Watch the Sky

Posted by Rob Mahoney on September 3, 2010 under Commentary | Be the First to Comment

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One of the more glaring problems with debates over positionality is that they take place so far beyond the court. The aspirations of those discussions are lofty, and as such, redefining position involves a lot of staring at clouds, supposing what shapes they might be.

That makes any way to bring that conversation just a little bit closer to Earth pretty invaluable.

Tom Haberstroh did just that with his latest post at Hardwood Paroxysm, in which he analyzed the intersection between traditional positions and shot location. Thanks to HoopData, Haberstroh was able to statistically ascertain the shot selection of a “typical” point guard, etc. Based on that data, he then determined which players fit those standards best, and which were the most divergent from their positional norms.

A quick look through a list of the latter reveals why the positional revolution should be near and dear to all Mavs fans. We know that Dirk Nowitzki is not normal. Not typical. Still, it means something to be able to make those sentiments a bit more concrete; to say that Dirk Nowitzki’s shot distribution makes him one of the five most deviant power forwards in the game today. To know that Shawn Marion’s shot selection puts him the farthest away from small forward normality. To recognize that Jason Kidd, despite living in a space reserved for the point guard ideal, is — and this is Haberstroh’s term, and one I’m eager to adopt — a positional contrarian.

It’s not easy to place where this kind of analysis fits into the bigger picture, but as is the case with everything anyone has done with positionality thus far, it’s a step. There are interesting conceptual issues here, but the ultimate hope is that work related to or even directly based on Haberstroh’s will eventually tether the positional revolution to the hardwood.

The New Confederates

Posted by Rob Mahoney on August 22, 2010 under Commentary | 3 Comments to Read

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As much as the positional revolution is a reflection of basketball progress and modernity, it also symbolizes something very basic and quite fundamental. Positionality is basketball’s existentialism, as looking into the nature of on-court roles is the closest the sport ever comes to pondering how the players as we know them have come to life. When a person steps onto a basketball court they become a player, and more specifically, a shooting guard. Or a center. Or a wing. Or a scorer/D2. They become something else and something more, and trying to understand that transition is a fascinating endeavor.

Fascinating enough, in fact, that the recent swell of discussion over positional freedom has sparked plenty of interesting writing in our little corner of the basketball world.

  • Last week, Jesse Blanchard of 48 Minutes of Hell honed in on the D1. After all, is any player in the league really capable of keying in on an opponent’s premier, quicker, point guard-type player? While I think the same could be said of the elites at every position, Blanchard’s point is well-taken, and his alternative system — which focuses on three different defensive styles (disrupt, deny, contain) — provides some delectable food for thought. Something to consider, though: Do Blanchard’s defensive positions really signify defensive function? Or are they merely stylistic descriptors? Does that even matter? Those classifications are a terrific exercise regardless, even if they aren’t best served as positions.
  • Matt Moore, writing at NBA FanHouse, chose to examine the revolution with Tyreke Evans as one of its foci: “An example? Tyreke Evans. Evans can attack the basket, snare rebounds, has terrific length and instincts defensively, and knows how to find his teammates (despite calls he’s a terrible passer, he averaged five assists his rookie campaign, with little to no weapons on the Kings). But because he’s tall and has better scoring ability than passing ability, he’s “not a point guard” which automatically makes him a shooting guard. Except he’s not a shooting guard. He’s best with the ball in his hands, setting up and creating within the offense. Hence our problem…So what’s so important about this discussion? At the scouting level, it means that players that could be very real assets for teams are either ignored or devalued based on their inability to fit our more traditional 1-5 positions. Unless they are super-freaks like LeBron James, we struggle with how to really implement them into systems (and even James has positional problems due to him consistently playing the small forward position, which has restrictions). From an evaluation standpoint, we assign negative values to players like Tyreke Evans, who are incredible stars, simply because they don’t fit our traditional model.”
  • Bethlehem Shoals took Moore’s take and ran with it, not only echoing the valuation of Tyreke Evans’ significance, but asserting that “point guards are the gateway to positional change.” The point guard designation carries with it the most specific and sacred responsibilities, so it’s no wonder that Shoals — and Blanchard, and Moore, and myself — see it as such an elemental part of a potential shift.
  • Kevin Arnovitz’s take, inspired by Kobe Bryant’s endorsement of positional evolution, preaches pragmatism. Not necessarily in the way that we talk about players or positions (in order to even engage in this discussion, your head needs to be at least brushing with the clouds), but in the way that a post-position (or at least post-traditional positions) world would need to function: “In short, pro basketball is ripe for a positional revolution — but like every revolution, those challenging the status quo must be ready to govern once they take control.”

Ay, there’s the rub. All of these scribes — and the many others who have tackled the revolution in the past and will hopefully continue to do so in the future — agree that we need a change, but what then? The point of our union is obvious, but moving from ideological consensus to actual implementation comes with a million hang-ups along the way. The easiest part of the transition is in the works: more and more people are beginning to understand and think about how terribly limiting traditional positions can be. From here on out? It gets exponentially more difficult. There are already numerous ideas for various positional frameworks (including the Scorer/Rebounder/Creator — DX system that will tentatively be utilized here), but determining their utility, viability, and all the while creating a system that is somehow new, informative, and accessible is no simple task. Yet as a collective of thinking fans, it’s our task.

