I come to bury the unicorns, not to praise them.
If you’re anything like me, you believe the term “unicorn,” as used in NBA circles, has long since outlived its usefulness. It was originally a cute idea, denoting a big man with a mythical combination of size, agility, rim protection, and outside shooting prowess. At its most trendy, the term was usually applied to Kristaps Porzingis, but at various times Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Giannis Antetokounmpo (we’ll get to him in a bit, don’t worry), Joel Embiid, and even Nikola Jokic have all received the horn-and-hooves treatment, and we’re T-minus two months from it first being bestowed upon DeAndre Ayton, Jaren Jackson, Jr., Wendell Carter, Jr., and perhaps even Mo Bamba. This “unicorn inflation” is obviously illogical, since the rarity of finding one is the whole point. If we really wanted to apply the tag as a shorthand for “superstar, do-it-all, one-of-a-kind big man,” we’d just give it to AD and be done with it. He is clearly the best, most valuable version of the archetype we’re going to get for a while, so why would we lump him in with lesser versions of himself?
But I digress. The point is, the team-building idea behind the term was that this type of player was the rarest, most valuable resource an NBA team could possess. To be clear, my intent is not to disparage or discredit those types of bigs. They all are — or soon will be — franchise cornerstones, and wildly valuable in their own right. No debate there. But they are not what drives true success in the modern NBA; the single most indispensable resource a team can possess, without a doubt, is the Playmaker With Size. If we must abide by such a phrase, then these are the true unicorns. Or perhaps we need a more accurate taxonomy for these most irreplaceable of creatures, so hold that thought.
First, a tangent, so bear with me. Another phrase which has gained a lot of traction in NBA discourse in recent years is “position-less basketball,” and we need to talk about it. In past eras, positional designations were mostly rigid and discrete, and roles and responsibilities were doled out as much due to a player’s size and build as they were to his skill set. NBA players were something of a digital event, and in the run-up to earlier drafts, there were few worse labels a player could have affixed to him by scouts than the dreaded “‘tweener.”
Over time, the rules changed, strategies evolved, the talent base broadened, and the positional spectrum, ironically enough, became more analog. As the spread pick-and-roll and motion-based offenses became the dominant philosophies, the roles and responsibilities of all the players on the floor began to coalesce. Big men, used to packing the paint, now had to be able to step out and shoot 3’s to maintain proper spacing. Everyone had to be able to switch screens and effectively guard a bigger (or smaller) player, lest he become a mercilessly targeted liability in the pick-and-roll. “‘Tweener” ceased to be a pejorative and came to be seen as an asset; now we use the phrase “versatile,” proof that semantics often matter more than we’d care to admit. In its place, the terms “true point guard” and “true center” (designations which would have carried a positive connotation in the past) began to be used to infer a prospect lacked schematic adaptability and would have to be built around due to his limitations, rather than seamlessly integrating into the team concept. DeAndre Jordan would have looked like a freaking alien back in the 80’s and 90’s, but now he actually gets devalued for the things he can’t do (dribble, pass, shoot), even as he is the walking prototype for the “true” center: an ace at screen-setting, rim running, catching lobs, containing pick-and-rolls, and defending the rim. These players can still have tremendous value and make a nice living for themselves (see Capela, Clint), but let’s be honest — would Jaren Jackson, Jr. and Mo Bamba have gone top-6 in this year’s draft if they had never shot a 3 in college? No goddamn chance.
So this is where the phrase “position-less basketball” came from, a well-meaning catch-all to describe a world where most everyone can pass, dribble, and shoot (and those who can’t are basically dinosaurs earmarked for extinction). It acts as a somewhat useful shorthand for the stylistic changes in the game and the degree to which the lines have blurred between the old integer-based positional designations, but it doesn’t tell nearly the whole story. Positions still exist and still matter, just not in the traditional sense.
The old saw in NBA circles is “your position is who you can guard,” and it’s more or less still true. If a guy is 6’2″, he IS a point guard, simply by dint of the fact he is going to have a tough time guarding bigger players. His handles, court vision, and ability to run a play are basically irrelevant in the positional context. Does he have to check the smallest guy on the other team in order for the defense to be viable? Boom, he’s a point guard.
So in the defensive sense, there isn’t “position-less basketball” so much as there are “position-less players.” It is a select group indeed who can be placed in virtually any matchup and not look out of their depth: LeBron (fully engaged version), Kawhi (fully healthy version), Giannis, KD, Ben Simmons, Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Draymond (yes, I know, it’s terribly unfair the Dubs have two of them), and a few youngsters who could one day join the list (Jayson Tatum, OG Anunoby, and maybe Kevin Knox, who, just FYI, is going to be SPECIAL). Obviously, these are incredibly valuable players to have because of the kind of lineup versatility they enable, but if a team doesn’t have one (or more — damn you, cap spike of 2016), then they are somewhat beholden to the traditional positional framework when it comes to building a viable defense. Rudy Gobert being perhaps the most valuable defensive player in the league should act as a good reminder that positions will never truly go away, even if he does occasionally look like Bambi on roller skates when switched onto a slippery guard.
