The positionless revolution is real.
Traditional basketball nomenclature is almost wholly obsolete in the modern game, having been replaced by nonexclusive labels like small, big, primary ballhandler, wing, post, guard and forward. But different teams have different personnel and utilize different systems; the NBA has yet to reach a consensus on blanket definitions to best describe a player’s role and responsibilities, and it likely never will. Skill-sets of the league’s 30 rosters will always vary enough to keep us from finding new, concrete positional classifications, even as the strategic reliance on finding and preventing three-point and rim attempts continues to mushroom.
Point guards, shooting guards, small forwards, power forwards and centers – as we knew them – are gone. This is basketball in 2013: traditional ‘2s’ and ‘3s’ running ball-screens into the ground, seven-footers initiating at the elbow and letting fly from deep, wings guarding bigs and bigs guarding wings, four-out one-in offense, defenses that switch every pick, shoot-first ‘point guards,’ and the description-defying few who do all of that and everything in between. And the game is better off because of those evolutions.
So it goes without saying all of the above merits some results of NBA.com’s annual survey of the league’s general managers basically meaningless. It can be used as a tool further gauge the league’s basic pulse, perhaps, but that’s something gleaned from even minimal involvement within the basketball blogosphere.
Miami is the overwhelming title favorite? Shocker. Anthony Davis is likely to break out this season? No way. Chris Paul is the league’s best point guard? You don’t say. Gregg Popovich its best coach? Surprising.
But some of this stuff still interests (or bothers). And on a micro, obsessive and topical level, nothing more so than the general managers’ vote for best shooting guard.
That James Harden received a league-high 56.7% of the votes is hardly remarkable, and the same can be said of Kobe Bryant’s runner-up finish. Dwyane Wade’s sixth-place standing raises eye-brows, but is predictable knee-jerk reaction to an underwhelming and injury-plagued postseason. No, the real problem here sits in between Bryant and Wade:
Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant (along with Paul George) tying for third among “best shooting guard” vote-getters.
Remember, classic positions and lineups almost cease to exist. Curry and Durant are very good examples of that growing notion, actually, which begs to make this quibble completely contradictory at first glance. But their inclusion among Harden, Bryant and Wade by pollsters is pretty senseless on any level, and speaks to a broader theological rift that might be at play: do front office personnel understand the current state of positions?
First, it’s important to note the distinction between Curry and Durant and other top finishers in the shooting guard poll. Based on the construction of their teams’ starting lineups, Harden, Bryant and Wade are indeed correctly characterized as shooting guards. Whether that distinction is more nominal or functional doesn’t matter for the outdated purposes of the exercise. George is a separate case. His physical profile and the teammates surrounding him point to a classification more closely resembling a small forward, though there’s an argument to be made either way.
But Curry and Durant? There’s simply no informed explanation behind labeling them shooting guards. Looking through the same objective lens that renders Harden, Bryant and Wade 2s, Curry is a ‘1’ and Durant a ‘3.’ You come to the same conclusion subjectively; Curry does a lion’s share of playmaking for Golden State, and Durant rebounds and defends a la prototype swing forwards.
It’s the versatility of both players from where some of the confusion presumably stems. Curry and Durant certainly play the role of classic shooting guards on occasion, the former within certain lineups and latter on specific possessions. But neither is used in those situations enough to fall under the shooting guard taxonomy. Even with Curry, there’s no gray area between the 1 and 2 as there is for someone like LeBron James – or Durant, for that matter – at the 3 and 4. He plays off the ball frequently, sure, but so do Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving.
If we’re sticking to the Naismithian glossary, then, Curry is a point guard and Durant a small forward. Definitely. So why did multiple general managers designate them otherwise? Because they’re elite jump-shooters, obviously!
There are shooters more accurate than both Curry and Durant, but no player matches their respective combinations of quality and quantity. Curry’s record-breaking exploits from three-point range last season have been well documented, and Durant’s performance from mid-range – he shot 56.3% from 10-15 feet on 199 attempts – deserves similar plaudits. And though neither player was as good as the other with those ranges reversed, that’s hardly damning evidence; Curry hit on 53.6% of his mid-range attempts and Durant joined the Golden State star as one of three players in the league to average 20 points per game and shoot 40% from deep. These shot charts are pretty, too.
But great shooting doesn’t a shooting guard make. There’s far, far more to playing the 2 than knocking down jump-shots, as there is point guard to collecting assists or center to corralling rebounds. Curry and Durant boast at least one attribute – the sexiest one, it should be noted – of the ideal shooting guard, but letting that aesthetic rule the day is a slap in the face to what makes them elite players. More troubling than any individual slight gleaned from the poll, though, is what it says about the general managers’ thoughts on the matter of positions as a whole.
They get positionless basketball, right? To assume otherwise is naive not only given their backgrounds and qualifications, but the structure of most every roster throughout the league. Actual job performance matters far more than some inconsequential media survey, after all.
But there’s enough antiquated rhetoric – this immediately comes to mind – spouted from NBA front offices that this Curry and Durant shooting guard talk deserves critical analysis. The days of pigeonholing players into set positions based on a single skill are over. A power forward is as likely to be his team’s top passer as a point guard, a shooting guard his team’s top shot-blocker as a center, and so on and so forth. Though those remarks are a stretch in reality, it’s the belief that such oddities are possible that’s so crucial to thriving in today’s game.
We certainly know all of that, and it seems like the league’s decision-makers do for the most part, too. Until there’s no doubt that is indeed the case, though, continued scrutiny remains pertinent.