Basketball Nomenclature: Reassessing Positions in a Positionless League
Isaac: In the past ten years, it has become increasingly evident that positions in the NBA are not as cut and dry as they were originally intended to be. There are far more than five different styles of play, and the lines between what is a point guard or shooting guard, or small forward or power forward, are blurrier than ever. Jalen Rose has long been on record arguing positions are a method to provide basic understanding for newfound fans, but don’t mean much beyond that.
The conversation was reignited in my mind on recent episode of The Ringer NBA Show’s The Mismatch. At the end of the episode, Chris Vernon and Kevin O’Connor answered mailbag questions, including suggesting a new archetypal name for Mikal Bridges. This was brought up due to KOC’s recent video on Bridges, in which the third year player laments the overly simplistic nature of the term 3&D.
A listener writing in suggested the term 3D, for a player of Bridges’ mould. One who is able to shoot, defend, and cut and slash into space. KOC took to the term, applauding its succinct explanation of the ideal off-ball player Bridges is becoming. Vernon shrugged off the question, positing that at a certain point, we can just call good players good players.
Regardless of any feeling on the subject, it’s undeniable that, as the sport has evolved, new terminology has slowly trickled its way into the NBA zeitgeist. Terms like point forward, rim protector, 3&D, are all well-known, concise terms for a certain type of player. Naturally, these terms still fail to paint a complete picture — almost no two players are exactly alike — but they help us to understand the value of a certain player in a certain role. A team that’s in the market for a ‘big man’ doesn’t remotely capture their needs. Rudy Gobert and Clint Capela are two valuable rim protectors, but you would never want both of them playing together. Nikola Vucevic and John Collins are two fantastically gifted offensive big men, but you would never survive past the first round if they were your starting 4 and 5.
I understand where Verno is coming from; it can become complicated if we try and slap a unique term to every player. However, the archetypes I mentioned above, along with many others — rim runner, slasher, waterbug point guard, etc. — have organically penetrated the sport, evolving from slang to more formalized terminology. They help fans that study the game to quickly grasp the utility of a player, whether coming out of the draft, from an incoming trade, or extrapolating a development curve.
Saying that a young player has Nikola Jokic tendencies will cause draftniks to roll their eyes. There is only one Nikola Jokic. And what part of his game? His water polo passing? His three point shooting that open up his dribble drives? His Boris Diaw-esque slithering, stumbling post moves? Arguing that a player fits into a certain archetypal style that Jokic shares is a far more understandable way of communicating these comparisons.
Seerat Sohi of Yahoo Sports published an excellent article last month, examining how NBA franchises are finding market inefficiencies in players able to fit into the role Draymond Green has been able to carve out with the Warriors since his ascension in 2014. She termed these players ‘undersized bruisers’: players such as the Celtics’ Grant Williams, Luguentz Dort in Oklahoma City, and Green’s Golden State teammate Eric Paschall.
As much as teams might subconsciously be browsing draft boards for players of Draymond’s ilk, there isn’t a term in common usage that a scout might be able to use to why he thinks a prospect might provide some undervalued impact. Superficial as they may be, these terms still hold some truth, and can therefore have practical value, even when used pejoratively.
With all this in mind, we wanted to try and dream up a few names for basketball archetypes that might be useful if they were able to become widespread. Even in the unlikely event that every one of our newfangled terms fall short of that benchmark, I hope it at least gets people thinking about what makes an NBA player impactful in his role.
We’ll start with a role everyone is familiar with:
Modern examples: LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Ben Simmons, Zion Williamson, Pascal Siakam, Russell Westbrook, Zach LaVine
Historical examples: Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Scottie Pippen, Magic Johnson, Dwyane Wade, Clyde Drexler
NOT: Steph Curry or Kemba Walker; Steven Adams or Domantas Sabonis
There are many labels that go unrecognized under the umbrella of athleticism, but when it comes to labelling Transition Finishers, verticality and speed are critical. Calling someone athletic is not precise enough. Chris Boucher and Patrick Beverley are athletic, but don’t generate buckets off of misses like these players do.
Although we’ve seen many Transition Finishers over the years be stymied in the playoffs through a strong gameplan, they are hugely important floor raisers, comparable to an innings-eating starter in baseball. Scoring easy points and sparing an offense a grindy, half court possession pays dividends physically and mentally.
