Tag: positionality

Oklahoma City Thunder v Atlanta Hawks

Durant’s versatility has nothing to do with position, just greatness


This is not about positionality. It’s not about the transcendence of Kevin Durant’s athletic ability and basketball skill to cross-over to any spot on the floor. And it’s certainly not about the antiquated conditions of position that too often limit where and how we think of players and both their potential and liabilities.  It’s about the individual nature of Kevin Durant, and his progress. A progress that is both terrifyingly supplementary and drastically necessary.

I’ll explain.

You’ll remember earlier this week when the Daily Oklahoman reported on Kevin Durant being used at all five positions. All the talk was of how the young superstar is learning to play different slots on the floor. How he’s learning to orchestrate the offense as a point guard or work as a bigger power forward, a position he says he has to make up for with “heart. ” But the reality of the situation is this. Durant isn’t learning to be Chris Paul. He’s not working on emulating Tim Duncan. And he’s not stretching what it means to be a center. It’s the evolution of his specific game. It’s being Kevin Durant, only wearing different outfits. Or, as a better analogy, it’s a lot like when Mario would don the different suits in Super Mario Bros. 3. Just because he’s throwing hammers doesn’t make him a turtle. Mario is still Mario, and KD is still KD. He’s just doing different things as he continues his role as KD.  That’s partially out of respect to his talents, and partially because those talents simply can’t be transformed.

When we talk about players adapting to new positions, we usually mean they’re actually playing those roles. For example, when Dwyane Wade plays point guard, he’s actually setting up the offense, calling out plays, actually weaving through pick and rolls to find open shooters. Rashard Lewis moving to the three has entirely different meanings than what Durant is doing. When Amar’e Stoudemire slides down and plays the five, it’s because the Knicks need a role filled. That’s not what’s happening with Durant. With Durant, it’s the exploration of his potential as a small forward, or more accurately, as a player. It is, to be honest, a stunningly similar situation to what LeBron has evolved into.

Both LeBron and Durant play small forward, but they’re so much more than that. Because they’re so talented, they receive the ball in a myriad of ways. High post. Wing. Top of the key. Off the cut. Low-post. All of these positions are classically maintained by positions other than the one they occupy. And that’s the genius component. LeBron is able to post a small forward defending him as a power forward. Durant is able to take a small forward off the dribble as if he were a point guard. It doesn’t mean that Durant actually is a point guard, anymore than it means that Kevin Durant is a small forward at this point. He may need to be surrounded by two bigger players, and two smaller players, but that still doesn’t make him a small forward.

What Durant is, is a franchise player and a scoring behemoth. There’s just not a lot he can’t do with his skillset. He’s not the distributor that James is and he never will b.e But what he can do is do what he does (score) in any conceivable fashion. He just has to learn how. And that’s what this is about. Take Chauncey Billups, for example. Billups is a point guard who doesn’t weave through traffic with the greatest of ease, doesn’t whip behind the back passes or fancy alley-oops all that often. But he’s reliable in what he does, and in addition to his perimeter shooting, floor leadership, and system management, Billups can back that smaller guard into the post and bury him from the block. It’s an element that so few of his defenders have. Durant is extrapolating this to its furthest degree. Force the other team’s small forward into a helpless position, be it on the perimeter or in the paint, and you’ve just forced the defense to alter their lineup specifically to stop you. And once that’s happened, as long as your teammates are competent (which Durant’s are), you’ve won the battle.

The biggest element in all this is less about what position Durant is playing, but more about how he’s playing his own. Kobe Bryant took lessons from Hakeem Olajuwon to learn how to better play in the post. Many players look to Mark Price specifically to shoot better. Durant already shoots well. What he’s doing now is learning to do those things in different ways. Again, we’re brought back to what was a very formative experience for Durant, the Lakers series. Durant got the ball in the three positions he most often did during the season. Top of the key, perimeter wing, and extended-elbow face-up. And it was in those places that Artest managed to detonate his abilities. He was limited, because as good as he was, he was only good in three ways, essentially. This new work will enable him to adapt to his opponent. If Durant is “running point” it doesn’t mean that the opponent’s point guard will spend much time on him. If they do it’s because they’ve switched to a huge lineup, not simply because Durant is doing the dribbling. It’ll still mostly be players who can physically match him.

And those players won’t react well when taken off the dribble as LeBron James was last Friday. They won’t be able to adjust to his  post-play or work on the offensive glass. Durant isn’t becoming anything else with this evolutionary position shifting. He’s simply becoming the best thing he can be. It’s a complete approach to the game. And if you’re not scared of that, you live in Oklahoma City.

It reflects a work ethic to deliver the best of what Durant is, not become something else entirely. In this way, Durant is the very polar opposite of Anthony Randolph. Randolph is still lauded as having the potential to be anything, take on any role, yet in reality he’s so incomplete and scattered he’s almost nothing identifiable. He’s nondescript in his prolific near-versatility. Durant is the opposite. He’s able to be what he is in every way, playset, and situation. And most importantly it changes the answer to the question that helped the Lakers beat the Thunder in April. The question was how do you stop Kevin Durant? And with his skillset at that time, there were a series of deliberate mechanisms Artest and the Lakers’ defense employed to limit the things he was good at. But now Durant is learning to be more than those things, even as he remains what he is: the league’s most devastating scorer.

So now the question is: “How do you stop Kevin Durant?”

And terrifyingly, the answer is getting closer and closer to: “You can’t. “

So, the Sixers are trying Evan Turner out at point guard. Yeah, it blows our mind, too.


I’m not going to waste your time with a workup of an intro. Let’s just get into the meat on this one, okay? The Sixers were in training camp and put Evan Turner and Lou Williams in the backcourt for the second team. Makes sense. You would have thought Turner might wind up on the first team with Iggy sliding down to 3, but apparently not, and that’s cool. However Doug Collins wants his show, you know?

