by Chris Foss
Over the last few years, we have seen college and National Basketball Association teams feature players who can play multiple positions. This has essentially had the effect of rendering meaningless the standard F-F-C-G-G lineup we are used to seeing at the start of the game. We see players from 6’4 to as tall as 7’ roaming the entire floor, not just confined to the wing or the post. A few, such as LeBron James, can play all five positions, but most players seem to interchange between two or three positions. This development is widely considered to be recent, corresponding with rule changes encouraging offensive play and lessening the traditional roles of the big man and the goonish enforcer. I contend, however, that the idea of the “positionless player”—even multiple positionless players on a team—has its origins far back in basketball history, especially in the NBA.
Prior to the mid-1950s, the NBA was a rigid and stilted game. Teams were built around dominant big men, guards who could get the ball into the post, and burly forwards who often served as the enforcers on defense but could also get their own shots on offense. This was the model of the Minneapolis Lakers, the most successful NBA team of the late 1940s and early 1950s, which won five championships with George “Mr. Basketball” Mikan manning the pivot, playing the big man role to the hilt. But when the NBA adopted the 24-second shot clock in a bid to revive the game’s sagging popularity amid slow, low-scoring games, opportunities opened up not only for an exciting game to develop, but for players to emerge that would help the game’s very identity evolve. In other words, the positionless player first developed not in the 2010s, but in the 1960s.
NBA fans think of Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics as the gold standard of the traditional big man around which great teams should develop. That interpretation is not going away any time soon. But consider also that Russell was 6’9, much smaller than Mikan before him, or Wilt Chamberlain or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar after him. Russell could be center, yes, but also power forward or even small forward with his skill set. Under coach Red Auerbach, rebounding was the start not just of an offensive possession, but a frenetic fast break, often led not just by Russell handing off the rebound, but by firing a deep pass to an open teammate far down the court. Blocked shots could accomplish the same thing. He did many of the tasks of a traditional center, but one can see shades of Russell in LeBron, Draymond Green, Serge Ibaka, Kevin Love, or even a younger Dwayne Wade—all guys we associate with the positionless player today.
The Celtics’ unselfish fastbreak offense and stifling defense which led them to 11 NBA championships in 13 years from 1957 to 1969 was led, to be sure, traditional position players such as legendary point guard Bob Cousy and clutch shooting guard Sam Jones. Auerbach officially inaugurated the positionless player with his concept of the “sixth man”. The first player off the bench, theoretically the sixth man could sub for almost anyone. His defense, hustle, and ability to score would be most appreciated regardless of position. Frank Ramsey was the first player to fill the sixth man role, and he did so adequately for the first several years of the Celtics dynasty. But John “Hondo” Havlicek—so dubbed for his uncanny resemblance to John Wayne—took the sixth man role to new heights and became a superstar positionless player during a long career which bridged two distinct eras for the Celtics and the NBA.
After starring at Ohio State alongside Hall of Fame center Jerry Lucas and Hall of Fame coach Bobby Knight, Havlicek played for the Celtics from 1962 to 1978, retiring with eight championships and ranking among the league’s all-time leaders in points, rebounds, assists, games played, and minutes played. Remarkably, there are no popular or academic studies of Havlicek’s on-court or cultural impact, and only a handful of YouTube videos of him—albeit one, interestingly enough, set to contemporary rap music that often accompanies NBA highlight packages. When longtime NBA fans think of John Havlicek, they tend to reduce him to “Havlicek stole the ball!”, his deflection of an inbound pass in Game 7 of the 1965 Eastern Division Finals that propelled the Celtics to another championship series; or to Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals, when his clutch shot seemingly ended a wild game against the Phoenix Suns--only to trigger perhaps the wildest drama ever seen in an NBA game.
At 6’5 and 200 pounds, Havlicek wasn’t exactly a point guard, shooting guard, or small forward. He certainly wasn’t a big man, but he had a wingspan that competed with power forwards and centers for rebounds and deflections. He was a tireless defender and a highly competent scorer. One highlight of Havlicek from the 1974 NBA Finals shows him ankle-breaking Abdul-Jabbar by stopping on a dime, getting off a shot, missing, then inexplicably collecting his own rebound and putting it back. In the 1970s, he settled into more of a forward slot, but he could still seemingly hang with anybody, and despite his longevity, Havlicek retired before his skills dramatically eroded. Often overshadowed by Russell, Larry Bird, Dave Cowens, and Red Auerbach, Havlicek nonetheless deserves more credit for the Celtics’ success. Whereas Russell pioneered the big positionless player who could pass and trail on the fast break, Hondo blazed the trail for the small positionless player who could play big.
Havlicek wasn’t the only star from the era to challenge the position model. Elgin Baylor of Minneapolis/Los Angeles—who might have been even shorter than Havlicek—was an even more prolific scorer and rebounder than Hondo. Like Havlicek, he was nominally listed at small forward, but Baylor banged regularly against Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain for his whole career. His 62 points in a game in the 1962 NBA Finals, while often matched up with Russell, stood as a league playoff record for a generation. Up in Cincinnati, meanwhile, Oscar Robertson—not Russell Westbrook—was the first player to average a triple double for the season in 1961-62. Despite being roughly the same height and weight as forwards Havlicek and Baylor, Robertson was typically a point guard. His tremendous athleticism, however, meant he could fly through the air or bang with the big guys, depending on the need at the moment.
In the 1960s, Havlicek, Baylor, and Robertson were more the exception than the rule. The vast majority of basketball players were locked into their positions. The arrival of the American Basketball Association onto the scene helped open up the game a bit more, however. As showmanship and the three-point shot entered the basketball lexicon, a few more positionless players arrived, and in fact, two took over the league entirely in the 1980s—a couple of guys named Magic and Larry. The positionless player threatened to go away as the game slowed down again in the 1990s, but the emergence of Scottie Pippen as a star for the Chicago Bulls as a “point forward” served as an inspiration for today’s generation, who—unlike with Havlicek, et al—saw him on multiple media platforms. Pippen was 6’7, but easily switched between four of the five positions and terrorized the league defensively with his wingspan. Michael Jordan, notably, had almost no on-court success without Scottie Pippen. As Pippen retired, the 2003 draft class came in, and with it, a seeming influx of positionless players that, combined with NBA rule changes, brought us to the era where entire teams now seemingly are almost positionless. The once-in-a-generation big guys (Greg Oden, Anthony Davis and Blake Griffin to a lesser extent) perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, have been either plagued by injury or have found their style incompatible with the league mainstream, and found little regular or postseason success.
These recent developments are part of a long continuum that has slowly, almost inexorably, drawn basketball to a place where the F-F-C-G-G delineation is meaningless. Pioneers like John Havlicek and Elgin Baylor were clearly guys who went against the grain in their generation where the wing was the wing and the big man was the big man. It’s clear, however, that you can see faster, more athletic, versions of those guys in today’s players, even big guys like Dirk Nowitzki. NBA rule changes, adaptive minds like Red Auerbach and Pete Newell (the originator of the motion offense), and a generation of coaches who increasingly give players the freedom to innovate on the court have all played a major part in this transition, too. Does it really matter that there might not soon be positions in basketball anymore? Some purists might carp about this, but should we really care? This seems to be an evolution in the game that makes it more exciting.
 Type in “Red Auerbach fast break” on YouTube and you’ll get a plethora of instructional videos by the longtime Celtics coach and GM on how to run the fast break.