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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24 responses to Forward Thinking

  1. I’ve been following this whole thing rather intently, and thinking about it quite a bit lately. It’s a worthy, but extremely vexing issue, to say the least.

    Fist things first, though. The very first time I ever came across this idea was back in the mid-eighties. And, of course, it was from the Lakers. Pat Riley once said that (it’s been a really, really long time, so what he actually said may be quite different from my memory) his ideal team would be Kareem and four guys 6’9″. His team at the time wasn’t far off, with Magic, Scott, Worthy, Rambis , and Kareem. But what I took him to mean is exactly what is being discussed here. He seemed to be saying that the ideal basketball team would be made up of guys who are skilled in all facets of the game, and who could perform almost any role at any place on the floor. That’s just to say that this isn’t necessarily a new idea, and was doubtlessly thought and spoken of before Riley.

    That said, on to the current discussion. In the stuff that I have read, there has been a lack of conceptual consistency. In the original post by Drew Canon, and then the follow-ups by Rob Mahoney and Jesse Blanchard, they discussed describing a role on offense (handler/creator/scorer…), but a position (D1, D2…) on defense. If we were to assume that we’re really grasping for some more clear description of role, then we’d have to come up with defensive roles as well as offensive ones. Jesse Blanchard at 48minutesofhell.com actually goes in that direction, but not all the way.

    And then, even if we were to come to grand consensus on the list of approved roles, then we would run up against the problem of player capabilities vs team needs. As Darius noted, Odom can operate in the post, but isn’t asked to by the team. So, how would he be described in any new system, by the role he does play or the one he is capable of? Artest is another great example, since he plays an entirely different role on offense for the Lakers than he did for any of his previous teams.

    I think that this gets at the heart of the desire for a more descriptive system of categorization. It means very little to say that Artest played SF for Houston and now plays SF for LA. But coming up with an alternative that does say something useful has proven to be extremely elusive, based on the writing on the subject to date.

  2. I don’t think this is new at all. What we’re seeing is basically a return to the very very old, like a pick-up game where you see players who can and will do everything and defend everyone.

    But that evolved into position battles because taller players were simply better near the hoop, and it was more efficient for them to simply park there. And since you can only have so many people under the hoop, you needed players who can play outside, and players who can start outside and finish inside.

    In the end, you return to the position thing. You just have to, because that’s how you maximize efficiency from your starting five.

    Of course, if you are both tall and a threat from the 3 point line, you give your team more options. But that still doesn’t mean that you’re breaking away from positions, only that you have players on the floor that can switch up roles and positions to be more efficient by drawing defenders less suited to defend.

    I think the discussion has been exaggerated since we see so many ill-prepared, one-dimensional players in the NBA who were picked not because of their love for the game, but because of their potential within the current system, and have had coaches who had no time to develop their full game but only emphasized the parts that were most immediate.

  3. Harold,

    I think the idea is that when “you have players on the floor that can switch up roles and positions” then you render the positional labels meaningless. It’s not practical to say, Odom is the PF, but when he’s up top dumping the ball into the post, then Artest has taken up the PF role on the weak side…and on and on. In the eighties, PFs almost never shot 20′+ jumpers, and did in fact adhere to the traditional roles of the position much more closely. Sure, there were exceptions, but overall, there were way more traditional Power Forwards. Now, the league is filled with players who break the mold. As Rob Mahoney said, “What characteristics link Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan, Rashard Lewis, Lamar Odom, Reggie Evans, Tyrus Thomas, and J.J. Hickson? Not rebounding. Not scoring. Not skill set. Not height relative to their teammates. Not even the spaces they occupy on the floor. I’m at a total loss as to the criterion that would group that bunch together, which makes the assessment “Player X isn’t a real power forward” pretty much worthless. I think I know what it means, but without the ability to define the contemporary power forward, how could I really know for sure?”

    Given that, let’s try to come up with some labels that are more meaningful.

