Positional growth opens the NBA up to excitement, change

There are some realities in life that we don’t question, for good reason. 1+1= 2. The sun rises and sets. Ross and Rachel never made sense. Swarthmore is the best college in the country. Then there are some realities that we just take for granted and, bang, they’re changed and never coming back. Pluto anyone? Marijuana legalization in the U.S.?

The same principles apply to sports. On one hand, the New England Patriots and San Antonio Spurs will make the playoffs, MLB players will use performance enhancing drugs and Duke will have an early upset loss to some school nobody’s heard of.

On the other, Manchester United went from ruling the Premier League to collapsing to seventh, beneath Tottenham and Everton, in the span of one season. The Los Angeles Lakers, having missed the playoffs just 4 times ever, appear set for mediocrity for the next half-decade. And there are more than 5 NBA positions.

Wait, what?

Historically, the sport of basketball has had five players on the court with distinct roles. The point guard’s, otherwise known as “the one”, job was to bring the ball across half-court, call a play and pass. The shooting guard’s (two) was to do just that: shoot and shoot accurately. The small forward (three) was an overall athlete, capable of defending and driving for vicious dunks. The power forward (four) filled space in the paint and rebounded. The center (five) was as big as possible and bulled his way to the rim for layups, dunks and put-backs. It all seemed simple.

Today, due to the NBA’s obsession with efficiency, the traditional basketball systems are evolving. General managers want to find the next revolutionary formula to rule the NBA. This has shattered the five-positions model. There are already four new NBA positions and we can already see more coming.

The first position to be radicalized was point guard. This started during the mid-1990s, but the change is most visible today. I’m referring to the change from the Bob Cousy, John Stockton-style pure facilitators to athletic scorers. Tim Hardaway, Baron Davis and Stephon Marbury started this movement with their “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality, but it wasn’t until Allen Iverson started leading the NBA in scoring annually at 6’1” that point guards really took note and started working as much on their scoring repertoire as their defensive and ball-handling skills. In recent years, we have witnessed the takeover of hyper-athletic guards such as Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose and John Wall, who foray to the rim to challenge bigger men as often as they defer. Then you have Damien Lillard, Kyrie Irving and Steph Curry who shoot 600 three-point attempts a year, making over 250 of them, further demonstrating the shift towards scoring three instead of one.

This, in turn, leads to the development of the complementary players on teams built around these scoring guards. Teams now have specialists at the two and three positions: players known as “three and D” guys. Teams are paying for players such as Trevor Ariza, Chandler Parsons and Klay Thompson to shut down the opposing team’s stars, come down to the other end and chuck up a high volume of ranged jump shots to keep defenses honest. This opens up the court and lanes for the ones and threes to slash through.

Another interesting byproduct of this is a position known as the point forward. Much like the traditional point guards, point forwards are players who specialize in setting up their teammates and running a team. The LeBron Jameses, Andre Igoudalas and Paul Pierces of the NBA are often defensive stalwarts and solid rebounders. However, they can bring the ball up, call plays and lead teams. This adds depth to NBA attacks, allowing players like Irving and Curry to take possessions off the ball and spot up for jump shots or cut.

The center has also officially died out according to the All-NBA and All-Star teams, as a “front-court” position has replaced forwards and centers. The monsters of the ’90s, behemoths like Shaq, David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon, are simply not patrolling the paint anymore. Instead the NBA requires hyper-athletic 7-footers to block from the weak side, gobble up rebounds and catch alley-oop passes from anywhere in the arena. DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard, Andre Drummond and Tyson Chandler have extremely limited offensive arsenals and miss more free throws than they make; however, they are in high demand and are paid multi-million dollar annual contracts, because of their athleticism rather than their skill or size.

The fourth and probably most drastic change from the players of yore is in the power forward position. No longer is the NBA filled with players whose names are forgotten before they retire, who live five feet from the basket and who need a point guard to set them up. Rather, NBA fours are being dragged further from the rim and towards the three-point line in order for the wings to dive at the basket. This started in the early 2000’s during Dirk Nowitzki’s reign over the basketball world. People simply couldn’t guard 7-footers who could shoot from 30 feet away. Suddenly, it’s become a prerequisite for power forwards to have an outside shot. Almost every team has a four that can hit three-pointers like Kevin Love, Ryan Anderson or Nowitzki. Even players whose games live closer to the rim are berated by critics and coaches until they develop a midrange jumper. Just ask Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge.

So, it is pretty apparent that the NBA currently has at least 9 positions and that new developments have led to a faster paced and more spaced NBA game, meaning higher scoring and more action. So, the NBA makes more money. Yay! “But is this it? What else can these guys do?” you may ask between shaking your head and writing the number ‘five’ fervently on a piece of paper.

Well, the center position is starting to develop in more than one direction and is the most likely position to change next. In addition to these hyper-athletes, there is a growing breed of centers spearheading offenses themselves, not with ball handling, but with passing and court vision. Joakim Noah and Marc Gasol have recently begun seeing more touches without an increase in shooting volume. The reason? They’re the primary facilitators on their team. In March this year, Noah incredibly averaged eight assists per game, which, over the course of a season, would be more even than elite point guards Tony Parker and Westbrook’s best assisting seasons ever. That’s amazing. Now this trend is not definite, because these ex-defensive players of the year are exceptional talents. However, if NBA coaches increasingly begin running offense through the high post, players will, seeing the demand for those skills, work on them. It’s an interesting proposition for the position that used to be the NBA’s primary scoring option to develop in a completely polar opposite direction, towards defense and passing.

In general, the world is moving towards efficiency and specialization at a higher level and this is true in sports as much as elsewhere. Thus, the NBA’s positional growth is not unusual and is opening the game up for excitement and intrigue. What’s next?


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