In his prickly and passive-aggressively subtitled 2011 post "Ain't No Use Clutchin' at the Butter," sports blogger Bethlehem Shoals drops the half-serious philosophical tone that characterizes much of his well-known FreeDarko work and lets out one big, long sneer. It's an angry reaction to a Rob Mahoney article about the Positional Revolution in which Mahoney fails to cite Shoals or his comrade Tom Ziller, the former of whom coined and began to develop the concept in 2006. Shoals' words: "try and spend hours and hours working through an idea -- even coming up with a snappy name for it -- only to find yourself more or less invisibly [sic] as it starts to find a wider audience."
Shoals was grousing about the appropriation of his concept when the Miami Heat were still getting aggressively booed out of every arena they visited and while LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were uneasily figuring out how their Superfriends experiment was going to unfold.
Over two years later, after weathering an outright battle against the Pacers, the Heat seem less invincible, and their second consecutive title seems less inevitable than it did a month ago. This injection of uncertainty into the playoff narrative fails to take the shine off one of the most impressive regular seasons in the history of the league, and doesn't change the fact that the Heat will go into the NBA Finals as prohibitive favorites to raise the Gold Orb Leaning on an Awkward Picassian Net Trophy. Since Shoals wrote "Butter" in 2011, the Heat have evolved from a shaky, talent-embarrassed Frankenstein into the frightening force most of us thought they would become. The Heat are the best team in the NBA, whether they beat the Spurs or otherwise. But more interestingly, they're something like a realization of the idea Shoals, Ziller and their disciples have been pondering over the past seven years.
The intellectual spark for the Positional Revolution, Shoals revealed to me in an email exchange that included Ziller, was unicorn-ish big men like Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki, who were designated on the lineup sheet as power forwards, but weren't totally power forward-like, affecting the game from beyond the block. They had more range on their jumpers than Karl Malone and could put the ball on the floor in a way Kevin McHale never could. Shoals then began to apply the concept to teams, specifically those freewheeling Wizards squads of the mid-aughts that had Larry Hughes and Gilbert Arenas combo-guarding it up in the backcourt and Antawn Jamison playing in a manner that was uniquely Antawn Jamison.
"I started wondering," Shoals recounted, "if there wasn't something bigger going on when there were individual KGs and Dirks and teams like the Wizards where interplay took precedence over a fixed system." This notion of interplay over rigidity comes up a lot in writing about the Positional Revolution, and it's also crucial to the way the Heat play basketball.
Miami is paradoxical. They have a system, but that system encourages dynamism to the point that it scarcely appears systematic. Phil Jackson used the triangle with Kobe and Jordan as a means of slightly decentralizing his stars so the entire offense could flourish -- Lamar Odom and Toni Kukoc needed to touch the ball, too. Jackson allowed his best players to freelance occasionally, but the offense had a default setting that wasn't "Michael does whatever he wants."
The Heat choose to spotlight LeBron's unparalleled ability to freelance and play nearly any role he wants to -- bruising post presence, lockdown perimeter defender, playmaker, fighter pilot. Announcers often remark that LeBron decides what he needs to do on a given night to help his team win -- TNT's crew wondered aloud in the opening minutes of Monday's Game 7 if we would see "Magic LeBron" or "Jordan LeBron"-but, just as often, the onus is on LeBron's teammates to adjust to whatever all-time great he's impersonating on a given night. There's a balance in Miami's free jazz schematic between freedom and responsibility, privilege and obligation.
For example, Mario Chalmers has to, within the course of a game, figure out whether to act as a penetrator, spot-up shooter, or cutter. As much as Chalmers harrumphs (sanely) about not getting enough respect and (insanely) about being one of the best 10 point guards in the league, he is, by no traditional definition, even a point guard. He's a 6-footish scorer, and his obligation is to work in concert with whatever LeBron is doing on a given night -- on a given play -- to get his points. Some games, his three-point stroke is impeccable and everything gets a little easier. On lousy shooting nights, he has to draft plans B and C, which thankfully for him are built into what Miami does on offense, but he still has to be intelligent enough to know when to jump into the phone booth and assume a new identity. Else he gets pulled from the floor, and Norris Cole gets a crack at playing not-quite-point-guard.
