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Positionless basketball is here to stay at Florida State

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Coach Hamilton’s style has been evolving over the past four years. Now what?

Florida Gulf Coast v Florida State Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

When we were young we all learned the positions on a basketball team.

The point guard was the kid who could dribble the length of the court without staring at the ball.

The shooting guard won all the games of HORSE.

The small forward was pretty good at everything and knew all the cheerleaders.

The power forward had thick legs and glasses and couldn’t do much besides move other guys out of the way.

The center had thyroid issues which made him 6-4 in the seventh grade and one of his family members had the sense to teach him the Mikan drill.

But now (thanks Lebron!) everything is different. Well, actually, that’s not true. It’s been different for a long time. Don Nelson’s Milwaukee Bucks in the early 80s. The Lakers and Magic Johnson. I could go on for days here, but let’s not get distracted with a history lesson.

What is positionless basketball, and what does it have to do with Florida State?

When FSU won the ACC in 2012, Leonard Hamilton ran a twin-post offense. And the reason for this wasn’t because that’s the most efficient offense to run, but rather, it allowed him to put the personnel on the court to run his defense. He wanted size. He wanted physicality. And it worked. Out of 351 Division 1 teams, Ham had defenses over a 4-year span which ranked 7th, 2nd, 1st, and 10th nationally.

Then the rules changed.

The uppy ups in college basketball decided that the game needed more offense, and so they started making rules which made it difficult to defend. The physicality of FSU’s defense was now illegal.

So Ham adopted a positionless system, and now nobody knows what the heck is going on. The ‘Noles were right with North Carolina as the most uptempo teams in the ACC last year. They’re likely to be among the 10 fastest teams in the nation this year, and will have games when they sub 6-6 Terance Mann into the middle for 7-4 Chris Koumadje? What????!

So here we go.

Positionless, as a term, isn’t at all accurate.

It’s not positionless. There are still positions in this system. Brad Stevens, the Celtic’s coach, maintains that there are three positions. This guy claims there are 13. Others are somewhere in between. But since the guy who claims 13 is a nerd and the guy who claims 3 currently has the best record in the NBA, let’s go with his version. Brad Stevens breaks players down into wings, ball handlers, and post players.

Here are the skillsets:

Wings

· Be true triple-threat options on the wing. Be able to shoot, drive, and/or pass from beyond the 3-point line

· Run the point in transition

· Be able to defend the opposition PG, SG, SF, and PF

Ball handlers

· Be a wing, plus run the point in half court sets

Post

· Defend

· Defend

· Defend

· Catch the ball 10’ from the rim and be able to make the right pass out of double teams

The reason to run this type of system is threefold. On offense, it’s space. Basketball players are bigger now than they were 20 years ago, or 10, or even 5. To have the same operating space, the players need more room to spread out on a court which has dimensions that aren’t changing. With four guys on the floor that need to be defended 25’ from the rim, that space expands rapidly. Space creates driving lanes. It opens room in the post. It makes double teams more difficult.

On defense, the system is designed to defend the pick-and-roll. PNRs are one of the oldest plays in basketball, and still the most effective. The moving parts and potential in a PNR put all sorts of stress on a defense, and the best way to relieve that stress is to refuse to defend the PNR, and just switch defenders. But to do that, you need interchangeable defenders. Otherwise (if the offense knows you are switching), they can just pick the matchup they want and set it up with a PNR.

The third big reason is both an offensive and defensive move: speed. On offense you want every possession to begin stressing the defense as early as possible. If 4-5 players can lead a fast break, then on live ball turnovers, rebounds, etc... it doesn’t matter who ends up with the ball. It’s just get and go. Florida State always has at least four guys on the floor who can lead a break, and the idea is to get a shot while the defense is scrambling. We saw multiple times in the exhibition games when FSU was beating the opponent down the court after made baskets.

That speed, in turn, benefits the defense. The constant fast breaks wears out the opposing defense, and so the natural tendency is to rest when they control the ball.

To maximize this 3rd reason to run a positionless system, Coach Hamilton and staff have recruited a group of guys who are willing to play shorter minutes in order to benefit the team. They come in waves. They wear you down.

The season starts on Tuesday. It’s not the most talented team in recent memory by any stretch, but they’re going to be fun to watch.