Editorial: Position Schemes Used In The NBA

Anyone who follows NBA basketball or is a fan of basketball in general has likely seen a variation of several position schemes. Classically however – the center, power forward, small forward, shooting guard and point guard have been the go-to set-up. Also referred to as positions one through five.

The point guard is typically [though not necessarily] the shortest player, with the best ball-handling abilities and is typically tasked with orchestrating the offense.

Shooting guards are bigger guards that play off the ball and are usually expected to be able to hit open shots or have the ability to create their own shots.

Small forwards are usually expected to be highly versatile players that have both the agility to have an effective perimeter game and the size to be successful in the post.

Power forwards are bulkier players that play primarily in the post but with the expectation that they are able to shoot 10-15 feet from the basket with some consistency.

Finally, centers are both the offensive and defensive anchors for their teams. Expected to have a strong post-up game and offense and ideally be able to supply ample rim protection on defense.

However, as the sport has developed and matured, different strategies have evolved around position utilization. Here are some prominent and popular examples of positional schemes that eschew the typical one through 5 norms.

The Twin Towers lineup: Rather than play a typical 5 and 4, or center and power forward, a coach may choose to employ a line-up with 2 centers. This was popularized in the 1980s with Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson and again in the 90s with David Robinson and Tim Duncan. This strategy is most effective if both players have high-level post moves, can reliably shoot 10-15 feet away from the basket and can pass out of the post effectively. The obvious downside of this tactic is the fact that the lane is essentially crowded, and if the remaining three players are not proficient shooters, the offense can become stifled by knowledgeable defenses. However, on the defensive end, two defensively proficient fives will have the advantage of limiting the opposing teams’ ability to reliably score in the paint. Though this strategy has clear potential upsides, it has not been utilized very often, and in today’s modern NBA, is even less likely to be used going forward.

Small ball line-up: In some ways this can be considered antithetical to the Twin Towers line-up. Rather than capitalizing on the size and talents of your biggest players, the entire line-up will consist of players that are smaller in stature and preferably all possessing above average shooting, ball-handling, and speed.

The logic in employing this type of logic is that the advantages lost in size, rebounding and interior defense will be more than compensated for with the ability to push the ball on offense and have every player on the floor be a viable scoring and shooting threat.

The offense is also made easier by forcing larger and slower players into bad match-ups on the perimeter. Small ball was initially popularized by the Phoenix Suns coached by D’Antoni and has since been copied by multiple teams since then. Perhaps most successfully by the Golden State Warriors and most recently by the present day Houston Rockets, also coached by Mike D’Antoni.

The over-sized point guard: As mentioned at the start of the video, point guards will typically be the shortest, quickest player on the team with the best ball-handling. The over-sized point guard attempts to have two bites of the apple to maximize the advantage on both ends of the floor.

Players that are considerably larger than average point guards but still possessing elite ball-handling and court vision comes with multiple advantages. The larger point guard will be able to see over the defense more effectively and will enjoy a size advantage over most point guards, not to mention will have the ability to potentially guard multiple positions as needed on defense.

In some cases, larger point guards are given that role on a full-time basis like Magic Johnson and Penny Hardaway. In other cases, players like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic, will play the role of point guard as needed and switch back to their regular position also as needed.

The double play-maker/point guard scheme: Rather than rely on a single point guard or play-maker, this scheme allows for two playmaking point guards to take the reins of the offense simultaneously, forgoing the shooting guard position entirely.

Though there are usually some defensive sacrifices with this type of line-up, the increased lateral ball movement typically yields positive results for teams that utilize the strategy. The Raptors have been known to occasionally use this strategy playing both Kyle Lowry and Fred VanFleet in tandem, not to mention OKC’s use of dual point guard line-ups that include Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

NBA coaches are constantly tinkering with line-ups in an attempt to both maximize the talent they currently have and diminish the talents of the opposing team. This is certainly not intended to be an exhaustive list as there are unquestionably several iterations beyond the classic 1 through 5 line-up that can be used during the course of a basketball game.

Coaches will inevitably continue to find new ways to play their players and experiment with line-ups. In time, truly position-less basketball may become increasingly the standard rather than shorthand for a more fluid style of play.


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