Positional certainty has never been a luxury the Dallas Mavericks could afford during the Dirk Nowitzki era. Yet year after year, the team’s flaws are diagnosed according to the standards of a conventional lineup. Dallas needs a better center. A better shooting guard. A better point guard. Hell, anything that isn’t power forward. Dirk has been the one constant, and despite his unconventional and unique talents, the success of his team is ultimately measured by way of an antiquated tradition.
No longer. Or at least as minimally as possible in this space.
It may be naive to think that the mainstream basketball audience will soon abandon the five conventional positions, but that doesn’t mean those of us in this corner of the universe can’t strive to be better, smarter basketball fans. I’m ready to take a hop (more than a step, but well short of a leap) in the way we classify players. With that, I’ll cue Drew Cannon of Basketball Prospectus:
But what do you really need from a lineup?
On defense, you need to be able to guard your opponents. This means you have to be ready for speeds and heights of all kinds. You need to have a player capable of guarding each of the five traditional C-PF-SF-SG-PG positions. We’ll call the players capable of defending each position “D1” through “D5,” respectively, with speed/athleticism on the x-axis and height/strength on the y-axis:
And on offense what do you need to be successful? You need to be able to make shots (from the field or free throw line), avoid turnovers, and clean up the offensive glass–at the very least to the point where you aren’t handing over points by doing the opposite. This means that you need someone who can take care of the ball, someone who can put it in the basket, someone who can get the ball to that guy, and someone who can get the ball back when someone misses. We’ll call these four characters the Handler, the Scorer, the Creator, and the Rebounder.
Quick point. The Creator and the Handler have to be the same guy. Because you can’t have your Creator losing the ball all the time before he can feed your Scorers, and you can’t have your Handler with the ball all the time but unable to get it to the Scorers.
…It boils down to this: On defense, you have to be ready for whatever the offense throws at you. But on offense, you really just need to rebound and protect the ball enough to let your scorers go to work (or protect the ball just enough that your dominant rebounding can keep putting points on the board despite below-average scoring, etc.). Really, how you put points on the board is your business. The defense is just reacting.
This is more than just a quaint idea.
I’m sure Cannon’s model isn’t a perfect one, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s a start, and nothing more. Just as the traditional formula yielded point-forwards (or even point-centers…word up the the Antoine Walker experiment), combo guards, and other atypical cogs, I’m sure that this framework will allow for a few more offensive player designations yet. What matters is that we move away from a nondescript and misleading method of classifying players in favor of something — anything — that actually manages to advance basketball discourse.
To those still clinging to what they know, I’d ask this: what’s a power forward? What characteristics link Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan, Rashard Lewis, Lamar Odom, Reggie Evans, Tyrus Thomas, and J.J. Hickson? Not rebounding. Not scoring. Not skill set. Not height relative to their teammates. Not even the spaces they occupy on the floor. I’m at a total loss as to the criterion that would group that bunch together, which makes the assessment “Player X isn’t a real power forward” pretty much worthless. I think I know what it means, but without the ability to define the contemporary power forward, how could I really know for sure?
Conceptually, this is nothing new. Players like Dirk have been bending positional bounds for years, and the basic tenets of fluid positionality have been preached by a number of NBA scribes. Yet this system makes enough intuitive sense to work, and gives the thought a more practical and literal application.
If you’d like to join me on this little adventure, I’d love the company. If not, that’s fine, too. This post isn’t meant to convert, but primarily to do two things:
- Inform as to what the hell I’m talking about when I write that “Jason Kidd is a D2,” in the future.
- Bring the idea to the forefront. Even if you’re not ready to buy into an overhaul of positional classifications, I hope this at least gets you to think about what those classifications mean (or don’t mean).
This could be fun, but I’m going to need a lot of help. Here are the initial offensive and defensive positions for all of the current Mavs according to my own assessment, but they’re not infallible. Are there offensive profiles that aren’t represented? Is it fair to list Shawn Marion strictly as a rebounder? Or Jason Terry as a D2? Let me have it. Rip this idea to pieces. Tear it down so we can build it back up with stronger and smarter ideas, making our collective analysis that much better in the process.
Alexis Ajinca – D?, Large body
J.J. Barea – D1, Scorer-Creator/Handler
Rodrigue Beaubois – D1, Scorer
Caron Butler – D3/D2, Scorer
Tyson Chandler – D5, Rebounder
Brendan Haywood - D5, Rebounder
Dominique Jones – D2/D1, Scorer
Jason Kidd – D2/D1, Creator/Handler
Ian Mahinmi – D5/D4, Rebounder
Shawn Marion – D3/D2/D4, Rebounder
Dirk Nowitzki – D4, Scorer-Rebounder
DeShawn Stevenson – D2, Abe Lincoln tattoo
Jason Terry – D2 (I guess?), Scorer