NBA History: Are Traditional Positions Still Relevant in the NBA?

Louis GertlerContributor IIJuly 26, 2012

BARCELONA, SPAIN - JULY 24:  Russell Westbrook #7 of the US Men's Senior National Team looks on during a Pre-Olympic Men's Exhibition Game between USA and Spain at Palau Sant Jordi on July 24, 2012 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
David Ramos/Getty Images

There is a change in the air in the NBA.

For decades, the NBA had five distinct positions with specific characteristics and responsibilities.

The center (the 5 position) was the biggest guy on the court, usually seven feet or taller. He was the primary banger, shot blocker and rebounder. His scoring was mostly accomplished under the basket.

Think Shaquille O'Neal.

The power forward (the 4 position) was slightly smaller, usually around 6'10''. His responsibilities also encompassed rebounding and shot-blocking, but he was usually more athletic and offensively oriented than a traditional center.

Think Tim Duncan.

The small forward (the 3 position) was prototypically around 6'8" tall, and his primary responsibilities were scoring and defending.  He was usually the most athletic "big" man on the court and was a threat from behind the three-point line.

Think Paul Pierce.

The shooting guard (the 2 position) generally ranged between 6'4'' and 6'6" in height and, as the name implies, was often the primary scoring threat on the team and the most prolific shooter. 

Think Kobe Bryant.

Finally, the point guard (the 1 position) was commonly the smallest—but quickest—player on the court. He was responsible for ball-handling, setting up the offense and passing to open teammates. Although capable of scoring, he often looked to pass first.

Think Steve Nash.

Throughout NBA history, there have always been exceptional players who have broken these molds.

Magic Johnson, a 6'9" point guard who successfully played center in an emergency situation for the Lakers in the 1980 NBA Finals, is just one example.  

But, despite these exceptions, for many years NBA franchises often looked to fill these traditional positions with players who fit the stereotypical criteria, and expected them to fulfill the responsibilities of that position.

Things, though, are starting to change. The NBA is evolving before our eyes.

Teams, for example, are fielding starting lineups that use two players who technically fit the same traditional position.  

The New Orleans Hornets are currently planning on starting two classic shooting guards, Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers, in the same backcourt.

While Rivers would technically be the "point guard," he would clearly not be a traditional one in any sense of the word. Essentially, he would be a shooting guard with primary ball-handling responsibilities.

Players are also morphing into different creatures with attributes of two or more traditional positions.

Look at OKC point guard Russel Westbrook with his attack-first mentality. He is certainly no one's idea of a classic point guard.

And there is 6'8" Lebron James, who often has primary ball-handling responsibilities for the Heat on the court.

Is he a "point forward"? Some sort of hybrid guard/ forward?

There are also swingmen, like 6'9" Kevin Durant, who essentially play like a combo small forward/shooting guard.

Now there are even so-called "Stretch 4s," like recently acquired Hornets forward Ryan Anderson. He has the size (6'10") of a prototypical power forward, but does most of his scoring from behind the three-point arc.

Coaches and GMs are disregarding classic notions of how players fit into traditional positions and what players of certain sizes and heights can do on the court.

Although not an NBA team, you can see this most clearly with the current U.S. Olympic team, which is composed entirely of NBA players.

There are only two traditional big men on the team: Tyson Chandler and Anthony Davis. But only Chandler gets any significant playing time.

The rest of the "bigs" on the team are hybrids like James and Durant. What they may lack in pure height or size, they make up for in athleticism and versatility.

And, since the U.S. team is the prohibitive favorite to win the gold in London, this will only further diminish the relevance of traditional positions in the NBA.

There will always be a place in the game for the "pure" position player.

But now the idea that players must fill certain traditional roles on the court is going the way of the two-handed set shot.