by Zach d’Arbeloff
Basketball is changing rapidly, and the name of our website proves it. The Pace and Space era is in full throttle, and as teams jack up tempos, shoot more threes, and generate open shots with spacing and ball movement, the traditional understanding of positions has changed.
This article originally appeared on January 12, 2016. Stats cited in this article are as of that date and from the 2015-16 season.
The sport has gotten smaller, faster, and more skilled. Most teams now have certain “positionless” lineups, designed to put five players on the floor that can dribble, pass, and shoot, eschewing the traditional belief that you need to have a true rim protector on the floor at all times. The best of all of these lineups: the Defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors’ “lineup of death.”
The lineup centers around Draymond Green, a 6’7” power forward , who shoots 40 percent from three and is currently averaging over 7 assists per game, playing center, flanked by Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson, and Steph Curry. This lineup is averaging an utterly mind-blowing +60.3 Net Rating per 100 possessions.
It’s important to note that Golden State doesn’t use this lineup for entire games, and most of their other best lineups by net rating include either Festus Ezeli or Andrew Bogut, traditional rim protectors. This is a change of pace tactic they use to blitz teams and take big leads in the third and fourth quarters of games. It completely wears down the opponent, forcing them to keep up with a helter-skelter transition game boosted by the excellent passing of Green and the fact that every player on the floor is a near-40 percent three point shooter.
(Just to exemplify how fragile the spacing on this lineup is and how perfect it needs to be to work like it does in Golden State, if you replace Harrison Barnes, who was injured early in the year, with range-challenged Shawn Livingston, the netRtg drops all the way to -8.3, the only Golden State lineup that has played over 30 minutes with a negative netRtg).
The other important piece of this puzzle for Golden State is that Draymond Green’s don’t grow on trees. The man can throw an outlet pass like Kevin Love:
But also drive and dish like LeBron:
— Golden State Warriors (@warriors) January 12, 2016
He is an excellent three point shooter:
And he’s not a bad rim protector either:
Green is the Scottie Pippen of this Warriors team that is currently 36-2. He does everything for them. So, in a sense, we can’t expect every team to copy the Golden State model, simply because Green is a unique player that provides attitude, energy, and tremendous leadership along with his Swiss army knife skillset. In fact, Green is the only player in NBA history to average 15 points, 9 rebounds, 7 assists, a steal and a block per game, if he can keep it up for the whole season.
However, one thing is for certain: other teams are trying to copy this and almost every team trots out a version of this small-ball lineup at some point. Indiana has had some success (+29.7 netRtg) with a lineup of George Hill, Monta Ellis, CJ Miles, Paul George, and Jordan Hill, and is playing George, who came into the league as a shooting guard, legitimate minutes at PF. Boston enjoys slotting Jonas Jerebko and Jae Crowder with Kelly Olynyk (+28.6 netRtg) and occasionally going super small with Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, Evan Turner, Jae Crowder, and Jared Sullinger (+22.8 netRtg). The Spurs love using a change-of-pace lineup that slots LaMarcus Aldridge at center and do-it-all Frenchman Boris Diaw at that “power forward” slot along with Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, and Pattie Mills (+28.2 netRtg) and their similar bench lineup that slots HERO OF SERBIA Boban Marjanovic in the middle is second on the team with a +45.6 netRtg in the 21 minutes it’s been on the floor. That’s just a few examples across the league.
Whew. That was a lot of names and numbers. If that block constitutes “tl;dr,” here’s the short version: teams are going small, and it is working. Players like George, who used to be classified at SG, are playing all the way up to the traditional PF spot. Kobe Bryant, for the first time in his 20-year career, is being voted into the All-Star Game as a frontcourt player rather than a guard.
What does this mean for the sport? Well, in short, it means that the positions that have served as labels for players for the entire history of basketball need to be changed. The NBA already started this process somewhat by changing All-Star and All-NBA teams to a structure of “G/G/FC/FC/FC” instead of “G/G/F/F/C.” This was mostly intended to remove some vague grey areas between the PF/C spots that were hurting the players who got votes at both positions, like Tim Duncan.
We need to go farther. G/G/FC/FC/FC is good, but it relies too heavily on the old definition of positions. Today, we’re going to take those traditional positions and flip them on their head. With more multi-skilled players than ever, we need to open our minds to the changing of roles on the basketball court and create new positions to reflect them.
A quick note before we start: these new positions refer to the role a player fills when he is on the floor. Some players are capable of playing multiple roles; Steph Curry just as good at running the pick and roll as he is scampering around screens for catch-and-shoot jumpers. Transcendent players will always, to some extent, defy categorization, and smart teams will always try to utilize a player in multiple roles if they can for the sake of unpredictability.