Transition Finishers are easy to spot at a young age, and their skills remain valuable for a reason. The athleticism that makes them so potent on the fast break can correlate to deflections and turnovers. They probably go underappreciated, as the finishers of the magnitude mentioned above possess not just raw athleticism in the vein of a Derrick Jones Jr. or Marquess Chriss. No, it requires blending those God-given genes with full speed ball handling, and a masters degree in body manipulation, for both driving and dishing. Running downhill only goes so far; you have to fake defenders with leans and lookaways, making quick decisions to instantly derive the most efficient shot at your disposal. That is why rim runners and 3&D wings don’t fit the- mould — they don’t have all these clubs in their bag.
Modern examples: Fred VanVleet, Tyrese Haliburton, Malcolm Brogdon, Tyler Herro, Devin Booker
Historical examples: Reggie Miller, early-career Ray Allen, Michael Jordan
NOT: Danny Green or JJ Redick; Avery Bradley or Andre Roberson; Rajon Rondo or Kemba Walker; Allen Iverson or Jamal Crawford
Chris: As basketball became more reliant on shooting and spacing in the 2000s, the responsibility handed to guards skyrocketed. Combo guard became a borderline derogatory term. It became shorthand for a shooting guard in a point guard’s body; an undersized player who could score, but couldn’t sufficiently create for teammates. If you were a team with one of these players as your star, you would be forced to sacrifice size in order to have passable playmaking, like the 76ers did starting Eric Snow next to Allen Iverson.
The 1-Point-5 is the opposite — a point guard in a shooting guard’s body. Historically, a prototypical average shooting guard looks a lot like a Norm Powell, Donte DiVincenzo, or Tim Hardaway Jr; a player who can shoot/score but also create or defend (and preferably all three).
Nowadays, we’re seeing players that can excel off ball — thereby raising their team’s ceiling — while also being excellent with the ball. Players able to provide off ball value are still massively underrated in the eyes of fans. The 1-Point-5 has that ability, while still leading the charge of an offense if need be. Sometimes these players will still cost their team some size, like with the Raptors’ starting backcourt of Lowry and VanVleet, but having two players that can shoot, pass, and defend at a high level make that tradeoff far more palatable.
It’s also possible that this emerging archetype represents the new normal for NBA players. In the same way that relatively unskilled big men are increasingly being pushed out for those who can shoot and/or defend in space, we could be seeing the early signs of what the evolution of the guard position will look like. But until size, scoring, and skill becomes the norm, these players should be highly prized.
Modern examples: Brandon Ingram, Tobias Harris, Khris Middleton, Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown
Historical examples: Chris Mullin, Detlef Schrempf, Andre Iguodala
NOT: Grant Hill or Ben Simmons; Kevin Durant or Tracy McGrady; Chris Webber or Kevin Garnett
The more things change, the more they stay the same. This article is ostensibly about reinventing the positional paradigm, but in this case, the new looks a lot like the old. For the last 15 years or so, what we typically think of as the small forward position has dominated the upper echelon of the NBA. From LeBron James to Kevin Durant to Paul George to Kawhi Leonard to Giannis, these players were usually elite scorers with at least one other top-shelf skill (usually playmaking or defense) that turned them from great players into forces of nature. Those players are still one of a kind, but a new back-to-basics breed of wing player has risen up alongside them.
This archetype is also unique in our list in that it’s the only one that connotes quality of player as well as playstyle. You can have a transcendentally great player who’s a 1-Point-5; a transcendentally great Wing Creator just becomes one of those next-level players mentioned above. Instead, the Wing Creator personifies the versatility of the small forward position as originally conceived. These players are three-level scorers, and are often elite 3-point shooters. They are high-quality but unflashy playmakers, able to make the extra pass on a perimeter swing or a dribble drive, even if they lack the wherewithal to act as a primary shot creator. Many, though not all, are great defenders.
These players are, in essence, the ultimate safety valve. If you’re a team with championship aspirations, these aren’t the kind of players you want as your best scorers, shooters, playmakers, etc. — but they are absolutely players you want. They might not be good enough to win you a series on their own, but they might win you a game. If your superstar is getting doubled, they’ll capitalize on that alleviated pressure to create buckets for themselves and others. Their stats might fluctuate from game to game, but they consistently contribute to winning basketball.
The biggest change in the modern NBA is that this type of player is increasingly occupying the power forward spot in lineups. Some teams, like the Celtics before Hayward’s departure, simply cram as many of this type of player as they can into a single lineup, hoping that a gaggle of #2s can replicate a #1. It only takes you so far; without a primary shot creator, this kind of player can fizzle and become invisible in important games, especially when their shot isn’t falling. But if you can pair them with a superstar, or even a star who creates their own looks (e.g. Jimmy Butler), they can be game-changers, even if they’re not the ones hitting game-winners.
