The NBA is an ever-changing league with innovative head coaches and general managers at the helm, executing the changes. The way that NBA head coaches and general managers enact the most change in recent years is through team building. If you have followed the NBA in any capacity over the last five years you might have heard the term “positionless,” but what does “positionless” mean. It is a style that many NBA teams have employed when building their team in recent years, straying away from traditional positions. Gone are the days where general managers viewed teams through the lens of having a point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, and center. There are still numerous players who fit into the traditional-positions role such as Chris Paul at point guard, Rudy Gobert at center, Tobias Harris at small forward, and many other quality contributors who will always have their place in the league. Some teams still succeed in the NBA with the traditional-positions approach to building their team, but the teams that consistently succeed in the present-day league utilize a different method. The new way that successful teams construct their lineups is through a positionless format. Instead of using the traditional positions, teams use archetypes to fill out their rosters. Common ones include playmakers/play-initiators, slashers with defensive prowess, three-and-d guys, transcendent wings, stretch fours, and versatile bigs. Some of the most elite players fit into multiple playstyles. The use of these six playstyle categories is the new way to build an NBA team and the general managers that have not figured this out yet have fallen behind. Here are some of the players that are the prototype for each mold.
Traits: Passing, Decision-Making, Shot Creation, Clutch Factor
Lebron James, Lakers
LeBron James is the prototype playmaker/play-initiator, while he also falls into the transcendent wing category, as well. James is 6’9”, the size of a traditional small forward or power forward, but the Los Angeles Lakers were one of the earliest teams to recognize that traditional positions did not matter and that James would be their playmaker and bring the ball up the court to initiate plays.
Luka Doncic, Mavericks
The Dallas Mavericks were another one of the most innovative teams to employ the positionless theory. They used sophomore stud Luka Doncic as their playmaker. Doncic played the traditional small forward position in Europe before being drafted by the Mavericks, who immediately realized that he was fit for a facilitator role.
James Harden, Rockets
While James Harden is viewed as a traditional shooting guard by many fans, it is time we recognize him for the playmaker that he is. Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni was probably the first coach to realize that James Harden was not a traditional shooting guard, but had the traits to be a generational talent as a playmaker. Without this transformation, Harden would probably not have been an MVP two years ago.
Damian Lillard, TrailBlazers
Damian Lillard is quite the enigma and his scoring abilities don’t really fit into any category as he can shoot the deep three as well as anyone in the league, while also driving through the lane like a prototypical slashing guard. Lillard also has fantastic playmaking skills that make him an All-star starter year in and year out, so parts of his offensive attack still fit into this category.
Traits: Athletic, Quick, Tenacious, Skilled Defenders
Russell Westbrook, Rockets
Westbrook is the prototypical slashing guard. He can blow by any defender in the entire league and smash home a powerful dunk in the blink of an eye. His energy on both sides of the ball makes him one of the league’s most difficult players to play against. While many view Westbrook as a point guard, it is time we categorize him as a positionless slasher with other-worldly playmaking abilities.
Ja Morant, Grizzlies
Since entering the league this season, as a rookie, Morant has drawn numerous comparisons to Westbrook. His blinding speed allows him to blow by any NBA defender and his athleticism will make him an offensive threat for many years to come. He can also be viewed as a playmaker and as he matures in the NBA, so will his playmaking abilities.
Mitchell will be seen as a transcendent wing scorer at his peak because he will be a polished contributor from all levels of the game. Thus far he has showcased skills as an elite slasher who is able to rise above any bigger defender and detonate with a powerful dunk. He also flashes defensive prowess with the occasional block on a 7’0” center’s shot.
Traits: Efficient Shooters, Quality Defenders, Off-Ball Movement
Marcus Smart, Celtics
Smart is one of the most underappreciated players in the NBA, as are a lot of three-and-d guys. He can hold his own against any of the elite guards in the league and is able to contribute to the Celtics offensive attack consistently. Like many other three-and-d players, Smart is the glue of his squad, his energy keeps the Celtics in many games that they otherwise would lose hope.
P.J. Tucker, Rockets
While Tucker is now viewed as a center he comes nowhere close to playing that position on offense. Tucker is another poster boy for this playstyle as he is a quality defender and is reduced to solely a corner three-point shooter on offense. His contributions are invaluable to the Rockets and they would not be a consistent contender without him.
Danny Green, Lakers
Green has won multiple championships by being a serviceable three-and-d player. He has shot over 40% from three for his whole career and has always held his own on the defensive side of the ball, making him a coveted piece for NBA contenders every season.
Traits: Three-level Scoring, Shot Creation, Clutch Factor, Versatile Defender
Kawhi Leonard, Clippers
Many regard Kawhi Leonard as the best player in the league today. This was exemplified this past offseason when there was a three-way arms race to recruit his services, ultimately won by the Los Angeles Clippers. If a team has Kawhi Leanord or any of the other transcendent wings then they have a chance to contend for a title every season. He is highly regarded as the best defender in the league and has one of the most unstoppable offensive attacks. He averaged 27 points per game on 47% shooting, a mark that exemplifies Leonard’s elite three-level scoring abilities.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
Antetokounmpo also falls into the playmaker and slasher category as well as the transcendent wing category as the Bucks have transformed him into the league’s most versatile player. He can get up-and-down the court in about five steps and finish drives with powerful dunks, or use his underrated passing abilities to find shooters. He also garners loads of praise on the defensive side of the ball as he will probably win the defensive player of the year award for this season. He uses his length and athletic ability to be one of the league’s most potent forces.