But let’s set defense aside for a second. Players don’t get paid for it, anyway. In this brave new world of offensive versatility, where everyone is expected to be able to pass, dribble, and shoot, who truly drives value (and wins)?
I am far from the first to use this term, but an NBA offense is an ecosystem. While each player has his own role and responsibilities within the offense, nothing happens in a vacuum. Everything is interrelated. At the same time, in nature, many ecosystems contain what is called a keystone species — a single animal or group of a single species which exerts an undue influence over the rest of the ecosystem. The simplest example of this phenomenon is the beaver. In a woodland or wetland environment, a lone beaver, doing beaver things (cutting down trees, building a dam and lodge, turning a stream into a pond), has a dramatic impact upon both the landscape and every other creature around it. And while it is undoubtedly a noble and majestic animal, you can probably see where I’m going with this analogy.
Who are the NBA’s beavers?
First off, take a moment and insert your own groupie and/or baby mama joke here. Go ahead, get it out of your system. Everybody good? OK great, let’s continue. To rephrase the question: what type of player (or species, if you will) most dramatically impacts the ecosystem of an NBA team? In the pre-Magic/Bird/MJ days, the answer would obviously be the center. The game revolved almost entirely around getting into (and keeping the opponent out of) the paint, so the Russell/Wilt/Kareem/Moses types were clearly the most valuable resource for sustained success. Skilled post-up centers remained valuable offensive hubs all the way through Shaq’s apex with the Lakers in the early aughts, but the writing was on the wall. The dominance of Magic, Bird, and MJ in the 80’s and 90’s hinted at how guards and wings would take up the mantle of offensive creation from the bigs, but it wasn’t until the rule changes surrounding hand-checking and illegal defense were implemented in the mid-2000’s that the transformation was complete.
A popular refrain among NBA nostalgia buffs is how the elimination of the hand-check “softened” the sport in some fundamental way. We’ve all heard some version of this argument, and it never gets any less reductive. The change absolutely allowed more freedom of movement for ball handlers and perimeter players, and helped usher in the takeover of the drive-and-kick/spread pick-and-roll game. No argument there, but it’s only part of the story.
Often lost in the debate about the causes and effects of rule and stylistic changes in the aughts, however, is the importance of the elimination of the illegal defense rule (and the corresponding introduction of Defensive Three Seconds and legalization of zone defenses). The repeal of the illegal defense (whereby a player without the ball could not be double-teamed) struck a mortal blow to the post-up game, and as an unintended consequence, helped to make the spread PnR even more effective. As an assistant coach of the ’07-’08 Celtics (NBA Champions that year, probably not coincidentally), Tom Thibodeau popularized the strong side overload defense, essentially a zone concept where the defense sends an extra defender to the ball side of the floor (where the strongest offensive players generally reside), while zoning up the weak side and rotating to recover if the offense swings or skips the ball. If the defense decides to use the extra defender to double the post, the entry pass becomes more or less impossible.
As the strategy became widespread (it remains a staple of most NBA defenses to this day), offenses began going away from the post, instead positioning shooters in the corners to take advantage of the shorter 3-point line there, to stretch the defenses out, and force more difficult rotations. Punch, counter punch. Adding a high PnR to the play caused the defense to have to make an initial rotation, and forced the weak side defender (already covering a lot of ground) to have to collapse into the lane to “bump” the roll man, leaving even more room for the shooter in the corner. Incidentally, this is also how the DeAndre Jordan/Tyson Chandler types became the model for the modern center; making the defense account for an athletic roll man and protect the vertical space around the rim forces even more difficult rotations, resulting in higher quality looks off ball movement. The rule change made one responsibility (rim running) more valuable than another (posting up), and the teams and players adapted roles accordingly, creating a positive feedback loop and hastening the Darwinian schism of the “species” into the “true” centers and the more offensively versatile unicorns. And notice how hand-checking has nothing to do with it.
