miércoles, 31 de enero de 2018

Position-less basketball

Basketball has always been a game of sizes. Taller people have an advantage to play it over shorter people just because they are closer to the rim and their size gives them an edge to grab more rebounds and score more points. On top of that, taller players often boast a larger wingspan that makes them better defenders and, overall, better suited for the game of basketball.

But throughout history, we have seen rare examples of players under six feet that have made it to the NBA. A mejority of these players were extremely athletic, with at least a decent ability to shoot the ball and an outstanding control of the ball combined with court vision, quick feet, talent, and other factors. The combination of all of them made up for their lack of size.

But these short players, regardless of their offensive talent, are usually a liability on the defensive end. One of the most recent and evident examples is Cavaliers´ 5´8 point-guard Isaiah Thomas, the third top scorer in the NBA last season, now coming back from an injury and trying to figure out his place on the struggling Cavaliers. The Celtics, Thomas´ former team, thought it was worth it to have him on the court last season because Thomas´ contribution on offense surpassed his below-average defense. The Celtics even designed a whole system around Thomas, their go-to scorer and playmaker, to the extent that some think that Thomas´ MVP-caliber performance last season was a result of that system built around him rather than a consequence of his talent. I personally believe that´s not the case. Systems aside, Thomas is one of the fastest and most talented players in the league, and even though he obviously benefitted from Brad Stevens´ system, his individual ability is the primary reason for his success.

Thomas, however, remained a liability on defense, which Stevens, one of the best coaches in the NBA, made up for with elite defensive players like Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier. The Celtics ended the regular season on top of the Eastern Conference but their starting lineups with Thomas posed a threat for them defensively. Although the Celtics are going through a slump as of now, their defense this season is still one of the best in the game despite losing Avery Bradley. Replacing Thomas for Kyrie Irving in their starting lineup is a big reason why. Although not exactly a defensive specialist, Irving´s bigger frame makes him a tougher defender than Thomas. And to get to our point, the Celtics are now one of the first teams to implement position-less basketball. This past summer, while still shaping his roster, coach Stevens said that  "I don´t have five positions anymore. Either you are a ball-handler, a wing or a big."

In other words, Stevens´ (and the majority of NBA teams´) goal is to develop a high level of "switchability", which is the ability to switch defenders on opposing players after a pick-and-roll or any type of rotation with the goal of minimizing the impact of that defensive switch. While there are still ballhandlers, shooters and low-post players on the offensive end that somewhat preserve the traditional basketball positions (although they are becoming less important on offense as well), it´s becoming more and more common to see "everybody guarding everybody", this is, for example, a small forward switching on to a big one with no hesitation and not even as a result of an advantage generated by the offense, but because it is more effective as a solution to reduce rotation time and to prevent the opposing team from generating mismatches they can take advantage of.

Modern basketball, and more specifically the NBA (this shift is yet to have as big an impact in international basketball) is progressively losing "player diversity". The days of big men specialized in rebounding or defense or the tiny point guards who came in as microwave-type bench scorers are soon to be gone. Instead, the league is getting more physical, players´ sizes are getting more uniform, and from a young age players are required to learn how to do "a little bit of everything". NBA players are transitioning from being specialized pieces that mixed together create a car (their team), to being mini-cars themselves, firefighters, swiss knives capable of doing whatever the coach wants to get out of them rather than developing a singular aspect of the game.

While some fans are already missing traditional basketball with its five positions, as it should be, this era of positionless basketball couldn´t be more fascinating. We´re seeing ponit guards get to the rim like never before, and bigs shoot and make threes as if they were free throws. Like everything, it has its pros and its cons.

This does not mean, however, that NBA teams will not get interested in certain types of players just because they are big or small. DeAndre Ayton, one of the top prospects for the 2018 NBA draft, is a traditional center. However, some of his skills make him extremely valuable to any basketball team, even the ones who want to implement position-less basketball: he is extremely athletic (that always adds points), he can shoot from three (now we´re getting into positionless basketball), and he has outstanding lateral quickness, being able to guard smaller players, as well as being a terrific rim protector. The two aspects that set Ayton apart are his ability to shoot the ball effectively from long distance and his great defense on smaller players off pick-and-rolls or similar plays, which are the bread and butter of the NBA. These two characteristics are exactly what we mentioned as key components of position-less basketball, the ultimate weapon for NBA teams.

No hay comentarios: