Increasingly in the modern era of the NBA, we hear about a shift towards position-less basketball. What exactly does that mean? And how accurate is that characterization?
Position-less basketball is a movement largely based on reducing the significance of the roles between the different positions on the floor. Rather than a strict 1 through 5, wherein each role varies somewhat significantly – there are increasingly just guards, wings and stretch bigs.
All players are expected to at minimum, possess skills across the entire spectrum of basketball skills – centers that cannot shoot outside the post are ever more seen as dinosaurs, and diminutive point guards incapable of guarding larger players have seen their values plummet.
In addition to increased versatility among players, offenses are increasingly designed to increase spacing and motion. This of course depends on the fact that most of the players have similar enough skillsets that the defense cannot necessarily rule out certain players from being a threat just because they are in a certain area of the court.
On the defensive end, because the positions are far more interchangeable, players are expected to be switchable or said differently, must be able to guard multiple positions at least somewhat competently. This of course reduces the ability of an offense to seek out mismatches.
What all of this means is that traditional bigs will gradually shrink, both in height and weight, while expected to have much better ball-handling, lateral quickness and outside shooting touch than their predecessors. Additionally, traditional guards will gradually get bigger, stronger, and more athletic.
Position-less basketball is sometimes mistakenly used interchangeably with small-ball. However, one could argue that small-ball is merely a placeholder for true position-less basketball. The purpose of utilizing a small-ball line-up is to gain the advantages typically associated with smaller player, that is- guards and wings, specifically their mobility, shooting touch, ball handling etc. The problem with small-ball is that you are obviously sacrificing size, true position-less basketball, does not necessarily rely on a small line-up, but more of a hybrid line-up. Which is, as mentioned before, somewhat smaller bigs, but also bigger guards.
There is less of a defensive trade-off with a true position-less line-up versus a small-ball line-up. And in a more general sense, versatility comes at the cost of specialization. And as the trend towards position-less line-ups intensifies, eventually the league will be chock full of versatile players that are not necessarily exceedingly dominant in one specific area.
Should this happen, we will see a gradual pendulum shift in the other direction where players with more specialized roles are employed to be disruptive against their versatile counterparts. As an example, an undersized, but speedy guard could have some success against bigger players that may not be quite as big, or large players who play exclusively in the paint but have a wider array of post moves can be employed against smaller players to exploit a mismatch.
However, that scenario is one far flung into the future, if it happens at all. The truth is, the NBA will likely never be a truly position-less one – rather teams will continue to experiment with small ball and versatile line-ups that will approximate the advantages of being truly position-less without ever actually fully ceding the advantages of having a degree of specialization.
Is one method objectively superior to the other? Well, that is a somewhat tricky question. Intuitively, it seems preferable to have a group of players that collectively possess a wider array of skills, particularly if there is overlap, as any given player can pick up the slack of another.
Post player gets switched out unto a guard on the perimeter? No problem, your post player is a fleet-footed 6’8” player with decent perimeter defense anyway.
The advantage to having clearly defined roles for players is that allows each player the opportunity to be elite at their specific position, rather than be a jack of all trades, you can be a true master. Regardless of which outlook makes more sense, ultimately basketball is a game of match-ups, which is why sometimes a team of inferior talent can reliably beat a specific team of superior talent.
Trying to determine if position-less or clear positions is the better method to employ is almost the wrong question. The answer will usually be, “it depends”. This is what drives revolutions within the NBA. As teams develop and master specific strategies, eventually counters to those strategies will arise, and become commonplace until the cycle inevitably repeats itself.
As it is currently, teams currently usually have anywhere from one to three players on their roster that can truly play multiple positions. Players like Magic Johnson, Scottie Pippen and LeBron James have already proven that you can be a versatile player and still be an all-time great and players like Luka Dončić and Zion Williamson are already setting the stage for future generations, showing how versatility can be the way forward.