Jokic, passing and positions

by on December 29, 2020
in Strategy

Nikola Jokic may be the best passer in the NBA in 2020-21. He also stands 7-feet tall. For many, these statements are incongruous; short players are supposed to pass the ball well, and tall players dunk.

The same has been said about LeBron James for his entire career. He is a great passer for someone his height.

Why is height considered a constraint on passing skills? For generations, NFL organizations preferred taller quarterbacks because they can see over the offensive and defensive lineman more easily, and are less likely to have a pass deflected at the line of scrimmage. As the speed of the game has increased, teams now prefer more mobile quarterbacks to height, but taller QBs still have the advantage in the pocket to see and throw over the line of scrimmage. Why would taller basketball players not have the same advantage?

Our surprise at the passing skills of players such as LeBron and Jokic is due to our traditional position designations. We organize and evaluate players by these positions: point guards pass, shooting guards shoot, etc. LeBron and Jokic do not fit within the traditional position designations, which is why we have qualifications now: A point-forward or a point-center.

Many of the greatest players in NBA history subverted the position designations. Point guards were supposed to be the smallest players until Magic Johnson; tall players were supposed to play close to the basket until players like Larry Bird, Bill Laimbeer, and Dirk Nowitski. Allen Iverson and Stephen Curry were considered not to be point guards because they shot too much, whereas Draymond Green confounds on both ends, as he is too short to be a center, but too tall to be a playmaker, yet he manages to be both. Similarly, we picture players like Magic, John Stockton, Oscar Robertson, and Steve Nash as the best passers, but every generation has had centers who pass well: Wilt, Bill Walton, Sabonis, Webber and Vlade, and now Jokic.

Despite the fact that many of our best players subverted the traditional position designations, we continue to use them. Why? In a time of positionless basketball, what do position designations offer?

Youth coaches use position designations to simplify the game for players. As coaches complicate the game with more plays, schemes, and strategies, a position allows players to learn only parts of each play or scheme: Their position. Rather than understanding the entire play, they memorize their part. Of course, when the shooting guard is injured, and the coach only has one shooting guard left, as soon as he or she goes to the bench their plays fall apart because nobody knows that part of the play. Several years ago, due to injuries, my “point guard” had to run the “power forward” spot on out-of-bounds plays because she was the only one who knew all of the spots; all of our regular “power forwards” were injured. We could not slide everyone up one position, as we did in our normal offense and defense, because none of the wings knew the plays. Luckily, our point guard had a great basketball intelligence and could fill in anywhere.

Youth teams should not have so many players and such a complicated system that players can learn or memorize only parts of each play. That shouldn’t be the purpose of youth basketball.

However, the greater problem is that positions become constraining or self-limiting. How many times during a game does a coach yell to pass to the point guard to dribble up the court instead of empowering the rebounder to dribble? Essentially, the coach decides that one player is better at dribbling or decision making than the others, so only that one player — called the point guard — is allowed to dribble. This limits the skill development of those not allowed or empowered to dribble.

Therefore, these position designations are used for short-term success — reducing mistakes — not long-term development. The players who manage to overcome these position constraints or designations, however, like LeBron and Jokic, tend to be the best players: A point guard who can shoot, a post who can pass, a smaller player who can defend bigger players in the post, a bigger player who can defend smaller players, or smaller players who rebound well.

If the best players manage to subvert these positional constraints, why do we still develop players using these designations? Why only allow one player to inbound the ball? Why allow only one player to dribble? Why force one player always to stand close to the basket?

Rather than complicating the system and constraining the players, we should embrace positionless basketball and empower all players to play all roles. We should not be shocked by a 7-footer who can pass; we should expect 7-footers to pass because their height should allow them to see the court better than a 6-foot point guard. Obviously, a 6-foot point guard has some advantages in terms of quickness and shiftiness that 7-footers may lack, and just as NFL teams now prefer mobile quarterbacks, the shiftiness of smaller players may prove more beneficial in man situations.

Rather than renaming or qualifying positions — point-forwards and point-centers or shooting-point-guards and pass-first-point-guards — we should have basketball players. We should develop all skills in all youth players not restrict them to the traditional skills of a single archetype. Once players reach the professional level, coaches will establish roles to maximize success, but these roles do not have to be defined by positions. Instead, they should be defined by skills: Run the offense through the playmaker regardless of height, and set screens for the shooter regardless of position, and use the defensive role player to set screens and basket cut to occupy defenders. Allow the skills to determine roles, not some traditional position designations from a bygone era.

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