The Value of Traditional Positions and Average Players at Each Spot


By Jesse Blanchard

For as much as we try to diminish the importance of positional designations in basketball, the positional revolution wasn’t exactly a reckoning of tradition roles, but rather, finding added value on top of what’s expected from each position on the court.

Playing styles are no longer bound within the confines of traditional positional labels, but they must still be tethered to a few basic core principles, with few exceptions.

Draymond Green transforms the Golden State Warriors not solely because he brings playmaking and versatility to the power forward or center position, but because he can do those things while, first and foremost, performing the duties expected of players at those positions.

Likewise, Nikola Jokic is a monster for all the versatility he brings from the center position, but the Denver Nuggets will always have something of a ceiling to success until he grasps the nuances of anchoring the backline of a defense like centers are supposed to.

Stars, as always, have leeway to transcend each position. Average players with unique styles, like Patty Mills—with his sparkplug scoring but lack of playmaking from the point guard position—or Meyers Leonard, who can stretch the floor but struggles to rebound or defend, are often relegated to specialist or bench roles.

These designations have more meaning with typical NBA players.

This summer, BBALLBREAKDOWN’s Coach Nick and Arturo Galletti looked at the most common, or average, player at each position, producing its second annual All-Average starting lineup based on last year’s production.

Below is a list of five players who fall closest to the position’s median with their salary from last year and deviation from average salary.

Point Guard

POINT GUARDS Average Salary: $4,936,583
  Salary Deviation from Average Salary
George Hill  $      8,000,000.00 3,063,417
Ty Lawson  $          980,431.00 -3,956,152
Cory Joseph  $      7,315,000.00 2,378,417
Goran Dragic  $    15,891,725.00 10,955,142
Dennis Schroder  $      2,708,582.00 -2,228,001
Jeff Teague  $      8,800,000.00 3,863,417

Over the summer, the Minnesota Timberwolves parted with one of the most unique floor generals in the NBA (Ricky Rubio) to bring in its most average, Jeff Teague.

Teague can be counted on to set a tempo and run a competent pick and roll with some pull towards the rim, forcing a rotation and making the proper read and pass. Like most point guards, he can hit a three-pointer at a reasonable rate (36.8 percent), which is a significant bump up from the 30.9 percent the position averaged two years ago, when Coach Nick first did this exercise—reflecting an added responsibility at the position.

Rubio might have some qualities closer to elite than Teague, but with ball dominant scorers in Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler, having someone who can check off all the positional duties in the job description was deemed more important.

While there are players like George Hill, Patrick Beverley or, if he’s playing there, Avery Bradley, who break from the typical point guard mold, comfortably sliding into a three-and-D role next to a ball dominant wing, they’re exceptions.

Even the best defensive point guard-sized human beings are going to have trouble dealing with elite guards, and that’s before factoring in things like pick and roll coverage, help defense and switches.

Increasingly, this has become a position to attack on the court, looking for crossmatches.

If a player doesn’t have the size and length of a wing to greatly impact team defense, it’s going to be difficult to justify playing him without the ability to run an offense or make decisions with the ball. A three-and-D wing like Otto Porter, who’s merely solid-to-good individually in on-ball situations but has versatility in team schemes, is going to be more valuable than even the best lockdown point guard.

That Teague’s production is average for the position shows its depth, but it also comes at a hefty price for the Timberwolves. Luring a quality starting point guard will cost teams that don’t develop their own.

Shooting Guard

SHOOTING GUARDS  Average Salary: $4,635,814
  Salary Deviation from Average Salary
Gerald Henderson  $      9,000,000.00 4,364,186
Norman Powell  $          874,636.00 -3,761,178
Tim Hardaway Jr.  $      2,281,605.00 -2,354,209
Nik Stauskas  $      2,993,040.00 -1,642,774
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope  $      3,678,319.00 -957,495
Victor Oladipo  $    5, 552,960.00 1,917,146

 

Victor Oladipo’s presence here should be a warning against investing heavily in the position. Not just in terms of money, but touches and designed actions.

It should be noted that of the five average shooting guards last season, four were on their rookie contracts last season, the most of any position.

Two years ago, this same position still listed a number of players on rookie deals.

A theory: the shooting guard position is the deepest and the most deemphasized. If a shooting guard shows enough playmaking or creation to carry an offense and isn’t playing point guard, he better be Klay Thompson or playing next to Chris Paul next season. Otherwise, there’s a reason such players are moved off the prime spot.

Lead shooting guards typically lack the vision to run an entire offense but still require plenty of touches and dribbles while lacking the size and athleticism of small forwards like Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George or LeBron James.

Harden returns to the shooting guard position as an anomaly with Paul on hand. Bradley Beal or CJ McCollum might be best case scenarios, but split time with elite point guards. Ditto for DeRozan, who carries the flaws listed but is strong enough in what he can do to compensate.

If all Oladipo brings is average production with little impact on overall wins, it surely would have been better for the Indiana Pacers to have looked to the draft or developmental prospects to find a suitable player.

