Stretch Five, Point Forward, Combo Guard?
Comparing teams of different eras may never be more challenging when trying to compare past teams to today’s landscape of teams- in part because we are moving towards position-less basketball. Having classic “Who’s team would win” discussions would simply come down to position by position which had more matchup advantages. All the talks are theoretical so there is no actual winner to the argument; just asking around and taking votes to tally how many people agree with you. We have reached a gap in time where there are just too many factors to even possibly have the discussion. I say this is due to the modernization of NBA lineups. The lineups have moved more towards your best five rather than traditional lineups featuring Point Guard, Shooting Guard, Small Forward, Power Forward and Center.
The average height of an NBA player is in that 6’7-6’8 range, which traditionally would be a small forward, power forward by skillset. By traditional skillset, a small forward would be a slasher, some post-moves, operates (depending on the type of player) inside or outside. A power forward would typically operate in the paint; mostly midrange opportunities that are utilized most in pick and pop or pick roll plays and typically has better mobility than a center. Throughout the history of the game, this would be the norm excluding a few exceptions every now and again. Now, this 6’7, 6’8 height is associated with no typical position. This is literally any position 1 thru 5 throughout the league right now.
When teams downsize to play small ball, this may be the center for any given team. Players like Draymond Green, Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, and newly drafted Ben Simmons will continue this trend to headline position-less basketball and to a lesser degree. You see examples of role players like Tyreke Evans, Evan Turner, Dante Exum, Boris Diaw and Josh Smith,to name a few. Before this became a trend,this was a sure fire way to make it harder on yourself to get consistent minutes. If you didn’t separate yourself in a particular position, you would go through a rollercoaster of minutes all season. In the cases of Tyreke Evans, Evan Turner, and Josh Smith, this was definitely evident. None of these players are particularly great shooters, but they can handle the rock, play 2-3 positions, can rebound, and are athletic. But it was tough to find the fit for these players in a time where most positions were still traditional. These players have all played for multiple team balancing starter and bench roles.
Now every team wants players that can play multiple positions. The NBA is a copycat league so style of play and trends will always have a leader who starts the trend and pretty soon teams will model their team after the success. Spurs have been a well-oiled machine for years but may have never got more publicity than in the NBA Finals beating Miami in 5 games. Slowly but surely, more teams wanted to build their teams around the more ball movement and player movement. While many just wanted to stock up on NBA stars like the Miami Heat , the Spurs were one Ray Allen miss away from beating the South Beach big three twice. It is hard not to take notice and try to emulate their success.
Now with the recent Golden State success of two consecutive finals, coming off an NBA record breaking 73 win regular season, their style of play (small ball & shooting) will definitely have teams trying to find success putting lineups that mirrors Golden State basketball. The rise of Draymond as a player now developing into an all-star and watching how he is utilized in Golden State will cause more emphasis on players these types of players.
One impact of position-less basketball is the all-star ballot moving from guards, forwards and centers, to frontcourt and backcourt. The result was fan-voted lineup that didn’t include one power forward or center. In a guard dominated league, big men definitely now have a disadvantage making that team going forward. Style of play is a factor that led to this change. In a guard dominated league, teams want to speed it up and play faster. This puts less emphasis on traditional half court offenses and focuses and spacing and shooting around the guard.
The modern big men have been relegated to setting screens, anchoring the defense, and working on their range if they want any shot at crunch time minutes. Another factor is the durability of big men. The center and power forward are two positions associated with power, force, strength. Before the modernization of the position the name at either slot would not be associated with consistency when referring to health. Knee and foot injuries are probably the most common occurrences. Big men injured for extensive periods of time include Blake Griffin, Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Amare Stoudemire, Marc Gasol, Anthony Davis, Kevin Love, Serge Ibaka, Brook Lopez, Chris Bosh, Joel Embiid, Al Jefferson, and Rudy Gobert. You can almost guarantee your big wouldn’t make it through a whole season so if you do have an inside out scoring punch you end up playing totally different when your center is nursing an injury.
Organizations want to load up on players that can play with different lineups combinations and players have benefitted from these trends. While I do think the game is fun to watch if you have your best five on the floor, I do think that it does hinder the development of younger players. The skill set of young big men are dumbed down to dunks and blocks; exclusively, guards and forwards who don’t have shooting touch take their time in developing that jumper, and you rarely see a developed post game on any young players. This is the new NBA so don’t expect to see any stagnation on this trend.