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

By: 08.17.10  •  25 Comments

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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