Ok, bear with me.
Imagine it is the NBA offseason of old and it is a warm July evening. The NBA is hosting its annual General Manager Revitalization Retreat where all the league’s GMs gather to relax and regain their sanity.
One activity involves wandering through a lush, forested park. The retreat leader — I, personally, picture Hubie Brown with a wooden staff and socks in Birkenstocks rattling off old basketball adages as they saunter — brings the group to a large water fountain at the centre of the park.
Hubie hands each GM a penny and says in his sweet, nasally, Pennsylvanian utterance, “Now — this is absolutely beautiful — take this coin and envision — you’re gonna love this — the one type of player you wish you could add to your roster. Now, cast it forth. May your wishes come true…”
What do you think most GMs wished for?
My bet is on a wing. Specifically, a three-point shooting, perimeter-defending wing. Otherwise known as the 3 and D.
Of course, the wishes would never come true: (A) Hubie Brown is not a wizard, and (B) 3 and Ds are as elusive as a missing TV remote.
Nonetheless, over the past five years, teams have desperately searched high and low for them. And, as we all know, when something everyone wants is in very limited supply people start to get waccckkyyy.
It is why we observed the obscene signings of Demarre Caroll for 60 million dollars and Kent Bazemore for 70 million. Why Trevor Ariza has played for eleven teams in sixteen years. Why Bruno Cabocolo is a never-endingly-hopeful project. And why, this year at the trade deadline, we saw Houston abandon its young centre and a first-round pick for a 29-year-old Robert Covington, Memphis dangle Andre Iguodala like chum over shark-infested waters, and New York drive a bidding war for the contemptuous Marcus Morris.
It actually might be impossible to have too many 3 and Ds in the NBA today.
Just ask Houston and Boston.
I’m pretty sure Darryl Morey’s next venture is going to be a 3 and D, 3-D clone-printing company called THREE(&D)PEAT.
Madness for a superstar — as a Raptors fan — I get. When you have a sliver of a chance of getting one — YOU SELL YOUR SOUL TO DRAKE AND PRAY (word of advice do not sell your soul to a megalomaniac pop star). Superstars are why teams tank for years on end. And why they sell their entire future.
But why the craze for a mere role player?
There have been other positional obsessions: the next MJ, the-guy-who-can-guard-Shaq, European Union Dirk-simulacrums, the next-high-school-prodigy, the “Kobe stopper.” But these player-type fantasies were momentary responses to a flavour of the day.
The infatuation with 3 and D players, on the other hand, has materialized over a decades-long evolution of NBA positions.
Traditional basketball lineups have five distinct positions. But over many years of experimentation and innovation, these once rigorously-defined roles have bled into one another, creating hybrid positions or what I call “Combo-Positions”.
Combo-Positions have always existed. They are what The Ringer staff have so fantastically discussed as unicorns. A player who transcends the generational confines of their “assigned” position. Magic Johnson broke the point guard mould. Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, Kevin Garnett, and Dirk Nowitzki vanquished our idea of the forward. Had Arvydas Sabonis come to the NBA at a younger age, he might have done to the centre position what Jokić is doing now, decades earlier.
Naturally, what follows in the wake of unicorns is a slower sea-change of positional play. It is Darwinian logic. Unicorns represent a successful way to play basketball. Progeny of an original mutation proliferates — or, at least, tries to emulate — in response.
The point guard and shooting guard experienced the first transfiguration. Giving birth to the Combo-Guard.
Traditional point guards bring the ball up and initiate a team’s actions. They are the pass-first, “quarterback” of a team. The shooting guard, on the other hand, functions as the scorer and slasher — like a running back. Think Doc Rivers and Jon Starks. Or Terry Porter and Clyde Drexler. Or Mark Jackson and Reggie Miller.
Following Magic Johnson and Isaiah Thomas’ success in the 1980s and early 1990s, came a wealth of point guards playing both the “facilitator” and “playmaker”. Dynamos like John Stockton, Kevin Johnson, Rod Strickland, Tim Hardaway, and Gary Payton ravaged the 1990s.
The progression was ultimately about efficiency. Staying with the football analogy, if the quarterback is not a team’s best player, why waste time putting the ball in their hands. Instead, football coaches design plays — like screens, quick outs, and reverses — to get the ball immediately to their best offensive player.
Similarly, the point guard was a barrier. Removing the position — or transforming it — allowed teams to place better complements — like rebounders and three-point shooters — around their best players.
The Combo-Guard became a pick-your-poison nightmare. Opposing point guards were too small or lean to match their strength and size. Forwards were too big and slow to keep up.
With the success of the first generation of Combo-Guards came a second iteration: Penny Hardaway of the Orlando Magic.
Penny was six feet, seven inches, and two-hundred pounds — the same size as Chris Mullin and nearly as big as Scottie Pippen and Dominique Wilkins. In 1993, his rookie year, he averaged sixteen points (sixth among point guards), seven assists (fourteenth in the league), and five rebounds (highest among point guards that year). Penny’s size and skill was an exception to the general Combo-Guard profile, at the time, but he exemplified a permanent change soon to come.
Teams began to value larger, multi-skilled guards; we started to see the virtual extinction of the traditional point guard.
Leading into the new millennium, the NBA continued to see versions of the dynamic point guard archetype: Jason Kidd, Damon Stoudamire, Stephon Marbury, Baron Davis, and Steve Nash. But the league also started to generate Penny Hardaway copies, who were large, explosive, score-first, or all of the above: Jalen Rose, Jerry Stackhouse, Allen Iverson, Brandon Roy, Ray Allen, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Gilbert Arenas, and Dwayne Wade. Most played shooting guard, but as far as usage rates go, they were the primary ball handlers. Point guards were afterthoughts, mere spot-up shooters. Nowadays guards who cannot shoot, attack, and play-make are destined for limited minutes.
What followed was the popularization of other Combo-Positions. Combo-Forwards like Kevin Garnett, Grant Hill, Paul Pierce, Danny Granger, Lamar Odom, Lebron James, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Pascal Siakam, and Brandon Ingram. And, more recently, Combo-Centres: Anthony Davis, Giannis Antekunoumpo, Bam Adebayo, Ben Simmons, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Nikola Jokić.
So what does all this history about Combo-Positions have to do with the origin of the 3 and D?
As a result of a thirty-year positional coalescence, players’ sizes and skills are more homogenous than ever. Guards are taller and more explosive. Centres can be shorter and quicker. And the wing — the traditional small forward — the average, with the positional flexibility to guard them all.
Add the explosion of three-pointers, the reliance on the pick and roll, and the ubiquity of space and pace — stories for another time — and, suddenly, positionless basketball reigns supreme. The large, agile, shooting perimeter-player its greatest virtue.
Every team wants a 3 and D player. Teams with superstar Combo-Forwards like Lebron James and Kawhi Leonard desire them to increase spacing and lighten the defensive-load. Teams without such phenomena desperately need them as a defensive counter.
Of course, ideally, a GM’s wish would be for dynamic and versatile forwards like Gordon Hayward (of old) or Paul George (of the regular season), but they are even harder to come by.
The subaltern has become the 3 and D.