  4. I think the positional revolution is much easier to move towards when speaking about offense. I mean, players of all sizes can perform all tasks on a basketball court – whether it’s posting up, driving, initiating offense, etc. Hence you can have players like Dirk, Odom, Tyreke Evans, Kobe, Lebron, et al taking on offensive roles that don’t always match up with their positional identity.

    However, on defense, I think we’re still more stuck in traditional roles. Guards match up with Guards (for the most part), wings on wings, bigs on bigs, etc. Only when you have unique players with a wide range of defensive skills do you see the type of cross positional play that players like Rodman, Pippen, Payton, Kobe, etc have displayed. I think these are topics that Mahoney and Tom Ziller tried to explore in their posts on the subject and I think this is where we’ll see even more growth in this concept as we move forward.

  5. quetzpalin is dead-on.

    As I read I Darius’s post I too recalled Riley’s past comments about wanting to coach an all 6-foot-9 lineup back in the Showtime era.

    Those Lakers had the advantage of great athletes with well-rounded skills, particularly Magic, Worthy and Cooper, who could each jump seemingly switch from guard to small forward to power forward with little fall off.

    A.C. Green wasn’t quite so versatile, but his game was more of a hybrid SF/PF than most other PFs of his day, especially when he was running the wing or knocking down the spot-up 20 footers.

    Karl Malone was that type of player; good range, could function well inside or out. Jordan and Pippen too. Sir Charles certainly broke the mold.

    Bottom line is the existence of such players isn’t new; all that’s changing is the migration to where more and more such players are in the league at the same time.

    Funny how in the ’80s and ’90s and now, it was coaches like Phil and Riles who were so far ahead of the curve. Those rings they won weren’t acquired by accident.

  6. Joey:
    And he says that lots of times, you don’t even run down court. And that you don’t really try… except during the playoffs.

    Roger Murdock:
    The hell I don’t. LISTEN KID. I’ve been hearing that crap ever since I was at UCLA. I’m out there busting my buns every night. Tell your old man to drag Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes.

    Imagine if he had to drag Shaq?????

  7. Well I’m 6’7 myself and I find it so offensive when people say just post up under the basket and shoot, as if my extra foot makes me a bad outside shooter.

    I just think that guards are for the most part smaller, better co-ordinated and faster and so they play outisde better where as if derek fisher suddenly grow a foot he may sub in for bynum on occasion.

    Its just as players of varying sizes can do things that where traditionly done by other positions like Rondo’s flirting with triple doubles and kobe in the post or kevin durant being a fast 6’10 sf, or yao’s hot free throw shooting.

    I means bigs who can shoot and pass are great but I believe they have to fufill the more traditional roles aswell or you dont have anyone rebounding or stuff like that.

    height is always a huge advantage whetehr shooting three’s ove rpeople or hooks ove rpeople it’s just having the skills aswell as the height etc to play on the perimeter I believe.

    I believe that wont ever go away.

  8. Kelly Dwyer’s Shooting Guard rankings are up and Wade takes number 1 over Kobe:

    http://sports.yahoo.com/nba/blog/ball_dont_lie/post/Ranking-the-shooting-guards-10-through-1?urn=nba-263900

    I think its interesting that he decided to make up imaginary facts to support his argument. Apparently Wade “turned the ball over fewer times”, despite the fact that its completely untrue. Wade turned over the ball more than Kobe per game, per minute, per possession, per playoff game, per playoff minute,per playoff possession and has done so for most of his career.

    Life as an analyst must be so much easier when you get to make up facts to support your case and omit any that don’t.

  9. Arhithia,
    Did you ever see Lanier play? He not only fit the mold, but he acted the part of big, heavy thunder.

    The interesting coach today is Nellie. He would be closer to having all 6’9″ players who could switch all over the court. He gets the offensive effectiveness of such a system, but he never really has developed the defense.

  10. Darius make a great point when it come to defense, position revolution tend to fail. One great example for this is Young Shaq vs everyone that isn’t a center, he would pretty much ram everyone away leaving the pain wide open.

