Dominant Team USA Wasn't Playing 'Small Ball'

Ethan Sherwood StraussNBA Lead WriterAugust 13, 2012

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 12:  Juan-Carlos Navarro #7 of Spain drives for a shot attempt against Kevin Durant #5 of the United States during the Men's Basketball gold medal game on Day 16 of the London 2012 Olympics Games at North Greenwich Arena on August 12, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

USA basketball is triumphant, but it's with a sly trick called "small ball." In part because they lacked Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum, the Americans hoisted threes from almost all positions and dominated from the wing spots. It's not how basketball has traditionally been played or how it's played for some NBA teams. Or, to hear Sports Guy Bill Simmons tell it when handicapping a hypothetical Dream Team vs. 2012 game (via 

But after watching Pau Gasol pick open the 2012 team's small-ball scab with a shrimp fork for two hours, it's just not happening — we can't waste 6,000 words wondering if Tyson Chandler, Kevin Love, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron could have handled Barkley, Malone, Robinson and Ewing down low, much less if their teammates could have slowed down Jordan and Scottie during the most devastating two-way peak of their alliance. The 1992 team wasn't losing to a gimmick like small ball.

Bill isn't alone in thinking this to be something other than real basketball. I can't blame him, because Don Nelson (a small-ball pioneer) gave the tactic its somewhat unserious aura.

For Nellie, small ball was a trade-off that could work in certain situations. His team traded rebounding (size) for three-point shooting. The result could confound slower, bigger teams, leading to easy baskets. The apogee of Nellie's unconventional style came in 2007, when this happened to the highly favored Dallas Mavericks: 

But Team USA isn't the Warriors. When Coach K goes with Durant and LeBron James at the 3 and 4 spots, he isn't doing the equivalent of starting Stephen Jackson at power forward or playing Al Harrington at center. The USA Olympic team isn't necessarily sacrificing much when playing guys who can handle and shoot in frontcourt spots.

I think it's time to call this frontcourt perimeter-player tactic something else. "Small ball" doesn't exactly fit when LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant all meet or exceed power-forward size. Just because they tend to play a position meant for smaller men ("small" forward) doesn't mean that this team is tiny.

When Tyson Chandler finds himself on the bench, then yes, Team USA is in small-ball mode--by necessity. When Chandler plays, this squad is huge. If need be, Team USA can play LeBron James at point guard, with Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant taking up the 2 and 3 spots.   

This isn't small ball; it's awesome ball, excellent ball, whatever dumb superlative you wish to use to describe how convenient it is to have six to nine players with point-guard skills. If your frontcourt players can rebound, what is the sacrifice exactly? If Kevin Durant is a ridiculous 52 percent on four threes a game in FIBA, then how is this a gimmick?

The 2012 Miami Heat just won a championship based on such sorcery. LeBron James slid to the 4 spot, as the sweet-shooting Chris Bosh pulled opposing centers from the paint. It was devastating. It was beautiful. It spoke to the triumph of speed over power in a new, zone-legal league. 

So long as you can leverage a team's versatility, you should do just that. Also, why is going with two big, plodding frontcourt players never considered "tall ball"? And why is tall ball never a gimmick? There is nothing inherently wrong with getting three points when you can get two. There's nothing wrong with forcing the other center to defend around the arc, where he is least comfortable. It's not a gimmick when it works.