Modern examples: Anthony Davis, Christian Wood, John Collins, Chris Boucher
Historical examples: Bill Laimbeer, Tom Chambers, Shawn Kemp
NOT: Nikola Jokic or Bill Walton; LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo; Davis Bertans or Brook Lopez
Earlier in this article, we alluded to the idea that the 1-Point-Five archetype might represent the natural evolution of the shooting guard position. If we take that thesis at face value, then the Two-Dribble Big is the natural evolution of the stretch 4. The concept of a big man with the skill to play on the perimeter caught on like wildfire a decade ago, transforming NBA offenses into the 3-bombing, uber-spaced flamethrowers they are today. It’s sacrilegious to run two non-shooting big men these days But in many cases, the stretch 4 had serious drawbacks that could punish the teams that threw themselves too vigorously into the offensive revolution; after all, if they could play like a prototypical power forward and shoot the deep ball, they would be stars. Some teams — like Miami with LeBron James and Chris Bosh, and Golden State with Draymond Green — did have those stars, and deployed them to great effect. But more often, a team that ran a stretch 4 was making a concession: with size, with defense, or with post play.
The Two-Dribble Big is an emerging class of player that dares to ask: what if a shooter was good at other things? He isn’t a true do-it-all big in the vein of Jokic or Sabonis (an archetype we’ve dubbed the High Post Triple-Threat), and he lacks the ballhandling ability to be a perimeter threat in his own right. But, as the name suggests, this player is capable of more than a single dribble move on his path to the basket. He plays more on the interior than the perimeter, doing traditional big man things — scoring from the post, rebounding, operating in the pick and roll — but can also put the ball on the floor from a high post position, and shoot from outside, if a play calls for such a task.
A subsidiary of the Two-Dribble Big is the Short Roller. Remember, good players can fall under multiple archetypes; skill diversity is what makes them stars. The pick and roll, even more than the 3-point shot, is perhaps the most valuable weapon in a modern NBA offense’s arsenal. As its uses continue to evolve, defenses evolve in reaction, back and forth ad infinitum. A critical skill for big men to develop nowadays is the short roll pass. It requires receiving the ball on the roll and once the opposing centre covers the lane, dropping off to the cutter, or dishing to the corner for the now open man on the weak side. Wood, Collins, and Boucher, have all developed these skills.
While much was made of the death of the big man in the last several years, the Two-Dribble Big is indicative of the tremendous value bigs provide on the offensive end. Anthony Davis dominated last season with a multi-dimensional game, unlocking his full potential as a superstar once the responsibilities of playmaking and ballhandling were off of his shoulders. While players that can create their own shoot will always be prized, the Two-Dribble Big showcases what a big man can do without having to possess every trick in the book.
Modern examples: Mikal Bridges, Miles Bridges, OG Anunoby, Pat Connaughton, Kelly Oubre Jr., Otto Porter Jr., Will Barton
Historical examples: Dale Ellis, Jeff Hornacek, Eddie Jones
NOT: Khris Middleton; PJ Tucker; Jae Crowder
Isaac: It might excessive to attempt to tweak the term that inspired this thought exercise, but we’re here to try nonetheless. I like the concept of “3D”, with 3&D developing into a reductive term for versatile players. Yet it still feels a hair too ambiguous. A 3DS player extends the acronym, evoking a player like Mikal Bridges, whose slashing offers more to an offense than a Khris Middleton-type (not that those guys don’t offer other fabulous skills).
The NBA’s harshest critics continue to express apprehension over player homogenization. 3DS players indicate the continued evolution the chess match that is the pick-and-roll. It’s unrealistic to expect every 3&D player to develop ball handling skills, or high post passing skills; the logical next steps into Wing Creators. Every player with decent IQ and athleticism can become a serviceable slasher. Whether it’s moving into open space on back door cuts, leading scrambling defenders into screens, or bailing out a teammate’s failed drive, 3DS players provide off ball value — creating something out of nothing while simultaneously lacking traditional shot creation skills.
Archetypal terminology has slowly become commonplace in basketball culture, but as helpful as this level of vernacular has become, it is still lacking. There are numerous NBA player archetypes that remain unnamed, and by proxy often remain undervalued. The inability to identify a player’s strengths is commensurate with the inability to use those strengths correctly. Moreover, the more accessible a sport is to understand, the more it will grow. Being able to quickly illustrate player archetypes allows for quicker learning and development — descriptive nomenclature has that much power.