The same goes for the New York Knicks, who will likely regret Hardaway’s contract even if he continues to make reasonable developmental leaps.

Small Forwards

SMALL FORWARDS  

Average Salary: $5,473,368

Salary Deviation from Average Salary
Aaron Gordon  $      4,351,320.00 -1,122,048
Will Barton  $      3,533,333.00 -1,940,035
Tobias Harris  $    17,200,000.00 11,726,632
Marcus Morris  $      4,625,000.00 -848,368
DeMarre Carroll  $    14,200,000.00 8,726,632

The Orlando Magic were heavily criticized for playing Aaron Gordon at small forward, not because he was horrible—his production was quite average—but because the Shawn Marion effect.

If a small forward—that is, a large wing with some ball handling, shooting and playmaking ability—has the ability to play up a position, he absolutely should.

There is a large leap in what plus shooting and playmaking is at the power forward spot than at the small forward. Players like Marion or Andrei Kirilenko, who were solid to good at the 3, shifted the court in dynamic new ways when their speed and skill were moved up a spot.

Looking at the average small forward, all save for Will Barton have some utility at the power forward positions. To remain a true three requires a better than mediocre clip from deep or tremendous skill. Even then, Harris and Morris probably work best with another win next to them.

At this spot, there’s also a lot of hidden value. DeMarre Carroll was a disappointment in Toronot, in part due to health and mostly because he still wasn’t an apt answer for LeBron James or key to unlocking smaller lineups. But he was still a positive influence on the court whenever he played.

Power Forward

POWER FORWARDS  Average Salary: $5,921,789
Salary Deviation from Average Salary
Nikola Mirotic  $      5,782,450.00 -139,339
Jabari Parker  $      5,374,320.00 -547,469
Markieff Morris  $      7,400,000.00 1,478,211
Jon Leuer  $    10,991,957.00 5,070,168
Marvin Williams  $    12,250,000.00 6,328,211
James Johnson  $      4,000,000.00 -1,921,789
TJ Warren  $      2,128,920.00 -3,792,869

 

No position is more important in dictating the style of play than power forward. It’s the high ground on the battle field.

Find a power forward who can bully lighter players and navigate space and you can force the Golden State Warriors to stay bigger or risk wearing down Kevin Durant. Pair a playmaking power forward with a quality pick and roll point guard and you can unlock a beautiful flowing offense taking advantage of 4-on-3 opportunities any time a team hedges.

Perhaps no position’s prerequisites have shifted as much over the past decade as the power forward. Within our list of average players, all come in different styles, from switching defenders with floor spacing ability to players with an ability to read and navigate open space. The key for all, however, is a need for offensive ability.

Center requires some level of defense, rebounding and size, which few floor spacers can provide well enough of to remain on the court. With defenses as sophisticated as they are, it’s exceedingly difficult to put more than one offensive liability on the floor.

And within that, too many standstill shooters lacking in dynamic playmaking ability can also stagnate an offense.

Shooting guards and role playing small forwards have been increasingly homogenized, leaving the power forward position to pick up the slack in playmaking ability.

The Washington Wizards were thought to have paid a hefty price for Markief Morris, but they did so with good reason. Its two best players are John Wall and Bradley Beal, and to fully maximize their chemistry a third connecting piece is necessary.

Power Forward is usually that piece, going back to the days of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, with Tim Duncan or Boris Diaw as the fulcrum around which the two pieces worked so well.

A Wall-Marcin Gortat pick and roll might lead to Morris flashing to open space, working as a pressure release valve that leads to an open jumper or flows into quick two-man game with Beal.

Having a player who can post also allows Wall or Beal to run off ball patterns, or prevents switching or traps.

Center

CENTERS  Average Salary: $6,692,559
Jonas Valanciunas  $    14,382,022.00 $7,689,463
Pau Gasol  $    15,500,000.00 $8,807,441
David Lee  $      1,551,659.00 -5,140,900
Marcin Gortat  $    12,000,000.00 5,307,441
Myles Turner  $      2,463,840.00 -4,228,719
Steven Adams  $      3,140,517.00 -3,552,042


We keep waiting for the position to die out, yet players like Pau Gasol or Marcin Gortat persist. That’s because size still matters in the NBA. For reference, go see how giant the Spurs are, or think back to Kevin Durant’s final season with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

When the Portland Trail Blazers added an interior counterbalance to Damian Lillard and McCollum in Jusuf Nurkic, it completely transformed the team.

Jonas Valanciunas is the standard for average centers, though he was paid with the hopes of developing into more.

He has the requisite understanding of angles and positioning with a soft touch, but lacks the quick decision making of Gasol, Lee or Gortat. Being fleet of foot isn’t as vital as being quick of mind for the position.

If you can find one who is, be prepared to shell out good money for him.


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About The Author

Jesse Blanchard is the author of Dynasty: the San Antonio Spurs Timeless 2013-2014 Championship, author/illustrator of the unpublished #LetBonnerShoot, A Dr. Seuss Story, and former contributor for 48 Minutes of Hell, Project Spurs, and ESPNsa.com. Boris Diaw is his pickup game spirit animal.

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