Shrink to Fit In: Why Small Ball Is Sweeping the NBA

The Golden State Warriors just won an NBA title by going small, and the rest of the league appears to be following suit.

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Jul 23 2015, 12:10pm

Photo by David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

If you want to understand the extent to which teams in the National Basketball Association have become enamored with playing smaller, quicker, floor-spacing lineups, consider Erik Spoelstra, who is said to have one big regret about coaching LeBron James: that he didn't run the "world's greatest player" at center.

Of course, Spoelstra's Miami Heat teams enjoyed plenty of success playing smallish, with James swinging between small and power forward, and finesse big man Chris Bosh playing center. Four straight trips to the NBA Finals. Two titles. Pretty good track record. And still Spoelstra wanted to play smaller.

Such is the way of the new NBA.

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Once upon a time, going small was seen as suicide, at least in the postseason. The traditional road to titles ran through the post, where strength and size buttressed basketball skill. En route to winning 11 championships with the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers, coach Phil Jackson and top assistant Tex Winter used to smirk about going up against the likes of small-ball innovators Don Nelson and Mike D'Antoni. Neither considered Nelson's Golden State Warriors and Dallas Mavericks nor D'Antoni's Phoenix Suns teams serious contenders to win a championship, simply because the grinding pace of playoff basketball made it a big man's game.

"[Small ball is] an interesting concept—until you get to the playoffs," Winter used to say.

Of course, that was then. In the wake of Golden State's freshly minted NBA championship—a victory made possible by Warriors coach Steve Kerr, a former Jackson and Winter protégé, going small during the Finals to defeat James' Cleveland Cavaliers—conventional wisdom around the league is evolving. And quickly. In fact, the game of basketball is going through more change this summer than at any time in the last 80 years, all the way back to the late 1930s, when the sport got rid of center jumps after every basket.

A league that already was flirting with small ball is on the verge of fully embracing it, and traditional post players, diminished in recent seasons, are being questioned like never before.

Case in point? When coaches, scouts, and other team staff gathered at the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas last week, many of them took in a presentation by D'Antoni on how building a team's offensive attack around the post play of a back-to-the-basket, post-up center is often a waste of time and opportunity.

"Look, I have no idea why everyone wanted to play like the 1990s New York Knicks, either." Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

If you're a coach, playing small offers two advantages. First, it gives you the ability to score points in bunches, raining three-pointers and running right past larger teams for game-swinging 20-point binges. Who says no to that?

Second—and let's be honest about this—small ball is also about the thrill of gambling, the action being the juice, because it comes with the risk that a larger opposing lineup will find a way to slow your team down, and then pound your figurative heads in on the glass.

According to Hal Wissel, a former college coach who found his way into the NBA as an assistant coach, advance scout, and skill instructor, the small-ball trend has been accelerated by two factors: a widespread adoption of analytics-based strategy, and a talent pipeline that fails to fully develop young big men.

On the analytics front, complex statistical analysis boils down to some simple math: three points are worth more than two. And in a NBA era where perimeter hand-checking is out and zone-ish paint protection is in, it's often easier to produce an open shot from beyond the arc than from point-blank range—or to produce said shots at the rim by spreading the floor and driving to the basket.

Enter small ball, which pushes the pace and unclogs the paint. Wissel says that 18 of the NBA's 30 teams have gone in hard for analytics, to the point of hiring top managers and staff to make decisions based on statistical insight. Even teams that cling to a more traditional view of basketball have brought on analytics people, if for no other reason than they have to compete against analytics-centric teams on a nightly basis.

Of course, going small is also more attractive when there's a dearth of dominant bigs. The summer after Pau Gasol's rookie season, the Memphis Grizzlies dispatched Wissel to Barcelona to teach the Spanish center how to shoot facing the basket and handle himself in the post.

