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 Positional fundamentalism, with it’s outdated and glib outlook, robs basketball of its fluidity, of its jazz-like beauty.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.
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