Positions and systems

Austin Burton was on hand at Rucker Park in Harlem last weekend for the World Basketball Festival when Kobe Bryant addressed the media:

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.

The future of positional conformity has been an active topic of conversation this summer in certain quarters. As Rob Mahoney of Two Man Game writes, it's a discussion that becomes more relevant when a luminary like Bryant weighs in:

A universe where all ballers can play in perfect harmony, stand as equals, and worry not over the endless criticism regarding their positional performance. That’s the endgame of all of this, and the fact that Kobe sees it too is a positive sign. Positions as we know them aren’t quite dead, but when one of the league’s pillars decrees them unworthy from atop his ring-and-trophy-adorned tower, people would be wise to listen.

Bryant is far from infallible, but he’s one of the sport’s more active scholars. He knows where this game has been and where it’s headed, and he has an intimate look into the eye (or rather, an eye) of the storm, to boot. From Pau Gasol to Derek Fisher, Shannon Brown to Ron Artest, and Lamar Odom to Kobe himself, the Lakers have a lot of versatile talent that evades convention. The entire league has a lot of versatile talent that evades convention, and that’s something both you, I, and Kobe can agree on.

Mahoney's last remark speaks to an issue that hasn't been all that present in the salon:

Blurring the definitions and imperatives of basketball positions can be fully realized only if there are systems ready to accommodate that shift.

There's a reason the Lakers have "a lot of versatile talent that evades convention." It's because the team features an offense that de-emphasizes traditional positions in favor of function. In the triangle offense, Derek Fisher -- the nominal point guard -- acts as a spot-up shooter in the confines of the half court (particularly in corner sets) far more often than he does as a distributor. The wings in the triangle are often the trigger men, and the Lakers can maximize Bryant (their shooting guard) in the post without disrupting the sequential flow of the triangle.

The same holds true in Utah, where the Jazz's two and three man actions require every player on the floor to perform every conceivable offensive function. There's nothing new about the flex -- it's been around for decades -- but its bedrock principles demand that every player be able to screen, pass, shoot and cut. By the time the Jazz finish their "power swing" set, at least two perimeter players have set screens, at least one of the big men has cut from one side of the court to the other, and at least three or four different players have made passes off reads.

Orlando's sets rely on more traditional positional functions, but having a wing that can handle the ball in a screen-and-roll set and Rashard Lewis' long-range game are both crucial to the Magic's offensive success. Rick Adelman's system has traditionally broadened the positional functions of his big men (think Chris Webber). It also requires that every one else work in concert. Once a perimeter player has the ball, Luis Scola's responsibilities are virtually indistinguishable from Shane Battier's -- even if the latter has greater range. Everyone moves and everyone fills.

In short, pro basketball is ripe for a positional revolution -- but like every revolution, those challenging the status quo must be ready to govern once they take control.