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NBA Positions: What Do They Mean, And How Do We React To Hybrids And A New Age Of Basketball?

Rob Mahoney has an interesting post over at The Two Man Game that challenges what we think of the typical and accepted positions in the NBA: PG, SG, SF, PF, C. I would post an excerpt of the article, but that won't do any good. Take five minutes and visit (I know, it looks like "That Woman Game" at first, right?) to see the post. You need to read it in its entirety.

...(read it, then come back, or else nothing below will make sense)...

The following is a free-flowing thought process. Just so you know. I plan to change my mind a few times on things, but I think this will actually help you all understand where I am coming from.

Mahoney references a piece written by Drew Cannon of Basketball Prospectus that attacks positions from the correct angle: defense. Defense is nothing more than reacting to what the opposing offense does, states Cannon. A traditional offense will likely have a ball handler, a creator, a scorer and a second-chance player in the post, with the final player likely a combination of two traits. Thus, a defense must be built to stop such an offense. Look to the championship Celtics team from 07-08 as a blueprint for defense. When Mahoney references the Mavericks, he refers to them not by position, but rather by the position that they can likely guard. The Celtics' starting lineup featured five defenders of the perfect mold. Rajon Rondo, a D1. Ray Allen, a D2. And so on. The same can be applied to the championship Pistons - each player was a perfect choice to guard his likely opponent.

Take a look at the Rockets. How would we classify them according to Mahoney's standard? Let's start by giving each's primary defensive assignment, followed by two elements of their offensive game, the first of which being the biggest strength.

Aaron Brooks: D1, Handler-Creator-Scorer

Kevin Martin: D2, Scorer-Creator

Trevor Ariza: D2/D3, Scorer?

Luis Scola: D4, Rebounder-Scorer

Yao Ming: D5, Scorer-Rebounder

Shane Battier: D2/D3, Scorer?

Kyle Lowry: D1, Handler-Creator

Brad Miller: D5, Rebounder-Scorer

Chase Budinger: D2/D3, Scorer-Creator

Jordan Hill: D4, Rebounder-Scorer

Patrick Patterson: D3/D4, Rebounder-Scorer?

Jermaine Taylor: D2, Scorer-Creator

Chuck Hayes: D3/D4/D5, Rebounder-Scorer (limited to pick-and-roll layups, and that's being generous)

Jared Jeffries: D3/D4/D5, I don't know, who cares.

Looking more at offense for a second...

The difference between us and, say, the 07-08 Celtics and the 2004 Pistons? Their wings could create, score and then defend, too. That's the ideal situation. Using the four assignments given to us by Cannon/Mahoney, we run into a problem, because I don't think Ariza or Battier fits either description in its broad terms. They can score, but everything must be set up for them to do so. You would think that disqualifying them as "creators" would fix this problem, but the term 'scorer' in itself only relates to putting the ball into the basket, when in fact there are tons of ways in which one could do that. Which part of the floor do they score from, how important they are in the offense, etc.

We must dig deeper.

Rather than use positions, I'd like to try using roles. Essentially, that's what the traditional positions set out to do, but that has changed. A 'small forward' is more like a 'big guard' nowadays, a power forward can simply be a forward, and a center can really be a power forward, save for a few examples, like Yao Ming. But this is all confusing, isn't it? So let's go with roles. Baseball uses roles to name their positions. So does football, for the most part. If we were to re-do a few of the positions in football by naming an A) Primary role, followed by B) How this role is carried out, it might look like this:

Quarterback Passer

1) Pocket  2) Scrambling  3) Balanced

Tailback Runner

1) Power  2) Speed 3) Balanced


Linebacker Middle Defender

1) Run-stopper  2) Coverage  3) Balanced

Safety Back Defender (lame, but go with it)

1) Coverage  2) Run-stopper  3) Balanced

It's football, which isn't my forte, so we'll keep it simple. But you get what I'm saying. We're talking about a player's role, followed by how he, specifically, fills that role.

So here's what I'm thinking next: keep the defensive side. D1/D2/D3 and all that. Defense is where it starts. As for offense, I think a few changes can be made.

Instead of forcing players into certain positions based largely on their height (6'10 Durant and 6'6 Hayes throw things off, but what exactly are they throwing off?), let's get rid of positions all together and start classifying the players themselves. By the way, remember what positions really are? It's where you are positioned on the field.

In football and baseball, everything is set in stone. Receivers line up *here*, the running back lines up *here*, etc. The wildcat is starting to change this way of thinking, which is a whole different topic, but for the most part, that's what the NFL is like. Baseball is the same way: second baseman stands *here* near second base, catcher sits *here* and catches the pitch. The only movement outside of positions we've seen in baseball is when a shift is in effect, when a team places three people on the right side of the field when David Ortiz is at bat. But in these two sports, players are supposed to line up and play from a particular area. Their position is based literally on where they play.

In basketball, as stated, we tend to go with height because you'd ideally think that a small person would not play much in the paint and a tall person would. However, unlike in baseball or football, players of all shapes and sizes can roam around wherever they want. Defensively, we solve this problem because we can classify based on what kind of opponent a player can guard.

But what about offense? What do we think about a short guy like Tony Parker who is always in the paint (I may be stretching that just a bit - Parker is a point guard and starts at the top of the key, but I think you know what I'm getting at), or a tall guy like Dirk Nowitzki or Hedo Turkoglu that likes to play the perimeter? Why force ourselves to call them by a position rather than by a natural classification? Of course, the problem with this is that there are so many different types of players out there.*

More so than anyone in recent years, I think Tyreke Evans throws a giant wrench into this equation.

LeBron should have screwed it up first. But he's not in the paint enough. He likes to play the perimeter. He likes to shoot from outside, regardless of how good or bad he is from range. We've seen plenty of tall players who are called "centers" or "power forwards" transcend their position because they can shoot outside. Dirk is one of these. But have we seen a guy in this day and age whose size and athleticism fits the point guard bill, yet he can't and won't shoot from outside, isn't really a natural passer AND he puts up good numbers?

Magic and Jordan played like this, sort of, but they played in different eras. And, holy shit, Magic could pass.

Despite its athletes getting bigger, basketball has gotten smaller. It's no longer a "feed the post and watch" game. It's too fast and too guard-oriented and too friggin' athletic.

I guess we would call Evans a scorer-handler-creator or something. But how does he go about doing these things? I'm about to lose my mind. Again, we're good on defense, with D1, D2 and so on. As for offense, dare we subscript our player-types (handler, creator, shooter, rebounder) by mentality, and therefore by usage?

Shane Battier. Handler Rebounder Creator Scorer. Low usage. Spot-up shooter.*

Tyreke Evans. Handler-Creator-Scorer. High usage. Driver.*


If you look at the Celtics, or the Lakers, or the Pistons of recent years, look at the basic setup of their starting lineups. Each of these starting lineups featured different methods of scoring. But each also contained the ideal player to fit the description of a D1 (Fisher/Billups/Rondo), a D2 (Bryant/Hamilton/Allen), a D3 (Artest/Prince/Pierce), a D4 (Gasol/Wallace/Garnett) and a D5 (Bynum/Wallace/Perkins). In other words, only defensive positioning was relative.

The question that I will leave you with:

If there can be a D1, does there have to be an O1?

I think that's what we're all trying to figure out here. I'll let others do their best for now, and I hope this random train of thought hasn't wasted too much of your time.