With the Timberwolves drafting yet another power forward (or is he a small forward? - either way he plays the same position as at least 3 other guys already on the roster) it seems prudent to question whether traditional positions have value, to question whether the landscape of the NBA has truly become position-less as Tony Ronzone suggested.
Below the fold I will attempt to answer the titular question: What's the point of having positions in basketball?Considering that I may just as well have ripped off Dr. Wolfenstein's "Box? What Box?" 'franchise' of posts with this inquiry into whether the paradigm of the NBA has shifted away from positional basketball into a free-for-all, I'm going to approach this from the most basic level and see what conclusions I draw.
1. As Herm Edwards famously pointed out, "You play to win the game!"
2. As John Madden has pointed out, "The team that scores the most points usually wins the game."
3. In the game of basketball points are scored by getting the ball to pass down through a hoop that is 10' off the ground - or because a player from the other team unfairly prevented the ball from passing down through the hoop in violation of the rules of the game (a.k.a: goal-tending).
A. We can deduce from the first three points that successful basketball teams will get the ball to pass through their hoop more often or with a greater degree of difficulty than the opposing team and thereby score more points and win the game.
Two basic strategies for winning games come to mind at this point: 1) score more points than your opponent (a.k.a: good offense beats good defense); 2) prevent your opponent from scoring more points than you (a.k.a: good defense beats good offense).
Let's break down the basics of basketball offense. The object is to make the ball pass down through your hoop. It is easier to get the ball to pass down through the hoop when the ball starts closer to the hoop - this is a common-sense based assumption born out by the statistics indicating the slam dunk is the highest percentage field goal attempt, followed closely by layups, with 3-point attempts being among the lowest percentage attempts. (A field goal attempt is a shot from anywhere on the floor during regular game play, as opposed to a shot from the free throw line after a foul; if a field goal attempt originates from a player whose feet are farther from the hoop than the 3-point line is, it is not only a field goal attempt but also a 3-point attempt)
If it's easiest to score from close to the hoop, how do you get close to the hoop with the ball? Considering the hoop is 10' above the ground, one way to be closer to the hoop is to be closer to 10' tall - or more accurately to have your standing reach be closer to 10' because you use your hands to manipulate the ball. Of course, if you aren't 10' tall, or if you don't have a standing reach of 10', you could always jump to make up the difference. Another way to be closer to the hoop is to position yourself in the area on the floor under the hoop. Of course, being close to the hoop isn't enough. It takes a fair amount of skill to get the ball to pass through the hoop unless you are dunking the ball.
Thus far we've established that on offense you would rather have taller players than shorter players (with height over a certain level, say 15', actually becoming a hindrance), players that can jump high rather than those that cannot, and players that are skilled at making the ball pass through the hoop. (Height, Athleticism, and Ability to put the ball through the hoop)
Of course, you don't always have to be close to the hoop to score. If you can make the ball pass down through the hoop without being close to it, that is just as good as being able to do so from close to it. In fact to encourage people to attempt field goals from farther away, where the success rate is significantly lower, the game actually awards an extra point if an attempt originating from a certain distance is successful. This adds Shooting to our list of skills valuable for offense.
Considering that each team consists of 5 players on the floor at a time, but only one basketball, the ability to pass the ball to your teammates is also crucial on offense. Of course, if one person passes the ball the other person has to be able to catch the ball in order for passing to be effective. The rules state that the person in control of the ball is not allowed to take more than 2 steps without bouncing the ball on the floor, so the ability to control the ball while bouncing it on the floor is important. Finally, considering that the opponents are likely to attempt to take the ball from you, it is important to be able to control the ball in such a manner so as to prevent them from taking it from you (a.k.a: ball-handling).
Now let's break down the basics of basketball defense. The object of defense is to prevent the opposition from making the ball pass through the hoop. The simplest way of doing this is to keep the ball out of their possession - if they don't have the ball, then the ball is far less likely to pass through their hoop. One way of ensuring the opponents don't possess the ball is to take it away from them (a.k.a: stealing the ball). Another way of ensuring the opponents don't possess the ball is to prevent them from getting it when nobody possesses it (a.k.a: rebounding the ball, chasing down loose balls, and forcing bad passes that lead to turnovers).
