The NBA is becoming a positionless league. Coaches are more comfortable playing nontraditional lineups, cross-switching defensive assignments, and sliding players between positions. However, there are still five spots in a lineup, and what spot a player occupies still matters. Every five-man group needs someone to perform a few basic roles so everything one guy does (or doesn’t do) impacts his four teammates. That’s why who plays where is more important than ever. More positional flexibility means more diversity in the types of players at each spot. This series will take a look at how each position is changing, through the lens of three starters, each with a different skill set.
The NBA is inching closer to becoming a truly positionless league. Coaches are more comfortable playing nontraditional lineups, cross-switching defensive assignments, and sliding players between positions. While the best players always have been capable of handling multiple roles, they have never had more freedom to showcase their versatility. James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo ran point last season. Kevin Durant and LeBron James were centers for significant stretches of the NBA Finals. The days of rigid positional responsibilities are over. Just because a player is a certain height or weight doesn’t mean he has to perform a defined set of tasks. The tallest guy on the floor doesn’t have to protect the rim; the shortest doesn’t have to run the offense.
However, there are still five spots in a lineup, and what spot a player occupies still matters. No man is an island in basketball. The sport is a dynamic system involving the interaction of 10 different players on two ends of the floor. Every five-man group needs someone to perform a few basic roles, so everything one guy does (or doesn’t do) impacts his four teammates. If a team plays a score-first player at point guard instead of a traditional floor general, it had better have a point forward to pick up the slack. A 7-footer allergic to banging in the paint needs an enforcer who can do the dirty work. Coaches get the most out of their players by putting them in the roles best suited to their game, with the right combination of teammates around them.
That’s why who plays where is more important than ever. More positional flexibility means more diversity in the types of players at each spot in the lineup. If not all 1s are point guards, what kinds of players should teams use in that spot? That’s the question we will try to answer in this series, as we spotlight interesting players at every position—consider it a census of each NBA position.
Forget the stars, the guys who are good enough to make everyone else fit around them. We are more interested in the average to above-average starters, the players with the talent to be contributors on good teams when put in the right situation. We will start the series with a look at three 1s with three vastly different skill sets and how they fit into the way the game is being played in 2017.
Brogdon is the first second-round pick in NBA history to win Rookie of the Year. By the time the playoffs rolled around, Brogdon had established himself as Milwaukee’s starting point guard, but not even the Bucks knew what they had at first—he started the season backing up Matthew Dellavedova. At 24, the UVA product was more developed, both physically and mentally, than most of his peers, and he plays with the poise and self-assurance of a longtime NBA veteran. He slipped in the draft because of concern about his lack of upside, due to his age and average athleticism, but he had a higher floor than people realized. That’s partly because no one projected him as a point guard.
At 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, Brogdon has gargantuan size for his position, and he perfectly fits Milwaukee’s model of suffocating opposing teams with length. The ability of Giannis and Khris Middleton to create shots for everyone else allowed Jason Kidd to play a nontraditional point guard like Brogdon at the 1. He’s by far one of the biggest players at his position in the NBA, and deploying a wing-size player at that spot gives the Bucks incredible defensive flexibility. They pushed a better and more experienced Raptors team to the limit in the first round by starting a lo-fi version of Golden State’s Lineup of Death, with four wings around Thon Maker, a versatile 7-footer capable of stretching the floor and guarding on the perimeter.
Brogdon had respectable individual stats for a rookie, averaging 10.2 points, 4.2 assists, and 2.8 rebounds a game, but he had a much smaller role on offense than most starting point guards. He had a usage rate of 18.5, 52nd in the NBA among guards who started at least 20 games last season, and averaged only 57.4 touches per game, nearly half the number of guys like James Harden and Russell Westbrook. The key to his success was his unusual ability, for such an inexperienced player, to be efficient offensively (he shot 45.7 percent from the field and 40.4 percent from 3) and limit his mistakes (1.5 turnovers per game). Brogdon rarely began possessions on offense for Milwaukee, but he did an excellent job of finishing them. He knocked down open shots and served as a secondary playmaker, taking advantage of a scrambling defense to drive the ball into the lane and make the extra pass.
Where he really made his mark was on defense. A two-time Defensive Player of the Year in the ACC who played for one of the most defensive-minded coaches in the NCAA in Tony Bennett, Brogdon came into the league with an advanced understanding of team defensive concepts and his responsibilities on and off the ball. While he’s not the most fleet of foot, he knows how to position himself and use his size to his advantage on that side of the ball. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Brogdon was in the 89th percentile in the NBA in terms of defending the pick-and-roll, the 63rd percentile in defending isolations, and the 80th percentile in defending dribble hand-offs. Not many 1s can body up DeMar DeRozan on a pull-up jumper:
Brogdon averaged 30.5 minutes per game in the playoffs, four more than in the regular season, and he should be able to handle more responsibility in his second year in the NBA. His ability to spot up off the ball and defend multiple positions means he could fit into almost any lineup that Kidd comes up with, so there’s no reason for him not to take more minutes from guys like Dellavedova and Jason Terry, who will turn 40 in September. The Bucks could even experiment with giving him a bigger role in the offense when Giannis and Middleton aren’t on the floor. He was in the 78th percentile in creating offense out of the pick-and-roll as a rookie, and he rarely got the chance to post up, even though he towered over most of the players who guarded him. Either way, his bread and butter will still be shooting over the top of smaller guards and bullying them defensively with his size and strength.