The rest of Miami's roster have similarly variable roles. If you think of a basketball team like a soup -- and you should, really; soup and basketball are two terrific things with a lot in common -- LeBron is the broth and the meat, but what sort of broth and meat he is changes constantly. It's up to his teammates to figure out what sorts of seasonings and vegetables they need to be in order to, um, render the whole substance delicious. (Deliciousness here correlates with winning basketball games.)
So, if LeBron is carrying a heavy offensive load and needs a bit of a rest on defense, it's often Shane Battier's job to cover the other team's best player, whether that guy is a 6-foot-4 guard or a 6-foot-10 power forward. Dwyane Wade has to know when to drive the team on offense and when to find ways to score by moving off the ball. Chris Bosh has worked on extending his range out to the three-point line so he can play like both a big man and a spot-up shooter. (Though he was neither against the Pacers.) Everyone has to do less because LeBron is on their team -- he'll take care of 28 points, nine rebounds, and half a chore wheel of other responsibilities -- but, in a way, they also have to spread themselves thinner, to be able to do three or four things competently. It's interplay on LeBron's terms: He takes and his colleagues give. And if they give him too little, he's intermittently capable of winning a game almost completely by himself.
This is as it should be, but it's also what makes the Heat highly unusual. Most teams build around what their star can't do. The 2008-09 Magic, who upset LeBron's Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals, used the 6-foot-10 Hedo Turkoglu as a playmaker, Dwight Howard as an unstoppable force in the paint, and almost everyone else as a three-point specialist. A drive by Hedo or post-up by Dwight would collapse the other team's defense, and all of a sudden, Courtney Lee is open on the wing. Bang. Rashard Lewis from the corner. Bang. And so on. The Magic were a whit unorthodox, but they lived (upsetting the Cavs) and died (going out meekly against the Lakers in the Finals) by a mostly static post-and-kick/slash-and-kick system.
Dwight Howard was probably the second-best player in the league in 2008-09, but he couldn't do a lot of things at a high level. You could say Howard was a great yet traditional center, with limitations to match. By contrast, LeBron is great at almost everything, but he can't catch his own one-footed skip passes or guard three players at once, so while he needs to have the freedom to do all the things he excels at -- you don't want to box in the most multi-talented player of all-time -- his teammates have to pick up the slack based on whatever he's not doing at any given time. Sometimes all this means is knocking down wide-open shots or being active on the boards. When LeBron is having an off night, the supporting cast's task becomes more arduous. Bosh and Wade and even bit players like Udonis Haslem and Birdman Anderson have to expand their roles to patch together a win. They're obviously capable of it, since a not-insignificant share of Miami's victories came on nights when LeBron wasn't playing like Magic or Jordan.
One of the players Shoals and Ziller have cited frequently in their early writings on the Positional Revolution is Shawn Marion, specifically when he was playing on those D'Antoni-coached Seven Seconds or Less Suns teams. They argue that Marion was that team's keystone because of his versatility. He could shoot, drive, rebound and guard nearly every position. The Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire pick-and-roll made the Suns potent; Marion made them title contenders.
While I was chatting with Shoals about my conception of LeBron as a sort of evolutionary Shawn Marion, he made an interesting point: Marion allowed everyone else on the Suns to be limited. He did everything Joe Johnson, Steve Nash and company didn't do, and in doing so allowed them to only do the things they were excellent at. In this way, LeBron is not so much an evolution of Marion as he is Marion's inverse. As he switches from one role to another -- say, he abdicates playmaking duties for a few possessions and moves into the post -- the team must shift with him. The other players must become new things. Marion was the player on the Suns who was always becoming something new.
Marion is also the answer to an incisive question Mahoney -- who, by the way, has completely patched things up with Shoals -- poses in his offending Off the Dribble piece: what the hell is a small forward anyway? Any basketball fan has a basic handle on what a "pure" point guard or a "pure" center does, and one could perhaps argue that Zach Randolph is something like a "pure" power forward or that Arron Afflalo is a "pure" shooting guard, but it's not clear exactly what a small forward is supposed to contribute to his team.
