Guards, Wings, And Bigs, Oh My! Evaluating Eras of Positional Dominance in the NBA And Figuring Out What And When The New Era Begins
The NBA as it stands right now is very dominated by guard play. From James Harden to Russell Westbrook to Stephen Curry, the era of little dudes is upon us, and has been for the last few years.
Much like when I did when Nelly dropped the line “Like a blind man reading, I’m feelin’ it,” I wondered: Is this okay? How do I react to this?
Do we like the dominance of guards now? Do we want big guys running the league, like they have for 62% of the league’s history? (More on this later.) Whatever your opinion on the matter, you might have at some time or another wondered what the next phase of the NBA is going to look like, or when it’s going to happen. Will the future be controlled by a switchy, super skilled crop of wings that posses the best of what both guards and bigs have to offer? Or will it be the unicorny bigs, who can play on the perimeter and in the paint, with obvious physical advantages over other players.
Guards, Wings, Bigs. That, more than PG, SG, SF, PF, C, is the most best and most relevant way to break it down, to relate eras of dominance to the modern game. Besides, that’s how Brad Stevens sees it. If I’ve learned anything by now, it’s that you should never bet against Stevens. He’s so good it’s made my Celtics takes downright embarrassing.
I’ll start with something small, then branch out.
Here’s 2015's top 10 performers under-25 with 1–5 years of experience (I know it seems like hyper-specific guidelines, but it’s really just a way to gauge both young and new talent, filtering out old new players like Joe Ingles now, or established young players like Kevin Durant back then. We want to find the new direction) This is using NBAmath.com’s TPA, or True Points Added, a personal favorite catch-all stat:
Here’s the 2018 top 10 of the same guidelines:
No one’s saying these will be the best players in the future. Greg Monroe was 11th in 2013, Embiid 11th now. Batum, Parsons, and Danny Green now all fall in the range from great role player to, well, Chandler Parsons (sorry, I know he’s had injury problems. I should probably cut him some slack). Otto Porter and Kyle Anderson are both good, but neither really inspire praise as “The future of basketball.”
Anyway, the Guard-Wing-Big breakdown in 2013 under those restrictions looks pretty similar to how it is now. If we look at the 2018 breakdown, it does suggest an era of wings and/or bigs could overtake the guard monopoly. It’s a bit skewed — Bigs are the players who have the easiest time adapting to the NBA, then wings, with guards needing a few more years to reach their full potential. Still, looking through these keyholes, we can see a shift away from guards.
But you shouldn’t seriously think that two years, twenty players is enough to make a conclusion about the future of the NBA. Come on now.
One pitfall of doing this is that often not large difference between 10th and 11th best player, but taking into account general trends throughout history, and wanting to set a consistent baseline for dominance, it seems okay. 10 is a safe number. It’s large enough to seem inclusive, small enough to be approachable. It’s why we have so many top-10 lists. It gives us just enough. It seemed like the best way to approach this project. Since 1952, when the data begins, who are the top 10 players in the league each year? More importantly (to this, at least) what position do they play?
For each year, I broke down the top 10 by position, and weighted it by TPA. For instance, here’s what the 2017–18 season looked like:
It was then sorted by percent (for instance, the 2018 top 10 was 51.6% guard, 23.6% wing, 24.8% big) to control for differences in parity (some years the total top-10 TPA was a bit more than others due to a slightly higher concentration of talent towards the top of the league) or lockout years, or whatever else it might be (the 1950’s featured some impressively low TPAs, especially in the two years preceding the shot clock). I also made the data a 3 year rolling average to get rid of some of the noise caused when looking year-to year.
As you can tell, for the majority of the NBA’s 66-year history, big men have been on top. Right now, it’s the guards. But for how long? If we look at the teams on top, we can find roughly 6 eras of basketball.
There are a few things we can do to estimate the when. One way is to simply take the average of how long each era lasts. That gets us at a new era every 12.2 years. But the first 28 years are quite the outlier. A lot of that has to do with it being the formative years of the league, when being taller than everyone was the single biggest advantage someone could have. Getting rid of the outlier and emphasizing recency, it’s 8.25 years. Even then, the 15-year period from 1991 to 2006 could theoretically be broken up into two eras of dominance: before and after Michael Jordan’s first retirement. In 1996, guards and bigs essentially overlap and seemingly create two separate eras. Still, bigs dominate. If it was separated into two eras, the number would be 6.6. Taking all of these factors into account, it seems fair to estimate a new era once every 7–8 years. We can also look at the amount of separation between the three position groups throughout history — in essence, how much parity of position is there in regards to league dominance?
Here, there are 8 eras between 1952 and 2013 (52–58, 58–73, 73–81, 81–87, 87–91, 91–96, 96–03, 03–13), with one coming every 7.625 years. Again, around 7 or 8 years seems to be a decent estimate. Even when the separation seems to be rocketing up, like it is now. The two to three times the separation has gone up by that much, it’s shot back down at least halfway, with the rise lasting about as long as the fall did. This era began in 2013, it’s possible it peaked in 2017. Even when it looks like it’s going to last, it’s likely to go back down, as quickly and surely as it rose. Another contributor to eras are rule changes.
Rule changes or structure of the league changes often lead to era shifts, or at least go alongside them (The merger, for example, brought a faster pace to the NBA, the prime example being Julius Erving).
There’s no easy rule to point to that could bring with it a new era, and it’s not always what brings a new era. Based on the evidence presented so far, it’s safe to say that a new era of positional dominance will begin 7–8 years from when the last one started. That was 2013.
Summary: The new era will most likely begin around 2020 or 2021.
That’s only half of it. Are wings up next? Or are bigs?
Let’s go back to the rules. Many of them have been to curtail the physical advantages of big men. It will be interesting to see if the league will make any large shifts that hinder guards. There haven’t been any clear ones yet, though there perhaps getting rid of the one-and-done rule will launch even less-prepared guards into the league, needing even more time to develop. It could possibly have to do with the more spread-out schedules established in the 2017–18 season, giving more injury-prone big men more time to heal and thus more time to dominate. Maybe it’ll be something else. Perhaps the rules won’t affect it in any way. This increases the argument that the likelihood of a guard drop off is possible, if not definitive.
If we’re looking at historical trends and we see that rules often need to be created to stop big men, perhaps it suggests big men are up next.
When looking back to the table, we can see that the 3rd most dominant position often replaces the 2nd most dominant, the 2nd most dominant often replaces 1st place, and the 1st place teams often falls to last, like a shepard tone of positions. This would suggest that wings are the next group up.
However, if we look at the top 10 under 25 under 5 from the past 3 years (I know, it’s a lot) the breakdown is 55% big, 33% wing, 12% guard, an almost direct inverse of the current breakdown. Out of all position groups, bigs are, as I have said, the quickest to adjust to the NBA. So if I were to take a very educated guess, based on all the information I’ve provided, I would say: