My Position and Role Designations

You can find a full list of 2019 Free Agents here, which will be continuously updated throughout the summer as players and teams make their option decisions and sign new contracts. The information provided there includes the various players who are or could be free agents this summer, the team with which they completed the 2018-19 season, their age, any option or non-guarantee information, their 2018-19 salary, the type of free agent they’ll be, and the version of Bird rights a team has with that player.

Two additional items you’ll find on that list are position and role designations, which are not necessarily as set in stone as the previous pieces of information. A player’s former team, age, salary, and contract structure aren’t matters of opinion, for the most part, whereas the position and role in which a player is used can vary wildly based on opinion, so take these with the grain of salt that these are my opinions.

On the position front, defense is the primary driver of where a player is listed. There are six positions and a player is listed in up to two of them: Point, Combo, Wing, Forward, Stretch, and Anchor.

Points are your traditional point guards who have very little positional flexibility defensively. There aren’t a ton of those guys; I have just 35 in the league-wide database, but it’s mostly for players who are too small to defend traditional 2 guards. My go-to example for this sort of player is Trae Young, though it doesn’t necessarily mean that a player solely listed at Point is a negative on that end. Chris Paul is a Point due to his size at 6’1 with a 6’4 wingspan, but he’s long been a positive defensively, though he’s more of an exception than a rule when it comes to Points.

Usually, a Point who has strong defensive credentials and tools end up being tall or long enough to defend traditional 2 guards, which opens them up to being labeled Combos or having some mixed designation between Points and Combos. The Combo designation is for larger point guards or traditional 2 guards who have the lateral quickness and screen avoidance to guard lead ball handlers. There are a ton of players who have a joint designation between Point and Combo; these players are mostly between 6’2 and 6’4 with enough length and lateral mobility to defend both traditional guard spots.

Wings include players who mostly defend traditional small forwards but are on the smaller side and can bump down to the 2 in a lot of alignments. Some Wings also have the Combo secondary designation, indicating that they’re able to defend point guards, while some others have the Forward secondary designation, indicating that they’re able to play some small-ball 4 and have enough size to hang with the larger Wings and some of the smaller Forwards.

Forwards are the larger small forwards and smaller power forwards who aren’t likely to be able to run around with guards but have enough size to consistently play the 3 or 4. Smaller Forwards also have the Wing designation, indicating that they’re able to defend smaller, quicker players, while others have the Stretch designation, indicating that they’re able to bang in the post against some traditional bigs and can even play some small-ball 5 in short bursts.

My largest deviation from normal positional designations is when it comes to big men, who too often just get lumped into one pile together. Rather than throwing all bigs into one group, I differentiated between those big men who can move their feet on the perimeter, defend some of the slower Forwards, and adequately play “the 4” defensively, even if it’s not their primary position, and the players who are unable to do those things and mostly play the 5. Stretch is the name I’ve chosen for the former group, though it must be reiterated that this has nothing to do with their offensive prowess. A big man who can stretch his defensive impact to the perimeter gets the Stretch designation, without real regard to whether he’s a “stretch four” or “stretch five” with his ability to shoot the basketball on the other end. The other position there is Anchor, which is for the players who almost always play the 5 and are usually deployed in drop coverage in pick-and-roll.

Splitting the big men into these two groups made sense to me because there are vast, vast differences between, say, Rudy Gobert and Kevin Love, but both would normally be lumped into the same position in other systems. You couldn’t label Love as a Forward; he’s not really able to play any 3 and doesn’t have the lateral feet to be an impact defender on the perimeter, but he can do it in spurts and that is often the best way to use him, which is very different from Gobert. Gobert has to be used in a deep drop in pick-and-roll and patrols the paint in a way Love and other Stretches don’t.

In order to split the players into their various positional designations, I used Krishna Narsu’s fantastic defensive matchup data for the 2018-19 season. By being able to see how often a player defends the five traditional positions, it’s easier to label him in one of my own designations.

While a player’s position indicates where he plays defensively, his role is what he does on offense. There are several roles a player can fill: Primary Playmaker, Secondary Playmaker, Scorer, Shooter, Spacer, Cutter, Roller, and Dunker. For these, I extracted as much usage data as I could from Synergy and broke their usage up into the various play types Synergy tracks. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s the best I could do without access to Second Spectrum data (and believe me, I’ve tried to get access to that multiple times, all unsuccessful).