As the game (and the paint) opened up over time, players who could create offense for themselves and teammates by penetrating became much more valuable. Traditionally, point guards were the primary creators for their teams because they were the best playmakers off the dribble, and many of them have made (and still make) hay during the pace-and-space revolution. Steve Nash was the tip of the movement’s spear, and he took home back-to-back MVPs for being ahead of the curve, however fraught one might consider those votes to be (and however much weird revisionist history there has been lately surrounding his well-deserved Hall of Fame induction). Russell Westbrook secured an MVP by stretching to the absolute breaking point the idea of how much a playmaker can mean to his team (the revisionist history on that one is spot-on; James Harden absolutely was the correct, if not sentimental, choice in ’16-’17). Players like John Wall, Dame Lillard, Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry, and Kemba Walker have all been very effective as alpha point guards in this new league-wide offensive environment.
And look, I get it. The armies of stat-crunchers have chopped this up a thousand different ways by now, and whatever your favorite metric happens to be, whether it’s BPM, RPM, Win Shares, VORP, PER, or anything else, the conclusion always comes out the same: the creator ultimately drives more value than the finisher. In order for a unicorn to also be a beaver (a beavicorn?), he has to do unicorn things but also be the main creator for his team, which is a rarity in the modern landscape. Nikola Jokic frequently punches above his weight analytics-wise (vis-a-vis his general perception in the league hierarchy) because of all the value he brings as Denver’s primary facilitator. Giannis’ destiny may be as a center defensively (a topic for another time), but his vast offensive value (and the early MVP chatter surrounding him) is based on his ability to get into the lane from anywhere on the floor and score or distribute. He is a devastatingly effective beaver, no matter how badly we want him to be a unicorn.
With the possible exception of Dirk in ’07, every MVP since ’05 has been either a playmaker with size (LeBron, Kobe, Harden, Durant) or a generational point guard with a wildly unique skill set and/or otherworldly athleticism (Nash, Curry, Westbrook, pre-injury Derrick Rose). Here is the top 15 in Box Plus/Minus from last season, per Basketball-reference.com:
|1.||James Harden • HOU||10.9|
|2.||LeBron James • CLE||9.6|
|3.||Stephen Curry • GSW||8.6|
|4.||Russell Westbrook • OKC||8.2|
|5.||Nikola Jokic • DEN||7.1|
|6.||Chris Paul • HOU||7.1|
|7.||Damian Lillard • POR||6.7|
|8.||Kyrie Irving • BOS||6.2|
|9.||Kyle Lowry • TOR||5.9|
|10.||Giannis Antetokounmpo • MIL||5.8|
|11.||Kevin Durant • GSW||5.6|
|12.||Karl-Anthony Towns • MIN||5.5|
|13.||DeMarcus Cousins • NOP||5.5|
|14.||Andre Drummond • DET||5.5|
|15.||Anthony Davis • NOP||5.2|
The top 11 is nearly all beavers (including Jokic, who remember, is a beavicorn), followed by the elite bigs. When a team is rebuilding, its first priority should be to try to obtain a player who can someday crack a list like this one. I’m not suggesting anyone should pass on a generational big man like Davis, since players like him don’t come around often, but when in doubt, the odds suggest gambling on a playmaker.
This brings me, at long last, to the 2018 NBA Draft. I may end up looking foolish for this, but I contend there was only one true, can’t-miss beaver in this year’s draft, and it was Luka Doncic. Skepticism of foreign prospects remains a powerful motivator for NBA front offices, but this guy has accomplished everything you could ever dream of as a 19-year-old, and if the goal is to reside on the list above for the next 10-15 years, he possesses the size and skill set someone would design in a laboratory . His athleticism doesn’t jump off the screen, but one could say the same about almost half of the BPM leaders as well.
DeAndre Ayton is clearly a tantalizing physical prospect (he most reminds me of a young Patrick Ewing, on offense at least), and it isn’t too hard to imagine him cracking the list with the other top big men. Picturing him ascending into that sort of range, however, involves a ton of defensive projection; I can’t un-see the way he got worked over by SUNY Freaking Buffalo in the NCAA Tournament, and the eye test and metrics both paint him as an inattentive, listless defender at the college level. Remember, for all the difficulty Karl-Anthony Towns has had in approaching competence as an NBA defender (and corresponding questions from Jimmy Butler and others about his effort level), he was a paint-protecting menace at UK, a title no rational person would presently bestow upon Ayton. DeAndre could certainly turn up his intensity level once the (legitimate) paychecks start rolling in, but when you see a guy with his physical gifts display such a lack of defensive aptitude over an entire season — and against inferior competition — it’s hard not to view it as a big red flag. Additionally, nothing about his body of work at Arizona suggests the potential to be an elite playmaker in the mold of Jokic or Boogie Cousins, so if you draft a guy #1 overall who tops out as a high-level finisher and a maybe-lousy defender, you have neither a beaver nor a unicorn, so what do you have?