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Lost? Start here, turn left there, and make a slight right here. Keep going.

Looking Outward

Posted by Rob Mahoney on August 19, 2010 under Commentary | 3 Comments to Read

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Basketball positions are the names by which we call any player. Just as a rose by any other name would swell as sweet, a lanky 7-foot German would shoot as sweet by any other positional designation. They’re terms and notations that matter to others, but should hardly matter much to the players themselves. After all, it shouldn’t matter much to Chris Paul what position someone thinks he plays, as long as he’s busy doing what Chris Paul does: dominating basketball games.

Then again, it’s foolish to ignore just how loaded positional terminology can and has become. Part of the reason why re-defining positions is so alluring in the first place is the ability to clear the air of positional expectation. ‘Point guard,’ carries with it an arbitrary set of expected, predefined abilities, and our (our meaning the collective who creates, consumes, and reflects on the sport in just about any capacity) willingness to malign players who don’t color within the lines of those designations is nonsensical.

For those who have followed along through the first two posts, this line of thinking is nothing new. However, the weight of positional expectation adds another interesting party to these discussions: the players themselves. While positions shouldn’t theoretically matter to the players, the fact that their position is so often used as an evaluative criterion gives them reason enough to be interested. I’m not saying that Jason Terry is going to stop by the comment section for a chat, but the opinions of the players have a place in this process, and it’s a mishmash of perspectives that’s hard to encapsulate.

That said, one NBAer has emerged, serving as a temporary spokesperson. From Dime Magazine (via Matt Moore of FanHouse):

Kobe Bryant has seen the future, and it is … him. Or something close to him. Speaking to the media during his World Basketball Festival appearance at Harlem’s Rucker Park last weekend, Kobe said the influence of international players in the NBA has helped create a “hybrid” culture, where players of all sizes possess skills in all areas and can conceivably play any position on the floor.

“That’s the one difference I’d like to see us kind of shift to,” Kobe said.

Bryant’s vision of a world with positional nebulousness is nice. Beautiful, in fact. A universe where all ballers can play in perfect harmony, stand as equals, and worry not over the endless criticism regarding their positional performance. That’s the endgame of all of this, and the fact that Kobe sees it too is a positive sign. Positions as we know them aren’t quite dead, but when one of the league’s pillars decrees them unworthy from atop his ring-and-trophy-adorned tower, people would be wise to listen.

Bryant is far from infallible, but he’s one of the sport’s more active scholars. He knows where this game has been and where it’s headed, and he has an intimate look into the eye (or rather, an eye) of the storm, to boot. From Pau Gasol to Derek Fisher, Shannon Brown to Ron Artest, and Lamar Odom to Kobe himself, the Lakers have a lot of versatile talent that evades convention. The entire league has a lot of versatile talent that evades convention, and that’s something both you, I, and Kobe can agree on.

Revisions, Pt. I

Posted by Rob Mahoney on August 10, 2010 under Commentary | 27 Comments to Read

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Last week’s foray into the positional revolution was a good start, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. As I noted previously, Drew Cannon’s positional system isn’t coming out of the internet womb fully-formed; a lot of adjustments and tweaks are necessary for the model to become viable. Still, Cannon’s design offers a welcome starting point for both discourse regarding positional fluidity and, hopefully, some eventual long-term change in the way we think about and define positions.

There is no end to this process. Even if we successfully shed the five traditional positions in favor of some other system, players and their roles will continue to evolve. It’s critical that we’re constantly challenging the limits of positionality to match with the on-court product. Note that those limits aren’t being tested without reason. It’s important that positional rhetoric remains descriptivist in nature. We’re not saying “this is the way that position X should play,” but rather “this is the way that position X does play.”

With those things in mind, any model proposed here needs to be poked and prodded. Finding the leaks is an important step in the process. I’ll be the first to concede that no positional model will ever be perfect, but tinkering with the system’s imperfections is the the path that will bring us all closer to that flawless standard.

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Thus far, Cannon’s defensive positions seem to be the source of the most controversy. While there is some confusion over what Cannon’s designations do and should mean, the most glaring problem was captured perfectly by Tom Ziller:

The problem with the way this new development is framed is that it still relies on demonstrably imprecise labels. If Rodrigue Beaubois is a “D1″ — meaning he guards point guards despite often playing shooting guard next to Jason Kidd or J.J. Barea — then you’re assuming there are “1s” for him to guard, which is just the type of assumption the Positional Revolution aims to destroy.

The point of a new nomenclature is to do a better job describing what players actually do, and do well. If “1s” no longer exist, in favor of the Cannon/Mahoney use of “scorer” or “creator” for offensive roles, what does a “D1″ do? And is that by necessity (due to size or athleticism) or ability? Is calling Beaubois a “D1 Scorer” any different from calling him a “guard”? A more useful classification might be something like “DPick-and-RollA+” or “DPostC-”.

