2016: Naming and Necessity

As explained last week, I take a top-down approach to the NBA draft. And this article, at the very top, was by far the hardest to write. The NBA has changed so much recently, but the language used to discuss it hasn’t. Put simply, the positional paradigm used for, well, as long as I’ve been following basketball is no longer satisfactory to describe what players on actual top NBA teams play. And how can we talk about prospects without knowing what positions currently exist?

It is traditionally accepted that there are five NBA positions – point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, and center. More recently, a few new positions have entered common parlance – combo guard, combo forward, wing, stretch 4, small ball center, etc. But what about all the other positions? And what does it even mean when somebody says that a player can play a position? To talk about the positions players play in the modern NBA, it is necessary to create a new positional scheme.

Before we get there, let me explain, in the simplest of stats, how the NBA has changed to the point where this is even necessary (the why isn’t particularly important – it’s a combination of better athletes, better schemes, and rule changes – and I don’t think it warrants a separate article).

Team Rotation Players over 35% 3P Fringe Players over 35% 3P Other Players over 30% 3P 3PAr 3P%
2010 LAL (C) 2 1 4 .227 34.1
2010 BOS (R) 2 1 0 .228 34.8
2011 DAL (C) 3 3 2 .274 36.5
2011 MIA (R) 2 3 2 .235 37.0
2012 MIA (C) 2 2 1 .198 35.9
2012 OKC (R) 3 0 2 .252 35.8
2013 MIA (C) 5 1 0 .285 39.6
2013 SAS (R) 6 2 0 .264 37.6
2014 SAS (C) 6 1 1 .257 39.7
2014 MIA (R) 3 1 4 .292 36.4
2015 GSW (C) 3 1 2 .311 39.8
2015 CLE (R) 5 1 1 .334 36.7
2016 GSW 7 1 0 .362 41.6
2016 SAS 5 1 1 .223 37.5
2016 CLE 4 1 2 .352 36.3

(Note: 35% is a somewhat arbitrary cutoff and a few guys were at 34.8 or 34.9%, but this is just supposed to be a general overview, so I don’t think there’s any need to get more specific)

To make it really easy, NBA champion 3PAr and 3P%: .227/34.1%, .274/36.5, .198/35.9, .285/39.6, .257/39.7, .311/39.8, and this year’s likely champion, .362/41.6. Boy, that escalated quickly. Looking at that, is it a surprise that those Dallas Mavericks won the championship? They were simply ahead of their time. It is worth noting that some teams relied on a few great 3P shooters supported by “keep em honest” shooters, while other teams relied on a quantity of good 3P shooters, but no team has had less than 6 passable or better shooters in their expanded rotation since 2011-12. Also, LeBron is really, really, really good. Just felt that needed to be said again, just in case anybody forgot.

So, a modern competitive team needs 3 point shooters. I know, I know, you’re shocked. But that is overly simplistic. And we once again find ourselves back at that initial problem – the positional language doesn’t exist to explain what is going on. I’m going to do my best to try, because I’m going to need this language later in this series, so here goes nothing.

OFFENSE

There are two types of basic offenses. The first uses a primary ballhandler, a guy to set picks for the primary ballhandler and roll to the rim, and three guys to provide spacing around them, at least one of whom has secondary ballhandling ability. The second uses a primary ballhandler, two guys to set picks both on and off ball, and two secondary ballhandlers and uses movement to scramble the defense. The Warriors are a prime example of the first. The Spurs are a prime example of the second. In both cases, you need at least three guys who can shoot the three well enough to keep defenses stretched and make them pay if they don’t stretch far enough.

Essentially, offensive skills fall along four axes: ballhandling, three point shooting, inside finishing (both scoring in close and drawing fouls), and picks. There are certainly other skills, but they’re simply not critical to a modern offense.

Ballhandling: Primary, secondary, spot-up

Three point shooting: Great, good, passable, non-shooter

Inside finishing: Great, good, passable, non-finisher

Picks: Great, passable, bad

In the past it was easy. The PG was the primary ballhandler who typically had scoring ability either inside or outside. The SG was the secondary ballhandler and was a good shooter and finisher. The SF was typically passable at everything. The PF and C set picks and finished inside the arc. But how do you classify a guy who has primary ballhandling ability who can finish and set picks? How about a guy with three point shooting and good inside finishing but no real handles? Some of these formerly strange combinations that have become more common have gotten position names. A guy who can set picks and shoot the three but can’t work inside? Stretch 4. But many of these combinations still aren’t really easily described.

