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A few NBA coaches have said it before. There’s really never been a Kevin Durant before. Never really been a near seven-footer that had a silky outside touch, a killer handle, outstanding athleticism and a deadly first step. And that is actually good, not just advertised as such. Durant’s sort of a one-of-a-kind.
But what is he? When he began his rookie season, P.J. Carlesimo was trying him as a shooting guard, believe it or not. Once Scott Brooks took over, he immediately made a change and currently on the depth chart, KD’s listed as a small forward. But as his game matures and develops, Durant walks up and down the NBA’s traditional positions. He’s played mostly 3, quite a bit of power forward, some point guard/forward and even a touch of center in unique circumstances.
The NBA has been going through something of a positional revolution the past few years, at least in the sense that everyone is catching on to the idea that labeled positions are a bit archaic. Putting a “C” or “PG” next to a guy’s name doesn’t make him such. Basketball is a free-flowing, open-ended game where players interchange positions constantly. It’s a bit like soccer in the sense that just because a guy is a midfielder doesn’t mean he has to stay as that. If there’s an opportunity for him to get down the left wing or maybe he moves up as a center forward, he does it. Sure, for the most part he drops into his traditional midfield slot, but just because the media guide says you play there doesn’t mean you stay there for the 90 minutes.
Same in basketball. Soccer is definitely more open-ended than basketball and when Durant drops down as a power forward, it’s a bit more structured. The same principle applies though. And so the question remains, what is he?
David Thorpe of ESPN.com is taking a look at positions in the NBA and kicks it off by using Durant as his example:
Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant is anything but small.
At 6-foot-9, with a wingspan of 7-foot-5, Durant is one of the NBA’s most prolific scorers. By contrast, Hall of Fame center Moses Malone barely stood 6-foot-10 during his salad days, only a scant inch taller than Durant, and yet, their games appear vastly different. One was a bruising interior player whose stockiness begged for high contact, the other is a lithe perimeter shooter with incredible length who avoids contact. Malone was clearly a center, but Durant is neither small nor a forward.
So what is Durant? He’s changed the way we define NBA positions, that’s what.
Gone are the days when positions are defined strictly by a player’s size. There are no absolutes left to define what position a player has to play. For more than two decades we have labeled players as simply point guards (1), shooting guards (2), small forwards (3), power forwards (4), and centers (5). However, over the years we have seen an evolution away from those labels and towards specialties, as well as some generalizations.
Yes, it sounds confusing, and indeed it can be for both players and teams who struggle to figure out where to play a player. Labels like “tweener” and questions such as “Is he a ‘3’ or a ‘4’?” are commonplace. But they shouldn’t be. Smart coaches and well-run teams embrace this combination of both general and specific needs and work to feature potent combinations of both.
Positional versatility in today’s NBA is gold. The goal for any NBA coach is to create favorable matchups for his team. Whether it’s by putting more talent on the floor than the other team, finding a positional advantage or exposing the weakness of the other team’s five players, you want to find an edge.
But you also want to have your best players out there. It’s one thing to go small and speedy to try and make your opponent take their best big man off the floor, but if your guys aren’t any good, it doesn’t do any good. You saw Scott Brooks control matchups in both the Lakers and Spurs series last postseason. Both those teams couldn’t figure out a way to counter OKC’s small lineups without sacrificing their best players. The Lakers had Pau Gasol chasing either Durant or Thabo Sefolosha around at times, while Andrew Bynum sat. And then of course the Heat put it right back the Thunder’s face in the Finals as Serge Ibaka stumbled around the perimeter trying to cover Shane Battier.
Another great point from Thorpe that definitely applies to OKC: Just because a player is a “shooting guard” doesn’t mean he can shoot. Thabo’s literal position would probably be “WD” (wing defender). His job isn’t to shoot, but to stop the other team’s best perimeter player from doing so.
Brooks has always said he doesn’t consider James Harden to be a shooting guard, but more of just simply a guard. Basically, a shorter player that doesn’t everything that a point guard or shooting guard would do. A combo guard, as some would say.
There are defined positions in basketball essentially for accounting purposes. We need to know where to place players. We need to have a label to stick on them for All-Star Game selections, for All-NBA teams, for top 10 lists, for Bleacher Report sideshows. But that doesn’t mean that within the flow of a 48-minute basketball game that those positions actually exist. On paper, yes. On the court while Durant seamlessly glides between handling the ball, to defending Gasol, to knocking down a 3, to posting up, he’s just a well-rounded, and tall, basketball player.