Are the Spurs planning a positional revolution?

Jeff Gross

The Spurs are loading up on multi-talented combo forwards with intriguing skill-sets. Is it just a coincidence or do those draft selections signal the next step in the evolution of Spurs basketball?

Positions don't matter, at least not on offense. Titles like guard, forward, center -- they can't encapsulate a player's role and skills. If someone can shoot, his role is "shooter", regardless of the name of the position played. And I think even the traditionalists have accepted this by now.

On defense, there is less flexibility, because there aren't many players that can guard traditional big men and point guards. But a team that wants to be great defensively does need to have guys that are able to guard at least two positions. For example, the Spurs only went back to being elite after they added versatile defenders in Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Tiago Splitter.

None of this is new. Teams have been trying to push the boundaries defined by positions to gain advantages for years, with the most notorious case study being stretch bigs. Having four shooters on the court at all times is the easiest way to be good on offense and teams able to accomplish that (without giving up defense or rebounding) has a clear advantage. The same happens with guards that can work with and without the ball. The examples are obvious. The Spurs and Heat, last season's finalists, could get away with playing stretch fours because LeBron James and Leonard are great on the boards. And because James and Manu Ginobili are great playmakers, both teams could play shooters at PG.

Specialists come in all shapes and sizes and good teams know how to incorporate them into a workable offense. But versatile players are needed in order to create a system that favors role over position without creating gaps the other team can exploit. And wings are the easiest players to do this with.

Wings are right in the middle of small guards and big centers in both height and (usually) skill-sets so they represent the best possibility for positional flexibility. Traditional small forwards were always required to do a bit of everything but those responsibilities have only increased over the years. James is obviously the prime example of a wing that can do it all but even players like Andre Iguodala and Nicolas Batum enable a number of intriguing options in terms of skills and roles at other positions thanks to their playmaking and defensive versatility. Leonard and Shawn Marion do it with their speed, agility and rebounding.

So we are now at a time in which specific skills that were characteristic of a particular position can be found anywhere in the positional spectrum. And wings are relied on to tie it all together. The next step of the evolution, if at all possible, would then be for both the skills of a specialist and the versatility of a wing to unite in a single player. A team of five LeBron Jameses is not realistic. But a team of guys in the middle of the height range who both have an all-around game but also excel at specific things -- well, that would be as close to abolishing traditional positions as basketball can get.

Which brings me to the players the Spurs have selected in their past three drafts.

In 2011, the spurs picked Kawhi Leonard and Davis Bertans.  Leonard can defend one through four, rebound like a power forward, handle the ball a bit and score. Bertans is an elite shooter who can both score on spot-ups and coming off screens.

In 2012, the Spurs didn't have a pick. But in 2013 they selected Livio Jean-Charles, who projects to have the ability to defend both forward spots and work as a screen-setter and finisher.

In 2014, the Spurs selected Kyle Anderson, who rebounded like a power forward in college but assisted like a point guard. He is used to handling the ball, creating for himself and others.

A quick summary of their skills suggest that Anderson is a creator, Bertans a shooter, Leonard a do-it-all star and Jean-Charles a rebounder and defender -- characteristics that are normally associated with point guards, shooting guards, small forwards and power forwards. But the Spurs are getting them from players who have the height and the body type for the three spot and are, by traditional definitions, all small forwards. We could also include another second-round pick, Deshaun Thomas, in that group.

It's extremely tempting to suggest that it has all been intentional, that the Spurs are once again ahead of the curve and first to realize what the future of the sport is in order to beat everyone else to it. The reality is probably closer to a combination of selecting the best player available, plus CBA-related reasons that forced the front office to take on foreign prospects who just happened to fit my definition.

Regardless of the reason, the Spurs find themselves with an enviable collection of extremely unique players, all in that same height range and all with complementary skills. An Anderson-Leonard-Bertans-Jean-Charles lineup, with either a point guard or a center filling in as the circumstances require, simply makes sense.

In the collection of young talent they have the rights to, there is a fantastic experiment waiting to happen. How can a traditional shooting guard bother the shot of a 6-foot-10 guy coming off screens and taking a quick, high release jumper? How do you score on a team that can switch without suffering because everyone is mobile?

For most franchises, this would never pass the phase of theoretical exercise. But for the Spurs it almost seems like the natural progression of the philosophy they have established over the past few years. Everyone shares the ball, everyone has to rebound and defend. Players do what they are good at, regardless of what their position is. Manu creates because he is good at it and Patty Mills shoots because he is good at it. Those two skills are necessary but it doesn't matter who provides what. Playing guys that can adjust to the situation while still offering excellence at a specific skill is simply an extension of that way of thinking about the game.

In all likelihood, the Spurs will take a more traditional stab at retooling around Parker and Leonard once Duncan and Ginobili are gone, and that means finding another star. But with San Antonio not being a glamorous free-agent destination, the Spurs might need a Plan B if they want to remain relevant, and innovation has always been their calling card. So at least for now, my dream of seeing a team comprised entirely of 6'7" to 6'10" multi-talented players lives on because the Spurs seem to have already acquired exactly the types of players necessary to make it work.

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