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. This is the NBA Positional Census.
Shooting guard used to be the NBA’s glamour position. While point guards controlled the tempo of the game and had to make sure everyone got their touches, their backcourt partners were free to hunt for their own offense and rack up points. From Julius Erving to Michael Jordan to Kobe Bryant, the most exciting players in basketball were all 2s, and their ability to play above the rim and score in bunches drove interest in the game. There’s a reason Jerry West, one of the league’s first great shooting guards, became the NBA logo.
The spread pick-and-roll changed everything. The offense put the ball in the point guard’s hands for most of the game and gave them the freedom to shoot or pass every time down the floor. Since the rule changes in 2004—most notably the elimination of illegal defenses, the perimeter handcheck, and unofficially all but the most blatant moving screens—six of the last 13 MVP awards have gone to four different point guards. In the 30 years prior, Magic Johnson and Allen Iverson were the only 1s to win the award. Eight of the 11 backcourt players in last year’s All-Star Game were point guards. These days, perimeter players with the ability to play on the ball are being moved to point, regardless of size. Just ask James Harden, who had the best season of his career as a point, although he will move back to shooting guard now that he is playing with Chris Paul.
The more meaningful distinction in today’s game is between primary and secondary ball handlers, and it’s hard for guys who play off the ball to have as much of an impact on offense. The 2 spot has become a dumping ground for defensive specialists and players without the all-around game to run point. Even Klay Thompson, arguably the best pure shooting guard in the league, is likely to be the odd man out in Golden State if the Warriors can’t afford to keep all four of their All-Stars. Not many teams are building around 2s anymore, and guards who can’t be primary initiators are having trouble getting paid in free agency. Here are three shooting guards who are still trying to find their place in the NBA, and how their games fit with the league is going.
Caldwell-Pope thought he would break the bank this offseason. After reportedly turning down a five-year, $80 million offer from the Pistons earlier this summer, the market for his services suddenly ran dry, even after Detroit renounced his rights and made him an unrestricted free agent. KCP had to settle for a one-year, $18 million deal with the Lakers, allowing him to get a payday before taking another crack at free agency. However, since L.A. does not have his Bird Rights, it will not be able to go over the cap to keep him, which could limit his options if the team signs some of the big-name free agents it will be chasing.
At 6-foot-5 and 205 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan, Caldwell-Pope is a defensive prototype at the position. He has the size and speed to match up with all three perimeter positions and to comfortably switch screens and guard bigger players. The Pistons used him to hide Reggie Jackson on defense, and he got the tougher assignment in the backcourt on most nights. Caldwell-Pope made his name with several strong showings against the Warriors, and he’s one of the only players in the NBA who can match up with both Steph Curry and Thompson. One of Golden State’s nine losses two years ago came against Detroit; last season, Curry went 3-for-8 from the field with three turnovers with KCP as his primary defender in the only meeting between the two players. A lot of teams cross-switch 2s on Curry, but few of them have the quickness and tenacity to stick with him over an entire possession and never give him any breathing room:
Caldwell-Pope is headed into his fifth season in the league, but he’s still only 24, and like many younger players, he struggles with consistency. His individual defensive stats, courtesy of the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, were not impressive last season: He was in the 42nd percentile leaguewide in defending the pick-and-roll, and only the 10th percentile as an isolation defender. The Pistons’ defensive rating was 6.8 points lower without him, which undoubtedly contributed to their decision to trade for Avery Bradley, an elite defender in his own right, and allow KCP to walk in the offseason.
The argument for Caldwell-Pope is that the players around him held down his defensive numbers. Even the best perimeter defender can’t carry a defense by himself; he still depends on his four teammates understanding their responsibilities and playing on a string. Almost every player in the Detroit rotation played significantly better defense with Aron Baynes at center than they did with Andre Drummond, and KCP played 76 percent of his minutes with Drummond last season. According to the numbers at nbawowy.com, Detroit had a defensive rating of 112.1 when the two were in. In the 606 minutes KCP played without Drummond, the Pistons’ defensive rating dropped to 99.8.
Something similar may have happened on offense, where many Pistons struggled playing with Reggie Jackson, a ball-dominant point guard who was off his game after sustaining a knee injury in training camp. While Caldwell-Pope’s offensive numbers declined across the board last season, they were better when he played with Ish Smith, a more traditional floor general. Efficiency and usage are usually inversely correlated: The more shots a player takes, the less often he makes them. KCP took more shots and was more efficient without Jackson. In 1,011 minutes with Jackson, he had a usage rate of 15.1 and a true shooting percentage of 50.1. In 1,497 minutes without his starting point guard, he had a usage rate of 20.8 and a true shooting percentage of 53.1.
