About that Map of Positions

Rethinking the rethinking of players' roles in basketball (again).
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The Alagappan Plan [Image via Gizmodo]

Muthu Alagappan's scatter-plot of new positional definition made its way to Deadspin (via Gizmodo) this weekend, after first rearing its head at the Sloan Conference. Drawing on the methods of biomechanical engineering, Alagappan groups today's NBA players according to function and, in some cases, sheer quality. We get several distinct clusters of "ball-handlers," as well as "role players" and "All-NBA"—not to mention the soaring catch-all of "one-of-a-kind."

This is the latest, and certainly the most rigorous attempt to change the way we think about positions by determining a new set of categories. In Alagappan's case, the categories are drawn from the real-life data at hand. Positions are derived inductively, according to the facts on the ground, rather than deductively assigned according to transcendent forms and archetypes.

The problem, as I see it, is that this reversal of poles runs the risk of very quickly collapsing on itself. It's unclear, for instance, when a new category is set to emerge if the ultimate authority here is real-life teams. The model, then, is only as good as the latest trends—still an impressive accomplishment, but one far more fleeting than any remotely fixed redefinition of position. The system has become its own point of reference, rather than appealing to codes or languages set down by years of supposedly inflexible tradition.

Once this happens, the system is free to contort and fragment itself however it sees fit. We’ve seen how this story goes in other realms of human inquiry: structuralism gives way to post-structuralism, where positions are defined only in reference to each other on a team-by-team, or possession-by-possession, basis. I was told once by a member of the Thunder organization that often, their players shift "position" several times over the course of a play. At that point, what exactly is the point of definition, much less labels that make sense across the sport?

Rob Mahoney directed our attention to the strange case of Tyreke Evans. Evans, the 2010 Rookie of the Year and once the future of the Sacramento Kings, has spent most of his career trying to learn how to play point guard (pure point guards and centers, whose roles have always been firmly conceptual, do a mighty good job of surviving any and all revisionism of the Old Ways), and instead, shown that he's some sort of combo guard (whatever that means—it changes constantly) to the death.

The Kings have tried pairing him with a variety of backcourt partners whose shooting or playmaking could make up for Evans's one-on-one mentality. But Evans remained the poor man’s point guard: dominating the ball, initiating the offense, and scoring like it wasn't an end in itself. Now, Evans has been moved over to small forward, but absolutely nothing has changed. As Mahoney puts it:

A player's nominal position often isn't always dictated by what he can or can't do, but by who he plays alongside. We've become so locked into the notion that basketball is a five-position enterprise that successful lineups simply have to feature one of each traditional position type.

Evans isn't an idea, he's a dude playing with some other dudes. It's all fine and good to try and search for absolute labels, or at least relatively stable ones, but when the Kings can make this kind of move and have it be news, it's pretty obvious that positions are almost entirely arbitrary. The success of a team isn't determined by whether or not they measure up, formula-wise, but whether their assemblage works, in an almost mechanical sense. Or—if you hate technology-speak—if these distinctive organisms can work together as a colony.

I used to be a positional relativist, with players’ roles determined by a set of responsibilities that had to be distributed across the roster. However, this now seems way too rigid, as it locates the possibility of unflinching order somewhere between a team's identity and the identity of the individual players—neither of which was supposed to slip or crumble. Now I would say I'm more of a positional anarchist, but not in the violent, liberal-arts-kids gone wild, sense. I'm thinking more of the utopian version of anarchism, where everyone is provided precisely through the rejection of overarching order or authority.  

If you look at the marvel that is this year's Heat, the team has learned harmony through each of the Big Three staking out territory and working together based on this division of space, not labor. Labor was what I once thought to be the basic currency of positions; it's what I imagined the Heat would revolutionize, and what manifested itself in such ugly ways when LeBron and Wade dourly traded possessions, or quarters, last season. Instead, it's about giving players room to operate, and then piecing together a viable community out of this. It's what I thought the Knicks should have been able to do with Carmelo, Lin, and D'Antoni; it's the only coherent way to understand an OKC team lambasted for its lack of an offensive system but which apparently thinks about position in an extremely sophisticated way.

Maybe this only holds true for the best players, the "All-NBA" and "one-of-a-kind" creatures on Alagappan's map. Still, I want to believe that less, not more, complexity is the only way to adequately let players do what they do best while still allowing a team to go about the business of winning basketball games.  

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