We are entering a new era of NBA basketball, when historians look back this will be known as the position-less basketball era. The NBA is drifting away from the traditional labels of a point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward and center position. We are now heading to a time when the positions on the court will be based more on what a player’s skill is.
This change has been a long time coming, in the 1980’s with Earvin “Magic” Johnson being the first true Unicorn in the NBA. Standing at 6’8”, Magic was the size of a power forward but with the skills of a point guard. He was something the NBA had never seen before, the first “Point Forward”. In the 90s it was the Chicago Bulls’ Scottie Pippen who was the era’s unicorn. Not quite the playmaker that Magic was but a versatile small forward who could initiate the team’s offense, rebound, and defend nearly every position on the floor. Over the years other players popped up to challenge the traditional labels, guys like Grant Hill, Lamar Odom, Shawn Marion, and Andre Iguodala often shifted from several different positions and roles on the court.
In the late 90s and early 2000s, it was a curse for young prospects to not fit into the regular position labels. Questions of what position would prospect X play? Where will they fit on the court? The worst thing for a prospect was to be labeled as a “Tweener”, a player stuck in between two positions. This derailed several young draft prospects but this notion is evolving.
Although it was not labeled as position-less basketball, the Mike D’Antoni Phoenix Suns embraced it along with their seven seconds or less offensive philosophy. They would play Marion in both forward spots and give teams problems matching up. Marion was one of the first “Tweeners” to find his position on the court as a small-ball power forward. The Suns would average 59 wins during this three-year run but would never make it to the finals.
Position-less basketball did not truly get named until LeBron James joined the Miami Heat. It didn’t happen right away, it took the Heat losing to the Dallas Mavericks in the finals in 2011 before it dawned on coach Erik Spoelstra, “When we try to think conventionally and put guys in certain boxes or positions, it really hamstrings us.” (For Heat, it all starts with LeBron James by Tom Haberstroh from ESPN). The Heat assembled a roster of interchangeable players and often featured James in the power forward slot to take advantage of his versatile skill set. This resulted in three more trips to the finals and two championships.
The Golden State Warriors have taken position-less basketball to even higher levels, winning their first championship with an unconventional lineup dubbed the “Death Lineup”. They played without a traditional big man and depended on Draymond Green an undersized power forward to play the role as a center. Much like the Heat, the Warriors were stocked with several interchangeable players. Then the Warriors took their position-less basketball to extreme levels when they signed seven foot small forward Kevin Durant in free agency last summer. This has enabled the Warriors to go from the Death Lineup to the Mega-Death Lineup.
The NBA has changed from being afraid of prospects with no real position and labeling them as tweeners to scouring the earth looking for versatile players who can play several positions.
Terms such as ball-handlers and playmakers are skills looked for in more than just point guards. LeBron James is the de-facto point guard for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and more teams are following that model, Giannis Antetokounmpo is the main ball handler for the Milwaukee Bucks, it seems like the Philadelphia 76ers will be handing the ball to their 6’10” forward Ben Simmons this season to run their offense. These are just a few players who do not fit the traditional definition of the point guard but who have and will fill that role for their team.
Wing players like Danny Green of the San Antonio Spurs who is a three-point specialist and an elite defender are considered three-and-D players. Then there are players like Andre Roberson who is also an elite defender but not a good shooter is labeled as a team’s primary defender. These are players that traditional would be in the small forward and shooting guard positions that generally occupy the wing spots on the court.
The big man position has evolved more than any other position in the NBA. In the 80s and 90s, big men were expected to be able to score with their back to the basket, rebound, and block shots. Over time their roles have changed, with less emphasis on scoring in the post to being able to shoot from deep, stretch bigs. Teams will overlook a big man’s defensive weakness if they are strong shooters.
Then there are the big men who are known for not being able to score but are skilled rebounders and/or shot-blockers. Rim protecting bigs like DeAndre Jordan and Rudy Gobert are the last line of defense for most teams, and teams like to pair them up with stretch bigs like Ryan Anderson.
Chris Reichert on 2ways10days.com created a new label, three-and-B players. These are big men that combine the skills of a rim protector and a stretch big. This is very similar to the three-and-D label for wing players.
It used to be that players needed to specialize in just one skill, but now teams want more. They are shedding the traditional roles and are looking for ball handlers or playmakers no matter their size, scorers and shooters of all sizes, rebounders, shot blockers, three-and-D wings, and now three-and-B players. Ideally, a team would like to find a player capable of filling all of those skills but those guys are rare.
It started with Magic Johnson as a Unicorn, Scottie Pippen was one of the first Swiss army knives in the NBA, LeBron and the Heat got the movement going, and the Warriors have taken it to new heights. Position-less basketball is the new era in the NBA and it will challenge coaches to think even further out of the box.