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A Positionless League

Basketball is a sport that traditionally consists of five simple positions; point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, and center. However, over the past decade, the sport has seemed to evolve past the need for set positions. From the AAU level to the NBA, basketball has changed dramatically in recent years.

Two of the most significant factors that have influenced this different perception of the sport is the evolution of the three-point line and the increased versatility of big-men. These two components intertwine with one another in relation to the lack of definitive positions in modern day basketball.

There are many examples of teams across the NBA that have adapted the approach of having their five best players on the court, no matter the position. A player who embodies this idea the best is LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers. Traditionally, James has the body type for a small/power forward; however, over the past few seasons, he has become a point-forward. This “position” has James as the primary player running the offense and taking the ball up the court.

It may be a demanding job, but just like in the postseason, teams prefer that their best player is orchestrating the offense and what better way to do that then to always have that player start with the ball in their hands. Point guard is no longer restricted to the smaller athletes or the only guards with handles. The sport now allows players of all sizes to be the primary ball handler, especially if they are the most talented.

The King was not the first player to play the position at his size, as Magic Johnson was famously a 6’9’’ point guard with the Showtime Lakers; however, James has helped pave the way for other non-guards. Philadelphia 76ers Ben Simmons has embraced being a one of a kind point guard with some very unorthodox traits for his supposed “position”. He is technically listed as a point guard, despite standing at a mighty 6’10’’.

To go with his tall stature, he is a guard who can not shoot perimeter shots, yet he has found a way to become a multiple time All-Star. As this is a result of Simmons having the talent to push the 76ers offense using his fantastic handles, stellar passing ability, and high basketball IQ. Skill will override almost all other factors in the current layout of the league. If there are two centers or four guards who all deserve to be on the court, most coaches will ignore matchups and find a way to play their best cards.

Ben Simmons puts on another show as Joel Embiid-less Sixers fall ...
Yong Kim

This philosophy is emphasized even more with the increased development of small ball. The idea behind this strategy generally has teams sacrificing height for an offensive edge. In the modern NBA, it is used to enhance scoring chances by adding more shooters onto the court at a time.

Small ball allows the offense to run with more fluidity, usually with four perimeter players and a big-man to collect rebounds down low. The drawback to playing this style is on the defensive side of the ball. There will often be a number of mismatches that occur with opposing teams’ taller players, as well as defensive rebounding becoming much more of a hassle. 

One major knock on today’s play style is the radical amount of switching that occurs on the defensive end. Every team in the NBA is guilty of this, but compared to a time even as recent as the early 2010’s, players were told to stay on their man. This ties into the lack of positions, as there are much less players who stick to defending one-on-one throughout a possession with players of all heights roaming the court and not having an assigned man.

Switching is not bad, as it is actually encouraged to help out fellow teammates when necessary; however, it has become the default when most players defend, and it can lead to defensive breakdowns. Ordinary positioning allowed for pretty standard defensive schemes with each position matching up with their counterpart, but now a player may guard multiple guys each turn down the court, never knowing who to stay on.

Many teams are heavy advocates for the small ball style of play, but the Houston Rockets have taken the strategy to a whole new level. During this season’s trade deadline, Houston was in the middle of the Western Conference playoff race, but instead of sticking it out with their current roster, they decided to make a very bold trade by sending away their only true center in Clint Capela to add another shooter in Robert Covington. The deal ultimately put 6’5’’ P.J. Tucker at the starting center position for the Rockets.

Mike D’Antoni is an offensive coach who likes to run his team up and down the court to get the most scoring opportunities. The veteran coach ran his system to perfection with the Phoenix Suns teams of the 2000’s and has been able to somewhat replicate it with the Rockets. The main difference between the two teams is the emphasis on shooting three pointers. This season alone, the Rockets are averaging 15.4 made threes per game on 44.3 attempts, which are both league leading statistics.

Houston choosing to ax Capela shows how committed they are to their game plan. Their entire offense consists of shooting threes and getting to the line with James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Though as peculiar as the strategy may seem, Houston is currently sitting at sixth in the conference and only 2.5 games behind the third seed. Small ball works with the correct roster and Houston really shows how meaningless positions are in today’s NBA.

Brook Lopez is hitting way more three-pointers than any 7-footer ever
Isaiah J. Downing/USA Today Sports

On the other side of the spectrum, there is going with a big lineup. Not just stacking tall players, but having skill players who can do more than originally projected. The evolution of the stretch four or stretch five has never been more evident over the past few seasons. Having a power forward/center who can shoot outside shots is what separates the good teams from the championship teams.

Some of the strongest teams in the league right now have big-men who can either shoot or more importantly, have developed a shot. Brook Lopez, Anthony Davis, and Nikola Jokić all play the center position for their respective teams and all have the ability to shoot from deep. This is an ability that was rare not too long ago and now it is almost necessary to stay on a roster.

Players like Al Jefferson and Josh Smith were solid players in their heyday, but were pushed out of the league at young ages because of their inability to shoot. If guys like them played 20 years ago, then there would be no doubt they would have lasted longer, but with true positions being basically obsolete, these guys have no role within the NBA anymore.

Lopez is a phenomenal example of a player who adjusted in order to stay relevant. In his first eight seasons, Lopez had only made a total of 3 three-point field goals. In the subsequent four seasons, he has hit 517 three pointers and counting. The center has not only added the shot to his game, but has become a threat. Trying to block a seven-footer from shooting twenty-five feet out is no easy task and much harder than defending a traditional guard or forward.

Centers and power forwards who can not shoot are often sidelined during crunch time because of their offensive insufficiencies. Organizations that are unable to grasp the idea of a positionless league would put themselves at a disadvantage, as one-dimensional players are now seen as liabilities.

Taking over the paint and dominating the boards will only work if the player is at the caliber of a Rudy Gobert or Bam Adebayo. Expanding a player’s game beyond just size is now what is necessary for most big-men to be successful.

Positions in the NBA still technically exist; however, the way players are developed nowadays points to the contrary. Modern basketball is centered around the three-point line and if you can shoot from distance, you can make the roster. Size is not irrelevant, but unless the player is abnormally tall like Tacko Fall, it takes more than height to be an effective NBA player.

Having these array of small ball lineups really points to the direction of the league. It is less the emphasis on going small, but more wanting to score the maximum amount of points, as defense has become secondary for some organizations. The best way to outscore an opponent in the modern league is to outshoot them and score as many three pointers as possible. With teams finding success with this approach, others followed suit and that is how the NBA has gotten to where they are now. On paper positions exist, but the evolution of the game says otherwise.

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