What’s Your Position on Positions?

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No. We’re not talking about missionary or reverse-cowpolk… get your heads out of the Kama Sutra!

We’re talking about the long-running movement to revamp the classic position designations that we use to describe on-court roles for basketball players. The movement is the result of a perceived change in the way player development has left traditional size-based positions in the dust.

Let’s review:

Basketball positions are not like many other sports. Everyone on a basketball court is allowed to enter any area on the court at any time. Every player has the option to make any legal play at any time. Anyone can screen, dribble, pass, shoot, block a shot, pressure a dribbler, or call a timeout as long as the situation allows. There’s not a designated number of “backs” who are permitted to start the offense. There’s not a pitcher or a goal-tender. A basketball player cannot be penalized by the rules for being off-sides or out of his zone.

In basketball positions are a matter of strategic necessity rather than an issues of regulation. The basic breakdown of basketball needs on offense is: players who can handle the ball against pressure to get the ball into scoring positions, players who can work close to the basket to compete for rebounds, and players who can score from different ranges – which has subsets of deep shooters, on the move scorers, and in the post scorers. Defense is simpler. Each team needs to be able to defend the above actions – pressure the handlers, boxout the rebounders, and contest the shooters.

To put that in simple terms: Handle, Rebound, Deep shot, Moving shot, Post shot. There are certain size and athleticism traits that USUALLY accompany these skills.

Handle requires the ability to protect the ball from steals and requires quickness and sharp dribbling skills, and it tends to help to be on the shorter end of the height spectrum – the ball has a smaller distance to travel when the dribbler is shorter, and a smaller bounce between each dribble is less opportunity for the defender to knock the ball away. So when we think of traditional handlers, we picture players like Chris Paul, Steve Nash, or Derrick Rose, players with secure dribbling skills who are not too tall, and we call them Guards or more specifically Point Guards.

Rebound requires the ability to obtain close position to the basket and get the ball bouncing off the rim after a missed shot before the opponent does. The top physical attributes that help with this task are height and strength. Quickness and timing are helpful as well, but the distinction between the traditional primary rebounder build and primary handler build are pronounced. The factors that make a player ideal for handling can be a detriment to rebounding and vice versa. The best rebounders (specifically offensive rebounders) in the game today are Dwight Howard and Marcus Camby. Rebounders have traditionally been called Centers, Forwards, or Power Forwards.

Deep shot scoring is not really related to any particular size or physical attribute (except perhaps a certain type of muscle coordination). Bigger players like Dirk Nowitzki or Channing Frye have just as much ability to make deep shots as mid-sized players like Ray Allen or smaller players like Steve Nash. The only major difference has traditionally been that when the larger players spend time standing on the outside shooting deep shots, it makes for fewer big players rebounding. Furthermore consider that we’ve established that smaller players are more likely to be good handlers, and handlers tend to play further from the rim, setting up scoring opportunities. It makes sense that smaller players will generally have more opportunity to shoot deep shots. So in terms of on court positioning, traditionally small and mid-sized players have, by necessity, been more likely to provide deep shot scoring. Players in this role have generally been called Guards or Shooting Guards OR Forwards.

Moving Shot Scoring requires the ability to get off (and make at a relatively high rate) shots against defense while moving. This can be accomplished by a player running off of a screen to get an open shot like Kevin Martin. A similar situation that seems very different is players who are skilled at scoring on the move by setting a screen and then rolling to the rim or sliding to spot up for a jumper when the defense leaves them. Amare Stoudemire is probably the premier example of this type of moving shot scorer today. The other style of moving shot scorer is the player skilled at creating a shot on the perimeter or moving towards the rim by using the dribble to get separation from his defender. Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are the most famous examples of this type of scorer. This is traditionally the most diverse group in terms of size, ranging from the minute Steph Curry to the powerful Amare Stoudemire; however, most often the role has fallen to Guards or Shooting Guard OR Forwards or Small Forwards.

Post Shot scoring also has two distinct varieties. The easiest post shot to set up but hardest to make is the perimeter (sometimes called high-post) post shot. The offensive player puts the defender on his back and creates a shot over or around him from well outside the paint. It is pretty simple to get the ball in this position – away from the basket with the defender between the shooter and basket, but since the defender is technically in good position to contest the shot, it is not easy to finish the play. Dirk Nowitski, Carmelo Anthony, and Kobe Bryant provide the best examples of successful perimeter post scorers in the game today. The hardest post shot to set up but easiest to make is the interior (sometimes called deep-post) post shot. The principal is the same, except that the offensive player is closer to the rim where it is easier to finish the play. However, the defense has an easier time trying to keep the ball away from a player who is closer to the rim. The best examples of interior post scorers are Yao Ming, Pao Gasol or Al Jefferson. Perimeter post scorers are traditionally Guards or Shooting Guards AND Forwards or Small Forwards, and interior post scorers are traditionally Centers AND Forwards or Power Forwards.

What have we learned? Hopefully not much. That was just review. But the basic traditional breakdown of roles on offense seems to be:

Handle – Guard / Point Guard
Rebound – Center / Forward / Power Forward
Deep Shot Scorer – Guard / Shooting Guard / Forward
Moving Shot Scorer – Guard / Shooting Guard / Forward
Perimeter Post Shot Scorer – Guard / Shooting Guard / Forward
Interior Post Shot Scorer – Center / Forward / Power Forward

Today there’s a tendency to simplify (good) the positional designations by reducing them to three titles with different names (bad).