New Position: Primary Ball Handler
Old Position: Point Guard
Pioneer: Magic Johnson
If you spend any time talking to me about the guard positions, you’ll know that I fully believe that the “point guard” and “shooting guard” positions are stupidly arbitrary separations based, currently, on nothing. Almost ever guard nowadays is a “Combo Guard.” For example, James Harden is the Rockets’ primary ballhandler. He has one of the highest usage rates in the league, hovering around 33 percent. On most possessions, he is initiating and running the offense. So why do people insist that he’s a shooting guard? Because he can shoot threes?
Harden is a great example to break down the traditional split between guards, but the best example that we need an entirely new position is LeBron James. James is, functionally, capable of playing “all 5 positions,” basically meaning he can handle and pass like a “point guard” with the size and strength to excel in the low post. James is 6’9”. Magic Johnson was 6’9”. James plays SF/PF and Magic played PG, despite famously starting at center in Game 6 of the 1980 Finals and dropping 42 points. This is the weird arbitrary positional assignment I am referring to.
Regardless of where he is, James is the Cavaliers’ primary ballhandler. His career usage rate is 31.7 percent. For someone who slots in as a 3 or a 4 traditionally, he is arguably the best ball handler and passer the league has ever seen at his size.
There are more and more players like this, that defy the traditional mold of positions but who are, undeniably, the primary ballhandlers for their teams. Andre Iguodala often runs the Warriors’ second unit, along with Shaun Livingston, a 6’7” “point guard” who is best at operating out of the post. The Spurs often space their bench unit around Boris Diaw, a bully of a ballhandler whose versatility is rarely matched at his size.
Every unit a team puts out has a primary ballhandler. It’s necessary. When building a lineup, your first thought must be: who is going to handle the ball? Who are we running the offense through? A bigger plus is a ballhandler that can shoot – it forces defenders to go over pick and rolls, fearing the long ball, which opens up big driving lanes for quick ballhandlers. If they go under the pick, to help double team the roller, the ballhandler gets an easy look at a jumpshot. This is the biggest change between the old guard and the new; it’s not just about distributing. That’s why Rajon Rondo hasn’t had success since he was separated from his old Hall-of-Fame teammates; yes, he can pass, but his inability to shoot makes the rest of the players on the court much easier to defend because rotations are shorter.
New Position: Rim Protector
Old Position: Power Forward, Center
Pioneer: Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan
There are two things a lineup unequivocally needs: a primary ballhandler, to initiate and run the offense, and a rim protector, to command and anchor the defense.
Rim protectors in the modern NBA come in many shapes and sizes. Some would traditionally slot under the “power forward” slot, playing alongside a bigger “center” and usually stretching the floor. However, in small-ball lineups, these players get used as the “center,” thus taking primary rim protection responsibilities. Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett were the two bigs who really set this combination into motion – excellent rim protectors and help defenders with polished post games but the ability to hit shots from outside.
Nowadays, these are the more versatile big men like Serge Ibaka, LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin, or Draymond Green. They can play away from the rim but also post up, dive on a pick and roll but also be a threat to pick and pop, and have the lateral athleticism and vertical leap to make up for any height they might lack compared to a traditional center.
The more traditional “rim protector” role is essentially the same as a center: an interior player who protects the rim, gets rebounds, and is a primary pick and roll diver. This is the other way to build a modern offense – by playing four-out around a dominant rebounder and post player. The blueprint for this was roughly drawn up by the early 90s Rockets, who surrounded Hakeem Olajuwon with shooters that enabled him to get single teams down low. Nowadays, it’s known more as the “Stan Van Gundy” offense, referring to the late-aughts Magic that played Hedo Turkoglu as a “stretch 4” and left Dwight Howard to bang solo in the paint. Van Gundy’s Pistons, built around possibly the league’s best center in Andre Drummond and a brutal pick and roll game with Reggie Jackson, are still the best modern example.
Both versions work very well and are extremely hard to guard. However, it’s much easier to find a rim protecting, rebounding, pick and roll diving big man than it is to find the next Draymond Green, Serge Ibaka, or Chris Bosh.
New Position: Wing
Old Position: Shooting Guard, Small Forward, Power Forward
Modern Examples: Paul George, Harrison Barnes, Kevin Durant
Wing is definitely the funkiest and hardest to define of the new positions, primarily because it covers players of a widely varying size. Most wings split time either between the traditional spots of 2 and 3 or 3 and 4, providing spacing off the bench in smaller lineups or physical defense in bigger lineups. Nowadays, we like to use the term “3-and-D Wing,” but the reality is that this tradition has been bouncing around the NBA for awhile.
Robert Horry was a perfect example of this type of player: a knockdown shooter with the size and quickness to play both forward spots. He won 7 rings, basically by being able to slot in at the four, draw defenders away from the rim, and hit down some of the all-time most clutch shots in big games.
Paul Pierce took that model and leveled up. He was (and is) a player who spent most of his time as a 3, but has shifted to the 2 in super big lineups as well as (more effectively) the 4 in smaller lineups. He can shoot from literally anywhere but has the footwork and technique to defend pretty much anyone, even at an athletic disadvantage.
