From the sidelines of the positional revolution


Basketball, at the heart and soul of its appeal, is a fluid game. Not unlike Jazz. To attempt to label and classify every aspect of it is to deny the improvisational qualities which make it so endearing.

There are rules and guidelines by which each is identified, but whether on the court or in a set, the improvisational character of each always gives rise to moments that challenge our preconceived notions.

I’ve long opposed the concept of roles defined by positional fundamentalism, which might be defined as a dogmatic reliance on traditional position labels such as 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. Positional fundamentalism, with it’s outdated and glib outlook, robs basketball of its fluidity, of its jazz-like beauty. Recently, Drew Cannon of Basketball Prospectus and Rob Mahoney of the Two Man Game have taken up the task of accounting for the jazz. In other words, they’re rethinking how we define positions. (Something Mahoney admits is an ever evolving process.)

There is no end to this process. Even if we successfully shed the five traditional positions in favor of some other system, players and their roles will continue to evolve. It’s critical that we’re constantly challenging the limits of positionality to match with the on-court product. Note that those limits aren’t being tested without reason. It’s important that positional rhetoric remains descriptivist in nature. We’re not saying “this is the way that position X should play,” but rather “this is the way that position X does play.”

There is certainly some intrigue to the system. But as Mahoney states, it needs to be further developed and refined.

Exploring Defense and the death of D1

Offensively, classifying players as distributors, scorers, shooters, etc. is simple enough because we have any number of statistics and visual evidence to verify their individual talents. Defense, however, is much harder to define.

In the proposed positional model, players offensive roles are defined by what their individual skills are while their defensive roles are still chained to a positional base, categorizing defenders from D1-D5 (with each number related to the position or height/speed set a player can defend–Ex. Jason Kidd being a Distributor/D2).

Part of the problem is tying a defensive players role or worth entirely to their work on a single offensive player because it assumes every position or player can be guarded by an individual.

For one, the concept of a D1–a defender capable of guarding point guards–is a myth in today’s NBA. It is impossible to guard a quality point guard with another point guard.

NBA point guards, or at least the players who fit the size and athletic attributes of a point guard, are generally the quickest, shiftiest players on the court. Combine that with the skill of quality NBA point guards and the abolishment of all physical contact on the perimeter and defending the position is impossible.

The only counter in a man-to-man scheme against such talents, without sending a large amount of help, is to put a long, athletic defender on a point guard. One who, like Trevor Ariza or Bruce Bowen, can back off enough to buy some reaction time while still having enough reach to contest a shot without being right on top of the offensive player.

In this regard, most of the point guards in the NBA cannot truly be classified as being a D1. And since point guards are generally too small to guard other positions, does that mean they have no role defensively?

Identifying Defensive Roles

Offense, simplified, is putting the ball in the basket. As basketball fans, we’ve cataloged a number of different roles players assume to that end–and the positional revolution stems in great deal to the acceptance that these roles do not need to come from specific positions, so long as they are present–but realistically scoring can come through individual effort.

Defense, simplified, is preventing the offense from scoring. There are two positive outcomes a defense can hope for to that end: a turnover, or forcing the team into a missed shot. But the roles players play in preventing scoring are still largely attributed by position.

But just as there are multiple roles for offense, there are multiple roles players take in accomplishing a team’s goals on defense, namely disrupt, deny, and contain.


With no risk there is little reward. Because defense revolves around what an offense wishes to accomplish, it is largely a reactionary process. As mentioned before, it is almost impossible for point guards to defend their position. But that does not mean they have no role.

Players like Chris Paul or Rajon Rondo thrive in the passing lanes and create havoc by forcing the action. They can disrupt an entire offense for stretches in this manner, but it does not mean that they are individually shutting down their man.

Disruptors break conventional defensive systems and take a more proactive stance in defense, creating turnovers and hesitation in offensive players at the expense of opening up opportunities for an offense to exploit.

Applied to traditional positional roles, point guards pressure the ball handler and play passing lanes, wings search those same lanes while trying to swipe steals in help opportunities, and big men hunt for blocks.


Some offensive players are so potent with the ball in their hands that they are impossible to defend. At which point the best option becomes to make them work as hard as possible to get the ball in the first place.

While disruptors generally possess quick strike athleticism, deny defense can be played with endurance, determination, and a certain amount of strength as the required attributes.

Against the Boston Celtics, J.J. Redick carved out niche defensively not because he possesses exceptional physical attributes, but because he became particularly adept at chasing his man through screens and denying them the ball in their comfort zones.

Now, once the ball got into the offensive player’s hands in open space the tides may have turned, but the act of making the offense work so hard to get the ball into their first or second options is enough to gain an advantage.


The most thankless role in the entire NBA, and the hardest to quantify. There is no glory in simply staying in front of your man and forcing them into difficult shots, because even against the most undisciplined defense a quality offensive player is going to score.

