What Will Be the NBA's Next Great Positional Revolution?

Jim Cavan@@JPCavanContributor IAugust 27, 2014

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In what's become something of an annual rite of the summer's dog days, NBA TV has been giving heavy rotation to Hardwood Classics, a collection of memorable games from years and decades past.

Particularly with legendary showdowns from the 1990s, it's impossible not to notice the sheer stylistic juxtaposition, of defenders allowed almost unfettered contact on the perimeter, and the low scoring that was a result.

In 2004, then-NBA Commissioner David Stern spearheaded a series of rule changes designed to curb hand-checking and crack down on overly physical play. The strategy was all too obvious: In recalibrating the league along more guard-friendly lines, Stern was banking on the increased scoring and star power helping reinvigorate both the game and the fans who watched it.

Ten years later, we can safely say it's been mission accomplished for the NBA.

As with any piece of well-intentioned legislation, there were bound to be unintended consequences, not the least of which has been the increased focus on "small-ball" lineups—in particular, those featuring stretch 4s and 5s.

Knowing what we know now about the league's recent past, what, if anything, will be its next great positional revolution?

Shoot, Ask Questions Later

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 1: Stephen Curry #30 and Klay Thompson #11 of the Golden State Warriors in a game against the Los Angeles Clippers in Game Six of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena on May 1, 2014 in Oakland
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Here's what we know: According to a comprehensive study conducted by BestTickets.com's Andrew Powell-Morse, the NBA has seen steady increases in both two- and three-point field-goal percentages, true shooting percentage and overall scoring since roughly the late 1990s—and especially since 2004.

From the league's perspective, the onus is simple: Short of mere ancillary rule changes, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

What this approach fails to account for, however, is the degree to which the game's increased emphasis on advanced analytics might foster its own strategic shifts.

This idea can be approached in one of two ways: Either access to the same raw data will encourage a kind of positional homogenization amongst teams (where, more often than not, franchises seek to build according to increasingly rigid beliefs about efficiency and productivity), or such access will compel some to think outside the box, thereby charting a more organic reorientation—whatever that might be.

Don Ryan/Associated Press

Teams looking to get ahead of the next big curve will inevitably seek to exploit the existing framework of rules. In recent years, that's meant things like attempting more three-pointers (per Powell-Morse's study) and employing point guards better capable of penetrating the paint.

Might there arise a crop of teams who go in an altogether different direction? Say, by getting taller or longer, so as to capitalize on what appears, from the outside, to be a shrinking NBA?

Not so, according to a 2008 league-sanctioned study showing virtually no change in the median height of NBA players over a 20-year period. And while the average weight did increase by a full seven pounds, this can most likely be explained by redoubled focus across the sports landscape on things like conditioning and weightlifting.

At the same time, Forbes' Dan Diamond, in a piece penned just prior to the 2013 NBA draft, underscores how the globe's steady crop of seven-footers all but guarantees their role as key players in the overall basketball landscape—even if the motivation behind their selection has more to do with gambling on high upside than banking on a sure thing:

Even though NBA teams are starting to get a little smaller, with the rise of non-traditional lineups often used by the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder, the NBA Draft is paradoxically expected to grow a bit bigger this year. At least seven players who are listed at 7 feet or taller are projected as first round selections on Thursday night, which would break a five-year-old record.

Whether or not this draft is historically huge, the annual parade of young giants like [Nerlens] Noel, [Alex] Len, and [Cody] Zeller will be a powerful visual reminder: While being incredibly skinny doesn't make you a model, and being unusually short or fat doesn't get you much at all, being tall – like, off-the-growth-charts tall – can make you very rich while very young.

As Diamond's piece points out, just because humans in general are getting taller doesn't guarantee a correlative spike in the number of coordinated, athletically inclined seven-footers.

Between the league's de-emphasis on paint-bound stars to the sheer facts of human evolution, it seems clear the NBA's future doesn't lie in a return to the days of the dominant center. What it might mean, however, is a redoubled effort on the part of teams and their scouting staffs to more quickly identify those hyper-tall prospects capable of adapting to the league's increasing five-tool orientation.

Recently, Bleacher Report's Josh Martin profiled one such prospect, a 7'0" Sudanese wunderkind named Thon Maker:

You don't have to watch Thon Maker play basketball to get at least an inkling of how special he is and what he might become. The slender 7-foot physique. The arachnoid limbs. The gliding gait. The disarming demeanor.

These are all useful clues for forming a fitting first impression of him. But it's not until you see Maker in motion on the hardwood that his limitless potential becomes apparent, if not blatantly obvious.

