Put yourself in the shoes of an NBA player – any player – and imagine being faced with the following option: you can match up against a 7-foot, 270-pound behemoth, or defend a slightly more manageable 6-foot-9, 250-pound forward.No matter you’re size, the answer’s easy. Take the smaller guy.
That’s one of the reasons Kevin Garnett insisted he be listed at 6-foot-11 when he entered the league as a lanky high-schooler, despite measuring closer to 7-foot-1; it’s also why LaMarcus Aldridge and Amar’e Stoudemire keep reiterating they’re power forwards no matter how much time they spend at centre, and why Gerald Wallace shuddered at the thought of moving from small forward to power forward.
Of course, players are never given that option. Coaches decide who plays where. And as more coaches go with speedy, smaller lineups, players increasingly find themselves matching up with bigger opponents, much to their chagrin.
So, who’s got the right idea here? Should players hold steadfastly to their size-ordained positions, or have we entered, as Rob Mahoney suggested for the Times, a new era of amoebic NBA positions?
To find out, here’s a look at how a number of traditional power forwards (we looked for starters that are undoubtedly power forwards but see significant time at centre) have performed when they’re moved to centre, compared to how they play at their natural position:
(For the uninitiated, PER is a player efficiency rating, defined here, that sets the league average at 15.00. We subtracted the player in question’s PER from his defender’s PER to arrive at Net PER which shows how that individual player performed. The +/– numbers measure how much the team outscores its opponent by – per 48 minutes – in each scenario, and therefore provides a picture for how the team performed.)
As you can see, in eight of 12 cases, the player’s individual performance improved with his shift to centre, and in 10 of 12 cases the team’s performance improved. Only Al Horford and Serge Ibaka can reasonably be said hurt their team and themselves when they’re taken out of their comfort zone.
The reason for these numbers is pretty straight-forward. As basketball talent improves, deliberate seven-footers are being phased out of the game. In a less athletic era, their height and girth were difficult to contain; but in the Seven Seconds or Less era they’ve become liabilities, still huffing and puffing their way up the court while the rest of the team is halfway into its offensive set.
There are also more and more players on the brink of seven-feet that have the ball-handling skills of guards. Once upon a time, the Magic Johnsons and Larry Birds – 6-foot-9 players that thrived on the perimeter – were rarities. Even as recently as the mid-1990s when Grant Hill and Scottie Pippen manned the point forward position, such players were considered oddities. But now there’s a player with that size and skill combination on every roster. (The Sixers and Hawks, for example, have recently had trouble finding players that don’t fit the mould.) And teams gladly surrender an inch or two of height for substantial upgrades in basketball skill.
When teams push their power forwards to centre, they also benefit from a complementary roster change. They replace that prodding centre, with a skilled wing player who can spread the floor with three-point range, or a talented ball-handler that can put pressure on opposing defenses. Obviously, 6-foot-5 NBA-worthy talent is far easier to find than 7-foot roster material.
When that happens, some small forwards are forced into a power role. Here’s how they fare:
While the results aren’t as overwhelmingly positive for small forwards, once again, only two teams are clearly worse off when their starting small forward plays power forward. Like the aforementioned power forwards, these small forwards use their speed to their advantage, and help their teams’ overall play by opening a spot on the floor for another skilled, smaller player.
Obviously, in all these cases the coach matches up his players to maximise their performance. (The Knicks for one, traveled back in time and started Ronny Turiaf at centre, moved Stoudemire to power forward, and played Gallinari at small forward when they faced the lengthy Spurs lineup on Friday.) But the point remains: coaches are finding increasing utility in these adjusted lineups, no matter how much the players prefer their assumed positions.
So the evidence is in, and the coaches prevail. Traditional positions are no longer relevant in the NBA, and teams are better off playing smaller lineups. At least until some contrarian coach comes along and beats back the “need for speed” movement by building a roster featuring the twin-tower fantasy popularised in the 80s and 90s.
Otherwise known as Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, and the two-time defending world champion Los Angeles Lakers.
All stats come from the must-read 82games.com
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