In the beginning, there was the Z.
It was April, and it was 2009. The Thunder weren't winning much yet, but Sam Presti's architecture was starting to reveal itself. This was a team with whom traditional positions simply didn't register; at times, it was as if they ignored position altogether and just played the game. We and a few others had for some time sensed that basketball was headed in this direction. Oklahoma City, despite its poor record, was poised to force a change in thinking, scrambling positions to make more, not less, sense of the players Presti had assembled.
That's how the Z-chart was born. Its aim was to represent the spectrum of positionality, point guard and center, the two positions defined most purely, were located at either end. The top was, roughly, little men, and the base, big men. The bridge in between the two is where the small forward would be -- if such a position still existed in a pure form the way in once did (think Alex English or James Worthy; now flash forward to today's 2-3 swingmen and 3-4 tweeners). You can locate shooting guard near the bend at the top, and power forward in the same spot at the bottom. Traditional roles still exist, but are understood as part of a continuum. Positions are fluid, responsibilities divvied up according to scheme, not dogma.
To put it another way, players now did a little bit of everything, and if they didn't fit cleanly into a pre-defined niche, they could still be of value to a team -- provided the team got done what it needed to in order to play its game. Depending on its style, a team may need more or less shooters; playmakers; rebounders; or ball-handlers. At the same time, it likely has a bare minimum of rebounding, scoring and so forth that it needs taken care of. These can, in theory, come from anywhere, as long as no player finds himself in contradictory roles. For instance, both Rajon Rondo and Russell Westbrook have had to learn to suppress their urge to crash the boards, especially on offense, since this can prevent them from being in the right spot when the offense resets.
A team built around a pure center suggests one kind of system. In today's NBA, so does one blessed with a franchise point guard. But the most revealing part of a team -- where you can really see its originality at work -- is in how it addresses the small forward position. It's no accident that Durant, like Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki before him, practically demands that those around him adhere to a different kind of template. The center or point guard provides the clearest path to victory, but the small forward is the key to the system. If the key itself is a wild card, the team has no choice but to move away from traditional thinking.
We followed the first Z with another Z, and then a truly obtuse, sea creature-looking thing intended to highlight both fragments of orthodoxy and the significance of the slope bridging "big" and "little." However, this third effort, while it may have taken forever to devise, made an intuitive point into something that made you wonder why, after all, we were bothering to represent position in this way.
With this new version, we have returned to the original design (as seen in the key to the right), but now have a better explanation for what, on some level, we grasped all along: the two bases are stable, orderly, but the bridge is inherently unstable, dynamic.
There's a certain symmetry between point guards and center, who today, both represent an all-out war on the paint. The middle of the Z is the great unknown, the finer points that allow a team to stand out and a coach to be more than a wrangler of stars. Or, if the small forward poses that kind of challenge, then it's an organizational conundrum.
The individual Z charts are only valid insofar as they reflect a team's plan. They allow a team, more or less, to see if it stacks up against its imagined self. For those of us not in the locker room, the collected Z charts of a unit provide a more organic understanding of who does what and why.
Consider the Team Z of the projected starting five of the Miami Heat.
The Heat's projected starting five has at least two players covering every skill except for three-point shooting. The exceptional versatility of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade allow a unit with an underwhelming center (Joel Anthony), an underwhelming point guard (Mario Chalmers) and the truest power forward this side of Al Jefferson (Chris Bosh) to appear to be a nearly perfect unit. If only James, Wade or Chalmers could shoot threes effectively.
Enter Mike Miller ... and while we're at it, Udonis Haslem. Many consider this second permutation a more likely crunch-time lineup, despite the lack of a true point guard or true center.
Miller turns the "glaring problem" that was three-point shooting for the first unit into a "concern." Meanwhile, the versatility of James and Wade allow inorganic replacements like Miller (who has one of the weirdest skill sets in the league) and Haslem (who, like Bosh, can never be considered a center) to make the team truly sing in certain sectors without creating unmanageable holes at other areas. It is because LeBron and Wade can block shots that you can have a Bosh-Haslem frontcourt, at least in theory.
You cannot, however, expect to build a team by plugging a team into this graphic and looking at the totals. These totals mean nothing aside from a sense of what they represent. They are tactics, not a strategy. It won't provide you with answers for your favorite disorganized team -- it's a reflection of a teams idea, a way of representing a new kind of order. But plugging in a roster at random won't spit out anything other than a survey of skills, if that. It won't reflect how those skills are applied and self-limited, which is exactly what creating a team dynamic (or any kind of collective) consists of.
If that's a revolution, it's one with decidedly modest aims -- or one that intends only to follow in the footsteps of common sense.
The Works is a daily column written by Bethlehem Shoals (@freedarko) and Tom Ziller (@teamziller). Their Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History will be available this October.