When the Utah Jazz hired Quin Snyder in 2014, he touted the idea of “positionless basketball,” a trend that’s slowly permeated NBA thinking since the arrival of 6’8″ point forward LeBron James in 2003.
Having more of a scorer than a facilitator at the 1 doesn’t coincide the traditional definition of the position, but Utah wouldn’t be the first team to buck that tradition in starting Burks.
In 2014-15, James led the Cleveland Cavaliers in assists per game, while playing alongside a notable point guard in Kyrie Irving, who often functioned as a shooting guard on the offensive end. The same could be seen in Portland, where Trail Blazer forward Nicolas Batum averaged more dimes than Damian Lillard. To a lesser extent, the idea of point forwards is gaining momentum with Draymond Green in Golden State, Blake Griffin in Los Angeles and Gordon Hayward, which brings us back to the Jazz.
At least on offense, Hayward has already filled the role of point guard for much of the past two seasons. Since the start of the 2013-14 campaign, he’s averaging 4.7 assists, just shy of Burke’s 5.0. And the front office added two more capable 6’8″ ball handlers and passers last season in Rodney Hood and Joe Ingles.
Hood took on more responsibility as a facilitator after the All-Star break last season, averaging 3.1 assists per 36 minutes and posting an assist percentage of 15.9. In an April 11 game against the Blazers, when Hayward was resting, Hood fully assumed the point forward role, dished out eight assists and showed patience and vision in pick-and-roll opportunities:
Ingles, meanwhile, is more of a team-always than a team-first player. Among players 6’8″ or taller, he ranked 15th in assist percentage in ’14-15, joining James, Batum and Joakim Noah as the only members of that top 15 to post a higher assist percentage than usage percentage.
Either Hood or Ingles could be slated as the wing opposite Hayward in a lineup featuring Burks at the 1. All three can initiate the offense, leaving Burks free to be a slasher off the ball in the mold of Dwyane Wade playing off James.
Burks can also start a possession, using his driving ability to collapse opposing defenses into the paint, creating more space for Hayward, Hood or Ingles to spot up around the three-point line.
Not everyone is on board with this possibility, and the trepidation surrounding Burks possibly playing the 1 is understandable. Tony Jones of The Salt Lake Tribune answered a fan’s question about replacing Burke with Burks by simply tweeting, “Alec Burks is not a point guard. Question answered.” On his podcast, Jazz radio play-by-play man David Locke has mentioned more than once that playing Burks at the 1 neutralizes the things he does well.
Those opinions are fair, but may ultimately be based on that traditional definition of a point guard. On offense, Burks would continue to essentially play shooting guard, like Irving in Cleveland.
An apples-to-apples comparison of Burke and Burks on that end makes this tantamount to a no-brainer. The 2013-14 season is the strongest grounds for comparison, as Burks only appeared in 27 games in ’14-15 (Burke played better in his rookie year, anyway). The numbers per 36 minutes favor Burks:
As do some of the advanced stats:
The real question, then, is which member of the firm of Burke and Burks is better suited to defend opposing 1s?
Locke tweeted that Snyder’s positionless basketball is “predicated on having 5 guys that can defend the other 5 guys.” The 6’6″ Burks fulfills that prerequisite better than Burke.
Snyder likes being able to switch screens at positions 1-through-4, something he can’t really do with Burke on the floor. He’d get abused by the shooting guards and small forwards, even in short stints.
On the ball, things may be even more dire for Burke. His lack of size (6’0″) makes it tough for him to contest shots and cover as much ground laterally as his opponents. He gave up a PER of 16.5 to opposing 1s in ’13-14, and 16.2 in ’14-15. Burks surrendered a PER of 13.2 to point guards in ’13-14, in an admittedly smaller sample size.
With both ends of the floor considered, there’s really only one argument that favors Burke, and it’s that he’s a traditional point guard. That’s it.
Burks is a more efficient offensive player, who will use around the same number of possessions as Burke. Defensively, his size and athleticism suggest he has more potential and makes him a better fit for Snyder’s scheme.
If this team really is about positionless basketball, filling Exum’s shoes with Burks’s is the chance to show it.
Andy Bailey is on Twitter @AndrewDBailey.
Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com, NBA.com and 82Games.com.