One of the most interesting developments in the NBA over the last decade or so has been the increasing notion that shooting guards and small forwards (and to an extent, power forwards and centers) are interchangable.
One thing we're seeing early this year with the Timberwolves is several players playing out of position. And it's hurting those players, and the team.
When Kevin Durant was drafted, the first thing his new coach, PJ Carlesimo, did was to ink him in at the shooting guard position.
On paper, it made a great deal of sense. Durant was physically thin and his strength was in question after he failed to press 185 lbs at the combine even once. He had plenty of ballhandling skill, could facilitate well enough, and what little he gave up in quickness he'd make up for in length.
On the court, it couldn't have been a worse decision.
In his rookie year, Durant shot 43%....just 28% from three....en-route to an inefficient 20 ppg. His assist/TO ratio was solidly negative, and he grabbed just 4 rebounds a contest. He attempted only 5 free throws a game...a testament to how little he was able to attack the basket despite his enormous size advantage most nights.
At the beginning of the next season (2008-2009), things didn't get any better. In the opening month of November, Durant upped his shooting to 46%, but his scoring only increased by 2 points. His rebounds kept at 4 per game, his free throws kept at 5 per game, and his assist/TO ratio got even worse. But worst of all, the Sonics as a team got off to a miserable start....2-16 by the start of December.
Exit PJ Carlesimo, enter Scottie Brooks. And for his first act, Brooks moved Durant to small forward.
The dividends were immediate. In December, Durant's FG% rose to 47% and his scoring average surged to 25 ppg. He added another free throw to his averages, attempting 6.5 per game, and his rebounding nearly doubled to 7 a night, while his assist/TO ratio broke even.
In January, Durant was shooting 50% for 27 points a game, with 9 rebounds, 4 assists, and 9 FTA a night. Most importantly, the Sonics began winning....7-7 for the month.
Natural improvement with experience is one thing. A jump of 8 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 4 FTA, and an 8% increase in shooting over just a two month period is something else. Durant moving to small forward was the best thing that could have happened for him and his team.
Last year, during a TNT broadcast of a Suns game, Kevin Harlan made the comment that many people....fans in particular....were under the impression that the swingman positions were interchangable. That is, after all, why they are called swingmen....they can swing between the two positions. What I found interesting was that Reggie Miller immediately piped up with "No, they absolutely are not".....and then made the counter-comment that if that's the general consensus, the NBA must be a league of rebels.
How many teams....especially the good ones....employ a 2 and 3 that could be switched for each other? Kobe Bryant might be able to play some small forward, but Ron Artest is clearly not a shooting guard. Paul Pierce can play some shooting guard, but Ray Allen is most definitely not a small forward. Kevin Martin is not a small forward. Dwyane Wade is not a small forward. Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Richard Jefferson....not shooting guards. In fact, it seems that team that do try to employ the 2-3 swingman technique...the Atlantas and Utahs and Orlandos and Dallas...es...are the ones who come up short when it matters.
The difference between the two positions are more than just size and skill....although that certainly plays a big part of it. There's also a sharp difference in spacing an utilization. The 2 and 3 occupy different parts of the court, move at different times in different directions, and on the top teams, serve very different roles.
Sometimes one is offense, while the other's defense (Ginobili and Bowen, Martin and Battier) Sometimes one is heavily on the ball, while the other is mostly off it (Kobe and Artest, Pierce and Allen) Sometimes one is a major shooter/scorer, while the other is more of a distributor (Wade and LeBron....or Jordan and Pippen) And while there are times that they play the "other" position or handle the "other" role, no one will mistake one for the other. No will will ever mistake Jalen Rose for Reggie Miller. No one will ever mistake shooting guard Kevin Durant for small forward Kevin Durant.
Simply because a player can play a certain position doesn't mean he should.
The Cavaliers eventually realized that LeBron shouldn't play point guard. The Suns eventually realized that Amare Stoudemire shouldn't play center. The Mavericks have appeared to finally accept that Caron Butler is not a shooting guard. When Kevin Garnett was drafted, he was put at small forward, and it took the Wolves almost 5 years to realize he was better as a power forward...moving him to the 4 was the start of his rebounding dominance and 6 year run as a 20-10-5 player.
The Wolves now have a host of players playing out of position this season, most notably headlined by Michael Beasley and Wesley Johnson. The jury is still (somewhat) out on Beasley as a small forward, but it's clear that Wes is very much a natural 3. Shooting guard does not play to his strengths...quickness and athleticism, rebounding, and catch-and-shoot ability....while highlighting his weakness: average ballhandling. It will be interesting to see his time splits when 82 Games gets up and running for the season, but so far the difference between Wes coming off the bench at the 3 versus Wes starting at the 2 has appeared to be pretty stark.
Part of effective rotation coaching is certainly to find the best 5 man lineup you can. But part of it is to simply play players at the position they play the best.
Kevin Love should be on the floor. The team needs to field him in some capacity, and his physical stature essentially corners him into playing power forward exclusively. That forces Beasley to the 3 and Wes Johnson to the 2. Not ideal, but necessary for the time being. But for the coaches...and us fans....to really get an accurate idea of what this team could be, Beasley and Wes need to spend time at the 4 and 3 at some point.
And the team needs to differentiate between the 3 and 2 (Wes Johnson and Andre Iguodala?) because in the Triangle, those players perform remarkably different roles.