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Commentary: Positional Ambiguity At The Small Forward Position

Sometimes a simple positional designation isn’t practical. Recently, there’s been a slew of talented, successful players who’ve entered the league with an awkward size and skill set pairing. Big guys who don’t know how to rebound but can shoot like two guards, or players in the backcourt who aren’t the most adept at handling the ball but on the defensive end take on the persona of their team’s toughest player. When the game was created there were only five positions and each participant was crammed into one, making it their definition. Today, it’s different.

Here’s a look at two well known players who’re each being asked to play a position they normally wouldn’t. The difference here is that while one player is doing it as somewhat of a last gasp move of self-preservation, the other is being asked to make a switch for pure mismatch-based reasons. One might help the team, but probably won’t. The other already has.

Tyreke Evans entered the NBA with noisy questions at his back regarding where he would best fit in Sacramento’s starting lineup. When he masqueraded as a point guard in his rookie year it was awesome. But, unfortunately, hindsight is telling us it may have been an aberration; 82 charmed games. The role of the elite scoring point guard that Tyreke Evans was supposed to fill is now occupied by Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook. Evans went from transcendent to borderline useless in a year’s time.

Now, as Evans’ second straight sub par season comes to a merciful end, and the team’s starting backcourt of the future looks like an Isaiah Thomas/Marcus Thornton two-headed monster, Kings head coach Keith Smart publicly decided that the only way to get his second most talented player in the starting lineup was at the small forward position.

According to 82games.com, Evans has played small forward for 1% of Sacramento’s possessions this season, so obviously what we’re dealing with here is a small sample size. Of course, for defensive purposes this isn’t ideal. When extrapolated into a per-48 minute basis, opposing small forwards are averaging 36.2 points and a 37.0 PER when Evans is guarding them. He’s 6’6″ and 220 pounds, so more nights than not he’ll be undersized. I realize that your labeled position means very little these days, but given his historic success two years ago, it’s still a little shocking to see him there. SI.com’s Zach Lowe pointed out in his latest “Monday Musings” that Evans is cutting more off the ball, and doing a great job at it. This is great, but it’s just another sign that the days of Evans running this team and making its decisions are all but over.

In an early April win against the Trail Blazers, Jazz head coach Tyrone Corbin made the tactical decision to shift Paul Millsap from his more natural power forward position down to the three. Millsap then proceeded to exercise his right of thoroughly dominating all those who dared stand in his way. The fact that he played so well isn’t necessarily surprising. He’s thick and powerful, yes, but Millsap is also one of the more nimble power forwards in the league. When Utah wants to get large and give their young stud Derrick Favors some valuable minutes, they’re able to. Here are some recent words from Millsap and Corbin.

The mismatch “… makes my job a little easier on offense,” Millsap said. “But I also have to guard them on the other end. And I felt like I did a pretty good job.”

“Paul has played some ‘three’ before and it was just an opportunity to keep some size and offensive punch on the floor. … It worked out well.”

Corbin says Millsap could play more small forward in the Jazz’s final 12 games: “Paul did a great job of going inside and scoring and the guys did a great job of getting the ball to him. It’s something we’ll look at more going forward.”

Corbin isn’t afraid of changing one of his best players’ positions for the good of the team because in today’s league it’s less about where you play than how you do when you’re there.

Even though they’re for two separate reasons, what these two moves say about “positions” in today’s league is significant. For starters, the small forward position no longer has a middle ground, but does this even matter? The game is shifting into a new era of positional ambiguity, and the bigger question—the more important one that coaches around the league will be trying to answer—has become how are you going to stop Paul Millsap?

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