The argument used to justify choosing Greg Oden over Kevin Durant in the summer of 2007, position, may actually have favored the selection of the wingman from Texas.
All horrible sexual puns aside, there is one myth that has been propagated amongst basketball fans for years that I will disprove today: size matters.
Specifically, that the most difficult position to fill is that of either the really small or the really big, namely point guard and center, while quality wings grow on trees. This notion never ceases to come up when folks talk basketball. Look at 2007 NBA draft: those in favor of picking Greg Oden with the first pick mainly pointed to position–Durant would surely light it up from the perimeter, but Oden, a 7-footer, would play the far more important spot, even if he didn’t have the incredible numbers and skills that KD had.
Now, all things considered even, why would a team decide that the position of a player is more important than his overall ability? There are five positions in basketball and all five players on the court have an equal chance to contribute. If a team’s strength lies in one area, it can focus on utilizing that strength, be it perimeter shooting, driving to the basket, or inside moves. We have seen teams built in all types of manners win championships: San Antonio with offensive options everywhere and stoic defense, Chicago with two great wingmen leading the way, Los Angeles with the prototypical center dominating the paint, and Detroit and the ’80s Lakers behind point guard play. The list could go on forever, but one truth remains constant: it doesn’t matter how you get it done, so long as at the end of the day your team scores more than the other.
So, why have basketball fans and front office types alike decided that the truest and best way to win is by forging a great point/center combo?
First and foremost, the game has evolved over the years. When the NBA first started, Bob Cousy and Bill Russell, the perfect ball-handling whizz and defensive monster combination owned the game. In an era when players were shorter, slower, and generally worse (although people would like you to believe the opposite), if your center was 7 feet tall, he might sometimes have a 3 or 4 inch height advantage and therefore could score with ease over his more vertically challenged opponents (case in point, Wilt Chamberlain once scored 50 points per game). Palming was also strictly enforced in that age, so having pure speed handling the ball and driving your team was more valuable because you couldn’t give it to a small forward and let him create off the dribble the way players do today, sometimes comically carrying the ball with nary a whistle blown.
Another gigantic difference was the absence of the three-point line. Think about it, if there was literally no reason to ever try to create any shot other than a lay-up, why wouldn’t a team want a great point guard to facilitate getting his center the ball, who should have the easiest time of scoring close to the basket?
With the advent of the 3-pointer, the relaxing of the dribbling rules, and the overall improvement in athleticism, the NBA game changed dramatically. No longer could teams pack it in and leave wingmen open in the corner, far from the basket; an unguarded 2 or 3 could potentially do 50% more damage than a big man by scoring 3 points on a single shot versus only 2. This, in turn, made each position on the court quite important in all facets of the game.
This brings us to the ’90s. Growing up watching Michael Jordan dominate the game like no one else had ever done from the shooting guard position, most youngsters naturally starting working on their fade-aways and outside shooting (as well as dunking, obviously). Next we saw Allen Iverson bring a streetball flair to the game, and kids once again followed suit. At the same time, Europeans began to earn a more prominent place in the league, bringing their style of play overseas–meaning teaching youth ballers to shoot from distance first, then working on their inside game.
Combine all these developments and you get a generation of big men who want to be guards and point guards who want to be scorers. Purists cringed as shooting percentages and scoring dropped, while one-on-one basketball took over.
After some rule changes and the miraculous arrival of Steve Nash in Phoenix, the NBA has rebounded, team play has begun to reclaim its importance, and the poetry originally envisioned by Dr. James Naismith has returned to his hoop game.
So, size doesn’t matter. Now that the game values all players equally, thanks to the reasons listed and explained ad nauseum above, the world of basketball needs to catch up to its own evolution.
Since nowadays the 4 and 5 spots are quite clouded thanks to the likes of Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett insisting that they are power forwards even though before the ’90s they most certainly would have been centers, I am going to combine the two positions and simply consider them big men. The point guard is still pure, but the wing position is more difficult to analyze, so I will have to make some tough calls on qualifications as far as who plays what position for this comparison (e.g. Josh Howard, who has started at the 2 and 3 this season, but qualifies as a 3 for me since he has started more games at small forward).
Basing my conclusions simply on PER, and using 19.00 and above as the cut-off for determining those having excellent seasons, I have found the following number of players doing so at each position:
1. 9 point guards.
2. 9 shooting guards.
3. 6 small forwards.
4/5. 18 power forwards/centers.
If you’ll notice, each position has 9 players having excellent seasons–except the 3, the position assumed to be most easily filled of all. Furthermore, if you look at players posting PERs of above 22.00, the 3 position comes in last once again–the 1 and the 2 have 6 players above 22.00 each, the 4/5 positions have 9 combined, while the small forward position has only 2, Caron Butler and the NBA’s preeminent superstar, LeBron James.
What does all of this mean?
Simple–next time the question of size comes up in the draft, don’t look to the Bowie/Jordan or Oden/Durant decisions as precedent for future success, look instead at the current make-up of the league to see which position is hardest to fill. If you do your research, you might find that even though wings supposedly grow on trees, the small forward spot might actually be the most difficult one of them all to fill with a worthy candidate.