Contain means simply that. Those that subscribe to this methodology of defense work to remove options from his matchup and work hard to gain a favorable shot.

Bruce Bowen was the epitome of this. Shane Battier too. These are the system players that work within their coach’s rules, pushing their matchup into help defenders, moving their feet, and refusing to fall for feints.

Meaningful Application

Even with defensive roles assigned we must concede that the way in which they are carried out are still tied to the physical attributes assigned to traditional positional assignments.

So my proposition is to remove the D from D1-D5, and simply assign numbers based on the range players have comparable functional athleticism for (with a slight tilt to allow for defensive matchups they can handle) with their most comfortable range in parenthises. Then listing their defensive roles.

So a breakdown of the Spurs roster would look like this:

James Anderson (2) 2-3, Scorer, ???
DeJuan Blair (5) 4-5, Rebounder, Contain
Matt Bonner (4) 4-5, Shooter, Contain
Tim Duncan (5) 4-5, Scorer/Creator/Rebounder, Contain
Manu Ginobili (2) 1-3,  Scorer/Handler/Creator, Disrupt
George Hill (2) 1-3, Scorer, Deny/Contain
Richard Jefferson (3) 3, Scorer, Contain
Antonio McDyess (4) 4-5, Rebounder, Contain
Tony Parker (1) 1, Scorer/Handler/Creator, Contain
Tiago Splitter (5) 4-5, Scorer/???, Contain/???
Garrett Temple (1) 1-3, Creator, Disrupt/Contain


    Miami wont win?

    Lebron, Wade, and Bosh are pussies?

    You guys are seriously hillarious. That hate thing is some powerful stuff indeed.

    Should Wade have stayed at Miami alone and become the next used up Allen Iverson? Should Lebron and Bosh have done the same in order to win the approval of hating fans and greedy owners (Who look at players as property and not people).

    These are Ballas and they will be hard to beat.

    Spurs contending for a championship this year? LMAO

    Trades? Too little, too late!

    Trade Parker and we suck even more. WHo is gonna make up his 25 per game?


    Players play. When the Spurs decide to get serious and bring in Ballas instead of these soft ass wannabees, then maybe…

    Until then….We will get closer to the lottery than the NBA title.

  • Hobson13

    August 22nd, 2010 at 1:27 pm
    “Oh and Hobson, I think the Heat can be successful without the standard 1,2,3,4,5.”

    Maybe, but lack of depth and a very weak C position are still big concerns. Look, we all wanted a guy like Joel Anthony on the Spurs, but he wouldn’t have started over Splitter. He would have, at best, been a 10min/game player. He STARTS for the Heat. Bosh, while a great offensive player is thin and light for his position. He simply doesn’t have the strength to play PF’s like Gasol or Duncan. Behind him are Big Z and Jamal Magloire, both WAY past their prime and an undersized PF in Haslem. In short, the Heat are either small or old at the PF and C spots. Thats something that should concern them going up against Howard of the Magic and that huge front line of the Celtics.

    Jim Henderson
    August 22nd, 2010 at 5:27 pm
    “And second, you’ll come to realize that it takes a lot more than just talent to win a title in the NBA. Intangibles are huge at the elite level, and the Heat are relatively weak in most of them. Do you want to know why MJ was the GOAT? I’ll give you a clue: it was not because he’s the most physically gifted player of all time.”

    Yes, mental and emotional fortitude are HUGE when playing against the elite and neither Bosh nor James have displayed a great deal of either over the course of their careers. I tend to give the benefit of the doubt to Wade, but he still doesm’t have 1/10 of MJ’s intangibles.

    In a way, I see the Heat in almost a catch-22 position. This year, they really don’t have the necessary supporting cast to beat the top 3-5 teams in the league. However, in a way, this may be their best chance. When they fail to bring home the hardware this next June, the pressure on the Big 3 (which is already unrealistically high) will only become more intese with each passing year. Couple this with the fact that only Wade has had any real experience with living up to expectations and the Heat may have a real issue. Of course the Heat’s FO may remedy this by bringing even more talent to the roster next summer with the availability of the MLE or several of the aging elites (Boston/LA) could become weaker with time.

    “Wade & James were ranked one & two last year in “usage”. That will necessarily involve a huge adjustment for them this year.”

    I don’t think people are fully taking this adjustment into account. Sure Wade and James played together on Team USA, but this is an entirely different animal. Putting aside massive egos for 15 games while playing on an Allstar Olympic team and putting aside egos while playing in the NBA for 82 games plus the playoffs are two totally different things. I’m not saying its likely, but it may be possible this team turns into a 3 ring circus with these 3 clowns. Saying you are going to check your ego and actually doing it for an EXTENDED period of time are two different things.


