Why Small Ball Is Taking Over the NBA

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Why Small Ball Is Taking Over the NBA
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Forget "YOLO"—"Small Ball" was the buzz phrase of 2012.

In the NBA, anyway.

The Miami Heat sprinted to the title after moving LeBron James from small forward (where he was huge and somewhat miscast for his position) to power forward (where his size was a better fit and his skills made him a matchup nightmare).

The Oklahoma City Thunder might've had a better shot at winning it all had head coach Scott Brooks opted to make a similar move with Kevin Durant. This season, the New York Knicks are thriving under Mike Woodson, in part because Carmelo Anthony has excelled at the 4—a move he declined to make for Mike D'Antoni in years prior.

Teams around the league are following suit, though perhaps not to the extent that these three have. D'Antoni has instilled some of his innovation into the Los Angeles Lakers, with Metta World Peace now primarily playing power forward. However, the squad still starts a pair of interior giants in Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol.

The Philadelphia 76ers have deemed Thaddeus Young—a classic tweener—a full-time 4, though that could change if/when Andrew Bynum gets back on the court. The Atlanta Hawks are thriving with Josh Smith up front next to Al Horford.

The general idea of "small ball" (i.e., playing someone more traditionally suited to small forward at power forward) is hardly a new phenomenon. As Bleacher Report's Ethan Sherwood Strauss noted in October, the roots of this strategy date back at least as far as the mid-1990s, when the Houston Rockets employed Robert Horry as a "stretch 4" next to Hakeem Olajuwon.

The concept may seem similar, but the aims have changed considerably. For the Rockets (and, to an extent, the Orlando Magic with Dwight Howard), the goal was to create space for a top-notch big man in service of his work in the low post.

Don Nelson, Mike D'Antoni and now Erik Spoelstra have since flipped the situation around. Rather than creating space for a big, they've gone to opening up the floor by de-emphasizing the post player to create open shots and easy driving lanes for wing players.

But why has this "revolution" in basketball philosophy taken root, and why now?

 

Speed Kills

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For one, substituting an athletic, versatile wing for a more traditional big allows teams to play faster and score easy baskets, be they in transition or early in the half court. Without a post-up pivot, teams don't have to worry about setting up the offense, standing around and waiting for something to happen.

According to NBA.com's stats database, of the top 30 five-man lineups as measured by net efficiency (i.e., point differential per 100 possessions), no fewer than half could be considered small-ball lineups.

At least 11 of those small-ball units play at a pace—measured in possessions per game—above the league average, which stood at 91.7 possessions per game as of Jan. 10 (per NBAstuffer.com). Another three play at a pace within one possession of the NBA average.

The lone exception? The Brooklyn Nets' plodding pack of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez, Gerald Wallace and Keith Bogans, which plays at a pace of 84.4 possessions per game.

That group is the Nets' only entry into these small-ball 15 (teams can have more than one). Not surprisingly, the Heat lead the way with five highly efficient small-ball units, followed by the Thunder with two and the Knicks, 76ers, Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings, Denver Nuggets, Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets with one apiece.

Teams that Fit the Bill: Heat, Thunder, Warriors, Bobcats, Rockets, Nuggets, Hawks

 

The Embrace of the Stretch 4

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But small ball is about much more than just pushing the pace. According to NBAstuffer.com, the Thunder, Heat and Knicks—the three most popular proponents of small ball—ranked ninth, 18th and 21st in pace, respectively, as of Jan. 10. Likewise, those three teams placed seventh, 14th and 27th, respectively, in fast-break points per game as of Jan. 3, per Team Rankings.

What these three elites have in common more than anything else is an uber-talented wing who, in most any day and age, would be stuck at small forward but today fits in as a stretch 4. LeBron, Durant and Carmelo all fit (and define) this particular mold. They're also three of the top four names in John Hollinger's Player Efficiency Rating.

Let's not forget, though, that Dirk Nowitzki was practically the progenitor of the stretch 4. He was among the first players of his size not only to pass, dribble and shoot, but also to do so successfully in the NBA.

Of course, not every stretch 4 can be or is as complete a package of athleticism, shooting and ball-handling ability as are these four.

Blake Griffin is certainly strong and agile enough to fit the bill, but until he straightens out his shooting stroke, he'll be best suited to a more traditional power forward role. Ryan Anderson can attack the basket off the dribble, but he typically scores as the recipient of kickout passes to the perimeter.