  11. conversely, whoever Shaq knocked around in the post would just outrun him and get an easy bucket for himself or create an opportunity for one of his teammates.

  12. At the end of the day, I think we’re looking at skill sets and capabilities moreso than positions. So while Dirk Nowitski and Tim Duncan may play the same position, their skill sets couldn’t be more different. So some skill sets may be “3PT shooter,” “wing defender,” “slasher,” “guard defender,” “ball-handler,” “mid-range shooter,” “high-post player,” “low-post player,” “post-defender,” etc.

    However, while it may make more “sense” to label players by skills, what a skills-style labeling or really any labeling outside the traditional PG-SG-SF-PF-C lacks are the most important parts of a label: compactness. While it may be erroneous to dub Tim Duncan a PF and Matt Bonner a C, it is still more convenient than any sort of skills labeling that we can give the two players.

    In the end, I think a team’s positional alignment is dependent on that team, the skill sets of their personnel, and how each fits within their 5-man scheme. Which is almost impossible to transfer from team to team.

  13. This is a difficult theme to address concisely, as my last comment failed miserably.

    In basketball, there are three things that helped create the current breakdown of positions, which are height, proximity to the basket and spacing.

    Height is a physical trait that can trump basketball ‘skills’ to such an extent that sometimes you see centers that can barely dribble.

    Proximity to the basket determines the type of shots you can take and of course the level of basketball skills required to get a shot up in the first place.

    Spacing allows offenses to avoid having the defense collapse on your shooter, increasing the possibility of a more efficient shot.

    Since you get more space as you get further away from the basket, you end up with one or two players with the skills and traits most advantageous near the basket(height), and the rest with skills and traits most advantageous away from the basket (either to bomb away from downtown or to slash through to the basket, decreasing the distance from the basket).

    Urgh, not enough time to further elaborate… so I’ll continue later if anyone disagrees thus far ;)

  14. #13. Chibi, I think you got it right this time.

    As many of you already know, I am a basketball coach born and raised in Barcelona, Spain. In Europe, the most popular sport is soccer and as you guys have seen, Spain just recently won the soccer World Cup. Remember Xavi and Iniesta? You know who Messi is? they all play for FC Barcelona team, the club that, since Cruyff days practice what Chibi linked us: a versatile always moving kind of game, Total Football.

    In our sports culture, where physical gifts are seen once in a while, the fundamentals and the knowledge of the game is what we, the coaches, emphasize the most, looking for talented and versatile players, who can create missmatches, not for their physical advantage but because of their capability of doing many different things.

    Then you see an Spanish basketball NT that spots some talent but not quite the same physical tools that the USA NT shows but able to compete against by being smart.

    In non NBA games there are almost non ISO plays. Why? aren’t there players who can take over the game? Sure they are, but motion plays make the offense less predictable and as everybody is suposed to be able to do a little bit of everything, the play goes smooth.

    Lakers fans have been witness of great passing C like Gasol and Divac. Ask Blazer fans about Sabonis.
    What? a 6-8 PG? named Magic? the guy must have been pretty smart.
    And because of style of play and ISO culture the NBA has never got the chance to trully embody the great basketball mind and talent of Papaloukas (6-6 greek PG)

    The same way soccer’s Total Football has influenced euro basketball, euro basketball is now delivering some of its influence to the NBA.

  15. 7-Sauce,

    If you’re playing a pick-up game and you’re taller than most people on the court then you should be near the hoop.
    That’s just how it is. (who has the better chance of getting a rebound or higher percentage shot, you or me?)

    That isn’t so much pigeonholing, but using your physical advantage to the fullest.

    When I play guard and pass the ball, you better believe the big man on my team will be posting up and getting position or he isn’t getting the ball. I will run it to whoever is actually posting up instead with the advantage.

    There are things a big man can do, I can’t do as well due to my height (6’1″) and I like to post up a lot, but facts are facts.