Nowadays, these players are everywhere and have become some of the most valuable assets in the NBA. Trevor Ariza, a player who basically can only shoot catch-and-shoot threes and play defense, has bounced around to the highest bidder, making tons of money while providing consistency in that 3-and-D role. Some of the smaller wings, like Jimmy Butler and Klay Thompson, provide both the defense and shooting but can also handle the ball if necessary (though neither work well as your primary ball handler). Bigger wings, like Channing Frye, don’t have the quickness to defend traditional shooting guards, but have the length and strength to rebound and defend post players. DeMarre Carroll just got a 4 year/$60 million contract based on a single season of performance in Mike Budenholzer’s motion offense.
The transcendent version of this position is what has really become special. Paul George can fluidly shift between the 2, 3, and 4 spots, is an incredible defender, and can score from anywhere. Kevin Durant is seven feet tall but dribbles like a guard and shoots like a robot. This is the future of the NBA.
This is, right now, arguably the most important and most sought after positional players in the league. There is a shortage of players who are both plus defenders and plus shooters, although that will undoubtedly change as the up-and-coming youth adjust to the demands of the new NBA.
Out of these positions, we now have to figure out how to construct a lineup. We’re going to use the Boston Celtics roster as our example, simply because it’s the roster I know best and it’s constructed to provide that exact kind of versatility. First, we’ll analyze the starting lineup Boston has used since Marcus Smart got hurt, and then a couple tweaks that make sense with the new system.
Positioned traditionally, it looks like this:
PG- Isaiah Thomas
SG- Avery Bradley
PF – Amir Johnson
C – Jared Sullinger
However, when we transition to the new positional changes, this is what happens:
BH – Isaiah Thomas: both an excellent shooter and one of the leagues’ most efficient pick and roll players.
Wing – Avery Bradley: shooting almost 40 percent from three and an exceptional perimeter defender. Works best coming off screens, not a great ballhandler.
Wing – Jae Crowder: he’s got some hot spots from downtown and is a burly, physical defender, comfortably switching onto larger players.
Wing – Jared Sullinger: this is where it gets a little strange. Sully is technically a Center – so how is he a wing? Well, he offers almost zero rim protection. He’s short and he can’t jump. What he can do is bang down low, both on the boards and to post up, as well as stretch it outside to hit jumpers.
Rim Protector – Meanwhile, Amir Johnson, despite being listed at PF, is the primary rim protector. While he is able to float out and hit some jumpers (albeit, he needs about 10 feet of space because it takes 4 seconds for him to crank up his jumpshot), he spends most of his time in this offense around the hoop, crashing the offensive boards for putbacks and being the teams’ best deterrent around the rim.
Now, he’s some other fun Celtics players that can be inserted into that lineup:
Wing – Kelly Olynyk for Jared Sullinger: another player listed as a Center, Kelly has played worlds better as a functional power forward. He is literally incapable of defending in the paint without fouling, and his outside-inside game isn’t similar, aesthetically, to anything a traditional center does. Kelly is one of those awkward players who receives a much better definition in these new positions.
Wing- Jonas Jerebko for Sully/Olynyk: Jerebko is a lot of fun because even though he’s skinny, white, and 6’8”, his main use is as a “stretch 4” in small lineups. He’s actually statistical garbage when slotted at the 3, for whatever reason, even though he and Crowder essentially form a two-man team of their hybrid position. Both of them can hit threes and beat traditional big men off the dribble, creating dangerous opportunities by drawing rim protectors away from the paint.
BH – Evan Turner for a Wing: Evan Turner is one of those weirdly versatile players who can defend the 1, 2, and 3 traditional spots. However, his style on offense is literally perfect for our new positional definitions. When Turner is on the floor, he really needs the ball in his hands to be effective, no matter what position he is technically playing. Turner as the main ballhandler allows Thomas to play more off-ball and get some open shots, rather than charging full speed to the rim, or you can go bigger, replace Isaiah, and still have good spot up shooting in Crowder, Bradley, and Sully/Jerebko/Olynyk.
Remember: the modern NBA is driven by far more critical thought than the NBA of our predecessors. Defenses switch everything, and your ability to thrive in difficult spaces, thanks to the multi-skilled talents of your players, is directly correlated to winning. The Celtics aren’t in contention for the playoff hunt because of a talented roster, they’re in contention through stifling perimeter defense and a versatility to throw out tons of different lineups teams will have trouble countering. Brad Stevens is a perfect example of a coach who has fully adapted to the Pace and Space era that is moving increasingly towards positionless basketball. As the guard continues to change (Dinosaur Lionel Hollins was fired last weekend, and it won’t be long for Byron Scott), we’re going to see more motion-offense and less iso ball, and these new positional definitions will gain both validity and importance.
Welcome to the new NBA.
(All stats provided by basketball-reference.com. Follow me on twitter @swarbleflop!)