Stretching The Floor

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From now on, every NBA player signing onto a new team should be required to take a scantron test. Among the questions, the final one should read as follows: Do you excel at A) scoring, B) rebounding, C) passing, D) stealing, E) blocking, or F) all of above? In today’s league, every player that fills in option F (with a number two pencil of course) would likely receive precedent over everyone who chooses a different answer.
 
Photo: Keith Allison/Creative Commons
It’s no longer surprising when a player is told to play out of position, and the ability for players to rewrite their job descriptions on the fly has become the new on-demand talent in the last five years. While far from a novel concept, having a versatile player has become more of a necessity than a mysterious trump card in a coach’s roster, leading to the creation of new stretch positions and the decline of more focused ones.
 
It’s fairly easy to trace the roots of today’s new stretch positions back to the father of the triple-double himself, the “Big O” Oscar Robertson, or even his descendant, Mr. “Showtime” himself, Earvin “Magic” Johnson. We can take it a small step further back and point to the oversized, six-foot-nine SF Larry “Legend” Bird, or even the seven-foot centre who started his career at the four-spot, Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon, and who who would later become on part of the original “Twin Towers” tandem with Ralph Sampson.
 

However, it’s really in the last five years that stretching positions has become more of a need than a luxury in the NBA. Enter public enemy number one, LeBron James, who has more of a claim than most players in starting the trend. James has been quoted as a “freak of nature” by ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith, but it’s not only because of his athletic frame that he’s earned the nickname—it’s because of what he can do with it. He’s six feet, eight inches and 260 pounds of humanity who can sprint down the length of the court with today’s fastest, can handle and pass the ball better than some natural point guards, play in the post better than most big men and has an arsenal of ways to score buckets—pick your poison.

 
 
Photo: Keith Allison/Creative Commons
What gave rise to such flexibility? When LBJ took his talents to South Beach, he, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade received contracts exceeding $100 million, which left little to no room to sign a noteworthy big man who can score from the post or the middle at will. Because Bosh was more of a player who preferred to play inside and out—as opposed to mostly inside due to his being comparatively smaller than other players in his position—it was up to James to learn how to adjust his game to become better suited for post play. This had a ripple effect on his teammates. Bosh would find himself playing the one-spot at times to help quickly push the ball to the end of the court, per the team’s play style. With three straight trips to the finals and two rings to show as a result of their eclectic take on roles, LBJ and the Heat ushered in the “small ball” era.
 
As the new idea took hold in the league, many teams have since tried to either model themselves after Miami, or to build upon what Miami has lacked since the Big Three era. In order to beat a champion, “Mr. Me Too” teams borrowed some of Miami’s floor-stretching attributes, including the Oklahoma City Thunder. In OKC, you have your speedy score-first, pass-later, shooting-turned-point guard in Russell Westbrook to provide a matchup against D-Wade. There’s also your heir-apparent to Dikembe Mutombo, the athletic sultan of swat with a wingspan to match that is stretch-four player Serge Ibaka—he’s Bosh’s matchup. Lastly, you have a player who rivals LBJ in ball-handling and makes up for his lesser physicality with pure scoring ability from anywhere on the floor—Kevin Durant. Management may not have realized it then, but this multi-talented group was designed to rival the Heat in all aspects of the game.
 
Not all teams can pattern themselves after the Heat to rival their small-ball, stretch-positional style, so there’s always going to be a team that will take it back to the basics (with a few new nuances to remain relevant, of course). Enter the San Antonio Spurs. Without a doubt the most consistent team of the last decade, the Spurs have tried to square off against the Heat with their signature half court style, slowing down the pace rather than speeding it up. They also make heavy use of their bigs on the post and pound it on the inside, which creates a disadvantage to the small-ball style of being trapped in a half court setting. The Spurs don’t play basketball, they play chess. Had it not been for some crucial errors in last year’s NBA Finals, we may have seen a beginning to an end to the demand of the stretch positions. Nonetheless, they’re here to stay, making some positions less relevant than ever.
 
 
Photo: CarpingDiem/Creative Commons
 
With the use of a power forward bearing similarities to Kevin Love’s bio—one who can shoot forty per cent from downtown, move without the ball, put it on the floor, score in the paint and be an above-average defender—is there really any use for a traditional specialist or a center? While the role of specialist has suffered a bit (Steve Novak, where art thou?), the centre position is the most in danger of falling by the wayside. The days of Patrick Ewing, David Robinson and Shaquille O’Neal have long since passed, and those were just a few names from the 90s. Since then, we’ve seen an uptick in the number of slightly leaner centres such as Joakim Noah who provide sheer athleticism over scoring prowess. Perhaps the biggest indication of the position’s diminishing worth came when the NBA decided to drop the centre position from the All-Star voting ballot and instead added another forward spot, proverbially slapping each and every five-player in the face with an ounce of baby powder. While they are on the verge of extinction, outstanding centres such as Roy Hibbert are considered rare gems who could possibly be the missing piece of the puzzle to rival some teams following the stretch formula, which is exactly why Indiana traded for Andrew Bynum as a backup for Hibbert to neutralize the Heat, should they meet in the eastern finals this year.
 

The era of versatility may be the new commodity in today’s NBA (in some cases, as a way to cut costs on signing players to fit a specific role), but there is still room for players who excel traditionally at their role. Trends have a funny way of appearing, disappearing and reappearing as teams develop new ways of thinking and their opponents react. When and if The King will be dethroned by a new play style, the player who coined it will become the new face of change and adaptation. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

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