The second simplest way of preventing the opposition from making the ball pass through the hoop is to change the trajectory of the ball so that it is going away from the hoop rather than towards it (a.k.a: blocking the ball). If you are unable to keep the ball out of the opponents' possession or to change the trajectory of the ball, then the next best thing to do is to ensure that the opponents are farther away from the hoop when they attempt to put the ball through it (a.k.a. preventing penetration, fighting for position, and staying between your opponent and the hoop).
Now I'm going to make a common sense leap with this next part of defense so bear with me. Considering that it takes a fair amount of skill to make the ball go through the hoop, anything you can do to interfere with the offensive player while he attempts to do so is likely to decrease his chance of success. One way to interfere is to prevent the opposing player from seeing the hoop - if he doesn't know what he's aiming for he's less likely to be able to make the ball go through it (a.k.a: staying in your opponents face). Another way to interfere is to make the opposing player change the motion he would normally use in attempting to make the ball go through the hoop (a.k.a: altering shots).
So what attributes will be useful in playing defense? To steal the ball it is probably necessary to have quick hands and to be smart enough to know where the ball is likely to be going. To rebound the ball it helps to know where the ball is likely to be going, and considering that rebound opportunities begin at the moment the ball fails to pass through the hoop it probably helps to be tall. Holding your position and preventing an opponent from getting in position also helps when rebounding, so strength is another attribute that is useful when rebounding. Chasing down loose balls takes speed, quickness, and hustle/desire. To prevent penetration you have to have good footwork and quickness. Fighting for position requires the strength to maintain your position or push the opponent off of theirs. The ability to alter shots and the ability to block shots require essentially the same attributes: knowing when and where the opponent is going to attempt to make the ball pass through the hoop, height or the ability to jump high, long reach with coordination, and proper timing to bring everything together.
Based on the attributes necessary to play offense and defense, ideally all of your players would be really tall, athletic, highly intelligent when it comes to the game of basketball, strong, with good footwork, great timing, exceptional quickness, exceptional speed, long arms, knowledge of where the ball is likely to be going at all times, the ability to make the ball go through the hoop no matter where the attempt originates from, ball-handling ability, passing ability, and an endless amount of desire to do all of the things necessary to win games. Plus they should have the physical conditioning to be on the floor for the entire game every game.
Unfortunately God only made one Kevin Garnett, so teams have to deal with players that are unable to do all of these things. So ideally, the 5 players on the floor for your team at any given time should have skill sets that combine to give your team the ability to do all of those things. You need somebody able to block and alter shots. You need somebody able to rebound the ball. You need somebody willing and able to chase down loose balls. You need somebody able to steal the ball from opponents. You need somebody able to prevent the opponents from stealing the ball from you. You need players that can make the ball pass through the hoop from each of the different areas of the floor. You need players that can make it more difficult for the opponents to make the ball pass through the hoop from each of the different areas of the floor. You need somebody that can pass the ball to their teammates when they are in a good position to make the ball pass through the hoop. And you need somebody that can get themselves in a good position to make the ball pass through the hoop without any help from teammates.
Knowing that not all players can be good at everything, what combinations of abilities/attributes are likely to be readily available or useful?
Ideally if you can't have every player on your team be tall, you would like the tall people on your team to be able to rebound, block shots, and alter shots because these are the skills where being tall helps the most. Of course, the opponent is likely to match their tall players against your tall players. As rebounding occurs most frequently in the area close to the hoop the ability to establish and maintain position is useful for your tall players to have. Because your tall players are likely to be close to the hoop it is probably also useful for them to be skilled at making the ball go through the hoop from that area as well.
If that's what you want your tall players to be able to do, then what about the shorter players? If the tall players are usually located close to the hoop so that they may more effectively rebound, block, and alter shots, then it doesn't make sense to have your shorter players in that area of the floor because they are at a big disadvantage there. This means the shorter players belong farther away from the basket. Considering that you must bounce the ball repeatedly if you want to simultaneously control the ball while moving, it makes sense for shorter players to be able to handle the ball because it has to travel a shorter distance each bounce - and it is much easier for an opponent to take the ball away while it is being bounced than while it is being held. If the shorter players are going to be responsible for moving with the ball, then they will also need to be able to pass the ball in order to ensure the taller players get the opportunity to take advantage of being closer to the hoop. In order to pass the ball effectively they need to be able to see where the other players are and understand the likely movements of all of the players on the floor in order to find passing lanes that are going to be open (a.k.a: court vision). Also, if shorter players are going to be farther from the hoop, it would be ideal if they were able to make the ball pass through the hoop from that area.
