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Positionless basketball: the future, or a waystation?

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The Denver Nuggets are taking a sneak peak at what lies beyond positionless basketball during a short-handed bubble camp in Orlando

Portland Trail Blazers v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

Positionless basketball has been the modern NBA dream for several years now. The idea is that everyone can pass and score, and the ball is no longer relegated to the hands of one point guard (who despite the title was far more the point of distribution than the scorer of points). Having a lineup of similarly-sized players allows them all to switch onto more potential opponents, instead of being limited by size. Switching Ty Lawson onto a center didn’t work well 10 years ago and it hasn’t become a better plan in the last decade.

Teams have been running scoring guards who could masquerade as point guards for quite a while - so long in fact that finding scoring guards who aren’t at least combo guards is becoming quite rare. Draymond Green was a point forward who could play small-ball center and make the Golden State Warriors uniquely hard to stop. And Nikola Jokic is the unicorn: a true point-center, All-NBA pivot to build an entire offense around.

But at some point, positionless basketball becomes a bit of a misnomer. Not every player is equally good at everything, even if they are similar sizes. Jimmy Butler might be playing for a so-called positionless team, and James Harden is headlining a small ball, no-center experiment in Houston, but they’re still going to have the ball in their hands directing traffic or scoring at the end of games. More positions are expected to do more things than the niches they were assigned in the prior decades, but the hierarchy remains.

It’s just so difficult to create a team of players that can do lots of things, and also do those things at an elite level that will not compromise the team’s approach in a seven game playoff series. Denver wasn’t trying for positionless basketball but still went through some of this when they added Mason Plumlee. Plumlee is ostensibly a good passer for a big man, just nowhere near Jokic’s league as far as being an offensive initiator and point center. Denver could not switch from Jokic as the decision-maker to Plumlee - and that made Plumlee hard to play as a backup in last year’s playoffs. He wasn’t flexible enough to switch assignments and couldn’t do what the starter could do for the offensive unit.

That’s no disgrace - there’s a reason Jokic is an All-NBA player and future Hall of Famer. But despite the hopes of NBA spectators, positionless teams are still more about finding mismatches than everyone on the team doing everything.

Which makes what Denver is doing during this restart so interesting. The Nuggets are short on guards, with no sign that Monte Morris, PJ Dozier, Gary Harris, or Torrey Craig have made it inside the bubble yet. Michael Porter Jr. is missing as well, which gives lots of opportunities to guys who would otherwise be hard-pressed to get any run as Denver prepares to finish the regular season.

Enter Bol Bol.

In college, Bol was a dynamic outside shooter for a big man and an imposing blocker, but some stiff movements and an injury that cut short his season caused him to fall in the draft. The Nuggets traded back into the second round to get him, and his length and shooting prowess continue to tantalize Denver fans. As with MPJ last year, every glimpse is a time capsule into what the Nuggets could build in the future.

The Nuggets might be the only team in the league that could truly dispense with the Guard/Forward designation for certain lineups. If they wanted to run an all-seven(ish)-footer lineup out there with Grant, Bol, MPJ, Plumlee, and Jokic...could they? They really could. They’d have outside shooting with all three of Grant / Bol / MPJ, not to mention a couple of threes a game by Jokic to keep teams honest. They’d have blocks and length for perimeter defense. They’d have their normal point center working to get the ball to where it needs to go. They might struggle with creating dribble penetration (since it’s hard for most seven footers to dribble past little guys in the paint) but who needs to dribble when your whole lineup can get from the 3-point line to the rim in two steps?

Could they cover on defense? I don’t know, but I have no idea who would out-rebound them. Let Jerami Grant leak out every time - he’s the worst rebounder, after all - and let the other guys toss him the ball after each collected carom. The point is, Denver has lineup options that other teams can only dream of.

What other teams have multiple guys who can play the 2 or the 3 at 6’10+ and drain threes like Bol and MPJ? Those same players could shift to the 4 and 5 and still be taller than the players they’re matched up against. Bol is a blocking force with a wingspan that can blot out the sun. MPJ is rebounding at levels that most non-centers can only dream of. Both men have syrup-sweet outside shots and are barely scratching the surface of their potential. And because they can play multiple positions due to their ability to shoot, the Nuggets can get them the playing time they need to develop.

The Nuggets spent last playoffs inverting the 1-5 pick and roll, using either the point guard or center as the roll man and wreaking havoc on defenses not used to that cover. Going forward, Denver will be able to position shift with enormous players that have great shooting touch. It’s not positionless, but having the ability to slide talented players to whatever position creates the greatest hardship for opposing defenses is a huge boost to a team that is already a top-echelon squad of young players. Jamal Murray certainly looks like he spent his quarantine time in the gym, and Jokic is slimmer and more in shape. Jamal can play on or off-ball, and Nikola allows anyone Denver wants to play a guard position for stretches. The shift is available to them whenever they care to deploy it.

Denver Stiffs emeritus Adam Mares loved to talk about Jokic as a step to the future where big men who can handle the rock, pass and shoot are the norm. The generation he inspires to think outside the box will change the NBA, but there are still only so many giant humans available to play a seven-foot point guard.

However, having several seven footers who can shoot and rebound and get to the rack and can all fit in the lineup together? That is a rarity now and in the future, and one Denver might be able to run out there very soon.

A future lineup of Jamal and the Giants might be available to Denver as soon as next year. Bol Bol likely won’t see much playoff court time, and the Nuggets have had enough trouble getting MPJ consistent minutes. But much as Golden State won titles by having the right players to fit on defense while also having potentially the best (and hardest to defend) scoring team of all time, the Nuggets may look to clog the lane, defend the perimeter and score from anywhere with players who simply cannot be matched up with.

If mid-market teams have to look for unique ways to win titles, then the Nuggets are exploring a team full of unicorns to rip up the league in just a few months time. Bol at the 2? MPJ at the 5? Grant as a small forward defending the perimeter? Be prepared for things you’ve never seen before, Denver fans. A bold new future is just over the horizon, but the concept is running drills right now in Orlando. You’ve been warned.