A lot can change in twenty years.
Two decades ago, Michael Jordan had just retired and an era of post-up basketball took over. The San Antonio Spurs won an NBA Championship with Tim Duncan and David Robinson towering on the blocks. Shaquille O’Neal was perhaps the most dominant back-to-the-basket scorer in the league. The NBA was a different place, with offenses designed around throwing the ball into the post, cutting slowly around those interior isolations and begging the defense to collapse.
John Stockton was whizzing around the court in his Tobias Funke-like cut-offs, as guys like Jason Kidd and Jason Williams defined what it meant to be a “true point guard.”
Each position had clear roles and skills, based on a player’s size. Smaller guards played with the ball in their hands and initiated offense. Big men rarely strayed from the blocks and elbows. Anyone in-between was a cutter, a shooter and blended all necessary skills.
Few were able or willing to color outside those lines.
Fast-forward to present day: Post-ups are seldom used, with spacing, shooting and spreading the floor taking precedence over Bully Ball. Scoring is at an all-time high; Perhaps, the level of skill from all five players on the floor is, too. Coaches and players utilize individual skill in more creative, outside-the-box ways: seven-footers bring the ball up the court and shoot threes, six-foot guards are primary interior defenders and some star players do a little bit of everything on both ends.
We’re approaching a league that is genuinely positionless–or at least that defies the traditional stereotypes.
So how did we get here? What key changes took place to lead the league down this path, and why has this been so successful from an offensive standpoint? There are a few major milestones that helped pave the road for a smoother-than-you’d-think transition.
ILLEGAL D, DIRK, D’ANTONI AND THE LONG BALL
During the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, the Sacramento Kings led the league in 3-point attempts, with 19 per game. Four of the twenty-nine franchises averaged fewer than 10 per game. The 3-point line wasn’t a large part of league identity. Only specialists, well-versed in the art, took the attempts. The bread and butter for nearly every team was through post-ups, isolations on the wing and a great deal of player movement around the interior.
The league had an “illegal defense” rule, which was more of an outlaw against zone defense in theory, but a handcuff to creativity in practice.
In sum: There are two types of defenders: primary (those who guard a man possessing the ball) and secondary (those who are defending a man without it). Illegal Defense stated that if the ball was in one area on the court, a secondary defender had to commit to a double team or stay close to their man wherever they would cut. The rule’s purpose was to prevent teams from swarming elite players.
The NBA had an edict to market their stars, so they promoted them by protecting their numbers on the court.
The unintended consequences of such a decision caused the game to be played in a slower, pound-it-inside fashion. Offenses would put their best one-on-one scorer into the post, clear out an entire side of the court, and stand his teammates as far away as possible. This made it easy to flesh out whether a defense would play one-on-one (leaving a great scorer in prime territory) or send a hard double-team (leaving one offensive player unguarded).
Defenses were in lose-lose territory:
Scoring for individual stars took off during the 1990s as a result. Karl Malone, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, David Robinson and many others anchored elite offenses. NBA teams all looked the same: they just pounded it inside the paint like meat packers.
The game wasn’t even as dynamic as college basketball.
The league eliminated the rule in 2001, signaling a change to the game’s pace. Defenses could now load to the strong-side and towards the post isolations without declaring a double-team or getting whistled for a violation. However, offenses were slower to adjust to the changes. The league hit a scoring wall through the early aughts as coaches were quicker to see the new defensive freedoms than the offensive innovations it would necessitate.
One team, in particular, had a player designed to thwart these loaded defenses: the Dallas Mavericks and star youngster Dirk Nowitzki.
Dirk was the first big man to shoot threes at a high volume. Others had come before him that had stretch-the-floor potential, but none could lay claim to the type of effectiveness he boasted.
In his second season, Nowitzki shot 38 percent from three on nearly four attempts per game. He was fifteenth in league makes, and the only player taller than 6’7″ in the top twenty. The Mavericks won 50-plus games in eleven-straight seasons starting in 2000. During that decade-long streak, Dallas was top-five in NBA offensive rating eight times, and fourth in 3-point attempts.
Dirk has always been complimentary of his first Hall of Fame coach for spreading the floor out around him.
“He didn’t limit me,” said Nowitzki of Don Nelson. “He let me shoot 3s and play to my strengths, which not a lot of coaches would’ve done with a 7-footer.”
