NBA / Aug 17, 2010 / 11:00 am

Basketball Without Borders: The NBA’s future has no positions

Kobe Bryant

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 conceiveably play any position on the floor.

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

This vision of five basketball players, devoid of traditional positional constraints, passing and cutting and posting and shooting and dribbling with equal aplomb, is near. The concept of players assuming a definite position on the floor and sticking to that role is fading away like one of Kobe’s jumpers, as a new age of hyrbids begin to take over the game.

And while the soon-to-be 32-year-old Bryant is among the closest representations to his own ideal (6-6 shooting guard who led his team in assists and has one of the most effective post-up games in the League), he also could have been describing LeBron James (6-8 with point guard skills), Kevin Durant, or a number of other younger stars.

Take a look at Durant. The 21-year-old stands 6-10, and in three years as a pro has played almost every position on the floor already. As a rookie he played two-guard and averaged 20 points per game. He has since moved to small forward, his more “natural” position, but then this summer with Team USA has played mostly power forward. And last week, as I watched Durant in a invitation-only scrimmage against China and an exhibition match against France at sold-out Madison Square Garden, he even played some center.

After the France game, I asked Durant about the adjustment.

“It’s about the same, really,” Durant said, “because at the four I’m still out on the perimeter. I can mix it up a little bit, and it’s cool because it causes a lot of mismatches.”

Durant said he’s been working this summer to add another element to his game, and while he wouldn’t reveal exactly what it is, from watching him last week I believe he is trying to get better at beating his man off the dribble and attacking the rim. Could we see Durant playing some point guard for Oklahoma City next season?

Durant is the evolutionary next step from the era of Kevin Garnett and Chris Webber, power forwards who could bring the ball up and initiate an offense or anchor a defense from the middle of the paint. And KG and C-Webb were evolutionary steps from Magic Johnson, who played point guard with a forward’s body. But Durant is not the only such hybrid in a League where it’s getting harder to put players in a box.

Is Tyreke Evans a one or a two? Is Andre Iguodala a two or a three? Is Travis Outlaw a three or a four? Is Al Horford a four or a five? More important, does it matter? Nowadays, the only people who really care about set positions are fantasy-team owners and All-Star ballot makers.

A couple weeks ago I spoke to University of Kansas rising junior Marcus Morris. At 6-8, 225 pounds, Morris played power forward last season, and as KU loses seven-footer Cole Aldrich to the pros, Morris may see time at center this season. But when I asked Morris about his game, he continually referred to himself as a small forward. As he builds a resume that hopefully leads to his own place on the NBA Draft stage, a player like Morris will be concerned with how he is labeled. He knows 6-8 centers don’t get drafted, and 6-8 power forwards come a dime a dozen. So for now, he’ll call himself a three. But once he gets into the League, it won’t matter. He’s a basketball player.

If Kobe Bryant gets his wish, that is where the game is going. The old numbers game — you’re a one, a two, a three, etc. — becomes less important as players focus more on other numbers: points per game, assists, rebounds, steals. We can argue all day over whether Tyreke Evans is a point guard or a shooting guard, but we cannot argue that he put up 20 points, five boards and five dimes a night as a rookie.

Defenders can pick their poison, but the position is irrelevant.

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  • Heckler

    wasn’t this concept already produced by Magic Johnson?

    what next, ballers 6’5 playing center?

  • Alex “Robocop” Murphy

    Heckler- yes it happens in the WNBA

  • Heckler

    wnba aint the NBA.

  • http://www.cnnsi.com JAY

    So the future of the NBA is european basketball. Grrrrrreat. Something to look forward to….. *puke*

  • Alex “Robocop” Murphy

    Don Nelson is the visionary. It already happens.

  • Whatdahec

    This was Magic Johnson 25 years ago. He won rings playing all 5 positions…

  • Whatdahec

    Robocop, what’s the WNBA??

  • Abe504

    Yea im kinda wit Jay on that one, hybrid players are good an all but not the whole league full of hybrid player. I can see it now, it be like all nba games be just like the Warriors games, everybody on the squad throwing up 3 pointers.