With Jackson hobbling, Caldwell-Pope got more chances to initiate the offense, and he flashed some ability in that role. He’s not Andre Roberson or Tony Allen, defensive specialists who don’t have to be guarded. KCP averaged a career-high 2.5 assists per game on only 1.1 turnovers last season, and he was in the 70th percentile in the NBA among pick-and-roll scorers in 268 possessions. He doesn’t make a lot of advanced passes, but his ability to read the floor off the dribble and make the correct decision is an encouraging sign for what he could do in an offense where the ball moves more freely:
KCP and his agents are hoping he benefits from a change of scenery. In Lonzo Ball’s one year at UCLA, he made everyone around him better. He’ll push the ball at every opportunity, rather than walk it up the floor like the Pistons did; Detroit was in the bottom third of the league in pace last season. Lonzo’s extreme efficiency meant he scored without using many possessions, creating more chances for his teammates, both in terms of time with the ball in their hands and number of shots per game. He’s exactly the type of backcourt partner a shooting guard looking for a big payday should want to play with.
KCP’s ability to guard either guard spot, meanwhile, will allow the Lakers to move Lonzo off the ball on defense. At 6-foot-6 and 190 pounds, Ball doesn’t have the quickness to stay in front of smaller guards, and he was roasted by fellow lottery pick DeAaron Fox in the NCAA tournament. Just like in Detroit, Caldwell-Pope will defend the other team’s point guard often, and L.A. needs its big free-agent acquisition to stifle the opposing offense at the point of attack. With offensive-minded youngsters like Lonzo, Brandon Ingram, and Julius Randle next to him—and the glacially slow Brook Lopez behind him—KCP won’t have much help. Lonzo will make his life easier; the question is how much KCP can return the favor. That’s the bar for a guy who wants a max contract, regardless of position.
LaVine was the first casualty of Tom Thibodeau’s desire to win now. The original plan in Minnesota was for the fourth-year guard to be part of a next-generation Big Three with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, but that went out the window after a disappointing season, especially given how well the Wolves played after LaVine tore his ACL. Thibs had been chasing Jimmy Butler since he became the coach and general manager in Minnesota, and he wasted little time packaging LaVine, along with Kris Dunn and a first-round pick swap, to acquire his former protégé on draft night. The move is not all bad news for LaVine, though. Once he’s healthy, he will get to be The Man in Chicago, something that would never have happened had he stayed in Minnesota.
Most fans know LaVine for his back-to-back wins in the dunk contest, but he’s more than a sideshow. His scoring average increased in each of his three years in the league, and he averaged 18.9 points per game on 45.9 percent shooting last season. At 6-foot-5 and 190 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan, LaVine has only average size for a shooting guard, but he’s so fast with the ball, and he gets off the ground so quickly, that he can always create a clean look at the basket. A knockdown shooter (LaVine is a career 37.8 percent 3-point shooter and 82.1 percent free throw shooter) who can consistently dribble into open shots will score a lot of points. When LaVine is hot, he can score at will:
The problem is his offensive firepower didn’t help his team. The Wolves had a net rating of minus-3.6 with LaVine, the worst of any of their rotation players, and a net rating of plus-1.0 without him, the highest mark on their roster. When LaVine went down, Thibs inserted Brandon Rush (a veteran more suited to a 3-and-D role) into his spot and gave Towns and Wiggins more shots. The biggest issue for LaVine came on defense: He often lost track of his man, struggled getting over screens, and rarely put himself in the right position. There were a lot of plays like this last season, where LaVine fell asleep in no-man’s-land, neither doubling the post nor staying on his assignment:
Like most players his age, LaVine doesn’t have much awareness on that side of the ball, and he uses most of his energy on offense. A bench player in his only season at UCLA, he was pretty raw when he came into the league, so his struggles with fundamentals aren’t surprising. He turned 22 in March, and he is only a few weeks older than Justin Jackson, a first-round pick in this year’s draft. But LaVine wasn’t the only culprit in Minnesota’s defensive woes. The Wolves had a much better defensive rating without Towns (103.6) and Wiggins (104.8) than they did without LaVine (108.3).
It’s possible they would have seen a similar improvement if Wiggins had been hurt while LaVine stayed healthy. Wiggins, despite his incredible physical tools, is every bit as bad as his former teammate defensively, and he’s not as good a decision-maker. Wiggins has never averaged more assists per game than turnovers, and he has a tendency to put his head down and force shots rather than make the next pass. LaVine, thanks to his superior shooting stroke, had a true shooting percentage of 57.6 last season, compared to only 53.4 for Wiggins. He might have been able to put up similar eye-popping scoring totals had he been starting on the perimeter next to Ricky Rubio and Rush, two veterans who rarely took shots outside the flow of the offense.