Those Mavericks teams, with Mark Cuban at the helm and Donnie Nelson running the front office, made other subtle tweaks forgotten in today’s game. In February 2002, Dallas traded for big man Raef LaFrentz and point guard Nick Van Exel from the Denver Nuggets.
Under Nelson, the Mavs were the first time to play two “point guards” consistently through their lineup. Van Exel and MVP Candidate Steve Nash both played more than 28 minutes per game. LaFrentz, another stretch-shooting big, started alongside Nowitzki, supplanting Shawn Bradley in the lineup. Teams playing two traditional big men struggled to guard the Mavericks.
If it weren’t for an ankle injury to Nowitzki in the playoffs, those Mavericks might have made the NBA Finals.
Around the same time in the 2000s, the Phoenix Suns were sputtering to grasp a playoff spot. They had a talented core, with 2003 Rookie of the Year Amar’e Stoudemire, defensive-minded wing Shawn Marion and talented scoring point guard Stephon Marbury.
Phoenix made some changes in 2004 to better-prepare for what they thought would be an innovative way to play. Marbury and Penny Hardaway were both traded to the New York Knicks in-season. Mike D’Antoni was promoted to head coach, and the organization landed a splash in free agency by signing MVP Steve Nash away from Dallas.
Nash brought a flair of what he’d learned in Dallas, but D’Antoni was the real innovator.
Immediately the Suns led the league in pace, scoring, 3-point attempts and 3-point percentage, setting the league ablaze with the “Seven Seconds or Less” offense. Volume, speed, and 3-point barrages would be the counter to defensive changes. If teams start to rotate and help on drives or isolations, the need to spread them out farther from the basket—and punish them if they don’t guard you—was more evident than ever.
As part of those innovations, D’Antoni downsized his starting lineup from the year prior. Instead of playing Stoudemire at the power forward position and Marion as small forward, Phoenix pushed them to the 5 and the 4, now causing power forwards to guard Marion away from the basket. The added spacing of having four 3-point shooters on the floor also gave Stoudemire enough room to go one-on-one in the paint.
Now the league had a clear blueprint for how to combat defenses. Instead of needing a rule to protect one-on-one scoring down low, shooting and speed would create the same effect.
Little did we know it at the time, but D’Antoni’s adjustments in Phoenix would spark a basketball revolution.
YOUTH BASKETBALL, AAU AND MARKETABILITY
Whatever happens in the NBA, the landscape of youth basketball feels the ripple effects. In this instance, they were more like earthquakes.
The league was desperate for a new frontman during the post-Jordan days. Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson, Vince Carter, and Kobe Bryant were four names quickly scooped up and pushed to the moon, hoping at least one would catch on with youngsters. But Shaq’s game, built around his physical dominance and size, wasn’t easily replicable by kids playing in their backyards.
Instead, the likes of Iverson, Nash, and even Nowitzki were more appealing.
Increasing numbers of kids shot three-pointers. It became the cool thing to do, at all levels of the game. The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) sprouted up as an essential American youth league that would supplement the high school season, providing summer tournaments, additional practices and greater exposure for college prospects and elite players. The reputation of AAU, which is more about the individual’s exposure than the success of the team, precluded players from having their shot selection reeled in.
More players, regardless of their size or utility on the team, were shooting 3s, handling the ball on the perimeter and playing like the stars they saw on television.
The American system finally was starting to catch up to the European model of player development.
Across the pond, every prospect goes to academies where they learn all the essential skills of basketball, regardless of size. Every international prospect coming to the NBA is adept at passing, ball handling and shooting to a certain extent. While the notion that some prospect wouldn’t be well-rounded sounds a little crazy in the context of the current NBA, it wasn’t the case years ago. Rather, players were encouraged to hone in on specific skills they would frequently use in the cookie-cutter mold of the league as they knew it.
As with any change on a grassroots level, the ramifications eventually make their way up to the big leagues.
By the mid-to-late 2000s, nearly every player coming into the NBA had some experience in handling the basketball, shooting or guarding opposing best players. With the blending of skill sets among players coming into the league, positions blurred as well. Point guards weren’t the only players on the floor able to initiate offense or effectively come off a ball screen. Smaller players were no longer the only ones that could shoot from 3.
It was time for the coaches to catch up.
INNOVATING TO WIN: SPOELSTRA And KERR
By 2010, the league had multiple superstars willing and able to defy those positional stereotypes.