  • clay

    Is Kobe suggesting you’re going to get a 7-0 player with good post up skills and D not fit into the league as he isn’t versatile and skilled enough off the dribble to play PG/SG/SF? Kobe – that’s just stupid. Take Shaq as an example. He can’t shoot or dribble really. Are you saying there is no place for him in the “new” Kobe NBA?

    I’d rather take a young Shaq over a young Kobe / Durant any day of the week. It’s a no brainer. Last time I checked size still matters most and most titles are won by size – exception Jordan’s Bulls

    I agree players are more skillful today than ever – Dirk / Durant etc. but build your team around a 7 foot monster that plays D and can score everytime you get the chance

  • sh!tfaced

    Pat Riley already said something like this a long time ago, about “five interchangable 6-9 guys running the floor together” or something to that effect…

  • i luv ur mummy

    does anybody kno a hot cougar in the new york area?

  • control

    I can understand and like what Kobe is saying. I live it myself, I’m a 6’8, 230lbs guy who plays more point guard than anything else. I’m not playing at really high levels anymore, due to being 30 years old, but the higher the level I would play at, the more I would switch to PG or SG. I would go games where I’d guard center position against a 6’10 or 7’0 guy on defense, then switch to being an outside shooter or pg on offense. The name of the game now is versatility.

    I am also noticing a HUGE trend with any guys who are 6’4 or taller. They ALL want to play like AI, even if they are like 6’8, 320lbs of slow fat. Everyone wants to be the hero now, and almost nobody has a decent post game. The only reason I am a good sg/pg at my size is because I didn’t have my growth spurt until I was done high school, so I went all through high school at 5’4, then grew a foot in one summer. Being a pro gamer when I was young also helped the hand-eye coordination.

  • i luv ur mummy

    at number 9
    clays dumb remarks deserve a response

    who wouldnt take shaq???

    but which would you draft first as a gm (if youre even fit to b one , moron) : shaq diesel , force power and strength, agility.

    or

    shaq force power and strength, agility AAANNNNDDDD HANDLE, JUMPSHOT, 3 POINT STROKE AND GOOD FREE THROW ABILITY?

    all kobe said was for an “expansion” of talent…

    it would hurt if everyone knew how to do all aspects of the game…

    dum clay

  • i luv ur mummy

    wouldnt*

    and before u go and say….”u must b a kobe fan”
    shutup

    because that has nuthin to do with it…

    u must b a flava flav fan…cuz ur stupid

    of course these recent remarks are in case u try and say something retarded..like u did already in post number 9

  • karizmatic

    The league has been moving toward this shift or at least flirting with it for some time…I believe the dream of having guys ranging in height from 6’6 to 6’11 running all positions is something that the NBA favors because it would be more entertaining basketball, a lot of running little defense, and high scores.

    Don Nelson has been trying to employ this idea for some time now. I think it can work only if you have the right athletes who are driven to try to master the many different aspects of the game. Basically if you have something like that, each player on the floor would have to be a jack of all trades and that’s where I think this theory breaks down. Some guys are just naturally more talented than others are and more skilled at different things. So for that reason I think you’ll always see a need for some type of position definition in the league.

    For instance a player like Andrew Bynum is probably never going to be skilled enough at dribbling to be a point guard so that’s just not going to happen, but no matter who you put on the floor if he works on his post game he’ll be an effective center. Although we’re seeing it gradually fade out the post game is not yet irrelevant in the NBA and probably won’t be until they employ the trapezoid paint area like they do in Europe. Until that happens and the post game remains relevant, there will still be a need to at least separate initiators, facilitators and shooters, from post players. In short, there will still need to be positions of some sort.

    I’m also not sure, but I think while you can run fast breaking offense no real acknowledgement of positions, it becomes much harder to run half court sets without positions.

    What kind of team would I pick to run without positions?

