It's about roles, not positions

This article is a bit old, but I want to reference it because I think it holds a lot of significance to how we think about basketball on any level.  Basically, Drew Cannon of Basketball Prospectus writes about how we're too caught up on traditional "positions" when really the most important thing is whether a five-man unit can collectively do everything they need to get it done on both ends of the floor.  Instead of thinking "is this player a point guard or a shooting guard," we need to think in terms of "what role does this player play and which kind of role is he best at defending against."

Cannon is writing within the context of mid-major college basketball, but his points are just as salient in the pros.  As he writes:

On defense, you need to be able to guard your opponents. This means you have to be ready for speeds and heights of all kinds. You need to have a player capable of guarding each of the five traditional C-PF-SF-SG-PG positions. We'll call the players capable of defending each position "D1" through "D5," respectively, with speed/athleticism on the x-axis and height/strength on the y-axis:

[see chart at link]

And on offense what do you need to be successful? You need to be able to make shots (from the field or free throw line), avoid turnovers, and clean up the offensive glass--at the very least to the point where you aren't handing over points by doing the opposite. This means that you need someone who can take care of the ball, someone who can put it in the basket, someone who can get the ball to that guy, and someone who can get the ball back when someone misses. We'll call these four characters the Handler, the Scorer, the Creator, and the Rebounder.

As noted in the article, the creator and handler have to be the same person.  Therefore, we have eight "roles" (creator/handler, scorer, rebounder, D1-D5) to slot players in, which is more helpful than just assigning them to positions that have widely divergent specific roles depending on the team. 

How does this have to do with the Wizards?  In the coming months, the question many will be asking is whether Gilbert Arenas can play "off the ball;" or, more accurately "Can Gilbert Arenas play shooting guard?"  In reading this article, I can't help but think we're asking the wrong questions here.

Instead of asking those questions, the real thing we need to ask ourselves is this: do the Wizards have as many of these "roles" filled as possible?  On offense, does the team, collectively, have enough scorers, handlers/creators and rebounders?  On defense, does the team have guys capable of guarding different kinds of players on the strength/speed spectrum presented in that article?  That's what we need to focus on, not positions.

And once we focus on this, the whole picture seems a bit clearer.  Right now, here's how I'd break down our starting lineup:

 

  • (C): JaVale McGee - rebounder (offensively), D5/D4
  • (PF:): Andray Blatche - scorer, D4/D5
  • (SF): Josh Howard - scorer, D2/D3
  • (SG): Gilbert Arenas - scorer, creator/handler, D1/D2 (well, really D-nobody)
  • (PG): John Wall - creator/handler, D1

 

Offensively, I think there's actually a pretty good mix of players here.  The value of Arenas is that, with Wall in town, he can focus more on his scoring, and team with Howard and Blatche to take most of the shots.  Wall, meanwhile, for the short term, can focus more on distributing the ball and making it easier on his scorers, which will prevent him from being overwhelmed and having to be both a primary scorer and a distributor.  McGee can be the garbage man, especially on the offensive glass, where he could make a far bigger impact.  In fact, that lineup very closely mirrors the suggested lineup mentioned in the Basketball Prospectus piece.

In the long term, sure, you want Wall to develop his scoring ability where he can do it all.  But in the short term, is it really smart to ask a rookie to take the reigns right away?  As much as Kirk Hinrich gets credit for helping Derrick Rose, it was probably more helpful for Rose to have Ben Gordon around for a year to help with the scoring load until he got his feet wet.  Arenas (and Howard, if we're being honest) can be those guys for the Wizards next year.  After next year, Howard will be gone, and hopefully Arenas will have played well enough where the "trade or don't trade" question becomes an actual question instead of us having to keep him because he has no trade value.  But in the short term (and potentially the long term), the arrangement should work from a role-playing standpoint offensively.

Obviously, defense is a separate issue, as the Wizards will currently have issues trying to figure out how to best "hide" Arenas.  But at the same time, Howard is capable of guarding D2s and D3s if healthy, and Wall, because of his wingspan, might be able to check smaller D2s as well.  Their versatility makes it easier to hide Arenas on a non-offensive D1 or D3 if necessary.  Even though Arenas will be technically listed as a "shooting guard," he could potentially be guarding "point guards" and even non-offensive "small forwards."  Is that ideal?  Absolutely not.  Is it palatable?  Potentially, and that's why it's so important to avoid using rigid positional terms.  

Maybe this is all semantics, but I think this is an important distinction.  As we're talking about next season's lineup, I think it's important to be talking as descriptively as possible.  Sure "scorer," "creator/distributor" and "rebounder" are subjective terms, but at least there's a whole lot less fluff and a whole lot more flexibility to them than "shooting guard." 

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