Ultimately, the goal is to put together 5 guys on offense who have the right combination of these skills to fit together. At least one guy who is a primary ballhandler and at least one other guy who is at least a secondary ballhandler. At least one great 3 point shooter and two passable or better, or two good 3 point shooters and one passable or better. At least one guy who sets picks and finishes inside. The 5th guy determines what type of offense the team should play, whether more of an on-ball pick and roll style or more of a pick and move style. Failing to put together a set of players with these necessary skills leads to the dreaded “clogged toilet” offense, as first coined by Zach Lowe (I think). Defenses are getting better and better at punishing these clogged toilets.

So, what are the modern offense positions then? Here’s my best shot at them. You may quibble with the names, but I tried to map them as well as possible to concepts that already exist.

Position Ballhandling Shooting Finishing Picking
Leader Primary Good+ Passable+ N/A
Driver Primary Passable- Good+ N/A
Baller Secondary Passable+ Passable+ N/A
Sniper N/A Good+ Passable- N/A
Corner N/A Passable+ Passable+ Passable-
Gapper Secondary+ Passable+ Passable+ Passable+
Popper N/A Passable+ N/A Passable+
Roller N/A N/A Good+ Passable+

Most players fit neatly in to one of these roles. Any players who can fill multiple roles are more valuable. Any players who fit in to none of these roles are less valuable. Typically, you need a leader or driver, a baller or gapper, a sniper or corner, a corner or popper; and a popper or roller. Obviously, offenses are built different, but that is the typical offense.  Gappers are the hardest players to find and thus are the most valuable – they fill all the gaps and can take an offense to a whole ‘nother level.  There’s just not many of them.

DEFENSE

I’m going to state right up at the top here that I am not factoring height much in to this analysis. Why? I don’t actually have the numbers I’d like to have, and I don’t even know where to find them, nor do I have somebody else’s analysis to piggyback off of – the numbers on FG% when defended by taller/shorter guys, basically. So I am writing this with the expectation that defense comes down to skills, and that height can affect whether you possess the necessary skills. I may update this if somebody points me to these stats.

Okay, that out of the way, playing defense has become a lot more complex, but defensive positions have actually simplified, because there’s generally one clear unified goal: force mid-range jump shots. And offenses are almost all based around pick and roll principles that are defended in the same general ways. Defensive skills are pretty much the same from position to position. Lateral quickness, hand quickness, balance, length, jumping, ability to navigate screens. Height is often a factor, but is not the determining factor – if you possess enough defensive skill, you can pretty much defend any position, even at a major height disadvantage. Unlike offense, defensive position is not so strictly defined by what skills you do and don’t have, but how good of a defender you are combined with your height. For that reason, defensive position is a bit more amorphous than offensive position. Still, it’s good to have a shorthand for what kind of defender a player is, even if it makes no reference to the quality of the defense.

The easiest way to define the defensive positions is by reference to the offensive positions above:

Position Defends
Guard Leader, Driver, Baller, Sniper
Wing Baller, Sniper, Corner, Popper, Gapper
Forward Corner, Popper, Gapper, Roller
Protector Roller, the rim

This can certainly be broken down further, but these are the four primary positions. Typically, you need at least one guard, one guard or wing, two wing or forwards, and one protector. Good defensive guards tend to defend the primary ballhandlers, bad defensive guards defend the scorers and snipers, wings defend just about everybody in the middle, forwards defend the bigger guys, and protectors are your classic rim protectors. As with offensive positions, being able to cover multiple positions is more valuable, while not being able to guard anybody, well, of course that’s a problem.

