming too constraining.  And as players evolve, so does the game they play and thus conventional thinking about players’ position(s) can then become obsolete.  A perfect example of this is Dirk Nowitzki as he’s a sharp shooting, ball handling big man that is called a Power Forward but really performs (offensive) tasks on the court that are quite similar to what we traditionally see from Shooting Guards or Small Forwards.  The Mavs run the offense through Dirk at the high post and use him as a ball handler in P&R situations.  However, on defense he falls into a more traditional role as he defends big men and rebounds at a very good rate.  Obviously, Dirk is an extreme example, but he’s not alone in his diversity as a player and his break from traditional roles typically assigned to a player that is labeled a specific position.

And this brings me to our Lakers as others have chimed in on the evolution of the game that we all love – including Kobe Bryant.  During a media session at the World Basketball Festival at Rucker Park in New York, Kobe spoke about the evolution of the game and the influence of international players on the NBA.  An excerpt from an Austin Burton’s entry at Dime Magazine:

Kobe said the influence of international players in the NBA has helped create a “hybrid” culture, where players of all sizes possess skills in all areas and can conceivably play any position on the floor.

“That’s the one difference I’d like to see us kind of shift to,” Kobe said.

This vision of five basketball players, devoid of traditional positional constraints, passing and cutting and posting and shooting and dribbling with equal aplomb, is near.  The concept of players assuming a definite position on the floor and sticking to that role is fading away like one of Kobe’s jumpers, as a new age of hybrids begin to take over the game.

Over at FanHouse, Matt Moore has been following the conversation started by Cannon and expanded by Mahoney and also picked up on what Kobe was saying, adding this:

It’s not surprising that Bryant would lean towards this kind of approach. After all, he himself is not only willing, but voracious in approaching any position on the floor. You could tell Kobe “go guard Nene with one arm” and he’d make a go of it (and Nene would likely walk away wincing a bit, even if he won the war). But the meaning is very relevant. This is one of the greatest basketball players and minds on the planet saying that essentially, the goal should be not only for us to get away from traditional positions, but eventually to homogenize personnel to be able to play within any construct we have. It’s a bold idea, since all of our previous constructs are devoutly built on the idea that a player is defined by what he can and can’t do. Removing limitations from the equations leads us to a new kind of basketball nirvana, where Andrea Bargnaniis not a problem because he’s not a 5, and Tyreke Evans is simply regarded as being of the “awesome position.”

And over at TrueHoop, Kevin Arnovitz is also exploring Kobe’s comments and adds that one reason Kobe (and other members of the Lakers) may be more open to this line of thinking and flashing multi-faceted skills is because of the system that they run:

There’s a reason the Lakers have “a lot of versatile talent that evades convention.” It’s because the team features an offense that de-emphasizes traditional positions in favor of function. In the triangle offense, Derek Fisher — the nominal point guard — acts as a spot-up shooter in the confines of the half court (particularly in corner sets) far more often than he does as a distributor. The wings in the triangle are often the trigger men, and the Lakers can maximize Bryant (their shooting guard) in the post without disrupting the sequential flow of the triangle.

Kevin takes the words right out of my mouth (though he said them much better, of course).  When you look at the Lakers’ roster, there are several players that defy classic models of “positions” in basketball.  Whether we’re talking about Kobe or Fisher, Odom or Gasol, the Lakers have a roster of players that are expected to perform roles within a system that don’t always cleanly match up with the roles of their labeled position.  As Arnovitz points out, Fisher is not a “point guard” in the classic sense as he’s not necessarily a primary ball handler or initiator of offense (though he does perform these roles).  For a more extreme example, look at Lamar Odom.  When LO is in the game, he’s often used as a facilitator of offense and a primary ball handler – all as a “power forward”.  And while he does find himself in the post on occasion, he’s used much more frequently as a creator of offense in isolation sets from the top of the key or as a slasher off the ball that slides into open space when others (Kobe, Pau) draw the opponents defensive attention.  None of these acts are ones that are usually assigned to a team’s power foward.

Even on defense, the Lakers don’t often stick to traditional roles.  For example, as the WCF against the Phoenix Suns progressed, the Lakers started to switch the Amare/Nash P&R where Gasol (or Odom or Bynum) then got matched up on Nash for long stretches of Phoenix’s offensive possessions.  The Lakers’ big men then became defenders of one of the best PG’s in the game and were expected to keep him out of the paint and contest his shots in space.  Meanwhile, Nash’s original defender either rotated to the diving big man or switched to another player on the wing as the Lakers’ rotations took hold and every player was expected to show enough versatility to potentially guard any player on the court.  Other examples of the Lakers defying positional labels on defense are Kobe being switched onto PG’s like Rondo and Westbrook while Fisher guarded SG’s like Ray Allen and Thabo Sefalosha.  Even during the regular season when Kobe sat out injured against the Blazers, rather than starting Shannon Brown (as would typically occur), Phil Jackson decided to start Lamar Odom (with Fisher, Artest, Bynum, and Gasol) so that LO could match up with Andre Miller (a PG that excels at posting up).

There are countless other examples of the Lakers’ philosophies on offense and defense promoting the concept of a position-less team – Kobe as a primary post up player, Gasol as a wing player making entry passes, Ron Artest guarding PG’s, etc – but the overall point is that this is a concept that bears watching in the coming years.  Players are becoming more diverse and we may indeed see that players are filling “roles” on teams (creator, rebounder, etc) rather than being expected to perform the duties typically associated with a specific position on the floor.  And if this does indeed occur, I do believe the Lakers – at least as currently constructed – will be a team that will excel in this type of classification of players as they’re already implementing these concepts into their everyday style.


Darius Soriano

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