Kevin Love shoots the ball like a stretch 4, but he lacks the athleticism to keep pace with the hybrid position defensively. Josh Smith has all the tools and certainly loves to launch from long range, despite protestations from Atlanta Hawks fans.

The point is, the NBA is no longer quite so averse to players whose combinations of size and skill set would normally box them in as tweeners. Rather than being undersized power forwards or slow wings who prove troublesome because they fit neither paradigm well, these players have become valuable commodities on account of their versatility.

Unlike traditional power forwards, they can play inside or out, thereby allowing teams to open up the middle of the floor for slashing guards. Such penetration, in turn, leads to layups at the basket or three-point shots, often in quick succession.

Teams that Fit the Bill: Heat (LeBron), Thunder (Durant), Knicks (Carmelo), Timberwolves (Kevin Love/Andrei Kirilenko/Derrick Williams), Hawks (Josh Smith), Mavericks (Dirk Nowitzki), Hornets (Ryan Anderson), Lakers (Metta World Peace...sometimes), Rockets (Chandler Parsons...sometimes), Sixers (Thaddeus Young), Raptors (Andrea Bargnani), Bucks (Ersan Ilyasova)

 

A Dying Breed

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The old way of doing things in pursuit of the top prize—dumping the ball into the post and letting a big guy take care of business—hasn't gone entirely by the wayside. But the prevalence and role of the traditional center has been diminished enough so as to lose a guaranteed spot on the All-Star Game ballot.

Some coaches, like Mike D'Antoni, have expressed disdain for such an isolation-heavy approach in the past. In D'Antoni's mind, post-up possessions are inefficient and ineffective, at least in comparison to quick-strike possessions based on ball and player movement.

The bigger driver of this shift away from pivots, though, may have more to do with a lack of bodies who are ready, willing and able to play that way. Gone are the days when having a back-to-the-basket giant like Shaquille O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon or Patrick Ewing practically guaranteed title contention.

Not that such a player wouldn't make that kind of a difference in today's NBA. Rather, there simply aren't many bulky bigs who play that way, and even fewer who do so at a superstar level.

Andrew Bynum is probably the closest thing to the old paradigm, but he's had only one fully healthy season since emerging as a low-post All-Star and has yet to suit up for the Sixers in 2012-13.

Dwight Howard would come next, but he's far better as a finisher in the pick-and-roll than he is as an isolation scorer on the block (not to mention his back issues have limited his capabilities considerably). 

Tim Duncan is still a master at working with his back to the basket, but the Big Fundamental has made many of his bones facing up, at least of late.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Beyond that, the pickings of prototypical bigs are rather slim.

Tyson Chandler hardly ever posts up, Brook Lopez is a plodder who picks and pops, Anderson Varejao is much more of a "junkyard dog" than an offensive threat, Kevin Garnett loves the long two and Kevin Love, while capable in the paint, spends so much of his time behind the three-point line.

For an explanation as to why back-to-the-basket bigs aren't surfacing at the NBA level anymore, Kevin Pixler offered an excellent theory in a piece for The Atlantic back in May 2012. Pixler states the proliferation of the AAU style has encouraged youngsters of all shapes and sizes to specialize as three-point shooters and slashers. Late bloomers have become a thing of the past amid a landscape that picks out the stars of the future from the time they're able to walk.

Teams that Fit the Bill: Heat (Chris Bosh), Celtics (Kevin Garnett), Hawks (Al Horford), Portland Trail Blazers (LaMarcus Aldridge? J.J. Hickson?), Warriors (David Lee/Carl Landry when Festus Ezeli sits)

 

Three-Ballin'

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The bigger culprit, though, is the institution of the three-point shot in 1979-80. The three-pointer has grown more prevalent with each passing year as teams continue to recognize the value of a shot that's worth 50 percent more points than the norm.

In 1997-98, the NBA tweaked the dimension of the three-point arc, thereby setting up the modern distribution of perimeter shots. The line was extended to 23 feet and nine inches, except in the corners, where a 22-foot shot still counted for three points. That made corner threes immensely popular among smart, savvy coaching staffs.

The same goes for corner specialists like Ray Allen. Squads with sharpshooters could plant their players in the short corners to spread out the opposition and open paths to the basket for perimeter slashers and pick-and-roll tandems. A recent visualization of 2012 shooting trends by Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry illustrates the degree to which layups and corner threes have come to dominate the modern NBA:

It's no accident the top five teams in three-point percentage as of Jan. 4—Thunder, Heat, Spurs, Warriors, Knicks—doubles as a list of five of the top teams in the entire league. Nor is it surprising that Miami, OKC and Golden State constitute the top three in corner-three accuracy, with San Antonio and New York sitting among the top 10 in that regard.

