The Game Done Changed

In the contemporary NBA, there are few designations more useless than that between a power forward and a center. If you were to list out the responsibilities of either, it would be difficult to pinpoint exactly where one ends and another begins. Are power forwards expected to have range? Are centers required to have their backs to the basket? Are power forwards exempt from shot blocking responsibilities? Should centers remain anchored to the paint? Do power forwards have to guard opposing power forwards? Do centers have to be the tallest player in a lineup?

These are questions which certainly have answers but no conclusions. They give hints, but no finality.

And in the middle of everything is Tim Duncan.

Duncan is the best player of the decade and among the best…something of all time. Is he a power forward, with his ability to bank home a mid-range J, operate out of the high post, and run the pick-and-roll to perfection? Or is he a center, a 6’11” shot-blocker, defensive anchor, and dominating low post presence?

Well, that depends on who you ask, and, more precisely, when you ask.

When Duncan came into the league, he was most certainly a power forward. Convention dictates that we have these five positions on the floor, and there is little dispute that David Robinson was a center. Doesn’t that, by definition, make Duncan a power forward? Far less has deemed Dwyane Wade a shooting guard or LeBron James a small forward, and yet we hold those positional designations to be self-evident. What exactly does LeBron do that is in the vein of a small forward? And why isn’t Wade, who leads his team in assists, assists per 36 minutes, and assist percentage, deemed his team’s point guard? Again, questions without satisfying answers, but the easiest way to determine those players’ positions is to relate them to their teammates on the floor. Wade is a shooting guard because he plays alongside a point guard. LeBron is a small forward because he plays with two guards and two bigs. And Tim Duncan came into the league as a power forward because he played with David Robinson.

But then, a funny thing happened. Robinson retired, and Duncan was left as the lone dominating big in San Antonio. He had all the elbow room he could ever want, and his position became ever blurry as he was paired with Rasho Nesterovic, Robert Horry, Nazr Mohammed, Matt Bonner, Francisco Elson, and Kurt Thomas in the frontcourt. Meanwhile, a pair of versatile bigs named Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett were busy changing the power forward position forever. Now power forwards could shoot from anywhere on the floor, drive to the basket from the perimeter, and play any role in the offense that their skill set dictated. Maybe they would play from the outside in, like Dirk did initially. Or maybe they would turn the post-up game into a beautiful array of turnaround jumpers, like Garnett did. Or maybe they would simply use superior speed and athleticism to beat everyone to the rim, as Amare would go on to do.

The possibilities exploded, and what was once an incredibly limiting position was among the most liberating. Garnett and Nowitzki put a lot of work into erasing the rulebook, and though Tim Duncan shared a lot of their versatility, he’s often considered more conformer than reformer. In the shuffle of the power forward renaissance, Duncan was deemed unfit to be revolutionary. Nevermind the fact that he came into the league as a power forward and shares much in common with the power forwards of his era. He anchored a defense, and that was something a power forward simply could not do. He was too good in the low post, which was something almost antithetical of the positional metamorphosis. And his game was too old world, despite the fact that the new kingdom was built using the very same foundation.

In today’s game, positions have become even more muddled. Josh Smith, Boris Diaw, Pau Gasol, Marcus Camby, and Rashard Lewis all share the designation of power forward, which in itself should signify how little that “PF” next to a player’s name really means.

Yet, because all of those players are power forwards, Tim Duncan cannot be. It’s simply impossible. It apparently no longer matters what space he occupies in Gregg Popovich’s sets, or what position he thinks he plays. It was just decided that Matt Bonner can’t be a center, and thus, Tim Duncan can’t be a power forward.

Then DeJuan Blair happened. Blair is 6’7”, but you would never call him slight. He’s an absolute bull, and what he lacks in height he more than makes up for with girth and brute strength. His game is derived from old school sensibilities; he charges from the low post to the basket, and he scores. Nothing too flashy, but he uses his strength to his advantage to score in the most conventional way a center knows how. He doesn’t have much a jump shot, and he’s likely slower on the perimeter than Duncan. But ask many an NBA fan, both casual and hardcore, who the center of the San Antonio Spurs is, and they’ll tell you it’s Duncan in a heartbeat.

I’m not saying that Duncan is a power forward, and I’m sure as hell not saying he’s a center. What I am saying is that with players as unique as Duncan, positional designations cease to have meaning. Maybe if the game had remained static since 1997, we could all sleep soundly at night knowing in our heart of hearts that Duncan is, and will always be, a power forward. But players are constantly evolving, and the beauty of the NBA is that it evolves along with them. All of the principles are the same, but the game done changed. It doesn’t matter so much who does what (unless you’re the cursed combo guard) as long as everything that needs to get done gets done. There are roles and responsibilities on the basketball court the go beyond position, and that’s become more and more evident with every bit of the sport’s growth. The most important development over the last decade of basketball was not Shaq’s dominance, LeBron’s ascendence, or Kobe’s redemption, but the recognition that square pegs need not be forced into round holes because the holes didn’t mean anything to begin with.

Seth Carstens