    Getting back to the topic, we don’t totally need 7 footers being like PGs and PGs being like 7 footers when their roles are more defined due to the physical nature of things.

    Diversification of roles on a court is fine and I’m in favor of whatever works, but I feel a big man overall should play and act like a big man, a little man like a little one.

    Isn’t that what we all complain about when it comes to 7 footers and other tall players in the league today…they DON’T post up enough and they act like they are SGs.

    Bye.

  16. A great prototype of this theory is probably Lebron, he have both the speed and size to pretty much be anything well maybe not center.

  17. This concept is something that needs to be considered when looking at making Bynum a “cornerstone” of future Lakers rosters.

  18. 16, I don’t think the question is whether a big man should play near the basket or whether a small guy should bring up the ball, it’s a question of how we label these players. It’s the fact that we give Rashard Lewis and Tim Duncan the same positional label that is bothersome to people, because there is no way to justify the label between the two players non-arbitrarily. People find it limiting to label both players as “power forwards” because that distinction has lost its meaning. It leads to certain statements like, “Rashard Lewis is not a real power forward,” an expression that has seemingly become vacuous in the modern game.

    Positional revolution isn’t about telling guys they can’t play a certain way because of their body type; it’s about a re-labeling of the players on the court to better describe their function.

    In this way, I like the way college basketball does it, just leaving out the C when a team obviously doesn’t have a center, such as those Deron Williams Illinois teams that had a G-G-G-F-F lineup. The simplicity is still there, but the change in alignment dictates a change in philosophy regarding the skills of each player.

  19. I think we want to be careful about advocating “positional revolution”. It is easy to make the case when you use examples like Pippen, Kobe, Lebron, or Nowitski. However, this trend has also led the the likes of Brian Cook and countless other big men who take their game outside and neglect the development of an inside game. That is not progress in my mind.

    What this trend does do, however, is make players who don’t excel at any aspects of the game, like Luke Walton (the anti-Pippen), even less desirable, and that’s not a bad thing….

  20. thisisweaksauce August 21, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    To go along with what Xavier said (comment 15), that is exactly why I love Kobe. His ability to do almost anything in the floor is perfect for the offensive and defensive systems we run (and flat out amazes me too). It’s why he is the best player in the world, stats be damned (stats should only be part of the argument). In 2009, the Magic could contain LeBron to an extent due to his lack of diversity in attack. In the Finals, the Magic had no answer for Kobe as he was pretty much unpredictable. He could post-up, run the pick-and-roll with Gasol (and be deadly for either a mid-range shot or a drive), etc. He has taken what he has been given physically (which is not as much as some) and become one of the greatest to ever play. Also, to continue on what Xavier said, I love that the Lakers run an offensive system where people must know the different roles you may have in the system. Our offense has been top notch (maybe not so much last year) because it is fairly unpredictable (more so than a constant pick and roll attack some teams use).

  21. While we, particularly we Americans, have some troubles moving away from the positional labels, there should be a general agreement that we should at least get rid of the PG, SG, SF, PF lables. These players should be listed as guards or forwards and further specializing their positions only confuses the issue.

    We may go further than this in the future, but this is a good starting point.

  22. This is a such an interesting debate on putting labels and I thought i take a crack at this. I know this is flawed to a certain extent as I’m just thinking out loud and I’m looking at this from a defensive standpoint. My thinking is to look at players that can defend below or above the post (or foul line). B for below the post and A for above the post. Labeling a player to his strength on whom he can defend can be judged on this facet. So let’s say B+a- is for a traditional center who can’t defend the perimeter but great on the block or low post. We can use a capital B or small b to emphasize the height of player he can defend. So a b+A- player is someone who can defend the low post reasonably well against players of his own size or smaller but is a bit below defending players his size or above above the post. I think this needs work and I can’t figure out how to take into account slashers and players who thrive on driving to the basket; P&R defense. Or can “A” player designation incorporate that? Let me know what you guys think?