Victims of the Modern NBA
The player-types who no longer walk the NBA world.
Change is abrupt and harsh. Just ask Luddites or Blockbusters. Transformation’s pace waits for no one.
In the NBA, change is not typically so swift. Rules evolve — hand-checking, the no-charge zone, illegal defence — but rarely do they radically alter the game. Players and coaches are always adapting; the way they play and strategize remaining more or less the same.
The same could once be said for rosters. For decades, teams sought players according to an orthodox of need: five individual positions with distinct roles on the court. Each Point Guard, Shooting Guard, Small Forward, Power Forward, and Centre executing a multitude of preconceived functions — their skill and athleticism the only variances.
There were exceptions. Player(s) of supreme athleticism and talent eclipsing conventional rationale: the 90’s Bulls, the Miami Heatles. Momentary innovations rejecting the norm: the Seven Seconds or Less Suns, the Don Nelson Mavericks and Warriors. Or superbly balanced teams spiriting away tradition: the 1993 Phoenix Suns, 2002 Sacramento Kings, 2004 Detroit Pistons, and 2011 Dallas Mavericks. These teams flirted with modernization, but they were either too anomalous or lacked the sustained success to engender NBA seachange.
That was until the 2016–17 season. When space and pace’s revelation modernized the NBA. In that year, three of the final four teams — Boston, Cleveland, and Golden State — were in the top four in three points made and the top five in three points attempted. Golden State, that year’s champion, was first in pace.
The Warriors’ death lineup was a stylistic premonition of things to come. Three-point shooting, quickened pace, and positional-fluidity the harbingers of a new NBA.
Teams became ravenous for lithe shooting forwards and stretch big-men. Skillsets or body-types construed as multifaceted were rewarded with big — often ugly — contracts. Demarre Carroll, Jonathon Simmons, Solomon Hill, and Jeff Green the misconceived fantasies of prognosticating GMs.
The surging analytical arbitrage cast aside traditional player molds relied upon by NBA teams for decades. Only those with an irreplaceable set of skills or extraordinary physical capabilities remained. Consider the following player archetypes all but extinct in the current NBA.
A couple of notes first.
I placed players of each archetype into three categories:
Victims: players no longer in the league.
Survivors: players who adapted their game.
Cliffhangers: players no longer relevant or nearing the brink of irrelevancy.
Players identified as victims were players who had to have a meaningful impact at some point in their careers. This is not a conversation on how good a player was, but how long they were substantially involved in the NBA. Differentiating between bust and victim of the times is difficult — one could argue that a player is a bust because they never had the tools to adapt to the league’s changes. I avoided obvious busts.
Careers are measured by the number of consecutive seasons players played more than 50 games. Seasons with limited games as a result of player development or injury are still included. Seasons are counted until players suddenly and dramatically stopped playing for multiple seasons.
Archetype #1: The Paint Baron
The 1990’s and 2000’s pantheon of centres and slashers necessitated at least one big, bulky body to fill the lane. A bulwark of mass on defense; a post option on offense. The general logic was simple: the easiest shot is the closest to the basket ergo the largest player the most valuable. Teams built dynasties upon them; others perpetually sought countermeasures; while others yet signed Jerome James and traded for Eddy Curry in the same year. But as math revealed itself, speed, shooting, and spacing thrust height, girth, and post-play further towards antiquity. A culling occurred. Platoons of bigs were no longer necessary. One is now sufficient: a rim-runner will do; a shooting, mobile, shot-blocker preferred. A few impactful barons remain. Gobert. Embid. Valančiūnas. But this year’s top post-players use ten or less post-ups per game. In 2015–16, it was 14 or fewer. Brook Lopez had 11 per game that year. This year he has 2.5.
Victims: Joffrey Lauvergne (4 years), Alexis Ajinça (6 seasons), Ömer Aşık (6 seasons), Tyler Zeller (6 seasons), Timofey Mozgov (7 seasons), Greg Monroe (8 seasons), Roy Hibbert (8 seasons), Mareese Speights (8 seasons).
Survivors: Nikola Vučević, Brook Lopez, Marc Gasol, Meyers Leonard, Aron Baynes.
