When basketball players are broached on the subject of their natural position, their most suitable position or the prospect of a positional switch, they often respond with a very specific response:
"I'm just a basketball player."
When an NBA player is smothered with cameras and recorders and has such a question lobbed their way, this is the path of least resistance. It's supportive without being an endorsement, and so noncommittal as to completely avoid blame. It's a completely neutral statement of basketball fact, so general as to be undeniably true.
They're all basketball players, and though they may hold some internal preference as to whether they're considered a point guard or a shooting guard, this statement of fact affords them a convenient out while also — and perhaps incidentally — digging into a fundamental truth of contemporary basketball.
The latest to offer us that familiar refrain is Shawn Marion, who is asked to be small forward, rebounder, defender of point guards, functional power forward, floor spacer, slasher, post-threat and more for the Dallas Mavericks. From Jeff Caplan of ESPN Dallas:
At 6-foot-7, Marion is not a typical power forward, but then again there was nothing typical about a small forward chasing around point guards like Chris Paul. A Defensive Player of the Year candidate, Marion said he doesn't care what position he's asked to play. In the Matrix's world, a position is only a number.
"It’s cool to get some minutes there," Marion said. "I really haven’t been there much this season because how deep we’ve been at the position. I’m a basketball player, so you can put me anywhere out there and I’ll find a way to make it happen."
He's averaged the third most minutes on the team at 30.7, one of the few from last season's title team whose playing time has gone up from a year ago. Now those minutes might get sliced up a bit more like last season, too.
"Like I said, I’m a basketball player," Marion said. "You put me in there and I get enough minutes at it, enough to get comfortable and know the situations, I’m good to go."
You heard the man: he's a basketball player. It's the easy response, but it's also true in that Marion exists in a space outside of conventional position, as do an incredible number of players in today's NBA. Versatility isn't in vogue, it was merely suppressed, and now that modern players are allowed to tap into all of their considerable and rarely used skills, it's become increasingly difficult to pin a player down into one slot or another.
What began as a cliché has become a pragmatic explanation for the positionally agnostic; positions as we've known them have come to mean less and less in a league-wide context, and although there will always be some value in determining team-specific roles, any truth to be found in universal designations has yet to be discovered.
A power forward isn't even a power forward these days, and regardless of what role Marion fills within the context of the Mavericks' schemes, his title will hold none of the congruence that the nature of a positional system implies.