Houston’s Quiet Positional Revolution: Part 2 – Moving Forwards

The NBA is changing. Defenses, offenses, guards and forwards all look different than they did just a few years ago. The positional revolution has swept through the league and Rockets are quietly embracing it. Last week we examined their use of the backcourt rotation, and the unique place Toney Douglas fits into it (which has all since changed with the introduction of Patrick Beverley). This week, we turn our gaze to the forward and center positions. The Rockets are happily moving to the vanguard of a number of changes to the way big men are used.

Last week we established the traditional player roles in NBA basketball. For reference once again, these are:

  • A Point Guard to handle the ball, distribute to scorers, and hopefully space the floor and score as well.
  • A Shooting Guard to score, to space the floor and to handle the ball as well.
  • A Small Forward to score, usually space the floor, hopefully rebound and maybe handle the ball.
  • A Power Forward to rebound, usually score, sometimes distribute and often post up.
  • A Center to rebound, often score, usually post up and hopefully protect the rim.

Traditional positionality lumps the two forwards together as similar, while the center is the odd man out in the middle. This distinction, however, has become less meaningful as the athleticism and speed of the league has increased since the days of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. Centers increasingly play outside the post, and forwards are often just as tall as the big man inside.

A more recent understanding of positions divides the five spots in almost a reversal of the old roles:

  • A Point Guard to handle the ball.
  • Two Wings to score and space.
  • Two Bigs to rebound and post.

These roles come closer to describing the use of players in the NBA today. The primary creator and distributor has a very different role on the floor than the shooting guard, who is often the primary scorer. Some players, like James Harden or Manu Ginobili, can combine these two roles if necessary. The majority of the time, however, the point is primarily concerned with the responsibility of running an offense, which makes him unique on the floor.

The distinction between the shooting guard position and the small forward position has dwindled to the point of negligibility. The only consistent difference between the two wing positions now is height and size. Teams want two scoring, shooting, cutting players who can operate from the perimeter. The taller of the two may be expected to rebound more often. He’s the forward.

The other forward, the power forward, bears so many shared expectations with the center that it makes little sense to set the center apart. Both positions must rebound, will often score, are expected to be the final line of defense at the rim, and are more likely to score in the post. This lack of distinction has become so ingrained in the league that a number of players have a large degree of confusion surrounding their classification. Kevin Garnett and Chris Bosh, both known as power forwards primarily, have played extensive minutes as the biggest player on the floor for their team. Traditional understanding names them centers in this case, but the fact is that their play changes little. Tim Duncan has been described as the best power forward of all time. It’s also often said that he’s actually been a center for the past fifteen years. Again, the name for his role changes nothing about his game. The reality is that the two positions are interchangeable, and whoever is larger is the center.

Based on this more modern assessment, we can look at and categorize the Rockets’ starting five:

  • Jeremy Lin is the point, creating for his team.
  • James Harden and Chandler Parsons are the wings, shooting and cutting.
  • Patrick Patterson and Omer Asik are the bigs, rebounding and defending.

The only problem with this is that it’s completely wrong.

As discussed previously, the backcourt on the Rockets operates as a distinct unit, with both players at any given time able to create, pass, and score. Lin and Harden are both experts at running pick and roll offense, and both are powerful tools on offense. the difference between the two guards’ roles is surprisingly small.

Does this mean, then, that the old Guards, Forwards and Center paradigm is actually more accurate for the Rockets? Patterson and Asik are not interchangeable. Asik’s role is unique on the floor for Houston, and Patterson is clearly filling a different niche. The question now is: do Patterson and Parsons, in fact, occupy the same position?

The answer last year was no. But the answer this year is closer to yes. To understand what’s going on in the Rockets’ frontcourt, we have to examine Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris. Parsons and Asik still play similar roles to last season. They both have additional responsibility on offense, but haven’t had a fundamental change to their game. Patrick Patterson, however, made a monumental decision.

Patterson has always been able to shoot mid-range jumpers with a steady hand. Many power forwards in the NBA exhibit this skill, and post-up only players have become fewer and farther between. Increased range increases spacing, and pulls larger defenders out of their comfort zones. Patterson, however, wasn’t satisfied. During the 2012 offseason, he decided that if could shoot from two feet inside the three point line, he could learn to shoot threes.

And now he’s definitely not a center.

On offense, Patterson is becoming a legitimate threat from the arc, and thus can provide another painful wrinkle for enemy defenses. Instead of respecting three players from deep, they have to watch four, opening up space for Harden and Lin to attack the basket. Those high screens set to do so require even more precise defense when the taller man picking the defender can simply bury a three if you focus on the ball handler. If midrange shots help spacing, threes do more, and have the huge bonus of being worth 50% more points. Patterson, whether he meant to or not, has helped change the power forward position for his team.

Morris, it should be noted, can also hit three pointers from the power forward position. For him, this isn’t a new development. In fact, when he was drafted by the Rockets, the power forward spot was (and still is, really) overfull with promising prospects. As such, he began to work on the skills of a small forward, and was expected to contribute primarily from that position. But now, when he hits the floor, he’s typically the second-tallest player. So which is it? Is he playing at the power forward or using the small forward skills he learned?

Yes. Morris has very similar skills and responsibilities to his teammate Chandler Parsons. Both shoot threes, both can drive, both rebound somewhat, both can defend a wide variety of players. But Morris is backing up Patterson, not Parsons. Which forward is he? The answer is that he’s both, because for the Rockets they’re the same.

Asik is the unique player on the floor. He and his backup Greg Smith are the only players on the floor without at least a passable three point shot. Their responsibilities are to rebound and score inside on offense, and provide a last line of defense on defense. They both exhibit quirks to their games (Smith has fantastic hands for a center, Asik is not a strong post player), but both fit easily into the role of the traditional center. This staid traditionalism lets the other frontcourt players wreak havoc.

The data all points to one suggestion: for the Rockets, the two forward positions are interchangeable, and both must be three point threats. If that were the case, two things would surely be the case: Parsons would play the power forward position at times, and The Rockets would be stocked with forwards who can shoot threes.

The latter point can be verified with a simple look at the Houston Rockets roster. Donatas Motiejunas, Terrence Jones and Royce White all wait on the bench or on the Vipers (or at home, in one case), and all have at least passable three point shooting percentages. Rockets GM Daryl Morey has stocked up on players who can space the floor and shoot the most efficient shot in the game. If and when the Rockets’ rotation loosens and these players see minutes, they’ll fit right in with what Houston does on offense.

But does Parsons play at the power forward? Yes, and he does it often. A look at lineup +/- stats tells the story. Of the seven five-man lineups the Rockets have used with the best point differentials, six feature Parsons. And four of the top six feature him as the second tallest player on the floor. Not only is Parsons able to play either forward position, but he’s great at it. He isn’t a player forced out of position by necessity. He plays the power forward position because it works. This allows the Rockets to use more guards if they wish, and to push the issue further.

The Rockets haven’t looked back to the olden days of two guards, two forwards and a center; they’ve looked forward to smaller lineups and more points. They haven’t forced wing players to adapt to playing inside; they’ve built a system which doesn’t need or want a second player inside. Instead of five set positions, the Rockets have four, and a spot in the middle, that they can fill to exploit any opportunities they see. The Rockets don’t care about being modern or traditional; the Rockets’ use of their forwards shows they only care about winning.

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