    Wade
    Kobe
    LBJ
    Melo
    Durant

    Bench:
    S Jack
    Turkoglu
    Granger
    Odom
    KG
    Bosh
    Blatche

    Honorable Mentions
    Ben Gordon
    Bargnani
    Boris Diaw

    But as I said the problem with this theory is that every player in the league would have to be as skilled and versatile as these guys for it to work.

  • Ekstor

    First I want to point out that while Magic played 5 positions in the 80s, he could NOT do that today with the same frequency if he were entering the league. At 6’8 1/2, he’s even out-sized by most PFs today, let alone Cs. That wasn’t the case in the 80s when having even one true 7-footer was considered a luxury.

    Regarding this article, I think the league has shifted towards more multi-dimensional players, but positions will never fully disappear. The upside on quickness for the average 6 footer will always be greater than a 7 footer and the reverse is true when speaking towards post-up games.

    You’ll always need a distributor who can get past others players their quickness and you’ll always need post players who can get their shot off over opponents.

    As versatile as someone like Gasol is, he simply can’t guard anyone at the SF spot and probably couldn’t get past many of them either from the perimeter. Even Odom for all his versatility really shouldn’t play anything other than PF.

  • fallinup

    Don Nelson, the PHX Suns a few years back… it’s pretty and all. But the teams winnin’ the rock year after year has always had a good inside presence and height.

    You ‘could’ rule that against the Bulls… but Luc Longley is also a GOD.

  • karizmatic

    On second thought…maybe comments like this are the reason that great players do not make great coaches…they assume everyone should be able to do what they can do.

  • .

    “And KG and C-Webb were evolutionary steps from Magic Johnson…”

    whoooooa whoa whoa whoa whoa now…ain’t nobody evolved from Magic. no one that size has done what he did (Lebron’s maybe the closest)

  • EN FUEGO

    The NBA all ‘no position’ lineup:

    C – Chris Paul 6’0″
    PF- Nate Robinson 5’9″
    SF – Aaron Brooks 5’10”
    SG – TJ Ford 5’11”
    PG – Earl Boykins 5’5″

    Bench
    – JJ Barea 6’0″
    – Mike Conley 5’11”

  • karizmatic

    @19

    I think Pippen was the evolutionary step from Magic, and Lebron is the evolutionary step from Pippen, with Grant Hill and T-Mac being mutations that didn’t pan out.

  • Coney Islander

    The man just said that everyone should be complete players, whats the big deal?

  • clay

    @ I luv ur mummy
    Wow, idiotic reply to say the least – no point in getting involved in a comment slug match – that’s just weak. Read below, go to school, don’t do drugs then get back to your world of warcraft game.

    Kobe’s quote
    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.

    So he’s saying that’s where he’d LIKE to see the game shift to. Which suggest the future in his eyes has no more Shaq type players rather Durant type players. I AGREE and think it’s good for the game to have versatile players but the dominant big man will always be the MOST valuable. That was my argument – how about you make a mature civil counter argument?

    If you find the Shaq type dominant player you mentioned in your previous comment with a 3 point stroke and a jump shot and a handle like skip to my lou not only do you draft him but you let him bang your wife or in your case your blow up doll. That player doesn’t exist never has and never will. It’s physically not possible for a guy that big to do what smaller guys do. No big man can do what you suggest. Ewing had a decent J and range but no real handle and not the most agile, Hakeem had plenty of skill but wasn’t a physical dominator – one of the best at the position but he did it with skill rather than power. The list goes on, Robinson, Wilt, Russell, Kareem etc. none of them were the complete Durant package with size and power.

    Again!!! My argument was there will always be a place for the dominant big without the Durant skillset

    now go back to listening to your Justin Beiber album
    of course these recent remarks are only in case you try and say something retarded like you did in post number 13

  • i luv ur mummy

    hey clay…are u drunk, on weed, crack, shrooms, acid, or cough syrup? or is it a combination of all ?

  • Justain

    @clay Shaq is a freak of nature, and no one has ever gotten close to the term dominating as Shaq has. Kobe’s comment is not a knock on Shaq. Kobe is saying is that Pau is a stud and that while the NBA breeds Bosh-type players, Pau is a bit more useful on a team to win.