How many positions in today’s NBA? SVG sees 4

Stanley Johnson is expected to help fill the void left by the trade of Marcus Morris in Stan Van Gundy’s rotation.
Brian Sevald (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

(Editor’s note: starts a five-part series looking at the roster after a summer that saw them add five newcomers. Part I looks at how the NBA’s trend toward spreading the floor and going smaller has led to less rigid lineup structures.)

AUBURN HILLS – Hang around long enough and things come back around. Before basketball had five distinct positions for each of the five players to comprise a lineup, there were three: guards, forwards and centers.

We’re nearly back at the beginning.

In fact, over the summer Boston coach Brad Stevens said this: “I don’t have five positions any more. It may be as simple as three positions now where you’re either a ballhandler, a wing or a big.”

Stan Van Gundy might not be on the same page, but he’s in the same chapter.

“I think everybody looks at it a little different, but I definitely think there’s point guards,” Van Gundy said. “Doesn’t mean you can’t have two of ’em on the floor, so I get his ballhandlers thing. I think there’s true centers. And then I think there’s probably wings and forwards.”

Van Gundy wouldn’t put players like Jon Leuer, Tobias Harris, Henry Ellenson and Anthony Tolliver in either the wings or big men category. He sees them as forwards. He considers Stanley Johnson a wing, so even though Johnson and Harris might wind up splitting time at what traditionally would be considered the small forward position, Van Gundy doesn’t really think in terms of small forwards/power forwards any more.

But Van Gundy agrees with Stevens that there are three position groups to this extent: “To me, the two things are really point guards and centers and you can put whatever else out there you want.”

The 3-point line and its generation-long rise in importance is driving the breakdown of traditional position usage more than any single factor. Shooters space the floor and stretch defenses. In turn, it puts a premium on players who can put the ball on the floor and force defenses to rotate to cut off penetration into the lane. In a choice between two bad options, defenses almost always opt to prevent the layup and take their chances with an open 3-point shot.

Put on the endangered species list through the process of metamorphosis: the traditional power forward. The ones who remain – Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol – are exceptional talents who’d play in any era. Perhaps the most talented power forward in Pistons history, Rasheed Wallace, would fall into that category, as well. In fact, he’d thrive in today’s game for his versatility at both ends of the floor.

So over the next four days, we’ll look at the Pistons by position through the prism of today’s game as seen by Stan Van Gundy, the man who assembled the roster: centers, point guards, wings and forwards.