In last season's NBA Finals, LeBron James unleashed a post game he'd been quietly demonstrating all season. The Oklahoma City Thunder couldn't find a way to stop him. It's often been mentioned that LeBron is the size of Karl Malone, but with the athleticism of a guard. Critics of LeBron had lamented his lack of a post game, and then failed to recognize when LeBron became more comfortable venturing to the post. The Finals were the showcase. And, same as any time a player embraces a different position, the cries of a positional revolution were heard once more.
On the opposite side of the country, Tyreke Evans had just completed his worst season as a member of the Sacramento Kings. Tyreke's "natural position" has long been a subject of debate. We argued endlessly against the "Tyreke is not a point guard" rhetoric, even though now it seems more valid than ever. The Kings organization, particularly Paul Westphal but others as well, have long touted that Tyreke is not a point guard or a shooting guard or a small forward, but simply a basketball player. A player without a defined position. This season has begun with Tyreke manning the shooting guard position. Comments are that this seems like a much more natural fit for his skills.
Across the country there are players who exemplify arguments for or against the so-called positional revolution. Think Carmelo Anthony's seemingly perfect fit as a power forward, and his steadfast refusal to embrace the role because his "natural position" is small forward. And yet, with Amare Stoudamire out with an injury, Carmelo has thrived there once again. Look at Dwyane Wade, who entered the league listed as a point guard but has proven to be a better fit at shooting guard despite an unreliably jump shot. Look at the Kings and their attempts to shoehorn everyone from Francisco Garcia and John Salmons (better suited as shooting guards) to Jason Thompson (a power forward who can shift to center) and Thomas Robinson as the answer at the small forward spot. For every player who seems to thrive as they embrace a new position, there's a counterpart who was unable to make such a transition.
The so-called positional revolution gets touted as the future of the NBA, but in reality it's a callback to the past. When Dr. James Naismith invented the game of basketball, there was no rule stating that the players on the court had to be assigned one of five designations. Defined positions emerged based on the early history of the game, but along the way we lost sight of what those designations were meant to encapsulate. We decided that the point guard meant passing. We decided that centers had to be 6'10" or taller. We decided that small forwards and shooting guards had to be able to spread the floor by being three point shooters, which is particularly fun considering the three point line was introduced long after the initial concept of a small forward or a shooting guard came to be. When we experience a "positional revolution", it simply means that players have found a way yo succeed outside of the traditional role assigned to them.
The five positions are meant to define various skill sets. When the game was first introduced, certain characteristics were inherently valuable. A tall guy who could block shots and grab rebounds was valuable. As was a guy who could dribble well. Same for a guy who could shoot well. These are the basic tenets of the game. From these simple ideas grew positional designations. Designations that have become distorted and altered from their original purpose. Players now must fit into a specific box. I'm guilty of this as well. It's easier to categorize a player by a position rather than delve into every specific skill the player possesses or excels at. I can call a player a "pure point guard" and you'll infer that he handles the ball well, passes well, gets lots of assists, turns the ball over rarely, and that he isn't the team's primary scorer. Because that's what "pure point guard" has come to represent in our minds.
The original idea of those positions was that a team needed a variety of skill sets to succeed. It's the flaw in the theory of just putting your five best players on the floor regardless of what you call them. It's the false assumption that because something works for one team it will work for all teams, despite lacking key ingredients.
Miami has found a way to succeed without a traditional center. But what does that mean? It means they've found a way to succeed without a big guy in the middle to block shots and rebound. But Miami can pull this off simply because they have the personnel to fill in those attributes. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are excellent shot blockers, particularly compared to their peers at their designated positions. Similarly, both players are exceptional rebounders for their positions. When we stop to think about it, it's overly simple. It isn't about positions, it's about the skills you need to have on the floor.
It's the same reason the Kings have struggled to fill the small forward spot. Every player they've attempted to slot into the small forward role replicates the contributions of other members of the roster. Tyreke didn't work at the three because he duplicated what Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Thornton were bringing to floor, and he didn't fill in the gaps in the roster. This isn't meant as a knock against any of these players, this is more about coaching and knowing how to use player skill sets. But it's why James Johnson makes so much sense at small forward for this roster. In Toronto, Johnson's poor shooting limited his value to the team. The Raptors needed him to be able to score. The Kings, meanwhile, have a plethora of high-usage scorers. His lack of shooting isn't nearly as big of a concern, as long as he understands not to shoot excessively. This has obviously been an issue early this season, but he can be a good fit if he understands and accepts what the team needs from him.
Similarly, the Kings are often cited as lacking a true point guard. Isaiah Thomas doesn't dish out an impressive volume of assists. Aaron Brooks and Jimmer Fredette are both scorers who play point guard primarily because of their size. But the Kings have the skill set on the roster to overcome this, if the players are used correctly. Use Chuck Hayes and his passing skill set. Use DeMarcus Cousins, who despite his early season unwillingness to pass is quite a gifted passer. It can work. We can confirm this looking no further than out own team's history. Mike Bibby never averaged more than 7 assist per game in Sacramento, but the team was able to succeed.
Sacramento highlights both the bright spots and the pitfalls of the alleged positional revolution. Can you succeed without a "traditional" point guard, or a "traditional" center or wing? You can. It's not in dispute. But you must still have all the requisite skill sets. Unless the overall talent on a team is transcendent, simply putting a team's best five players on the floor isn't enough.