LeBron James, the 6’8″, 250-pound maestro that can do anything on a basketball court, is too unique to be pigeonholed into a single position. Kevin Durant, standing nearly seven-feet tall with a sweet-shooting stroke, holds the same designation. The two, different as they were, were the same position and the league’s top scorers.
The pair met during the 2012 NBA Finals in a clash of not only two superstars, but two styles veering the game farther apart. LeBron and his Miami Heat made the NBA Finals a year prior and did so with the Big Three trio of James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. While James and Wade were the meat-and-potatoes of their attack, it was Bosh who held the keys to unlocking their true potential.
But first, we have to look at the prior year to understand what happened.
During the 2011 Finals loss to Dallas, Miami started Joel Anthony as the team’s center, playing the defensive-minded big man 20 minutes per game alongside rebounding specialist Udonis Haslem at 29 minutes. Bosh was entrenched at the 4, marking Dirk Nowitzki and letting a true banger go block-to-block with Tyson Chandler. Miami ended up losing in six games.
Fast-forward a year and the Oklahoma City Thunder similarly started non-shooting post Kendrick Perkins, while their 4-man Serge Ibaka was more competent in the mid-range and able to guard Bosh for stretches. Coach Erik Spoelstra determined not to repeat the mistake he made in 2011, playing Bosh exclusively at the 4.
Instead of letting a solid and athletic defender like Ibaka check Bosh and take away the spacing he provided for James and Wade, Spoelstra slid Bosh to the 5 as their de facto “center”. Standing at 6’11’, he was more than capable of sizing up with Perkins down low.
Perk, a non-scoring threat on the block, wouldn’t hurt the Heat from an offensive standpoint if they went small. Shane Battier started at the 4, and the Thunder had no answer to Miami playing five shooters across the board. Per NBA.com, in 116 minutes on the floor during the Finals, Kendrick Perkins was a -25 and resigned to fewer than 20 in games 4 and 5 of the series.
While Miami started the trend with Erik Spoelstra, it was Steve Kerr and the Golden State Warriors who finished it.
During the 2015 NBA Finals between Golden State and the Cleveland Cavaliers, Kerr and the Warriors were down 2-1 and struggled to create mismatches against the Cavs. Kerr, at the nudging of assistant Nick U’Ren, removed former All-Star and starting center Andrew Bogut from the rotation and went with Draymond Green as the team’s starting five.
Standing 6’7″, Green was instantly the league’s smallest center and shredded traditional stereotypes about what each position is or does. Golden State obliterated Cleveland, winning three-straight games to grab the NBA Championship. Andre Iguodala, who replaced Bogut in the starting lineup, won Finals MVP by shutting down LeBron James and mirroring him defensively.
As for Bogut? He played 2 minutes and 46 seconds during those final three games.
The league instantly trended smaller to try and match the juggernaut Warriors. That process expedited tenfold when Kevin Durant joined Golden State, giving the Warriors five former All-Stars sharing the court at one time—none of which are traditional post players.
We’ve now seen an insane influx of shooting. The Cavaliers, currently last in NBA 3-point attempts per game (23.7), take five more per game than the highest-volume shooting team twenty years ago. That is a byproduct of the necessary adjustments made to combat defensive freedom welded with the skills taught and honed at younger levels of basketball.
As coaches receive more bountiful skill sets on their rosters, their creativity catches up. Defensively, there isn’t as great of a concern about guarding strength with strength near the basket. More shooters dictate more speed, and more speed means fewer big men.
The average height across the league hasn’t changed all that much: 6’7″ shooters are replacing 6’11” centers, but longer, versatile wings are displacing 5’11” point guards. Offenses have officially caught up to the defensive adjustments made nearly twenty years ago, with points per game and scoring efficiencies peaking.
Switching defenses, where they can more easily navigate screening actions without ceding an individual advantage by doing so, are in vogue. The more similar players that share the floor are physically, the more a defense can stymie an offensive action by switching. We’re past the day of point guards, power forwards and centers.
The league has evolved towards versatility and, with that, positions are a dying breed.
Thankfully, we now have multiple basketball coaches at numerous levels coloring outside the lines of typical positional confines. Creativity leads to innovation, and that’s undoubtedly where the league has blossomed over the last few years. Be careful reading an article and seeing the phrase “power forward” when describing a player, or the label “center” on the starting lineup introductions.
We’re already past that point.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats are courtesy of basketball-reference, NBA.com or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of December 2, 2018.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.