What do you do with the players in between? On the continuum between short players and tall players you would like their skills to be at the same point on the continuum between what short players do and what tall players do.
The 5 traditional positions on a basketball team are Center, Power Forward, Small Forward, Shooting Guard, and Point Guard.
What is a traditional Center supposed to do? Play close to the hoop on both offense and defense, block shots, alter shots, and rebound. If they're good they'll be able to score close to the hoop and maybe hit a 10-12 foot jump shot every now and then. They have no ball-handling responsibilities, which is a good thing because they have little ability to handle the ball. They should be asked to make only the simplest of passes because they usually don't have the court vision necessary to do much more than that.
What is a traditional Power Forward supposed to do? Play fairly close to the hoop on both offense and defense, block shots almost as well as a Center, alter shots almost as well as a Center, and rebound almost as well as a center. If they're good they'll be able to score around the basket pretty well and hit a jump shot out to 18 feet away. They should be adept at maneuvers that require one or two bounces of the ball to accomplish, but asking them to do much more ball-handling than that is unwise because they usually don't have the skill to do so. They should be slightly better passers than Centers, but not much better.
What is a traditional Small Forward supposed to do? This is kind of the wild card of the traditional positions. You can have a player that is tall enough to play close to the hoop and do the kinds of things taller players do. You can have a player that is shorter that is able to do more of what short players do. This is a position where you can play to the imbalance on your roster in the hopes that your player causes more problems for the opposition than their player causes for your team.
What is a traditional Shooting Guard supposed to do? They should be able to perform fairly complex maneuvers while bouncing the ball. They should be able to make their way to pretty much any area of the floor they want to be on. As their name implies, they should be able to shoot the ball from pretty much anywhere on the floor. They should have good enough court vision to put themselves in position for Power Forwards and Centers to make easy passes to them which lead to field goal attempts from closer to the hoop. A Shooting Guard should also be able to pass the ball to Power Forwards and Centers while they are in positions to get shot attempts close to the hoop. Defensively they should be able to prevent their opponent from getting to whatever area of the floor they want to be on, and they should be able to steal the ball fairly well.
What is a traditional Point Guard supposed to do? They should be able to perform complex maneuvers while bouncing the ball. They should be able to get to wherever they want to on the floor while bouncing the ball. They should have the court vision necessary to pass the ball to any player on the floor in a position for them to be able to attempt a field goal. They are responsible for getting the defending players out of position in order to ensure their teammates have the best possible chance to succeed on any given field goal attempt. They should be able to move without the ball to make it easy for Power Forwards and Centers to make good passes. They should be able to shoot from pretty much any area of the floor, but their first obligation is to get their teammates open shots. Defensively they should be able to prevent their opponent from getting where they want to go and they should be the best at getting steals and hunting down loose balls.
Realistically your team can be successful as long as it is able to do most of the things that are necessary to win games. It doesn't really matter which of your players are better at the types of things tall players are supposed to be good at. It just matters that the skill sets that taller players are supposed to have are represented by your players. It doesn't really matter which of your players is better at the types of things short players are supposed to be good at. It just matters that the skill sets that shorter players are supposed to have are represented by your players. However, it is beneficial when a player's body size and skill set match up. Is it good to have a shorter player that is good at blocking and altering shots? Yes, but it is better to have a taller player that is good at blocking and altering shots because they are more likely to be in a position to block or alter the shots that are otherwise most likely to succeed (i.e: the shots from closer to the hoop). Is it good to have a taller player that is good at handling the ball and making passes? Yes, but it is better to have a shorter player that is good at those things because of the ball having to travel a shorter distance and thereby being less available to opponents attempting to steal it.
Do positions matter in the modern NBA? No, what matters the most is having the right combination of skill sets amongst the 5 players on the floor at any given time; however, it just so happens that the traditional positions in basketball are designed to provide a team with the right combination of skill sets amongst the 5 players on the floor at any given time, so yes positions matter.