Cliffhangers: Andre Drummond, Steven Adams, Ivica Zubac, Jakob Pöltl, Cody Zeller, Jahlil Okafor, Ian Mahinmi, Alex Len, Cristiano Felício, Kyle O’Quinn, Boban Marjanović.
Archetype #2: The (Non) Shooting Guard
Shooting guards are a trickier position to discuss. They were often the engine of a team’s offense. Shooting was just one weapon from an arsenal of offensive moves. Greats like Michael Jordan, Clyde Drexler, Kobe Bryant, and Dwayne Wade killed teams single-handedly. Not by the three. Not by a system of pace. But by a calculated recipe of dialed-in jump shooting, mesmerizing athleticism, and immaculate footwork. Players of that breed still exist: Jimmy Butler, Donovan Mitchell, Demar Derozan. But now the point guard generates. A high-motored offense has little patience for the methodical shooting guard of old. Their extinction is nigh.
Victims: Johnathan Simmons (4 seasons), Marcus Thornton (7 seasons), Alonzo Gee (7 seasons), Iman Shumpert (8 seasons), Lance Stephenson (9 seasons), Rodney Stuckey (9 years).
Survivors: Norman Powell, Danny Green, Ben Mclemore, Wayne Ellington, Austin Rivers, Avery Bradley, Garrett Temple, Seth Curry, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Cliffhangers: Dion Waiters, Malik Monk, Evan Turner, Patrick McCaw, Rodney Hood, E’Twaun Moore, Alec Burks, Tyler Johnson, Emmanuel Mudiay.
Archetype #3: The Point-Point Guard
Traditional point guards were once the NBA’s quarterback. They initiated the offense and coordinated the defense. Point guards were the glue guys, the extra-passers, the martyrs of possessions and glamour. Not all, of course. Anomalous glimpses of the modern point guard — Magic and Zeke and Jason Kidd and Steve Nash — ascended prototypical point guardom as superstars. Today, the physically gifted, shooting, attacking point guard is the norm. The old floor general burdens tempo and crowds invaluable spacing. They are the analog player of a digital NBA. An unnecessary conduit between scorer and hoop.
Victims: Norris Cole (5 years), Jordan Farmar (6 years), Ty Lawson (7 years), Brandon Jennings (7 years), Jeremy Lin (7 years).
Survivors: Fred Van Vleet, J.J. Barea, George Hill, Dennis Schröder, Patrick Beverley, Shaun Livingston, Patty Mills.
Cliffhangers: Michael-Carter-Williams, Quinn Cook, Cory Joseph, Brandon Knight, Elfrid Payton, Raul Neto, D.J. Augustin, Matthew Dellavedova, Isaiah Thomas, Reggie Jackson, TJ McConnell, Yogi Ferrell, Shabazz Napier, Tyus Jones.
Archetype #4: The Power Tweener
Tweener was once a pejorative term. A label fatal to draft prospects’ aspirations. Tweeners fell between the positional cracks lacking the defining features of any one role. Ironically, today’s addiction to shooting and spacing has resuscitated the value of some tweeners. Adaptive skills and athleticism favoured over positional-certainty.
The same cannot be said for the power tweener. Power forward was a set position in the traditional starting lineup. An active, board-bashing, jump-shooting factotum orbiting the paint baron. The best of them — Karl Malone, KG, Tim Duncan, Charles Barkley — known as much for their ferocity and physicality as they were for their talent. Since then the power forward’s role has diminished: grit a peripheral quality; short jumpers taboo; switchability a must. Power forwards unable to develop long-range shooting or playmaking capabilities devolved into power tweeners: too big to play like a modern forward and too small to play as a centre.
Victims: Andrew Nicholson (4 years), Jared Sullinger (4 years), Quincy Acy (5 years), Kenneth Faried (5 years), JJ Hickson (7 years), Tyler Hansbrough (5 years), Derrick Williams (6 years), Darrell Arthur (8 years) Glen Davis (8 years), Trevor Booker (8 years).
Survivors: P.J. Tucker, Draymond Green, Kevin Love, Al Horford, Carmelo Anthony, JaMycal Green, Julius Randle, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
Cliffhangers: Patrick Patterson, Ed Davis, John Henson, Noah Vonleh, Jabari Parker, Bobby Portis, James Johnson, Dario Saric, Omari Spellman.