Brogdon’s success, as much as anything, is a tribute to Giannis’s versatility and the way the Bucks can leverage that to put together unusual lineups. His size, shooting ability, and feel for the game would have allowed him to stick in the NBA regardless, but he almost certainly wouldn’t have been a Rookie of the Year candidate nearly anywhere else. The teams where he would make the most sense—the Cavs and Rockets—are ones that also feature a bigger wing who handles the ball for most of the game.
Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Houston answered the question of how to fill the 1 spot around a supersize primary ball handler differently. Houston played an elite defensive point guard (Patrick Beverley), Cleveland gave an all-time great shot creator the freedom to hunt for his own offense (Kyrie Irving), and Milwaukee slid a versatile wing into that position. As more tall players come into the league with the ability to run point, more teams will have to answer that question. Luka Doncic, at 6-foot-8, is a point forward projected to go in the top three in next year’s draft, while R.J. Barrett, a 6-foot-6 lead guard, is the early front-runner to be the no. 1 pick in 2019. The teams that draft those guys might want to look for the next Brogdon to put around them.
One of the most polarizing players in the NBA is getting a second chance to prove himself. After six up-and-down seasons with the Wolves, where his unusual combination of strengths and weaknesses was hidden on a team that never made the playoffs, he was traded to the Jazz in the offseason. While Utah is reeling from the loss of Gordon Hayward in free agency, the Jazz still have enough talent to be a playoff contender, even in the loaded Western Conference, provided Rubio can fill the playmaking void created by the departures of Hayward and George Hill without suffocating their already space-deprived offense. Rubio is a 26-year-old with two years left on his contract; if he can’t make it work in Utah, he may not get another chance to run an NBA team.
The pros with Rubio are obvious. He’s an incredibly entertaining player with a gift for sneaking passes through traffic to find open teammates. Rubio is the last of a dying breed, a pass-first point guard, one who averaged 9.1 assists per game and only 2.6 turnovers last season. He was second in the league in passes made (66.9 per game), and he had a minuscule 17.4 usage rating despite touching the ball 83.6 times per game. Everyone likes playing with Rubio because he’s always looking to set them up. He’s also an elite defender, with the size (6-foot-4 and 190 pounds) and speed to guard multiple positions, the quick hands to poke away balls, and the anticipation and basketball IQ to jump passing lanes. Considering his above-average rebounding and steal numbers, Rubio is the rare point guard who can start the break immediately.
The cons, though, are just as clear. Rubio can’t shoot to save his life, and opposing teams don’t have to respect his offense. He shot 40.2 percent from the field (66th among guards who started at least 20 games last season) and 30.6 percent from 3 (67th), and he wasn’t much more effective at the rim, either, where he shot 46.7 percent. In an era when most point guards shoot first and ask questions later, Rubio generates nearly all his offensive value through passing. He’s in the 6th percentile in the league in transition scoring and in the 29th percentile in the half court, but when you count the offense created from his passes, those numbers shoot up to 73rd and 98th, respectively.
Rubio’s supporters point to how well Minnesota’s offense traditionally ran with him in charge, despite wildly different levels of talent around him. The Timberwolves finished outside the top 12 in offensive rating only once (2014-15) in the past four years, thanks largely to Rubio playing in only 22 games that season due to injury. He usually had one of the best net ratings on the team, so it’s not like his inability to score has been holding the Wolves back. Minnesota hasn’t made the playoffs in 13 seasons, the longest drought in the league, despite having Kevin Garnett and Kevin Love, at different points in that stretch, in the prime of their careers. There’s a lot of blame to go around for what has gone wrong over there the past decade and a half, and it’s unclear how much is Rubio’s fault.
For his detractors, Rubio’s lack of playoff experience is even more of a red flag, since he’s never had to deal with opposing teams specifically game planning to take him out of a series. How will he fare if his opponents take care of the ball, keep him in the half court, and force his team to play four-on-five every possession until he proves he can confidently take (and make) open shots? Fourth-quarter offense has long been a problem for Minnesota, perhaps because its primary ball handler is so reluctant to put up shots. Rubio was in the 19th percentile of NBA players last season when it comes to creating his own shot at the end of the shot clock, and he doesn’t have to be guarded when he’s playing off the ball in those scenarios, either.