REBOUNDING

Rebounding is important, right? Unlike offense and defense, I do think that actual quality of rebounding needs to be reflected in position, in part because rebounding is somewhat more measurable and less subjective. Protectors tend to be the best rebounders, but not all rebound even close to equally. Somebody pulling down 19% of all rebounds is certainly more valuable than somebody pulling down 13%. I don’t think anybody would really argue that. And while rebounding is somewhat a function of who plays by the basket the most, rebounding is a skill that does tend to show up in the box score consistently. This is a very simple, very basic system, and I’m sure it can be more finely tuned, but again, I’m more interested in creating framework for discussing prospects than for creating something perfect.

Number TRB%
6 18+
5 15+
4 12+
3 9+
2 6+
1 5.9-

If you wanted to add a level 7 for 21+, I wouldn’t quibble. That would be Drummond, Whiteside, Jordan, and Kanter this year, with Biyombo just outside that. The general rule is that the team with the higher total number on the floor should rebound better, but most teams will end up with very similar numbers on the floor most of the time. It’s more of a guide to help determine whether teams can survive going small. This could be modified more with offensive and defensive rebounding and the like, but that becomes difficult to display with a simple number, so I’m going to stick with this for now.

EXAMPLES

So, we now have an offensive naming scheme, a defensive naming scheme, and a rebounding naming scheme. How does it all fit together? Pretty easily, actually. Much like baseball, where you have a guy who is a “power-hitting lumbering 1B” or a “speedy outfielder with a good arm”, you just put together the pieces. Since I started with the Warriors and the Spurs, let’s take a look at their starting lineups, just to provide an example.

Warriors

Steph Curry – Leading Guard 2 (LG2)

Klay Thompson – Sniping Guard 2 (SG2)

Harrison Barnes – Corner Forward 2 (CF2)

Draymond Green – Gapper Wing 4 (GW4)

Andrew Bogut – Rolling Protector 6 (RP6)

Spurs

Tony Parker – Leading Guard 1 (LG1)

Danny Green – Sniping Wing 2 (SW2)

Kawhi Leonard – Balling Wing 3 (BW3)

LaMarcus Aldridge – Gapper Forward 5 (GF5)

Tim Duncan – Rolling Protector 5 (RP5)

Nice and tidy. Can even drop the number in most conversations, but I wanted the convention available down the road. Now let’s take a look at one more interesting one…

Bucks

Giannis Antetokounmpo – Driving Forward 4 (DF4)

Jerryd Bayless – Balling Guard 1 (BG1)

Khris Middleton – Sniping Wing 3 (SW3)

Jabari Parker – Gapper? Forward 3 (GF3)

Greg Monroe – Rolling Protector 5 (RP5)

Now, you may find yourself saying “Hmm, that looks a lot like a clogged toilet”. Congratulations, you just figured out why they were 26th in ORtg (bb-ref). The lineup doesn’t look any better when you start inserting other players – OJ Mayo, MCW, and Miles Plumlee were the other main starters. Obviously, talent plays a big role in how good a team is, but failing to have the proper pieces will make the whole much less than the sum of its parts. The Bucks were especially abysmal when Middleton was off the floor, and while I haven’t gone through every team recently, Middleton may have had the highest On/Off in the entire league this season.

CONCLUSION

Considering how much draft talk is centered on what position players will play at the next level, there is surprisingly little talk about what positions actually exist at the next level, and how rare it is to find players at any given positions. Of course, three point shooting is still important, and when at least 60% of the players on the floor have to be three point shooters, there should certainly be some favoritism showed to three point shooters. However, teams still employ 2-4 non-shooters in their rotation, and the quality and skillsets of those non-shooters is often just as key to success as having shooters, if not more. A player who can play multiple positions on offense or defense or who can provide a rebounding boost can be just as if not more valuable than a guy who can shoot but is limited in other parts of his game.

Quite frankly, I am sure some of the concepts here can be tightened up a little bit, improved a little bit, and I welcome all suggestions. However, the old positional paradigm simply did not support the positions of the modern NBA, and this hopefully provides a framework for myself and others to discuss the positions of prospects in the modern NBA without being tied to outdated and outmoded positional concepts.

3 responses... add one

I’d just like to say what an insightful well thought out site you have going here. In my opinion you are way ahead of the time in terms of looking at the game and seeing beyond the veil. After reading your articles i have seen some of my own thinking change and have started to see the game in a new way. Keep up the good work i really look forward to seeing you continue this website.

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