Positions in basketball are entirely different than almost every sport. In baseball a pitcher is required to stand at the mound until he decides to throw a pitch, make a pick-off attempt, or step off to take a break. In football, a play cannot be called for an offensive lineman to receive the ball unless a tackle is declared eligible before it starts. In soccer only goalies can place their hands on the ball.
Basketball has literally no position rules whatsoever. Players play offense and defense, they are allowed to be anywhere on the floor at any time as long as they’re in bounds, and there is no restriction on what a player can do by position. There is no such thing as a center eligible play. The requirements on where players are supposed to be is set up entirely by the team. Giannis Antetokounmpo may bring the ball up the court on one play, and catch the ball with his back to the basket on the next. On defense, he may be pressuring the ball handler, or he could be protecting the rim. Basketball players are like water, they become whatever form is necessary at a particular time.
More than ever, players are no longer confined to traditional position norms, and this needs to be better reflected in all-NBA ballots. There is some fluidity this season with certain players receiving multiple position designations from the league and the voters can decide for themselves which position they want to vote for those players at.
The NBA is so close to getting this right, but it needs to go one step further and eliminate all position designations on the ballots. Voters should be allowed to vote for who they believe are the five best players, regardless of position.
With certain players being eligible at different positions, both Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokić can be voted in as a forward or a center, so both can be first-team All-NBA. However, from the few ballots I’ve seen voters have revealed, most still have Embiid and Jokić designated as center, and they chose one for first-team and the other for second-team.
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I get it with the way that the current ballot is set up. Why would anyone vote Embiid in as a forward when he is always listed in the Philadelphia 76ers lineup as a center. If the ballot calls for a center, two forwards, and two guards, it would be strange deciding who between Embiid and Jokić gets on first-team as a center and who gets the forward designation.
However, those two players have been the best in the NBA this season. There’s already going to be only one MVP, so why does now one player have to be considered a second-teamer, when there is nothing second-team about the way either Jokić or Embiid has played this season. And what about their play resembles a traditional center? They both average nearly four 3-point attempts per game, and regularly initiate the offense at the top of the key. Hell, with no Jamal Murray this season, Jokić has been the Denver Nuggets point guard. It’s not that they run the offense through him, he runs the offense. He brings the ball up the court on half court sets, and pushes it on the break. Why should he be considered any less of a point guard than Chris Paul or Trae Young? And why should either Jokić or Embiid be second-team, when they’ve been better than the four players that will be named first-team. What would be so terribly wrong if first-team All-NBA was Jokić, Embiid, Jayton Tatum, Antetokounmpo, and Luka Dončić. Have those not been the best players in the NBA this season? Kevin Durant should be in consideration as well, since he might be the best player in the NBA. Personally, I believe that he missed too much time to be considered over any of these five players. That doesn’t mean I’ll chase someone who disagrees with a torch. I also don’t believe that it should be required to demote Tatum or Antetokounmpo to second-team to fit in Durant. If a voter wants to hold the early part of the season against Dončić for showing up out of shape, that’s fine.
All six of those players do everything on the court. Also not one is a traditional guard, even though Dončić is listed as one on the ballot, and most people think of him as one. When Antetokounmpo was winning MVPs, he brought the ball up the court and took off on the fast break as much as any point guard in the league, but he never made first-team as a guard. Look at the all-rookie teams from the last 20 years. Some of those teams do not include a traditional center.
The NBA is not played with two guards, two forwards, and a center. Pay attention to the crunch time lineups in the postseason and see how many teams actually play a traditional center, and there will be some three-guard lineups as well. Basketball is the one sport where all that a position is, is the letter in front of players’ names on the stat sheet. It has nothing to do with where they are and what they do on the court. It’s time for all of the end of year voting ballots to reflect that.