    Here is an idea for Flopovich…

    Jr Smith is on the trading block. Bring him and Amundson in and BINGO, contender!

    But the Popster wont do that. He will bring in a super stud, a game changer, a presence in the middle,,,Oberto! LMAO

  • Jim Henderson

    Two Cents
    August 22nd, 2010 at 9:20 pm

    “Hope? No. Our roster….”

    What do you see that’s so positive about our roster this year?

    August 23rd, 2010 at 4:01 am

    “Miami wont win?

    Lebron, Wade, and Bosh are pussies?”

    The Heat will win plenty of games on talent alone, but when the going gets tough they’ll cave. They’re “mental” pussies, yes indeed. You can’t win a title with your leaders being weak mentally. Taking your ball to another neighborhood to gang up with other bullies when the going gets tough just doesn’t cut it. It’s a sign of an achilles heal that other teams will sense, and promptly go for the jugular.

  • Tyler

    @ Ballhog

    Once again, Popvich isn’t in charge of player personel. That is RC. At least direct the hate toward the right guy.

    Regardless, after harping on how the Spurs have no chance, your solution is…..JR Smith and Amundson? I find it hard to believe that those two put us over the top…..and I like Amundson…..and JR Smith? He’s the bad kind of crazy (Artest-crazy), not the good kind (Stephen Jackson-crazy).

  • Tyler

    As far as the mental toughness argument goes, I do know one thing that’s been proven: Wade has the mental toughness. I think we forget that he basically beat Dallas by himself in 2006. Shaq was along for the ride at that point. Look at that roster; it’s not too impressive.

    And given the talent level of the roster now, I’d say a Dwayne-led Heat team with Lebron and Bosh in tow is going to give Orlando and Boston all they can handle come playoff time.

  • Jim Henderson

    August 23rd, 2010 at 2:35 pm

    “I do know one thing that’s been proven: Wade has the mental toughness. I think we forget that he basically beat Dallas by himself in 2006. Shaq was along for the ride at that point.”

    Wade is a great athlete and a very competitive player, but that does not equate to “mental toughness”. Wade had something to prove back in 2006: that he was an elite player on the verge of mega-stardom. And Shaq was FAR from “just along for the ride” at the time. For one thing, he was still an unbelievably freakish physical force to deal with in the playoffs that year, and I also don’t count 18.4 pg., 9.8 rpg., 1.5 33 mpg., as just “along for the ride”. That would be like saying TD was just along for the ride with us during the playoffs last season. Also, Miami did have some gritty players on that team (Posey, Walker, Haslem), as well as some aging veterans that played an important and tough leadership role despite their limited minutes (Mourning, Payton). In addition, the Mavericks were big chokers in the finals that season, and should really not have even made it to the final round (Spurs let an opportunity slip). Wade was clearly the MVP of during that finals, but it was more about talent than mental toughness. And whatever toughness Wade has is bound to be diluted by James and Bosh. Those two drain mental toughness from their teammates, they don’t enhance it.

    “And given the talent level of the roster now, I’d say a Dwayne-led Heat team with Lebron and Bosh in tow is going to give Orlando and Boston all they can handle come playoff time.”

    Maybe, but in the end they’re likely to lose, and that’s if they get past Chicago.

  • Tyler

    @ Jim

    Well, regardless of what you want to call it (mental toughness, something to prove, etc), the fact is he put his team on his back in 2006 against the Mavs. He’s proved it on the biggest stage. That says something about the guy.

    And in regards to motivation, if it’s the I-have-something-to-prove attitude, who’s to say that won’t elevate the play of Lebron, Bosh, and Wade?

  • Jim Henderson

    August 23rd, 2010 at 6:17 pm

    “…..the fact is he put his team on his back in 2006 against the Mavs. He’s proved it on the biggest stage. That says something about the guy.”

    It says that he’s a great talent, that he hadn’t yet reached ego saturation, and so was very “hungry” at the ripe old age of 24. And, he got to play with the most dominant center in the past 15-20 years (even though Shaq had started to decline); a guy who had won three NBA titles in the past 6 years. Nevertheless, I do think Wade is mentally tougher and more of a winner than James or Bosh. The problem is that James seems to have a fear of ultimate success. As a result, he tends to let frustration adversely influence his performance at key moments, which as a team leader, ends up zapping others of what it takes to help them all as a group get to the highest level. It may very well be just a basic character flaw that could be costly to the legacy of James, and the fortunes of the Heat. I don’t know if he can overcome it in Miami. The best thing for the Heat would be for LeBron to drop the BIG ego shit, on and off the court, and let Wade be the MAIN man. Can he do that? Will he do that? I doubt it. But I guess we’ll find out in the next few years.