In their original context, defensive designations like D1, etc. are actually very counterproductive. If the hope is to move away from traditional positions, it makes little sense to lean so heavily on them.

Yet Ziller’s suggested variant, while useful, is both highly subjective and goes well beyond what position is thought to bring to the NBA discussion. There are some skill valuations inherent to positional delineation, but in my eyes (and this point is certainly up for debate), it’s important that positions describe and group without necessarily assessing how well a certain player executes their role. Those types of appraisals require far more nuance, and using them to define players via position sacrifices the accessibility of those classifications.

In addition, the wide variety of defensive abilities each NBA player is asked to display makes it difficult to pin down a primary role via skill set. For purposes of convenience, the defensive positions should be as short as possible, so saying that Dwight Howard is a “DPick-and-RollB+/DPostA/DHelpA+/DHelpPostB/DRebounderA+,” while descriptive, is probably a bit silly. Yet, if we’re going to classify players by their skill (and skill level, in this scenario), Howard’s post defense is no more important than any of those other facets. How would one accurately and succinctly convey all of that information in a usable (and more importantly, re-usable) manner?

I think the key is to step away from skill descriptors, particularly at such depth. While it makes sense to describe a player’s offensive role as a “scorer” or “rebounder,” defense functions much differently. A player’s defensive position (not utility, position) hinges on, again, not how well a player defends, but what purpose they serve. Or, for simplicity’s sake, what types of players they’re able to defend.

Who a given player is able to defend certainly ties into the respective skills of both the defender and their offensive counterpart. At a more basic level though, a player’s defensive range is determined by the various heights and speeds he’s able to counter. I’m not talking about the height and speed of the defender, but rather, the ranges of those two variables that a defender is physically able to contest.

Thus, I offer the following modification of Cannon’s defensive positions:

New Positionality Redux

We’ll use the original D1, D2, D3, etc. designations, but with each describing a certain range of relative size and speed. D1 no longer represents a player’s ability to defend point guards per se, but their ability to defend shorter, quicker opponents. Likewise, a D5 would indicate one’s ability to defend bigger, slower players, regardless of one’s own size and speed (Chuck Hayes, for example, is 6’6”, but would be a D5 because of his ability to guard taller, stronger players).

A few notes:

  • With this system, we eliminate the idea that there are 1s or 2s to guard, and instead simply assume that there will be players of different sizes on the court. Someone will need to guard them. Teams don’t have to match small with small, but they do need to match a small opponent with a D1 (even if that D1 would be a shooting guard or small forward by most conventional standards).
  • It’s important that the boundaries between the size/speed of D1 vs. D2, D2 vs. D3, etc. are nonspecific. This is not meant to be measurable, as creating the necessary framework would involve drawing far too many arbitrary brightlines.
  • Positions are meant to be convenient. As such, we really do need to sacrifice some depth for the sake of easier use and better understanding. The point isn’t to create some undecipherable code that no other NBA fans can solve, but to create a relatively uniform system that’s a bit more descriptive and accurate than the current one.
  • These positions are different from traditional ones, particularly because they account for defensive versatility and cross-matching. For a basic example, let’s take Rodrigue Beaubois. He may start at shooting guard this year, but in the Allen Iverson mold, will mostly be cross-matched on opposing point guards. So from a positional standpoint, it makes far more sense to call him a “Scorer, Creator/Handler, D1″ than it does a shooting guard. It gives us a bit of insight into what kind of players Beaubois will be guarding, as well as his offensive responsibilities.
  • For a more complicated example, look at LeBron James. He’ll be listed as a small forward, but we know his offensive role is more far-reaching than the limits of a traditional wing. Additionally, LeBron has become such a useful defender that he can guard all kinds of positions. Thanks to his incredible combination or size, speed, and strength, one could make a legitimate argument that James is actually one of the few players capable of defending all five traditional positions. His ‘SF’ label has never done him justice on offense, and now it’s just as constricting defensively.
  • There’s still something to be said about how a player defends that’s completely unaccounted for. It’s distinct enough from the question of ‘How well?’ that it could technically be incorporated, but I see no simple way to incorporate it. Something to put on the wish list, for sure, but at this stage those distinctions seem a bit too complex.
  • Another concern is addressing players who can’t really defend anybody. Regardless of where we put the bounds of a positional system, there are going to be exceptions. There will always be someone who doesn’t fit neatly into the given categories. Tentatively, these players will be addressed as ‘D0,’ but it’s certainly an idea worth revisiting.
  • Please, leave questions and concerns over this system or propositions for other defensive positional models in the comments. Feedback is a crucial part of this process, and every reader is an invaluable part of the refinement of this system.

Special thanks to M. Haubs, Matt Moore, and Zach Harper for spiritual guidance.

Back to Square Zero

Posted by Rob Mahoney on August 5, 2010 under Commentary | 63 Comments to Read

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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:

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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:

  1. Inform as to what the hell I’m talking about when I write that “Jason Kidd is a D2,” in the future.
  2. 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