The biggest key for LaVine going forward, beside staying healthy, is getting stronger. While he shouldn’t bulk up and lose any of his trademark explosiveness, he needs to do a better job of holding his ground against bigger players and drawing contact when he gets to the rim. LaVine averaged only three free throw attempts per game, compared to 6.6 for Wiggins. No one questions LaVine’s physical gifts, or his ability to score. However, if making spectacular plays made someone great, Jamal Crawford would be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. NBA stardom comes when a player with elite talent consistently makes the routine play night in and night out over an 82-game season.
LaVine probably would have eventually ended up as a sixth man if he had stayed in Minnesota, a role currently being filled by Crawford, his fellow Seattle native. In Chicago, LaVine will get the chance to fill Butler’s shoes. The only proven perimeter scorer on the team is Dwyane Wade, and he’s unlikely to be with the team all season. Going forward, the best way for the Bulls to cover up for LaVine’s deficiencies would be to pair him with a steady hand at point guard and an elite defender at small forward, but it’s unclear if he is good enough to be worth building around, or if he’s better off being a complementary piece on a good team. This is his chance to prove he can be a cornerstone.
LeVert was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise disappointing rookie class last season. The no. 20 pick in the draft, he slipped due to a series of foot injuries he suffered at Michigan and landed in the perfect situation with the Nets to showcase his game. In 57 games with Brooklyn last season, LeVert averaged 8.2 points on 45 percent shooting, 3.3 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 0.9 steals. Those numbers look more impressive when averaged out over 36 minutes of playing time: 13.6 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 1.4 steals.
At 6-foot-7 and 203 pounds with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, LeVert has the size and talents to swing between all three perimeter positions on both sides of the ball. He was a point forward in college, averaging 16.4 points and 4.9 assists a game as a senior, and he can see the floor at a high level. In 176 possessions in the pick-and-roll last season, the 22-year-old was in the 85th percentile as a playmaker. While LeVert is not an elite athlete, he knows how to take advantage of his size, getting into the cracks in the defense and finding the open man:
Good things happened for the Nets when LeVert was in: He had the best net rating (minus-2.7) of any player in Brooklyn’s rotation. After missing the first month of the season while recovering from foot surgery, LeVert’s playing time gradually increased over the course of the year. He played shooting guard next to Bojan Bogdanovic before sliding to small forward after the veteran was traded at the deadline. LeVert can play with anyone, since he has the playmaking ability to initiate the offense, the shooting ability to play off the ball, and the physical tools to be a credible defender at several positions.
That versatility will come in handy in a crowded Nets backcourt next season. Jeremy Lin, whom the team signed to a three-year, $38.3 million contract last offseason, will have a bigger role after playing in only 36 games last season. Brooklyn also traded for D’Angelo Russell, the no. 2 pick in the 2015 draft; Allen Crabbe, whom they signed to a four-year, $75 million contract as a restricted free agent last summer; and DeMarre Carroll, who has two years and $30.2 million left on his deal. Combine those four with holdovers like LeVert, Sean Kilpatrick, Spencer Dinwiddie, Isaiah Whitehead, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and the competition for shots and minutes in Brooklyn next season will be intense. No matter how progressive a coach Kenny Atkinson is, it won’t be easy for him to sell veterans like Lin and Carroll on the merits of sacrificing for a bad team.
The biggest key for LeVert will be expanding his shooting range. A career 40.1 percent 3-point shooter at Michigan, he shot 32.1 percent from 3 with the Nets, and he made only 28.9 percent of his wide-open 3s, according to the tracking numbers at NBA.com. Brooklyn was fourth in the NBA in 3-point attempts last season, but only 26th in 3-point percentage, a number the Nets will have to improve significantly to become respectable. Players with average athleticism, like LeVert, simply need to be knockdown shooters today. The closer defenders have to play on him, the more opportunities he will have to attack the basket, and he’s very crafty once he gets there. Plays like this are how he shot 65.8 percent in the restricted area, an incredible number for a guard:
All the ball handlers the Nets acquired this offseason mean LeVert probably won’t spend as much time on the ball as he did as a rookie. He may not get many opportunities at the 1 or the 2, either, since he’s one of their only perimeter players with the size to play the 3. The shame is that he would be really interesting in a role similar to the one Malcolm Brogdon has in Milwaukee, as a supersize secondary playmaker at point guard who could be one of the linchpins of a switch-heavy defense. If LeVert were the smallest player on the floor, he would create a number of matchup problems for the opposing team, while his lack of elite speed means he might be more effective scoring over smaller defenders than trying to blow past bigger ones. LeVert can succeed in almost any role at the NBA level, but he only has a narrow path to stardom. The better you fit in, the harder it is to stand out.