Old-school general manager Mitch Kupchak sounds sold on this new-school concept of position-less basketball.
He’s not alone. A lot of NBA teams have stopped focusing so much on players’ heights, instead looking for skill sets and versatility. I get the reasoning. I just don’t know if this will ultimately pull the Charlotte Hornets out of their cycle of mediocrity.
Friday morning, Kupchak sat between the Hornets’ top two draft picks, Kentucky’s PJ Washington and Nevada’s Cody Martin, at a press conference at Spectrum Center. Almost immediately, Martin used that term “position-less,” and Kupchak picked up on the theme. You’re going to hear that buzz word a lot, it seems.
Washington is 6-foot-8 and will play forward. Martin is 6-foot-7 and will play guard. They add to a Hornets roster already loaded with midsize players of varying skill. It will be coach James Borrego’s job to hash all this out and decide who fits with whom next season.
As currently configured, the Hornets will have six players next season listed as either 6-7 or 6-8. Best-case scenario: They are interchangeable, with the ability to guard numerous positions.
Worst-case: A glut of the same body type with not enough true big men or point guards.
What is ‘position-less?’
I asked Kupchak how he defines position-less basketball.
“The NBA has changed as far as how the game is played. There’s a lot of switching (defensively). As a wing or a power forward, you may end up defending a point guard or a (shooting) guard. And offensively, you might be out there with three or four guys your size.
“Many years ago, there’d be a center, a power forward, a small forward and a point guard. The NBA is not exactly the way it used to be and the question is how you see yourself fitting into how the game is played today.”
The Golden State Warriors are the model, where power forward Draymond Green sometimes runs the offense like a point guard, and shooting guard Klay Thompson has the defensive versatility to switch onto a power forward. But every roster isn’t equipped to be that. Can the Hornets successfully emulate that style?
Kupchak is trying; he says Martin can be a “playmaking guard”: Not a conventional point guard, but someone who can be the ballhandler in a pick-and-roll to break down a defense.
Washington can be a power forward in this new NBA at 6-8 because his wingspan is so outsized (7 feet, 2 1/2 inches from fingertip to fingertip) and because he showed in his second season at Kentucky he has the shooting range to stretch defenses (42 percent from the college 3-point line).
All this makes great sense in theory. It’s a lot more dicey in practice. Assuming the roster is roughly the same as it now stands, Borrego will blend what these two rookies do with holdovers Miles Bridges, Dwayne Bacon, Nic Batum and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
Some fans will say veterans Batum and Kidd-Gilchrist should be shipped to the end of the bench to make way for the young. Maybe. But those two will make a combined $37 million next season on a team with a bloated player payroll. If I’m owner Michael Jordan, I tell Kupchak and Borrego to do what’s right, but don’t just ignore what skills Batum and Kidd-Gilchrist provide.
Many fans have asked me if Bridges and Washington are so similar they are redundant to each other. I think those two could complement each other as this team’s future starting forwards, but I get that concern.
The other thing that has changed since Kupchak and Borrego took over the basketball operation is a heavier reliance on development via the G-League Greensboro Swarm. Kupchak says all three rookies — the Hornets took San Diego State forward Jalen McDaniels with the 52nd overall pick — will spend some time assigned to the Swarm next season.
That will help Borrego sift the rookies into the mix at a reasonable pace. With so many players of similar size, this will be a process of trial-and-error.
Hopefully, not much error. Hornets fans’ patience with error is exhausted, and then some.