In Phoenix’s defense, they seem to think they already have their beaver in the form of Devin Booker, and it’s entirely possible they’re right. His new $158 million extension was a no-brainer, and he fits the mold of a young playmaker with size who could crack “the list” as soon as this season, assuming his defense improves from “depths-of-hell awful” to just “passably bad.” So there is a certain logic in handing over the reins of the offense to a possibly-ascending beaver and drafting a physical freak like Ayton as a complement (setting aside the Kobe/Shaq comps — just stop it), but I get a little misty every time I think about what could have been if they had paired Booker and Jackson with Doncic to form a hyper-modern, versatile, multi-dimensional attack. I like what they did by snagging high-upside PG De’Anthony Melton in the Ryan Anderson trade, but the opportunity cost of using the #1 on an elite finisher when a true-blue beaver may have been available could turn out to be a big regret for their front office.
This goes double for Sacramento. All of Ayton’s defensive concerns are even more magnified for #2 pick Marvin Bagley III. At Duke, he vacillated between confusion and indifference, and doesn’t really project as a guy who will grow into a role as a rim protector. At first glance, it’s easy to compare Bagley to Chris Bosh — they are both lithe, quick 6’11” lefties with an advanced feel for interior play at a young age — but CB4 found the best version of himself with the Heatles by becoming a knock-down shooter and a tenacious defender as a small-ball center. Maybe we’ll write the same thing about Bagley one day, but boy, do I have to squint hard to see that happening.
It’s always dangerous to attempt to tap into the thinking of the Kings’ brain trust, but I suspect they see De’Aaron Fox as their eventual beaver, and Bagley’s potential as an overqualified running mate was too hard to pass up — essentially a poor man’s version of what Phoenix did. They likely also believe they have their bases covered on the interior with Willie Cauley-Stein and the very-intriguing-if-healthy Harry Giles, so slotting Bagley in as a pure PF, along with a PG who can’t shoot — creating a lineup that is paradoxically full of 20-year-olds and yet also wildly retrograde at the same time — may be their perverted vision of zigging when everyone else zags.
One possible saving grace for this inevitable train wreck, which I have been kicking around since I started watching Bagley play at Duke: I’m not entirely sure Bagley is a big man at the NBA level. There is a universe where, instead of trying to bulk him up and make him a small-ball 5, he works to improve his shooting and ball handling and becomes a super-sized ‘tweener. Doesn’t the idea of an athletic 6’11” playmaker who can use his length and quickness as an asset on the perimeter (on both ends) sound a lot more enticing than a pure PF who goes out, gets his 20/10 a night, plays zero defense, loses, and goes home? A smart organization would explore the possibility they have a beaver hiding in plain sight, meaning the Kings will clearly do the opposite and instead set to the task of sabotaging his career post-haste.
In any case, was it a good idea for Sacramento to pass on the beaver staring them in the face in the service of empowering Fox and the hazy, far-off outline of what Bagley could one day become? I would argue it was not, and betting against the wisdom of the Kings’ front office has been a winning proposition for most of the current millennium thus far, so I’ll take my chances.
Atlanta is clearly in the early stages of a rebuild, so going the asset-collection route (while also betting on a potentially electric playmaker in his own right in Trae Young) makes a certain amount of sense. One in the hand is worth two in the bush, however, so as you can probably guess by now, if I were them I would have just happily accepted the gift handed to me by Phoenix and Sacramento, called in the Doncic pick, and then popped some champagne to celebrate my good fortune.
Instead, Dallas managed to turn the fifth pick into what immediately becomes one of the league’s more valuable assets, a pro-ready playmaker with size on a cost-controlled contract. Bully for them. There is some concern handing over primary playmaking duties to Doncic will stunt the development of second-year guard Dennis Smith, Jr., but I foresee the opposite. Smith is a phenomenal athlete and a really nice prospect, but as the primary creator for the team as a rookie, the game was too fast for him. Simplifying his reads as a cutter, attacker, and secondary ball handler should help to slow things down and unlock all the best parts of his game, and when the ball is in Smith’s hands, Doncic has shown himself to be a proficient off-ball player, as well. DeAndre Jordan’s rim running and lob catching should mesh well with Luka’s rare passing instincts, and DJ’s ability to suck in the defense on the roll will open up Dirk’s favorite spots on the floor, allowing him to get better looks while also lowering his overall offensive burden as he gradually shuffles off this NBA mortal coil.
The tree-cutting and dam-building are just beginning, so it may be a while before the pond takes shape (in the form of winning seasons in the brutal West), but make no mistake, the groundwork has been laid. The beaver enters the ecosystem, the landscape is altered, the other species adapt and thrive — it’s Basketball Ecology 101. Class dismissed.