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Should there be 13 positions in basketball?

Jun 1, 2013, 6:45 PM EDT

Photo courtesy Muthu Alagappan Photo courtesy Muthu Alagappan

First of all, don’t ask me how to read that chart, because I don’t get it, either.

That’s because it was generated by Stanford math major Muthu Alagappan, who uses software to collate vast data points into visual data so as to more easily pick out trends in the data. He’s become quite a force in basketball circles as a result. The NBA is paying close attention to his models.

I, on the other hand, write about college basketball. So, you know, different skill sets.

However, I do feel uniquely qualified to address Alagappan’s assertion that there should be 13 positions in basketball. That’s because I agree with his basic premise about basketball skill sets and disagree with his word choice. Which is what a basketball writer WOULD do, amirite?

First, I think we’ve all noticed that the classical designations point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward and center are archetypes that often don’t describe exactly what we’re seeing on a basketball court at any given moment. We’ve invented words like combo guard and point-forward to describe players who don’t fit the mold.

Alagappan, as described in this article from Wired magazine, says there should be 13 positions. To wit:

  1. 1. Offensive Ball-Handler. This guy handles the ball and specializes in points, free throws and shots attempted, but is below average in steals and blocks. Examples include Jason Terry and Tony Parker.

  2. 2. Defensive Ball-Handler. This is a defense-minded player who handles the ball and specializes in assists and steals, but is only so-so when it comes to points, free throws and shots. See also: Mike Conley and Kyle Lowry.

  3. 3. Combo Ball-Handler. These players are adept at both offense and defense but don’t stand out in either category. Examples include Jameer Nelson and John Wall.

  4. 4. Shooting Ball-Handler. Someone with a knack for scoring, characterized by above-average field goal attempts and points. Stephen Curry and Manu Ginobili are examples.

  5. 5. Role-Playing Ball-Handler. These guys play fewer minutes and don’t have as big a statistical impact on the game. Hello, Arron Afflalo and Rudy Fernandez.

  6. 6. 3-Point Rebounder. Such a player is a ball-handler and big man above average in rebounds and three-pointers, both attempted and made, compared to ball-handlers. Luol Deng and Chase Budinger fit the bill.

  7. 7. Scoring Rebounder. He grabs the ball frequently and demands attention when on offense. Dirk Nowitzki and LaMarcus Aldridge play this position.

  8. 8. Paint Protector. A big man like Marcus Camby and Tyson Chandler known for blocking shots and getting rebounds, but also for racking up more fouls than points.

  9. 9. Scoring Paint Protector. These players stand out on offense and defense, scoring, rebounding and blocking shots at a very high rate. Examples include Kevin Love and Blake Griffin.

  10. 10. NBA 1st-Team. This is a select group of players so far above average in every statistical category that the software simply groups them together regardless of their height or weight. Kevin Durant and LeBron James fall in this category.

  11. 11. NBA 2nd-Team. Not quite as good, but still really, really good. Rudy Gay and Caron Butler are examples.

  12. 12. Role Player. Slightly less skilled than the 2nd-team guys, and they don’t play many minutes. Guys like Shane Battier and Ronnie Brewer fall under this position.

  13. 13. One-of-a-Kind. These guys are so good they are off the charts — literally. The software could not connect them to any other player. Derrick Rose and Dwight Howard are examples, but you already knew that.

Now, if you are building a basketball team, this is a great way to look at filling roles. I’d bet most coaches have something similar going on in their heads. What I’d refute is that these constitute literal positions. We cling to the five archetypes because only five players can be on the floor at one time. Obviously if you’re looking at VCU or Florida Gulf Coast, you’re not seeing these classic positions represented, but it still gives us a framework for understanding each player’s role in the offense. A skewed framework, quite often, but it’s useful to understand that framework so you can make the mental leap and understand how a creative coach uses available players with different skill sets to subvert that old paradigm.

That’s where I think these 13 categories are a brilliant tool and an excellent way to look at what role a player can really fill for his team. For college coaches, who so rarely have access to #13, the one-of-a-kind player, it’s going to be a mixture of guys who fit into the other twelve roles (sans the NBA terminology) sitting on his bench most of the time.

I could go on, but this is a blog, not a dissertation committee. Suffice to say, I’ll probably have these 13 “positions” in the back of my head the next time I watch a college hoops game.

Eric Angevine is the editor of Storming the Floor. He tweets @stfhoops.

  1. blueballzny - Jun 1, 2013 at 8:24 PM

    I disagree with how these groups are characterized. He has 5 groups with the words “ball-handler” in its title. Yet for the “3 point rebounder” category the first characteristic he uses are ball-handlers. Personally, I think there are a few too many groups.

    Btw, I know this isnt the point of the post but how does Caron Butler fit into the “NBA 2nd Team”?

    • Eric Angevine - Jun 2, 2013 at 9:52 AM

      I’m not really certain how much of the quoted material came from the mind of the guy who covered it for Wired vs. what the mathematician intended. I suspect there’s a certain amount of mis-interpretation, which us word guys do when confronted with mathy-math.

  2. cordellgc - Jun 2, 2013 at 7:21 AM

    dumb shit

  3. howintensive - Jun 2, 2013 at 3:04 PM

    This is all very interesting. I’d like to see something like this for other sports with somewhat fluid positions, like soccer and hockey.

  4. manchestermiracle - Jun 3, 2013 at 10:59 AM

    Somewhere along the line someone misconstrued “position” for “category.” Then again, as we have seen with All-Star voting, the traditional descriptions for the five positions aren’t really relevant anymore.

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