Playing in Utah will provide new challenges and opportunities for the Spaniard. Rubio is at his best in an uptempo system where he can push the pace at every opportunity, since his inability to score is less of an issue in transition. Under Quin Snyder, though, the Jazz have played at one of the slowest tempos in the league, preferring to walk the ball up the floor and run a lot of designed plays. Nor is there much space in the half court for their perimeter players to operate, since Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors can’t shoot outside of 15 feet. Rubio won’t have the benefit of playing with an elite stretch big man like Love or Karl-Anthony Towns in Utah, so he’ll have to sneak balls through even smaller cracks in the defense if he’s going to be effective.
The good news is he’ll be playing with an elite defense behind him for the first time in his career. Playing with Gobert, the best rim protector in the league, will allow Rubio to gamble more. If he can force bad shots and create turnovers, he will allow Utah to run selectively, and the Jazz might find a successful formula by playing stifling defense and being hyperefficient in the rare times they push the ball. There’s still plenty of offensive talent around him, with guys like Rodney Hood, Joe Ingles, Alec Burks, Joe Johnson, Dante Exum, and promising lottery pick Donovan Mitchell all looking to take advantage of more opportunity in the new-look Jazz offense. Rubio can make the players around him better, but he needs to prove he can succeed on a good team to remain a starter at one of the most competitive positions in the NBA.
If Jackson were playing on a more high-profile team, his drama-filled campaign last season would have been the talk of the league. After injuring his knee in training camp, Jackson missed the first 21 games, and Detroit stayed afloat by retooling its offense and playing more democratically. When Jackson returned, he sucked up all the oxygen in the room by pounding the ball in multiple pick-and-rolls on every possession. The problem was he lacked the explosiveness to make that style of play work. His teammates openly rebelled, calling a team meeting to complain about the way he played, and the offense was much more effective with Ish Smith, a pass-first journeyman, running the show. By the end of the season, Detroit shut down Jackson to get him healthy, and its once-promising future seemed to be in serious question.
The Pistons need Jackson to play like the player they signed to a five-year, $80 million contract in 2015. They are opening a new stadium this season, and they have a $116 million payroll, a huge sum for a small-market team that won only 37 games in 2016-17. After renouncing the rights to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and trading for Avery Bradley, who has only one year left on his contract, they are all in this season, and there’s plenty of room at the bottom of the Eastern Conference to sneak back into the playoffs. Stan Van Gundy is one of the only hybrid coach-executives left, and he has staked his job on Jackson playing like a top point guard. There’s no one else on the roster who can fill his role.
However, even when healthy, Jackson’s value was still debated around the league. He forced his way out of Oklahoma City because he wanted to run his own team, and he shared Westbrook’s desire to hold the ball and force up shots, but without his mentor’s distinctive ability to impose order out of chaos and make something out of nothing. Much like a young quarterback who started his career backing up Brett Favre, playing behind Westbrook may not have been the best way to prepare Jackson for the NBA, since few players can get away with the things Westbrook does. If Kevin Durant got tired of taking turns with a ball-dominant guard of Westbrook’s caliber, how would playing with a dime-store version impact a team’s dynamic? It’s tough to build a good squad around a guy with a career true shooting percentage of 51.9 and a career usage rating of 24.6. Of the players who played at least 50 games last season and had a usage rating higher than 26, Jackson finished 39th out of 41 in true shooting percentage. It’s no surprise his teammates got tired of watching him take shots like this:
Jackson has never been a particularly gifted distributor. He was a combo guard who averaged 3.5 assists per game in his three seasons at Boston College, and he has never averaged more than 6.2 assists per game in the NBA (although he did average 9.2 assists in the 27 games he played with Detroit in 2014-15 after the Pistons acquired him at the trade deadline). While he’ll always be a score-first player, Jackson has the ability to make the passes necessary to run a spread pick-and-roll offense when he puts his mind to it. Synergy Sports rated him in the 71st percentile among NBA players when creating his own offense out of the two-man game, but that number plummeted to the 53rd percentile when offense from passes was included.
Health was clearly a factor. Jackson’s free throw rate dropped by 7 percentage points from the season before, a huge decline for a player who was already inefficient to begin with. He was also in the 79th percentile of pick-and-roll passers two years ago, an indication that his inability to blow by his initial defender was closing off some of his passing lanes. If one guy can stay in front of Jackson and force him to take a contested jumper, he’s not nearly as effective. He’s coming off the best 3-point shooting season of his career (35.9 percent on 3.5 attempts per game), but he’s still at his best when he can leverage his size (6-foot-3 and 208 pounds with an outrageous 7-foot wingspan) and athleticism to get to the rim:
For such a gifted athlete, though, Jackson has never been much of a defensive player, and that will have to change. There shouldn’t be much of a drop-off from Caldwell-Pope to Bradley, so Jackson will still be able to move off the ball and guard the least-threatening player in the opposing backcourt, but Van Gundy needs buy-in from everyone to make Detroit respectable defensively. A guy who takes a lot of bad shots and forces his teammates to bail him out on defense isn’t going to make many friends in the locker room, and Jackson needs to embrace a leadership role. He’s a 27-year-old point guard on a max contract: The Pistons are his team, almost by default. How good a team can be with a player like Jackson in such a big role remains to be seen.