The fancy footwork. The smothering defense—be it on the perimeter, at the rim or any place in between. The smooth shooting out to NBA three-point range. The quick, tricky handles. The persistence in the paint. The leadership from end to end.

Reading Martin's insightful take, it's impossible not to see Maker as a hardwood harbinger of the highest order—someone whose sheer, idiosyncratic greatness has the potential to change forever not just how we watch basketball, but how we talk about it as well.

Still Big, but Better

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

In "From 5 to 13: Redefining the Positions in Basketball," a paper presented at the 2013 Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston, Stanford University senior Muthu Alagappan recategorized every NBA player along 13 distinct classifications. The goal: to present a more transparent picture for how front offices and general managers should seek to build, augment and improve upon their rosters.

According to Alaggapan's taxonomy, Tyson Chandler isn't a center, but rather a "Rim-Protecting Big." By presenting labels that more accurately reflect a specific player's skill set, Alagappan is hoping to spark a kind of positional revolution—one based on a more statistically sound set of categories.

In reality, Alaggapan was merely expanding upon a sea change already well underway in the NBA. Case in point: Erik Spoelstra's now famous recalibration of the Miami Heat toward a dual emphasis on pace and space. Here are Spoelstra's comments from a 2012 story by USA Today’s Jeff Zillgitt:

I've found, through pain of the (losing) 2011 Finals, I needed to look at this team in a different lens. And that was key for us to play more position-less, to put our best players out there and to create a system where guys could fully utilize their versatility of playing multiple positions. ... I'm not thinking of restricting guys and putting them in specific positions or boxes.

After relying heavily on traditional center Joel Anthony for much of the 2010-11 season, Spoelstra realized the key to the Heat's success lay in abolishing the arbitrary commitment to five-position lineups.

Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

The result: Miami would go on to appear in three more NBA Finals (winning in 2012 and 2013) thanks in large part to a lineup strategy geared more toward accentuating a given unit's strength than adhering to some imagined Platonic ideal.

Miami has by no means been alone in such thinking, of course. Longtime NBA coach Don Nelson was famous (some might say infamous) for his use of lineups featuring smaller centers. The logic: Employing positionally ambiguous lineups allowed Nelson to more effectively orchestrate his run-and-gun approach, even if his teams rarely made much of a stand defensively.

In LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis and others, we're seeing the next logical step in a movement decades in the making. In this respect, the Heat's status as a high-profile organization with championship bona fides undoubtedly helped bring Nelson's concept more in line with with the NBA of the 21st century, where sound defense is just as crucial to a position-agnostic approach as running your foe off the floor.

The implications couldn't be clearer: As the positionless revolution gains a stronger NBA foothold, the more scouts, coaches and recruiters at all levels will feel compelled to instill within the next generation of players skill sets that fit that trend.

That, in turn, means an increased emphasis on teaching all players, regardless of height or previous positional creed, to be better stewards of the game's five tools: shooting, passing, rebounding, individual defense and team defense.

While obvious on the surface, such a philosophy would seem to be at odds with society's increasing trend of funneling young athletes toward a more specialized sports curriculum (often, as a 2013 Loyola University study points out, to unfortunate ends).

For that kind of shift to truly be realized will, of course, take years. All the while, the NBA's increasingly analytics-friendly landscape—personified most purely, perhaps, by Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey—is certain to nurture even more shifts, be they slight or seismic, in how the game is played.

Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

And that's before we even get to potential rule changes. Say, for instance, the league decides on expanding the width of the court. Such a legislative gambit would undoubtedly have an immediate impact on how franchises approach their personnel decisions.

All the same, we can distill from basketball's recent history—the numbers-based functioning of both the teams themselves and the front office charged with shepherding them—a very particular likelihood: As facts and figures continue to usurp fancies and feelings, the closer we'll get to understanding what makes the ideal basketball player.

For many, such a trend risks sapping basketball of the very human flaws and idiosyncrasies that make it the spontaneous, freelance-friendly sport it's always been. For others, it's merely the inevitable, benign result of a billion-dollar industry determined to improve its product.

Whatever one's stance, it's clear the NBA is entering a brave new world, one where long-held biases and hierarchies are becoming both beholden to and a catalyst for a more scientific understanding of the game itself.

Gone are the days of guards and forwards, frontcourts and backcourts, replaced by a belief as exciting as it is intellectually challenging: that while the players themselves might wield increasingly uniform skill sets, the game itself—buoyed as it's always been by sheer jaw-dropping athleticism—will always come out a winner.


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