  • Robin

    It seems I’m a bit late to the party, but to address the initial article …

    It’s not clear that defensive skills (and maybe limitations?) equate to defensive roles on a team. In particular, there’s no clear system that says “get guys who can cover, some guys who can deny, and some guys who can contain on a team, all at varying ‘positions’, and they’ll play good defense.” I’m pretty sure every team (sans GSW) has a group of guys who more or less fit that model.

    The article addresses the issue of defense from the perspective of how players play defense, but not how they match up against opposing players and playing styles. There’s a caveat at the end on how roles will always in some way be tied to position, but where does the type of defense that a player plays factor into this system? Ostensibly, the goal is then to have a variety defenders at varying heights and physical capabilities, but seeing as how defense in generally reactive, just having those players available to match up against the opponent doesn’t make a good team. Sure, Chuck Hayes satisfies the role of a D4-5 Contain, but how do you find playing time for him on a team with Yao and Scola? Tony Allen is a fine defender, but Boston’s usually treading water when he’s on the court. I guess the conclusion is, simply, that a player’s value is some function of what he contributes offensively in the context of the team minus what he lacks on the defensive end (or plus what he contributes defensively). Sometimes teams aren’t able to match up defensively as they want, despite having the correct talent defensively.

    I generally agree with the above sentiment that the most important element of defense in the NBA is proper rotation and help. There’s just too many variables on the opposing offensive end to answer on a one-to-one basis, as opposed to understanding a general defensive scheme. I mean, on any given night, a small forward might have to guard Lebron, Battier, Durant, Gay, Maggette, Artest, or Peja (circa 2002, for my point) . Sometimes individual defenders are overwhelmed by any of the physical attributes (strength, speed, height) that a superstar can have, and other times they are overwhelmed by a specific skill (shooting, post-play). They have to stop people from getting to the basket, or chase a guy off the ball, or bump for post position. And sometimes, a good ‘D3’ won’t have anyone to guard. In the NBA, you can’t answer offensive skill with defensive skill.

  • Easy b

    I don’t know about all this heat bashing – to me it looks like a pippen Jordan grant combo albeit less proven at this point . Didn’t Jordan lose for a good 5 years before the pieces and coaching improved enough to get to the highest stage ? Not trying to get into a player/team comparison thing, but more trying to point out that this team is loaded and have maybe the highest ceiling of all NBA teams this year

  • Jim Henderson

    Easy b
    August 24th, 2010 at 7:33 pm

    “I don’t know about all this heat bashing…”

    I haven’t seen any “Heat bashing” on this thread. I do know that it’s not good for the NBA to have buddy superstars collude to find an “easy” way to get a championship that they all obviously think they deserve. But beyond that, I simply don’t believe that they possess the necessary intangibles to be a multiple title winner like the Bulls. They might have the highest ceiling this year if all you’re looking at is individual physical talent. But if you look at ALL the factors that typically go into a “team” winning a championship, I don’t see the Heat as the favorite. They’ll win a lot of games, but against the elite, established teams they’ll likely come up short. They’re not strong enough inside, and I think they’ll have chemistry issues before all is said & done.

  • Easy b

    @ Jim
    speculation aside about the heat’s intangiables ( not to undervalue them) , the probability is with a team carrying 3 stars in their prime and a decent support cast that they will cruise through alot of games this year because of the firepower they have and remain somewhat fresh for the playoffs (major injuries aside), giving them a very good chance at wcf or better. Whether or not certain stars shrink on the highest of stages is I think what you are driving at, and I don’t necessarily disagree with your opinion there. I hope if the spurs can somehow topple the lakers, that the heat don’t reach their ceiling.

  • Jim Henderson

    Easy b
    August 24th, 2010 at 11:26 pm

    “I hope if the spurs can somehow topple the lakers, that the heat don’t reach their ceiling.”

    Well, a Spurs miracle would be nice, but more realistically, I don’t see the Heat beating any of the following three teams in a playoff series:

    Boston, Orlando, LA.

    They could also lose to Chicago, and even Houston (if Yao is healthy and on his game from 2 years ago).

  • SG20

    Look, I agree with you that the Heat are a joke. They won’t win a championship this year. To be honest, they would have a better shot with just Wade and Bosh. LeBrons ego, fills out the rest of the roster. So, just forget all the other players they signed. the starting five for the heat will be:
    pg-Dwayne Wade
    sg-LeBron James
    sf- LeBron’s EGO
    pf-LeBron’s EGO
    c-Chris Bosh
    the subs:
    LeBron’s EGO
    LeBron’s EGO
    LeBron’s EGO
    LeBron’s EGO
    LeBron’s EGO
    LeBron’s EGO
    LeBron’s EGO
    LeBron’s EGO
    LeBron’s EGO
    LeBron’s EGO
    Well, there you have it. theres the Heat roster for the season!

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