LeBron James, Lakers
As mentioned before, James is one of the league’s best playmakers, but he scores at the rate of these other transcendent wings. Having both these abilities makes him one of the most versatile players in today’s league and arguably the best player of all time.
Jayson Tatum, Celtics
Earlier in his career, many believed Jayson Tatum would grow into the traditional small forward. However, he had an unprecedented breakout this past season and has shown NBA fans that he will be a positionless wing who excels on both sides of the ball. His consistent three-level scoring ability showcased at such a young age makes many analysts believe that Tatum will be a top-five player at his peak and lead the Celtics to contend for multiple titles down the road.
Traits: Catch-and-Shoot Abilities, Taller Players, Occasionally played out of games due to Lack of Defense.
Kristaps Porzingis, Mavericks
Standing at 7’3” with elite three-point shooting abilities, Porzingis is one of the toughest players to guard in the league. Thus far he has shown the ability to be an elite stretch big, and versatile big who can protect the rim. A lot of stretch bigs don’t share the same rim protection ability that Porzingis has. As he matures, Porzingis could be viewed as a transcendent wing because he has the potential to score at all three-levels and create his own shot. If he is able to hone those skills he could become one of the league’s unguardable players.
Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
Jokic is seen by many as a traditional center, and for the most part, he is. But Jokic has improved his three-point shot unlike other traditional centers such as Rudy Gobert and Andre Drummond. Jokic also has found ways to score off the dribble and has improved his defensive abilities throughout his career. If Jokic is able to add to his agility he might find himself in the versatile big category as well, but for now, he is an elite stretch big man, with additional wing scoring abilities, and playmaking skills showcased by his passing strengths that can’t be found in any other big man.
Kevin Love, Cavaliers
After winning a ring with the Cavaliers in 2016, Love’s career has dwindled and is on its last legs. As he has aged, his defensive abilities diminished along with much of his shot creation abilities. However, he still provides the Cavaliers with a floor spacing presence as he shot over 37% from three this past season. The stretch big man can be a vital piece for an NBA contender if they provide defensive services. In his prime, Love provided the Cavaliers with a defensive force, but like other older stretch fours, such as Blake Griffin and Paul Millsap, his defensive abilities are non-existent now.
Traits: Ability to switch on to any player, Agility, Niche offensive skills
Anthony Davis, Lakers
Davis is one of the league’s best players as he stands at 6’10” and can stroke the three at an efficient level, but he also has one of the best inside scoring games in the league. His height and offensive versatility make him one of the hardest players to prepare for in the NBA. Davis also sports many traits of transcendent wings, as he can get a bucket from anywhere on the court, and his defensive abilities allow him to switch onto slashers and playmakers on the perimeter.
Bam Adebayo, Heat
I could be completely wrong, but the Miami Heat were very lucky when they drafted Bam Adebayo 14th overall. He was just an athletic trampoline show at the University of Kentucky, and I don’t think the Heat saw his full potential as an All-Star and a versatile big. But as mentioned in a previous article, he is the poster-boy for the new-era center/big man. His agility and athletic prowess give him the ability to switch onto any player in the NBA, unlike traditional centers. Those same traits give Adebayo the pathway to get buckets on the offensive side of the ball without having many signature moves. Adebayo is also an underrated ball-handler and the Heat use his ball-handling dexterity as the focal point of their offense. They use him in the handoff sets and the Heat are the most efficient team off of handoffs. Overall, Adebayo was a vital part of the Heat’s successful season and will provide them with a force on both sides of the ball for years to come.
Montrezl Harrell, Clippers
Harrell is a ball of energy and his playstyle reminds fans of a bull in a china shop. However, he is able to control his aggression in an efficient manner. While his ball-handling abilities are not at Adebayo’s level yet, he compares to the Heat star in many ways. Harrell is also knocked as an undersized big, but he uses that to his advantage. His agility allows him to switch onto almost any player in the league, while his athletic ability and IQ give him the skills to be an elite rim protector. He finds plenty of ways to score on offense without having many shot creation abilities as he averaged over 18 points this past season.
After putting multiple players under each category of playstyle, you should have a better picture of how players are viewed in the “positionless” era. The mold to build success through the positionless format is used by many teams, most prevalently by the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Clippers. The Celtics have a playmaker and slasher at guard in Kemba Walker, a three-and-d guy in Marcus Smart, multiple transcendent wings who are still in their developmental stages in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and a versatile big in Daniel Theis. The Los Angeles Clippers, on the other hand, have two wing scorers in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, as well as a three-and-d guy in Patrick Beverly, and a versatile big in the aforementioned Montrezl Harrell. In the next five years, NBA fans may not hear positions used at all when talking about NBA lineups. In order to adapt to this innovation, it is easy to understand by seeing which players fall into each archetype.
(All statistics included are updated as of June 17, 2020. I posted this to use as a hyperlink if people were interested in learning more about archetypes before reading my player evaluations.)