As the ‘06-07 NBA season approaches, there’s a war going on outside. But it’s not the one we’re used to. With Larry Brown slouching away into the sunset, the Pistons in limbo, and the Spurs dependent on a flamboyant, international backcourt, the Right Way Crusades appear to be over. In their place, though, a new bone of contention has arrived, one which may well define the sport for the next decade or so. I speak, of course, of the bloody, and often chaotic, March of the Positional Revolution. Though its first, wistful shots rang out almost a decade ago, only now has it taken on the symmetry of true conflict.
Since the ’50s, the NBA has held dear a number of positional archetypes: powerful, gigantic center; rugged power forward; playmaking point guard; and silky scoring small forward. The shooting guard became fully defined in the Jordan era, by both His Airness and the lowly 3-point specialists he ennobled. Certainly, players were not limited by these descriptions, and stars like Magic, Pippen, and Webber expanded their roles with omnivorous abandon. But the idealized basketball order, the one that prevailed when rosters were constructed, followed from these characterizations.
Then, in 1995, a truly otherworldly force touched down upon the Association’s field of vision: Kevin Garnett, an 18-year-old basketball fever dream who utterly defied this logic. A 7-footer who handled and passed like a guard, soared with the best of them, could lock down every opponent on the floor, and do all the things that came with his height, KG was a shrieking revelation. He immediately set into motion the search for others exhibiting this positionless frenzy, and shaky figures like Lamar Odom and Darius Miles were conscripted into duty. Another front opened up when Dirk Nowitzki, a German prodigy who combined Garnett’s versatility with a blissful shooting touch, emerged from the wilds of the Black Forest. For the next few years, any tall European with range was chewed up and spit out by franchises counting on a continent full of Next Nowitzkis.
Following these disappointments, the furor died down. But, unexpectedly, this past season’s finals saw stale rhetoric morph into action, as a Mavericks team whose fluidity bordered on humorous squared off against the cut-and-dried Heat. Miami’s plan of attack seemed to have been drawn up by the stodgiest of basketball deities: Jordan clone Dwyane Wade drawing defenders and racking up points, Shaq resting on his monolithic laurels, power forwards Antoine Walker and Udonis Haslem controlling the glass, and former point-guard icons Gary Payton and Jason Williams there to shepherd the operation. The Mavs, on the other hand, invited outlandish comparisons to carousels and sushi conveyer belts, as coach Avery Johnson juggled lineups in an attempt to catch the Heat off guard. Anchored by a fully realized Dirk, the team could or couldn’t have a real center, was likely to start point guards Devin Harris and Jason Terry, and seemingly had swingmen Josh Howard and Jerry Stackhouse mirroring each other at all times.
Most of us know how the story went: the Mavs jumped out to an early lead, heralded the future of basketball, and then collapsed as the Heat asserted the tradition. What’s more, the Heat team was assembled in a manner that my colleague Silverbird5000 has described as post-Fordist: hastily set up for short-term ardor. Of course, a team concerned primarily with nabbing a Kobe-less ring for O’Neal did well to resort to staunch functionalism, for a more organic chemistry comes with little certitude attached and requires a period of experimentation. This incarnation of the Heat began with this past season and only clicked into place after the All-Star game. The Mavs were a work in progress in ’05-06 and were still finding themselves well into the postseason. Yet, even in their incompleteness and their failure, they made a competitive virtue out of a philosophy once reserved for loopy draft-night fantasies.
When Garnett first hit, it had been believed that this revolution would take place on an individual level. Stars would be as entire nations, bundling the skill sets of a thousand traditional lineups in one immaculate player. However, this past season showed that this awakening could be more dazzlingly realized on a team scale. LeBron James, one of the most ungodly specimens of do-it-all basketball the game has ever seen, remains mired in an unimaginative Cleveland system. The Phoenix Suns, on the other hand, embraced positional flux despite basing their team around Steve Nash, the prototypical pass-first point guard. While Nash concerned himself with his peerless art, the emergent Boris Diaw became the Association’s first point center, a reborn Tim Thomas created eternal mismatch inside and out, and a slew of monomaniacal shooters refused to announce themselves in terms of position. James’s Cavaliers bowed out in the second round; Nash’s kaleidoscopic Suns ended up tangling with Dallas for the Western Conference Championship.
The Positional Revolution has flourished only because it has seen its future reflected in an Organizational Revolution. This is perhaps the next great evolutionary leap—never could there be multiple Garnetts or Nowitzkis roaming the court, but teams could very well conceive of themselves as if liberated by their example. Maybe only one or two players in the league are truly beyond positionality; this does not mean, however, that coaches cannot organize a team as if their entire roster were. Creative combinations and unorthodox dynamics require discarding the anonymity of the Old Basketball Order for a deeper, more personal understanding of a player’s capabilities. What matters most is not finding omnipotent individuals but most effectively distributing the finite resources of those available.
In this respect, one of the pivotal teams of this coming dawn is the Washington Wizards. Through the lens of the old, they have often been derided as a ragtag band of tweeners: Gilbert Arenas, the point guard who could easily lead the league in scoring; Antawn Jamison, the nuanced garbage man who is either the luckiest or most canny offensive player around; Caron Butler, a cold-blooded, two-way warrior of inconsistent athletic ability; and new addition Darius Songalia, the Euro whose skill-to-brutality ratio remains a mystery. Despite two straight trips to the playoffs, much of their resurgence has been marked by patchy, confounding play. They seem most content to play a two-man game (Arenas/Butler, before that Arenas/Larry Hughes) with Jamison and the rest salvaging failures.
As they head into a crucial season, quotes out of training camp have Arenas and company promising to beef up their defense and ramp up their inner toughness. Apparently, they have bought into the belief that teams not matching the traditional blueprint must compensate with grit and anger, not wit or virtuosity. In the eyes of the Old Order, they are misfits, outcasts, underdogs, and deviants; best then to will themselves to legitimacy, shoehorning their way into the solemn mold cast by history. Yet, if made to see each other as if for the first time, however, a Wizards team animated by the Mavs’ guiding principle could instantly become one of the Association’s most fertile deposits. Perhaps no team is as magnificently poised to follow the Mavs as is Washington, which is limited by orthodoxy but is potentially limitless if turned loose. This only proves, of course, that in almost all cases this war of which I speak is one waged against self-doubt and inner blindness. And this is why we continue to need Garnett, Odom, or Wizards up-and-comer Andray Blatche: to shine upon the path for all others, so that the single endless man can give way to an entire earth of understanding.