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The Changing Landscape of the NBA

Growing up in 1990s New York City with the name Patrick meant I was always connected to Patrick Ewing. When I was young, my parents bought me a Patrick Ewing jersey, which I eventually threw away when I got a little older (don't worry, I own his jersey once again). I was too young to appreciate him as a player, and it would be a few more years before I discovered my love for the Knicks and basketball. Watching the 90s Knicks on MSG Classics is one of my favorite activities. I fell in love with the old style of play, and was amazed by Patrick’s ability to take defenders to school on the block.

Fast forward to 2015, and I just finished watching the NBA Playoffs, which were fun, yet also a bit concerning. The biggest thing I'm worried about is that the game is becoming "positionless". That is, the modern day NBA player has the skill and athleticism to guard 3+ positions, but instead of having the specialized ability of a "ball-handler" or "post-up player", they have multiple attributes. From bigmen who can shoot and space the floor to guards who can bang down low in the post, “positionless” players are now what teams are searching for. Draymon Green, Tristian Thompson, Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Josh Smith, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, the Morris twins, Nikola Mirotic, Taj Gibson, and Blake Griffin and Joakim Noah as honorable mentions, are “positionless” players that come to mind. And even several players in this year's draft are projected to be able to guard and play multiple positions on the court.

Back in the day (yes, I'm twenty-one and using that phrase) players had certain skill sets because it was assumed that you couldn't teach a player multiple positions. This was the fundamental reason for having different positions and calling them different names, instead of just having five players on the court.

But with the trend of less time in college, NBA players are less "skilled" when they reach the professional level. Conversely, this has led to the trend of ultra-athletic players making it to the NBA and then adapting their athletic ability to cover several positions. And this is the basis of "positionless" basketball.

For example, you play someone at the small forward position who can slide up or down depending on the opposing team's line-up. In the finals, both teams used this strategy. Golden State played a line-up of Curry, Thompson, Barnes, Iguodala and Green on the floor, forcing Cleveland to counter with Dellavedova, Shumpert, Smith, James and Thompson. James even played at center towards the end of the series! That means that the tallest dude on the court was 6'9'' in Tristian Thompson, often during the most crucial parts in the games. That's crazy!

If you rewind back to the 90s or even the early 2000s, there was always a seven-foot dude on the court. In fact, having a superstar center has been the staple for so many NBA Championship teams in history. Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Shaquille O'Neil, Hakeem Olajuwon, Bill Walton, David Robinson, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett all led their respective teams to championship victories. And they were some of the most dominant players in NBA history, thanks to their height and skills. And of course the honorable mentions there would be Patrick Ewing, since he didn't actually win a championship, and Bill Russell, who was only 6'9'' (a predecessor to today's NBA maybe??). Even Michael Jordan always had a seven-footer on his teams. Although they weren’t needed to make huge contributions, they still served an important role on those great Bulls teams.

In this year's finals, the two seven footers, Bogut and Mozgov, played minor roles for their teams, disappeared at the end of games and in Bogut’s case, got taken out of the rotation completely. Mozgov didn't play a single second in the 4th Quarter in Game 2, and Bogut played under four minutes. Even more mind blowing, Kerr actually started Draymond Green for Game 4, creating mismatches everywhere. Offensively, the Cavs, who have been struggling to find points outside of Lebron, had a new weapon they could use: Mozgov in the post. With LeBron's passing skill, Mozgov received the ball around the hoop all night long, posting a career high in points, 28. However, the most ironic part was that the Cavs never went back to Mozgov, who played nine minutes the next game, and scored a whopping ZERO points!

On the other side, the Warriors got what they wanted from this line-up change: a quicker pace and a smoother offense. Bogut had been playing a very small role so far in the series, being merely a defensive presence down low to challenge LeBron at the rim and a rebounder. But this meant that the Warriors were always sluggish getting up the court and into their offensive sets. This new starting line-up allowed GS to get out and run, which not only freed them up on the offensive side, but also exhausted and depleted the Cavs’ line-up, making it especially difficult for them to defend the three-point line for forty-eight minutes.

The NBA will look drastically different in the near future, and this year’s finals was a preview of that. For me, I will always love the big-men who can get 20-30 points in the post, using their skill and size to get their buckets. But now it seems to be a league where three point field goals are a necessity, and with a jumpshooting team like the Warriors having won the championship, we will see a transition to a finesse league, where few bodies crash together, and the ball simply cracks through the net.

In my opinion, let the guards and forwards shoot, but leave the posting up to the big fellas. And even with the other positions, the shooting guard and small forward spots are becoming almost archaic. If, back in the day, teams would start two guards and two forwards, basically doing the same thing in each spot, the development of five independent positions seemed to be the height of "skill" in the NBA. You wanted a one guard to dribble and pass, and the two guard to shoot. You wanted the small forward to shoot and rebound, while the power forward would help space the floor, rebound and defend. And of course, the center would rebound, outlet (a lost art form in the NBA today), defend the rim, and score inside.

Now the ideal player, in any position, is between 6'5'' and 6'10''. He can defend multiple positions, dribble the ball, shoot threes and take it inside. Big men like Charles Oakley couldn’t survive in today’s NBA because they took midrange jumpshots, which have gone out of style just like the short-shorts of the 80s. I think the new NBA we are headed for will look very uniform, and will be very offense-friendly. The average height might be somewhere between 6’3’’ and 6’9’’, and every player will be extremely athletic. Take Andrew Wiggins as an example. Tall, lanky, good on the defensive end, and doesn’t really have an offensive game. His appeal is in his potential, that he could develop like LeBron James did, adding a jumpshot to a good slashing game, and eventually add a post up game. My only hope is that teams rediscover the "skilled positions" and realize that watching a well-balanced team with skilled players at each position can be a beautiful performance.

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