We’ve discussed the importance and changing perception of positions in the NBA and basketball in general several times, you and I. We know that it’s not a question of the rules necessitating someone play the “center” the way the rules necessitate that someone play the “center field” in baseball. We are agreed that position in basketball is a matter of specialization by necessity. Quick ball handlers must get the ball in scoring position without turning it over. Mobile players must move into areas where they can score without getting in the way of their teammates. Rebounding specialists must take position to fight for boards. This is the distribution of labor on the basketball court, an any fool can plainly see (you can plainly see this, right?).
What we haven’t really covered here is the difference in the various swing positions. This is interesting to me because it is the realm of real team building. Teams don’t have a bunch of cookie cutter position players. It would be great to always have 5 guys on the floor who specialized exactly in the requisite roles, but even a team fielding Rondo, Allen, Pierce, Garnett, and Perkins didn’t stick to the script all the time. To maximize the minutes of his best players, sometimes Coach Rivers had to ask these players to fill other roles than their ideals. Pierce had to play guard when Allen sat, and Allen had to play forward when Pierce went out. Garnett stepped in at center, and backup shooting guard Tony Allen put plenty of time in at point guard giving Rondo a rest. The ability to move between positions, or roles on the court, adds significant value and allows a coach to field a strong team even when the bench isn’t brimming over with talent.
Let’s define –
COMBO GUARDS: Danny Ainge, Dennis Johnson, Dee Brown, Delonte West. The NBA and NCAA are full of what are called “combo guards”, meaning players who will both handle the ball a great deal and spend a great deal of time trying to score or spacing the floor with their shooting skills. In some cases this causes a problem because a small, inefficient scoring guard may be overaggressive instead of concentrated on distributing the ball (Nate Robinson when he first arrived). The best examples of combo guards that the Celtics have to offer are actual teammates Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge, both of whom had the ball-handling skills and discipline to get the ball into position and run the team but both of whom could also be called upon to be primary scorers at times. One of the defining characteristics of a combo guard tends to be great versatility at the guard roles coupled with an inability to play forward, due primarily to size. What’s truly valuable about the combo guard is his skill at scoring when sharing the floor with a pure point guard, such as Rajon Rondo or the great Bob Cousy, while still being capable of spelling that very teammate by bringing the ball up court and initiating the offense in his absence.
SWINGMEN: John Havlicek, Reggie Lewis, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen. The next step up the size ladder from the combo guards is the Guard-Forward, sometimes called the “Swingman.” These players are primarily shooting guards or small forwards who have the ability to switch between positions. Think Paul Pierce who spent considerable time as a guard next to the limited Eric Williams before moving to his natural small forward position. This brings us to the question of the very tenuous difference between shooting guards and small forwards in today’s game. Even going back to the ’60s Celts it’s a little tough to differentiate. Sharman, Sam Jones and Hondo had different games, but their roles were similar. “Find or create an opening by moving around the perimeter and when you get daylight, put the ball in the net.” The easy answer is to say that it is really the same position in different sizes, and that is true, but that’s not to say that there’s not a need to have both spots filled. Let’s examine Pierce and Allen on today’s team. What’s the primary difference? Both are great shooters. Both can create off the dribble. Both can defend. I’d posit that the real difference is navigating screens and working the post on both ends. Being slimmer and more maneuverable, Ray Allen is quicker coming around screens on offense and defense. Larger and stronger, Pierce is better able to post opponents and defend the post. Important to have players able to do both of these things at the highest level, yes? One of the great benefits of Hondo’s presence all those years was his ability to seamlessly transition from forward to guard as maybe the most complete swingman in NBA history. Whether he was a primary ball-handler or a cutting and slashing machine who never dribbled the ball at all, he was always a hay-maker.
SWING FORWARD: Satch Sanders, Larry Bird, Cedric Maxwell, Antoine Walker. Sometimes called a wing or negatively referred to as a tweener, these are players who toe the line between big and small on the court, asked to rebound against true power players and keep up with true perimeter players. Boston had the best ever in Larry Bird, whose malleable skill-set and ability to think himself quick despite being oversized for a perimeter player allowed him to compete at the highest level in the front court whether he was lined up next to very big power forwards like McHale or swingmen like Reggie Lewis. Essentially Larry had the responsibility to fill the roles of either Pierce or Garnett, though he did not have the quickness to go to Pierce’s back-up role as a swing guard or the size to play center as KG does at times (see below). The swing forward is not ideally suited to defend true big forwards (like McHale) or true quick forwards (like Hondo), but they are able to fill in for both and take advantage of either with their intermediate size and balanced skills.
CENTER-FORWARD: Bill Russell, Dave Cowens, Kevin McHale, Kevin Garnett. Forwards with size bordering on the center position or centers with quickness boarding on the forward position fall into this category. This is the category for the players bigger than Bird and Maxwell who could not be expected to chase speedy forwards around screens at all but who could step up at the other end of the spectrum and muscle with the real big men of the league. There were and are of course some players who could only play center – Robert Parish, Kendrick Perkins, and all the big stiff white guys like Klein and Vrankovic who graced the parquet over the years are not Center-Forwards. They are purely centers. But the mobile players who could be asked to line up against less perimeter-oriented forwards AND to do work in the paint and against post players, like a Kevin McHale, who in a single game might line up against Dominique Wilkins, Kevin Willis, and Tree Rollins, are the versatile glue that holds a team together around the basket.
At any given normal game moment a coach will generally want the standard two to three ball handlers, two to three perimeter scorers, and two dedicated rebounders and he needs these roles squeezed within 5 on court players. He does it by relying on the versatility of his players and their abilities to play the swing positions.
In the front court the ’84 Celts could line up, without losing too much speed or size, any of the following combinations of their top 4 centers and forwards:
Parish (C), Bird (Swing F), Maxwell (Swing F)
Parish (C), McHale (C-F), Bird (Swing F)
Parish (C), McHale (C-F), Maxwell (Swing F)
McHale (C-F), Bird (Swing F), Maxwell (Swing F)
Consider that 144 player minutes split 4 ways or 38 minutes each. A stretch, but for a playoff run where giving minutes to lesser players can spell defeat, it’s possible because every combination of the four front court players contains sufficient size and rebounding coupled with perimeter skills and mobility.
Similarly with proper versatility 4 perimeter players can man the 1-2-3 positions. If Rivers wanted to maximize the minutes of his most trusted perimeter players, he could do the following:
Rondo (PG), Allen (G-F), Pierce (G-F)
Rondo (PG), Delonte (Combo G), Pierce (G-F)
Rondo (PG), Delonte (Combo G), Allen (G-F)
Delonte (Combo G), Allen (G-F), Pierce (G-F)
The minutes story here is obviously the same, and I’m guessing Rivers would prefer not to play any of those guys except Rondo 38 minutes per game – so mixing in some Swing F minutes from Green would allow him to not lean so heavily on aging Pierce and Allen and injury-prone West. And Green, as a Swing forward, can pick up further minutes backing up Garnett and Baby.
This is the under-appreciated role of players swinging between positions in the NBA. There are of course some divergences. Magic Johnson was a point guard whose most natural secondary position may actually have been the power forward – though if you look on him as a swing foward with point skills, he makes sense. He often lined up with guards and guard-forwards like Norm Nixon, Byron Scott, Michael Cooper, and Jamal Wilkes. He could definitely be seen as a point forward who could naturally swing to the power spot, much like arch-rival Bird but with more dribbling and less shooting. It’s all about versatility and filling roles, soaking up minutes with talented line-ups and filling all the gaps. Swing players make it all work.