The Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors have more in common than you might think. Sure, they boast rosters overflowing with talent; but with the long list of skilled offensive players present in today’s NBA, so do a number of other teams. What sets the Cavs and Dubs apart from the rest is that they have the best and most versatile players in the world at the most important spot on the floor: the wing-forward position.
Versatile Wing-Forward is Most Valuable Position in Basketball
Elite NBA Teams
The Cavaliers have the best one in the history of basketball. His name is LeBron James. The Golden State Warriors, meanwhile, possess the second-best in the NBA in Kevin Durant. Before Durant jumped ship from Oklahoma City, the 73-win Warriors of 2015-16 were still dominant because they had another top-four player in the league in this category: Draymond Green.
Then there is Kawhi Leonard, who averaged 25.5 points per game this past season while also being arguably the NBA’s best defender. The myth that the Spurs don’t get old is just that: a myth. They have, in fact, aged quite a bit, and would be an average team in the Western Conference if not for Leonard. With Tim Duncan now retired and Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Pau Gasol in the twilight of their careers, Leonard has played a monumental role for head coach Gregg Popovich, helping the Spurs hold onto their status as a top-three team in the NBA.
It’s not a coincidence that the four best wing-forwards on the planet belong to the NBA’s three best teams. It’s also no fluke that the gap between James, Durant, Green, and Leonard to the next best player on the list is just as big as the gap between the Cavs, Dubs, and Spurs to the rest of the teams in the NBA last season.
Second Tier NBA Teams
If you’re not sold, let’s take a look at the teams atop the NBA’s second tier. They have these types of players too, but ones who aren’t quite in that elite group at the position. The Houston Rockets have Trevor Ariza, one of the league’s premier ‘three-and-D’ players. The Boston Celtics had Jae Crowder a season ago, who is an exceptional on-ball defender capable of matching up with bigger forwards, and another player who can confidently step back behind the three-point arc and knock down shots. They added Gordon Hayward this off-season, a massive wing upgrade who can also do Crowder’s old job, albeit with less physicality on defense.
The Washington Wizards broke out in 2016-17 and became one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference in large part due to the emergence of Otto Porter. Porter’s rapid progression earned himself a place in the conversation for the Most Improved Player award. Meanwhile, budding superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo – the recipient of said MIP award – carried an otherwise mediocre Milwaukee Bucks team to the postseason as a sixth seed. Antetokounmpo helped the Bucks take a much deeper and heavily favored Toronto Raptors club to six games in the first round.
The value attached to versatile wing-forwards is not unique to the professional game. Even in the 2017 NCAA tournament, this phenomenon held true for a number of the teams that went deep this past March. Arguably the best player of this nature in the tournament – Sindarius Thornwell – led the seventh-seeded South Carolina Gamecocks to a shocking upset over Duke. South Carolina went on to make it all the way to the Final Four. Meanwhile, Justin Jackson‘s athletic ability at both ends, along with his 6’8″ frame, made him a critical piece of the UNC Tar Heels’ championship run.
At one point in time, people thought that NCAA tournament games were won through excellent guard play. Teams who could control the pace of the game and make smart decisions with the basketball often enjoyed the most success. But that wasn’t the case this past year; it was the schools with versatile wing-forwards that did the most damage.
The NBA’s Evolution
Like all sports, basketball is a game that is constantly evolving. The NBA has gone through many different phases, with teams always on the lookout for ways to gain an edge. So when new trends emerge that are tied to success, it doesn’t take long for front office executives to jump all over them.
It used to be all about the ‘floor general’ point guards running the show, like Magic Johnson, John Stockton, and Isiah Thomas. Then it was dominant big men going to work on the low block such as Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, and the aforementioned Duncan. The latest evolution is a result of the new-found value that versatile wing-forwards bring to the table.
Value of the Three-Pointer
So why are wing-forwards so important all of a sudden? It’s because of the fundamental shift that has taken place in recent years to an overwhelming emphasis on the three-ball.
Whether it’s the Warriors with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, the Cavs with Kevin Love, Kyle Korver, and J.R. Smith, or the Rockets with James Harden, Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, and Ariza, the widespread belief among the NBA’s upper echelon clubs is that the three-point shot is king. The idea makes good sense in theory – trading three points for two – but it’s far more difficult than it sounds to implement effectively.
Let’s take the 2015-16 Warriors as an example. Because the three-point shot has proven to be so effective, it has sparked a renewed interest in playing small. Offensively, small-ball lineups have obvious advantages. In the case of the Warriors, Curry and Thompson are two of the most skilled guards in the game. They can beat bigger lineups by using their quickness and long-range shooting to extend defenses, free up driving lanes, and find the open man. Needless to say, this enables Golden State to put up points with ease.
Defensively, however, is where small-ball lineups usually run into trouble. While being smaller and quicker at the offensive end is certainly a plus, bigger opponents have the ability to return the favor at the other end by bullying their way into the paint and taking complete control over the boards. The offensive edge gained from playing small is therefore lost on defense if the opponent is able to get high percentage looks at will and generate frequent second-chance opportunities.
Wing-Forwards Playing Small-Ball
This is where the versatility of wing-forwards comes into the picture. In order for small-ball lineups to work, wing-forwards must do two very different things at each end of the floor. At the offensive end, they must be agile enough to contribute both on the inside and on the perimeter. At the other, they are tasked with matching up against bigger opponents and preventing them from establishing their position in the lane and on the glass. It takes a very specific skill-set and collection of physical attributes to be able to do both at an elite level, which makes the players who can do so an extremely rare commodity. Fortunately for Golden State, Green is one of them.
At the offensive end, he is an excellent passer, uses his mobility to his advantage, and can even step back behind the three-point arc to complement Curry and Thompson. Defensively, Green possesses a unique ability to guard bigger forwards and effectively limit their productivity. As a result of Green’s versatility, Golden State is able to take advantage of their mismatches offensively, while at the same time mitigating the opposing team’s size mismatches on defense.
Curry’s flashy handles and immaculate shooting touch may be what people gravitate towards (and is what won him back-to-back MVPs), but Green’s presence is what took the Warriors from being a great team to a historically great 73-win team in 2015-16. So when Curry said back in December 2015 that other teams can’t copy the Warriors because “they won’t have the personnel,” he was right. They won’t, because players of Green’s nature are such a rare breed.
In a league that favors raw athletic ability on the wing, there is no shortage of players who can get to the rim with an explosive first step, while also shooting the three at an efficient rate. A smaller, but still a sizable number of players can defend on the interior and shut down opposing bigs. There aren’t many players in the NBA who can do both, and more importantly, do both at an elite level. That makes the few who can immensely valuable to their clubs. In fact, they’re more valuable than any other position or type of player in basketball.
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