Why Basketball Positions Are Becoming Less Important

STACK Expert Quinn McDowell reviews traditional position descriptions and explains the concept of 'positionless' basketball.

The positions on a basketball team are described using both numbers and titles. The following is a basic description of the positions and typical responsibilities of each player. These descriptions are what we traditionally think of when we talk about players on the court. Later I explain why the notion of "positionless basketball" is becoming more popular and why basketball positions are becoming less important.

Point Guard (1)

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The point guard is the team's primary ball-handler, meaning he or she does the most dribbling and gets the team into its offensive sets. Point guards usually bring the basketball up the court on offense. Most point guards are responsible for distributing the ball to teammates and getting other players to the right spots on the floor.

Point guards signal plays to teammates on the floor, serving as an extension of the coach and executing his or her plans for both offense and defense. The point guard usually defends the other team's best ball-handler on defense and is responsible for keeping the other point guard from breaking down his or her team's defense. The best point guards are often referred to as a "coach on the floor," because they have a lot of responsibility.

Point Guard Skills: Ball handling, court vision, passing, leadership, scoring ability, decision-making, game management

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Shooting Guard (2)

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It is becoming more popular for shooting guards to share the responsibility of handling the ball with point guards, but traditionally shooting guards play off the ball. Shooting guards still need to have strong play-making and ball-handling skills, but they often reap the rewards of the point guard's penetration by knocking down open shots. Many shooting guards use indirect screens to get open shots. They should be able to make open shots, come off pick and rolls, defend the opposing team's guards, and handle the ball.

Shooting Guard Skills: Ball handling, shooting, defense, driving the basketball, passing

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Small Forward/Wing (3)

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Although there are a lot of similarities between the 2 and 3 spots, small forwards are usually taller than shooting guards. They typically handle the basketball less than the guards, but they are typically the most versatile players on the floor. They can guard players taller or shorter than they are, and they should be able to score in a variety of ways (shooting from the outside and driving to the rim). A few of the ways wings can score is by coming off screens, posting up, getting out in transition, and driving the basket. Versatile wings should be able to shoot, pass, score, defend and rebound.

Great wings are "jack-of-all-trades" players.

Small Forward Skills: Ball handling, shooting off screens, driving to the basket, running the floor, versatile defenders, post-up ability

Power Forward (4)

Kevin Love Making a Move

The power forward is usually the tallest player on the court other than the center. He/she traditionally plays close to the basket, although more and more 4s are being asked to step out and hit open jumpers.

Players at the 4 spot usually work in tandem with the center to guard the opposing team's biggest players. Power forwards typically have the ability to make mid-range jump shots, play in the post and score off pick and rolls. Some of the best 4s stretch the opposing team's defense by making 3-point shots, forcing the other team's biggest players away from the basket. Power forwards should be able to run the floor in transition, set good screens, play interior defense, make open jump shots and rebound the ball.

Power Forward Skills: Rebounding, post defense, shoot jumpers, play off pick and rolls, set good screens

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Center (5)

Roy Hibbert

The center is usually the biggest player on the floor and serves as the anchor of his/her team's defense. The 5 spends most of the game near the basket or close to the key, so he/she can see the entire floor. Great centers communicate to their teammates on defense and help them get in the right spots. Centers protect the rim on defense by blocking shots, taking charges and rebounding the ball. On offense, they help their team by setting good screens, scoring in the post and making good passes out of double teams. The best centers also make open jump shots from 15 to 18 feet away. Having a dominant back-to-the-basket center is becoming rare in today's game, but centers who know how to score the ball are in demand,  because they often command double teams from opposing players.

Center Skills: Blocking shots, post defense, rebounding, setting good screens, post-play, post-passing, shooting jumpers

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The Case Against "Positions"

Why Basketball Positions Are Becoming Less Important

From the time young players start learning the game, the idea of "positions" is engrained in their psyches. However, times are changing in the hoops landscape. The NBA champion Golden State Warriors did a lot to undermine the importance of positions this past season. One of the biggest keys to their success was that several players on their roster could effectively play several positions. On defense, the Warriors had shooting guards guarding centers and centers guarding wing players. These types of moves have become more common as the game of basketball has evolved.

Teams like the Warriors are changing the narrative of how teams think about traditional defense and offense with respect to player positioning. Positions worked to prevent players from getting matched up against opponents who were bigger, stronger, or quicker than they were. But teams today are less concerned about positions, and they don't mind living with "match-up" problems as long as they can take away their opponents' strengths and capitalize on their weaknesses.

The theory behind this thinking says that if a smaller player can hold his/her own against an opposing team's bigger player on defense, the bigger player will be at a disadvantage when he/she has to guard the smaller, quicker player on offense. Ultimately, positions are falling in the hierarchy of what's most important to a team's succcess. More important than having good players at every position is a team's ability to use its personnel in a way that maximizes the team's strengths. Players who can defend multiple positions, make plays in transition and have the flexibility to give their team more options on both ends of the floor are the ones who represent the new trend of "positionless basketball."

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