We should also note the Heat, Thunder and Spurs rank first, fifth and seventh, respectively, in restricted-area field-goal percentage. The Warriors and Knicks, on the other hand, are merely middle-of-the-pack teams when it comes to converting layups and dunks.

Simply put, the best teams in today's NBA are those that get to the rim and hit from the corner because those two shots happen to be the most efficient ones around.

Teams that Fit the Bill: Knicks, Rockets, Hawks, Spurs, Heat, Warriors

 

Euro-Steppin' Out

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And small ball—that is, the brand that Mike D'Antoni popularized while with the Phoenix Suns between 2004 and 2008—is designed to take full advantage of those particular areas on the floor.

D'Antoni spent nearly 20 years of his basketball life in Italy, first as an 11-time trophy-winning point guard for Olimpia Milano, then as a championship coach with Milan and Benetton Treviso. While there, D'Antoni soaked up the European style of play, wherein versatility, perimeter shooting and the pick-and-roll are paramount to success. Guards controlled the game, but bigs were also impactful, though more from the outside than in the paint.

D'Antoni attempted to install this particular style of play with the Denver Nuggets, but he had neither the time nor the talent to do so. Not until Mike D. landed in Phoenix—where Steve Nash soon joined Amar'e Stoudemire to form the game's most devastating pick-and-roll partnership—did his coaching career, and his push for more wide-open play, truly take flight.

As important as Nash and Stoudemire were in D'Antoni's scheme, the real innovation stemmed from the role played by Shawn Marion. Once typecast as a high-flying wing with a funky shot, the man known as "The Matrix" found his niche as a stretch 4 who launched short-corner threes and filled the lane in transition, often to devastating effect.

Amar'e and Steve were the engine behind Seven Seconds or Less. Shooters like Quentin Richardson, Raja Bell and Joe Johnson were the wheels. But Marion at power forward was the frame that held Phoenix's mobile operation together.

To be sure, Marion's role wasn't wholly original, especially not for the Suns. The franchise had been portraying variations of small ball for some time, dating back to the days when Charles Barkley served as an undersized power forward under Paul Westphal during the 1990s.

D'Antoni, though, took the concept to another level, with Nash, Stoudemire and Marion at the center of it all. True, D'Antoni's Suns never reached the NBA Finals like Westphal's did, but the former sustained success for longer and evidently had a much more far-reaching impact on the way the game would be (and is) played.

Teams that Fit the Bill: Heat, Thunder, Knicks, Spurs, Clippers, Lakers (sort of), Rockets, Hawks, Warriors, Nuggets

 

The Future is Now

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And it's shown, with the Heat, Knicks and Thunder all playing a part in televising this particular revolution. Some teams, like the Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets, have toyed with the idea of being "small ball-eligible," with mixed results. Others, like the Memphis Grizzlies and Utah Jazz, have gone the other way; they've pieced together supersized lineups, with two or three rotund ballers on the floor at any given time.

Those squads with such size would still be well-advised to exploit it whenever possible. As effective as small ball can be and often is, there's no substitute for being able to pound the ball in the paint.

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Particularly during the postseason, when the pace of play slows to a crawl, easy baskets are rare, and the importance of every possession is magnified.

But in the absence of towering terrors with fancy footwork and the redefinition of hand-checking and illegal defense in 2004-05, small ball has emerged as the smart way to win in the NBA. Some organizations, like the Lakers, are fortunate enough to attract the best big men that make their way through the game. Others, like the Spurs, have developed them over decades.

For everyone else, winning basketball starts on the wings because it has to. There are no monsters in the middle to command the attention of two, three or even four defenders. There are no dump downs or back-to-the-basket isolations that end with reliably positive results.

And, frankly, with the way the current rulebook incentivizes certain styles of play, there doesn't need to be. If anything, teams are creating mismatches with smaller, quicker players because that's what today's NBA calls for.

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Slowly but surely, the league is catching on to this new reality. But until small ball becomes more the norm than the exception, the NBA will be at the mercy of those who've gone small best and for the longest.

That means you'll be seeing plenty more of LeBron, Wade, Bosh and the Heat atop the heap in the years to come. 

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