Handle (Guard / Point Guard) = Point
Rebound / Interior Post Scorer (Center / Power Forward) = Big
Moving Shot / Deep Shot Scorer (Shooting Guard / Forward) = Wing

I don’t have a problem with that really, though it may oversimplify somewhat and force us too much into size-based ideas of position again, but why the name change. The original terms work exactly the same way:

Handle = Guard (Cousy / Big O)
Rebound / Post Scorer = Center (Russell / Chamberlain)
Moving / Deep Scorer = Forward (Baylor / Havlicek)

It’s pretty broad. I’ve heard Jerry West was originally considered a Forward, which fits our definition, since he was primarily a perimeter scorer. However, he could also Handle and make plays like a Guard. In fact that’s true of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and many other players of that sort. How do we designate these players? Guard / Forward? Scoring Guard? Shooting Guard? I’m starting to think maybe the positions we have came from somewhere pretty organic and descriptive in the first place. But is it necessary or even helpful to make the distinction? I’m not really sure. Maybe it makes sense to also designate what type of back-up role the player would play though, so let’s go back to the age old Guard / Forward system.

I think most people are pretty content with this basic set-up on offense, but it gets confused when we start looking at the defensive end. But, J, didn’t you say defensive positions were simple, just a matter of defending each offensive position? Yes, I did. The problem is that we tend to want to match up size with position. Therefore we want to say that each guard will defend a guard, forward a forward, and center a center. The end result is that we sometimes find it hard to match a player to his offensive position because defensively he might line-up at a different spot.

For example – Scottie Pippen’s offensive role was most often as a Handler, which we are calling a Guard. But Scottie was 6′ 7″ (at least) and defensively he usually covered similar sized players who were almost always Moving / Deep Scorers, which we are calling Forwards. Is there anything wrong with considering Pippen a Guard even though he defended Forwards? Not really, though I can see where people want to be able to look at two starting lineups and know what the matchups will be based on positions.

There’s been a recently introduced concept of adding an offensive and defensive component to the way positions are written. So take our 3 offense positions – Guard, Forward, and Center – and add a defensive designation. This could be accomplished using numbers, which was advised here by blogger Drew Cannon. Drew’s idea was to basically break the defensive responsibilities down by size. Size 1 would be able to defend players 6′ 2″ and under. Size 2 would be able to defend players 6′ 3″ – 6′ 7″ or whatever. I think that’s a clever notion. I’m just not sure we can be that specific. Going back to Pippen, he CAN defend players from 6′ 9″ on down. He’s maximized defending players in the 6′ 5″ to 6′ 8″ range, which you’d expect from just about any 6′ 7″ player. So we could call Pippen a G3, a guard who falls in the 3 size range. I like that. We could then call Jordan a F2 and Paxson a F1. Grant would be a C4 and Cartwright a C5.

However, like I said with the notion of calling West a shooting guard rather than a Forward, I really don’t know that it matters if we get more specific in terms of defensive assignments. I suppose G3 as a shorthand for 6′ 7″ Guard is a good idea. On the other hand 6′ 7″ Guard is more descriptive and not significantly different than what we do now. I mean when I say Charles Barkley is a power forward and Tim Duncan is a power forward without mentioning that they are 6′ 6″ and 7″ tall respectively… well that’s not very helpful when you’re trying to figure out who’s going to match-up with whom on defense. As far as I can tell the positions either require a size designation of some kind (it could be a number, letter, color, doesn’t matter), or, maybe more simply, just an actual size.

1996-98 Chicago Bulls top 8 by size:

Steve Kerr – 6’1″F Perimeter scorer, not a guard because he can’t handle.
Ron Harper – 6’6″F/G Primarily a perimeter scorer, can handle.
Michael Jordan – 6’6″F/C Primarily a perimeter scorer, can handle.
Scottie Pippen – 6’7″G/F Primarily a perimeter handler, can score.
Dennis Rodman – 6’8″C Rebound, not a forward because he can’t perimeter score.
Toni Kukoc – 6’11″F/G Primarily a perimeter scorer, can handle.
Bill Wennington – 7″F/C Primairly a perimeter scorer, can rebound.
Luc Longley – 7″C Primarily a rebounder and interior scorer.

So those Bulls start G-F-F-C-C are well equipped to defend players in the 6’4″ – 6’8″ range with one big 7″ defender as well. They appear to be weak defensively against teams with two big post scorers and / or adangerous 6’3″ or smaller super-quick players. And that is true. But of course they could take advantage of those types of players at the other end where they also had specific advantages in size or speed respectively.

I realize what we don’t show here is exactly the skills each player brings to the table. What if we put out a group of non-shooters because we didn’t specifically designated the difference between a perimeter dribble scorer, a perimeter post scorer, and a deep shooter. We just called them all Forwards. Sorry. But teams have worked that out forever, and if you’re playing that many one-dimensional players who all do the same thing at the same time, you’re probably coaching a group of 8 years olds and shouldn’t take things so seriously.

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2 Responses to “What’s Your Position on Positions?”

  1. mike Says:

    … This is bullshit u know that? Im the tallest player on my team and i can dribble the hell out of a ball. Being short does not mean you can dribble

    • jpalumbo Says:

      That’s the spirit. Never give up. But study the sport sometime and discover that a massive majority of the most reliable ball-handlers are in fact on the short end of the NBA spectrum, though occasionally there are Magics and LeBrons, hence my huge diatribe on Pippen’s point guard-like role in the Chicago offense. Thanks for reading.

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