That kind of fundamental instruction, Wissel says, is increasingly rare in college and AAU. Teenage players spend most of their time on the AAU circuit, and while some AAU coaches are great teachers, most are not. Moreover, college head coaches are employing those same AAU coaches as assistants—not because they can teach post moves and countermoves, but because they're key to recruiting success.

The result? Many of today's big men arrive in the NBA after a single year of college, with no real idea how to play in the post. Someone like Wissel—intensely focused on fundamentals, right down to analyzing how a shooter blocks and catches the ball, then resets it in his hands to shoot—can help them catch up. But even when they develop inside-scoring prowess, coaches facing small-ball lineups have to weigh the advantage of superior offensive size against the disadvantage of inferior defensive speed and quickness.

To wit: as well as New York Knicks rookie Kristaps Porzingis played during Summer League, the discussion amongst coaches quickly became variations on "How can he ever stay on the floor trying to defend and keep up with teams going small?"

For his part, D'Antoni says that teachers like Wissel actually have been doing a pretty good job of developing young NBA talent, and that the small-ball surge that has been building over the last five years has less to do with inferior post play than superior outside shooting.

"It's no use shooting threes just to shoot them," D'Antoni says. "Now it makes mathematical sense to set up the floor to shoot threes, now that players have pushed their shooting [of threes] above 40 percent."

What does not make sense, D'Antoni says, is throwing the ball to the post unless a center is great. "Statistically, a good post player is just not a good option," he says.

Not surprisingly, many basketball traditionalists are somewhat dismayed by both the game's downsizing and the math behind it. "They just believe what they believe," Wissel says. "They're fundamental." The biggest complaint Wissel hears is that analytics gurus know numbers, but don't really know basketball. Indeed, analytics-focused teams are often so confident in their statistics, Wissel says, that they no longer employ advance scouts to document every play opponents are running.

Wissel, himself something of a traditionalist, says this with a clear hint of disapproval in his voice.

On the other hand, analytics aren't going anywhere. They're not just the future. They're now. They appeal to the billionaire businessmen who own basketball teams, some of whom made their fortunes through number crunching and data analysis. If the stats say go small, teams will try it—and they'll stick with it so long as it works.

Copying a successful formula is NBA tradition. Spoelstra reads the reports from his analytics staff, and incorporates their insights when they make sense. When James left for Cleveland, he set out to build more of a system offense in Miami, because system offenses run by Jackson and Gregg Popovich have all but dominated the NBA in recent years. Spoelstra saw the power of playing small when his team went up against the Warriors during the regular season, and he saw the impact of undersized power forward Draymond Green when Kerr played him at center.

Draymond Green has gone from undersized second-round draft pick to prototype small-ball big man to NBA champion. Photo by Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The Heat will adapt. D'Antoni thinks that Porzingis and others of his generation will adapt, too. Going small doesn't mean the death of big men in pro basketball, he says. "Not at all. I see a different way of getting the ball in the post."

In many cases, D'Antoni says, offense will begin on the perimeter, with big men setting screens and play evolving from there. That's the likely outcome for New Orleans forward-center Anthony Davis, the game's most promising young big. Davis is about to be coached by Alvin Gentry, a D'Antoni disciple and former Golden State assistant coach. Already, Gentry says that Davis will start more of his offense away from the basket, and learn to shoot three-pointers. Such is the new NBA. Old-school basketball guys can dig in against evolution, but the smartest will compromise and find a winning balance, the way Washington Wizards coach Randy Wittman did by unexpectedly going small during his team's playoff run.

Take Tim Cone, a hard-core triangle-offense coach who has won umpteen pro league championships in the basketball-crazy Philippines. He was in Las Vegas for Summer League, listening to D'Antoni's presentation and closely watching the on-court action. Going forward, he says, he has much to think about. He's not alone. Even triangle traditionalist Jackson, now a Knicks executive, appears to have approved coach Derek Fisher's plan to push the pace of he and Winter's signature offense, using more half-court screen-and-roll plays.

The upshot? Big changes are coming to the NBA—though it might be more accurate to call them small.