Primary Playmakers are your lead ball handlers and players who normally lead their team in usage, run a ton of pick-and-roll, and mix up his pick-and-roll usage between passing and scoring himself. To me, this is the most valuable role in the league and is the scarcest among the high-usage roles, as you’d imagine. Without including any of the players who have not been drafted (I’ll get to their positions/roles once we have some NBA data on them), there are only 26 players whose primary role is Primary Playmaker, though a handful more have it as a secondary role behind something else they do well. Think James Harden and LeBron James, but also think Ricky Rubio and Dennis Smith; the Primary Playmaker tag is where they get the majority of their usage, but not necessarily whether they’re good at it or not.

The lone exception to the general theme of Primary Playmakers being perimeter players is Nikola Jokic, who qualifies as a Primary Playmaker despite playing the Anchor position on the other end of the court. He’s the only non-perimeter player who qualifies as a Primary Playmaker.

Secondary Playmakers are off-ball playmakers who have a similar mix of passing and scoring in pick-and-roll but use far less of those possessions that Primary Playmakers. These players also have significant spot-up usage and aren’t just shooters in those situations; they also have significant spot-up drive usage to go with spot-up shooting. CJ McCollum is a perfect example of a high-end Secondary Playmaker, as was Bradley Beal before he really took over the Wizards’ offense in John Wall’s absence this season; Beal now qualifies as a Primary Playmaker, though he could be changed back if his role changes with Wall’s return.

Scorers are the high-usage guys who look for their own shot ahead of creating for their teammates. A lot of these guys are Wings and Forwards, though it’s not exclusive to those positions; a lot of score-first point guards are included here and just don’t quite have enough of the passing element to be listed among the Primary Playmakers. It’s not necessarily a detriment to be listed here; a Scorer is not simply a Primary Playmaker who either can’t or won’t pass the ball as well as those guys. Some of the very best players in the league are Scorers because they’re so damn good at scoring they rarely need to pass: all three of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, and Kevin Durant are Scorers. Some traditional point guards listed in the Scorer category are Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker, both of whom have the ball in their hands a ton, run a lot of pick-and-roll, but look for their own shot far more often than their contemporaries in the Primary Playmaker role. Other Scorers include the big men who dominate inside offensively: Joel Embiid, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Nikola Vucevic are all in this categorization.

Shooters are the sort of players for whom a team can run plays off the ball or are such strong spot-up threats that teams will actively change their defense in order to ensure that a player is on them at all times. This role is pretty self-explanatory and has the type of players you’d expect to see there: J.J. Redick, Klay Thompson, Kyle Korver are at the top of this group in terms of off-ball usage, while elite spot-up threats like Otto Porter and Joe Harris make up the remainder, though those guys also can be used in off-ball actions.

Spacers are the bastard siblings of Shooters — essentially, these guys are players who don’t have the ball in their hands very often and space out to the perimeter to create holes for their more talented teammates, but are able to hit open spot-up opportunities. There are a TON of these guys and they’re pretty much every wing who doesn’t fall into one of the other three categories, plus almost all the big men who can adequately shoot from the corners or above the break. For example, Jae Crowder and DeMarre Carroll are Spacers; guys who can make an open shot but defenses aren’t necessarily going to change up how they do things to ensure these guys don’t get open shots. Otto Porter was a Spacer and then got so good at shooting from distance that he was elevated to Shooter; usage, success, and general gravity for a player is what splits them between Shooter and Spacer.

There aren’t very many Cutters, but it can be an important role that differs from the others already listed. Cutters are perimeter-oriented players who aren’t purely out there to space the floor and aren’t operating with the ball in their hands very often, but instead use backdoor cuts and get in on the offensive glass to generate their offensive value. For a lot of players, this is a secondary role behind something else they do well and is a value-add rather than their primary objective on the floor, or it’s something they’ve added to their game because they’re unable to shoot and teams actively help off them. Players like Andre Roberson and Justin Anderson are strong Cutters due to their relative lack of gravity, while players like Alfonzo McKinnie, Derrick Jones Jr., and Ersan Ilyasova supplement their spacing with timely cuts and offensive rebounds.

The two remaining roles are saved for traditional big men. Rollers are used heavily as roll men in pick-and-roll. Most Rollers have a secondary designation to go with them: Dunkers, which are the players who hang out in the dunker spot for quick dumpoffs and offensive rebounds around the rim, or Spacers, who are capable shooters and can work in pick-and-pop.

As always, I’m open to any and all feedback with respect to these positional and role designations, but I believe I’ve done a good job for the most part and that these positions and roles are important in thinking about team-building. Having multiple positions and roles a player can fill is also important; there are players who play single positions and single roles, but there are a lot of guys who are versatile to play in multiple ways. That versatility has a lot of value, so assigning guys secondary positions and roles and viewing players through that prism is important as well.