NBA: On Positional Tweeners and a Brave New World

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NBA: On Positional Tweeners and a Brave New World
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Positional evolution has been an inextricable part of professional basketball for more than a decade. There were once prototypes, slotted roles and assigned bits of on-court real estate, but the fluidity from guard to forward to center has never been more apparent in the history of the game, and never been more useful in terms of informing how coaches and players go about their work.

Beckley Mason of ESPN.com honed in on one particular vestige of traditional positional nomenclature and noted an important trend in the distinction between small forward and power forward:

These "tweeners" are all 6-8 or shorter, and have the following working against them:

  • Smaller than traditional power forwards (example: Kenneth Faried)
  • Have some perimeter skills but not perimeter quickness (Derrick Williams)
  • Or some combination of the two (like Paul Millsap).

What to do with such players? Make them small "fours" or beefed up "threes?" It has long been an NBA conundrum, especially because plenty of quality players fit this rough description. 

It's a conundrum, however, to which a clear solution is emerging: In today's NBA, they're all power forwards. 

If there is a question as to whether a player is a small or power forward, that player's almost always better playing power forward. That's just the state of the league these days.

Mason goes on to outline why speed has come to define today's NBA, and in this case, define the NBA's positions. The piece is well worth a read in its entirety, particularly in the wake of an NBA Finals in which virtually every player on the court was positionally ambiguous.

That said, it may be a stretch to assume that basketball operates in a world of "4's" and "3's" at all these days. Obviously, teams still have positional designations for the purposes of placement and prescribed plays, but each player's positional utilization is essentially determined by team context.

A power forward does not serve the same purpose to both the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers (not to mention 28 other uniquely functioning teams), thus creating a positional system of specific value, but general incongruity. It befits Erik Spoelstra or Mike Brown to know who can play which positions in their systems, but there's almost no descriptive or instructional value in saying that Pau Gasol, LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Shane Battier and Antawn Jamison are power forwards. At the point of encapsulating so many unique talents of different approaches, sizes and skills, the positional designation itself has lost all meaning.

In that, I don't necessarily agree with Mason's conclusion that all "tweener" forwards are actually emerging 4's, if only because I'm not sold on the notion that universal positions actually have relevance in a league of such diverse players and systems. The sentiment behind Mason's conclusion is nonetheless spot-on—speed does indeed dictate much of what goes into creating a given lineup—but there are too many ways for teams to rearrange their defensive configurations for us to definitively say who is playing what position based on that alone. 

There's an unopened can of worms here regarding positional designation and defense that I dare not touch (OK, just the slightest mention: Is a player defined positionally by the role he plays on offense, whom he guards on defense, a combination of both or neither?), and instead, I'll simply lean in favor of team-defined specification.

Some coaches may use wing players interchangeably, some may shy away from point-guard-dominated offense in favor of team-wide ball-handling and playmaking, and others may use their power forwards and centers to stretch the floor rather than work the paint. It's all a matter of strategy and preference, and that's no less true of supposed positional tweeners than any other type of player.

The debate over a player's natural position, though it may be controversial, is a false dilemma. It creates an argument where there need not be one, as each team is free to figure out for itself how it would go about using a given player, and whether said player is indeed useful to them at all. There's ample reason to deem that an alleged tweener might not fit in perfectly in a certain context, but it has nothing to do with generalized positional standards.

After all, we live in an era not of centers or point guards, but "basketball players" bound only by their skills, abilities and their coach's imagination.

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