But what’s crazy is that the backcourt was struggling with Williams on-ball and Turner off. From the Philadelphia Inquirer, this gem from Doug Collins:

“What I saw was when Lou and Evan were together, when Lou was on the ball and Evan was off, they struggled, because Evan wasn’t sure and Lou didn’t do a very good job of getting us into our stuff,” Collins said. “Then we moved Evan to the ball and moved Lou and they both were good. So you can see where they’re most comfortable right now.

“What we’re doing with Evan is we’re mixing and matching him so he can do a little of both. But, at the end of the day, Lou’s a scorer and that’s what we’re going to have to do, put him in those kinds of positions ’cause if we put him out there to run the team, it really takes away what he does best.

I did not see that coming. I mean, sure, Turner has the potential, but he went from a 3/2 to a 2/3 and now to a 2/1 or 1/2. That’s dizzying. It’s an intriguing idea, though, considering Turner does have scoring ability through the roof but also had great assist and rebounding numbers at Ohio State. With better teammates, working him as a creator on-ball might be the best option. It goes to show how Collins is getting outside the box with the kid’s development and honestly, breathes a bit of light into a franchise that’s on unstable ground as it enters the season.

Can’t wait to see this thing in function, if they stick with it.

Kobe Bryant is on board with the summer of positional revolution


RILEY_lakers.jpgPat Riley used to talk about wanting to play five players of all basically the same height — five players between 6’5″ and 6’9″ who could switch ever defensive pick, could all run the floor, who could all handle the ball a little, who could all cut to the basket from the wing, could all do things that would create matchup problems all over the court.

Those players could not have identical skills. Someone would have to be a playmaker, someone else a rebounding force. But the idea was potentially revolutionary — to heck with traditional positions, it’s about skills. Riley could think this way, he had a position-bending player in Magic Johnson leading his team.

Welcome to 2010, where we dare you to define Dirk Nowitzki as a power forward. Or Andray Blatche as a center. Or Kevin Durant as a small forward. Or LeBron James and Kobe Bryant period.

All over the NBA blogshpere this summer there have been discussions of a “positional revolution” — an NBA without positions. That the versatility of today’s players means we need to define NBA players in a way other than “he plays the five.” It started with a great post from Drew Cannon at Basketball Prospectus, and has been followed up by some fascinating work, including by our own Rob Mahoney at his own blog Two Man Game.

Kobe Bryant was asked about this at Rucker Park last weekend and Dime Magazine has him backing the idea (via TrueHoop).

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 conceivably play any position on the floor.

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

There is truth to this. Particularly at what you might instead call the wing position, where guys like Durant and Kobe and LeBron live. The traditional definitions of a player no longer fit.

But at the same time, the NBA has seen a return in recent years to a traditional point guard more and more. Guys like Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Tony Parker, Bradon Jennings, Darren Collison and more have flourished with quickness in a league with no hand-checking on the perimeter.

Then inside, a traditional big man is still a force. Dwight Howard is a classic center and one of the best players in the league. The two teams that reached the finals last June had Andrew Bynum and Kendrick Perkins in the middle. That kind of physical force in paint still is a game changer.

But the game is evolving, and with it our understanding or it needs to evolve with it. And redefining classic positions — in the same way we need to redefine the classic box score — is part of that.

There's a logjam in Atlanta and something's got to give


Thumbnail image for hawks_logo.gifAl Horford is often talked about as undersized at center. He’s 6-10, but built like a power-forward, with long arms, great athleticism, and not so wide of a base like so many 5’s. The Hawks have made a ton of noise about adding a legit center this offseason, or at least aiming for some depth in order to elevate Zaza Pachulia (ZAZA!) to starter. Their efforts towards Shaquille O’Neal were indicative of that approach.

And yet, if the Hawks do decide to make a move to a bigger lineup, they face a rather profound logjam in the front court. Horford was an All-Star last year. But because of his size, the Hawks are thinking of shifting him to power forward. Which is fine, except for their second biggest star behind Joe Johnson is power forward Josh Smith, who is not great at small forward.

It’s like Tetris, only with guys that can’t guard Dwight Howard. (Who can?)

The Atlanta Journal Constitution approaches the question this morning of how all this would work out and what exactly Horford thinks about it. The results are mixed, and Horford, as usual, plays it smart in the media, rarely commenting on the positional quandary.

Thing is, the numbers bear out that this approach could work out great. Horford has better numbers at power forward in net +/- at power forward and Smith has better numbers at small forward. But those were in limited minutes. In 2008-2009, the results were the exact opposite. Such is what happens in a small sample size. Smith’s evolution as a player has taken him more and more to a power forward. In fact, his significant improvement last season was in large part attributed to him stopping with the nonsense perimeter shooting and doing what he should, attack the basket as mercilessly and unrelentingly as possible.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing, having two terrific players (both of whom should have been All-Stars-as opposed to just Horford, had the world not spontaneously lost its mind with David Lee) at the same position. But it feels more like the Hawks are headed away from the trend in the NBA towards versatility.

After all, the Thunder have acquired (or kept) several players at overlapping positions with slight variations in skill (Jeff Green, Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison, Cole Aldrich) in the approach of being able to counter different opponents with different defenders.

However, the Hawks seem centered on specifically trying to counter Dwight Howard (who destroyed them in the playoffs). This could wind up being a mistake if they interrupt both their chemistry and rotation flow in an attempt to counter a specific player who they may not even see in the playoffs. But putting Horford at the more natural position of power forward could work out really well if the Hawks are able to utilize this mega-big lineup.

Until then, they’ll be trying to solve a Rubix cube of redundant positionality.

And they still can’t guard Dwight Howard.