I’ve never really figured out where I stand on positionality in the NBA. I understand what makes a guy a point guard and what makes another a center. Some would determine that difference simply as one guy is 7’1 and the other is 6’1. Other might just determine it based on role and assignment. Whatever the case, I understand what positions are. I just don’t really get what they mean.
We’ve heard the debate already. Russell Westbrook isn’t a true point guard. Jeff Green isn’t an actual power forward. Robert Swift wasn’t a real basketball player. So if they aren’t those things, what are they?
Rob Mahoney at The Two Man Game is honestly one of the smartest basketball thinkers out there. And he dove into this topic some in regard to the Mavericks roster, so I will shamelessly rip off his idea and apply it to the Thunder. Some words of his I especially liked:
To those still clinging to what they know, I’d ask this: what’s a power forward? What characteristics link Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan, Rashard Lewis, Lamar Odom, Reggie Evans, Tyrus Thomas, and J.J. Hickson? Not rebounding. Not scoring. Not skill set. Not height relative to their teammates. Not even the spaces they occupy on the floor. I’m at a total loss as to the criterion that would group that bunch together, which makes the assessment “Player X isn’t a real power forward” pretty much worthless. I think I know what it means, but without the ability to define the contemporary power forward, how could I really know for sure?
Who did you think of during that entire paragraph? If you said Nenad Krstic, you’d be wrong. But one player easily inserted into that list is Jeff Green. Nobody knows what he is and honestly, nobody knows what he should be either. Rob took the plot of his post from a column by Drew Cannon of Basketball Prospectus. In that, there’s this section:
But what do you really need from a lineup? On defense, you need to be able to guard your opponents. This means you have to be ready for speeds and heights of all kinds. You need to have a player capable of guarding each of the five traditional C-PF-SF-SG-PG positions. We’ll call the players capable of defending each position “D1” through “D5,” respectively, with speed/athleticism on the x-axis and height/strength on the y-axis:
And on offense what do you need to be successful? You need to be able to make shots (from the field or free throw line), avoid turnovers, and clean up the offensive glass–at the very least to the point where you aren’t handing over points by doing the opposite. This means that you need someone who can take care of the ball, someone who can put it in the basket, someone who can get the ball to that guy, and someone who can get the ball back when someone misses. We’ll call these four characters the Handler, the Scorer, the Creator, and the Rebounder.
Quick point. The Creator and the Handler have to be the same guy. Because you can’t have your Creator losing the ball all the time before he can feed your Scorers, and you can’t have your Handler with the ball all the time but unable to get it to the Scorers.
…It boils down to this: On defense, you have to be ready for whatever the offense throws at you. But on offense, you really just need to rebound and protect the ball enough to let your scorers go to work (or protect the ball just enough that your dominant rebounding can keep putting points on the board despite below-average scoring, etc.). Really, how you put points on the board is your business. The defense is just reacting.
That’s the rub for Green apologists. How Oklahoma City scores or wins doesn’t matter – it’s that it does. You can repeat it until you’re blue in the face, but Green played major minutes on the youngest squad in the league that also won 50 games and darn near beat the NBA champs. Now, one could also mention that according to advanced metrics, Green was one of the worst defenders in the league and also had OKC’s lowest plus/minus. That’s why this debate continues, and continues, and continues. Nobody really has a firm grip on the role of Uncle Jeff. And nobody REALLY knows his true value either.
I’m not crystal clear on how positional classifications really fit in. I’m not really sold on scrapping it altogether. Basketball is a funny game. It’s free-flowing with players switching on defensive assignments constantly. It’s not like in baseball where if a guy is playing shortstop, that’s what he’s playing. Or in football where if he’s at quarterback, that’s the position he plays (though teams have begun to flex on that with the wildcat formation). Basketball is a game where you score and defend and though you may have “SF” next to your name, it really doesn’t matter as long as you’re doing to job and fulfilling the role you’re supposed to. Most basketball schemes and plans are based around the five position set, so positions make sense there. But say your shooting guard gets caught in a switch and is defending a power forward and forces a miss. He did his job right? So what’s it matter?
The point is, you want to always grab favorable matchups at wherever those positions may be. So you want players in situations where they can perform at their best. A center isn’t going to be able to defend a point guard for 85 possessions. So you find a place for him and find another player he can match up with. We’re going to see some great examples of all this with Team USA in Turkey. Players will be playing everywhere. We might see Derrick Rose at the 4 or something. And if it works, does it matter?
So just like Rob did, let’s place each Thunderer into a respective offensive and defensive category and see what we come up with. Obviously this is a rough draft and may be way off in your mind. So feel free to adjust.
Russell Westbrook – D1/D2, Creator/Handler/Scorer
Kevin Durant – D2/D3/D4, Scorer
Thabo Sefolosha – D2/D3, ?
Daequan Cook - D2, Scorer
Nick Collison - D4/D5, Rebounder
Jeff Green – D3/D4, Scorer/Rebounder
James Harden – D2/D3, Scorer/Creator
Serge Ibaka – D4/D5, Rebounder
Royal Ivey – D1/D2, Handler
Nenad Krstic – D5, Rebounder
Morris Peterson – D2/D3, Scorer
D.J. White – D4, Scorer/Rebounder
Eric Maynor – D1, Handler/Creator
Byron Mullens - D4/D5, Rebounder
Obviously some will disagree, but in regards to Green, I think it’s a discussion worth continuing. He’s really a poster boy for this debate and while yes, advanced statistics say one thing, often times the eye test says another. And it’s hard to forget his value in a number of big wins last season. Though at the same time, it’s hard to forget a game like Game 3 against the Lakers when he sat and the Thunder cranked it up defensively. That’s why he’s so hard to nail down.
Is Jeff Green a power forward? By traditional standards, absolutely not. But just like some teams play with two point guards or two centers (ie the Lakers), why can’t OKC play with two small forwards? Why must Green actually be considered a power forward? Again, I’m not saying that Jeff Green should start at the 4 and play there for 82 games the next 10 years. As I’ve said a million times, I don’t know where he really fits in yet. Though something worked last year, even against the evidence of advanced stats. Green helped this team win. How you can calculate that, I don’t know.
You know in the radio introductions before each game, every player says their name, their number and their position. One player doesn’t say a position. It’s Jeff Green. And that’s exactly it. While maybe he doesn’t have a position on this roster, he certainly has place on it.