This is because more and more, teams are employing less capable versions of Marion. The small forward has no fixed set of obligations; he is asked to do what his teammates don't do. On some teams, that means guarding the opponent's best perimeter player, other teams ask their small forward to rebound and score garbage buckets, still others rely on him to shoot threes and run the floor. The small forward can do a lot of things or a couple of things, but what he does isn't strictly defined from team-to-team; the Platonic ideal of him is hard to describe. As Ziller pointed out in our email discussion, Kevin Durant might be the only "pure" small forward in the league, in that he's tall, rebounds well and can shoot from anywhere on the floor. (For a better idea of what Ziller means, check his super useful "Z" chart on Durant, which was made in 2009 but is still a reasonably accurate summary of KD's strengths.)
Durant's teammate Russell Westbrook, on the other hand, is an extremely un-point-guard-ish point guard. Ziller told me that the purpose of the "Z" charts was to illustrate that a lot of current NBA stars confound positionality--point guards who are good at "shooting guard things," power forwards who are good at "point guard things"--and to emphasize that the "pure" player isn't inherently more valuable. All you need is a collection of players who can pool their skills together to give you everything you need to win basketball games, positionality be damned.
This is true enough. After all, the Thunder are one of the very best teams in the league, but what's implicit in Ziller's insight is that having a position-confounding player like Westbrook necessitates having a gaggle of positionally strange players, or, optimally, one Marion-like fixer who can do a bunch of things well. With Durant playing a recognizable position -- "pure" small forward, small-ball power forward --the role of fixer used to fall to James Harden, who was so comfortable playing part-time playmaker that he allowed Westbrook to self-actualize. Russ was able to invent his own position, call it "hell-raiser" for all anyone cared. Without Harden, Westbrook is no longer the black metal terror he was born to be, and sometimes he's just an anchor. Russ is a problem, in other words, because he's so idiosyncratic that he requires another equally idiosyncratic running mate. He might be a less talented version of LeBron, in that he demands to be built around, if he and his team are ever to reach their full potential. Until then, Westbrook is stuck trying to play an ill-fitting quasi-point guard position, which is like the evil spirit from Christine inhabiting a wheelbarrow.
All of this is to say that the Heat are the first truly dominant team to completely eschew traditional positionality, but they're far from the first successful team to do so. In fact, lots of teams have a player or two in their rotation who doesn't have an easily definable position, and Ziller's charts indicate that there have been a lot of good and great players who are not purely one thing or another. Front offices and coaches have, especially over the past decade, worked to accommodate their stars' position-defying games or used multi-talented players to caulk the team's deficiencies. The Golden State Warriors accidentally found out during this year's playoffs that their best lineup might be one that places Harrison Barnes at power forward. The Bulls rely on the 6-foot-11 Joakim Noah's incredible passing, and I'm not sure what Derrick Rose is, but "point guard" feels like an insufficient descriptor. A bunch of teams use a small-ball lineup in some capacity -- often playing three guards and/or a typical small forward as a stretch four -- and the plus-minus numbers show that those player combinations operate the same or better than more rigid 1-through-5 lineups.
The Heat are markedly different from everyone else because LeBron is like no other player and dominance is always distinctive. Their legacy -- with a hat tip to the Showtime Lakers, several of Dirk's Mavs teams, and a smattering of Phil Jackson squads -- will be having proved that a total embrace of unorthodox positionality can produce transcendent basketball, the likes of which the league can't contain on a nightly basis. The Heat have moved through the NBA like a scythe this season while relying on LeBron's ability to do a bunch of stuff and his teammates' ability to fill in the blanks.
Not that orthodox positionality is dead. We nearly ended up with an NBA Finals matchup between the Pacers and Spurs, who both employ a pair of conventional big men and play in a way that's readily legible to anyone who has watched basketball over the past 30 years. There will probably always be good teams with 7-footers and pass-first point guards. Rather, the Heat are a novelty, and novelties are useful because they force conventional wisdom - which is not just annoying but intellectually stifling -- to justify itself in a manner it normally isn't required to. The recitation of old clichés -- defense wins championships, good pitching beats good hitting -- don't help us grow or learn. When a team comes along and wins in a new and unexpected way, it compels us to interrogate The Way Things Are rather than just accepting it as a given. That the Heat win as much and as decisively as they do makes them great; their new and unexpected way of winning is what makes them important.