If you're building an NBA team designed to succeed in the 2013 playoffs, do you go with the big boys or the gunner guards?
Most teams in the history of the Association haven't had the luxury of employing both fundamentally different sets, which makes determining the superior group an important endeavor. Some squads go to work with a traditional big man wreaking havoc in the paint, while others are content to let fly from outside.
Both strategies can certainly work, especially if you merge the narrower "gunner guards" idea with the broader small-ball ideals.
That said, which has reigned supreme in this specific postseason?
Let's take a conference-by-conference look.
The Memphis Grizzlies are the best example of a team that thrives because of its presence in the paint. Marc Gasol is a true seven-footer, even if he possesses more versatility than physicality down low, and Zach Randolph is a tough-as-nails power forward.
Behind the two behemoths in the middle, the Grizz have advanced to the Western Conference Finals. Of course, they've had help from Mike Conley, Tony Allen and a number of other smaller players, but it's the big guys who make things go.
Each of Memphis' four most-used lineups during the postseason involve both Gasol and Z-Bo. The next three feature Darrell Arthur playing with one of the two aforementioned studs.
In fact, the first lineup that only utilizes one true big man is the one using Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Quincy Pondexter, Tayshaun Prince and Marc Gasol. This group has played only eight total minutes together during the series against the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder.
Small ball simply doesn't exist in Memphis. And it's not used too frequently by the team's opponents in the Western Conference Finals: the San Antonio Spurs.
As Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney pointed out, Gregg Popovich was extremely hesitant to play small ball during the regular season because it would have worn out Tim Duncan. But thanks to the growth of Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs are able to occasionally go small and leave the breakout San Diego State product as the second-biggest man out on the court.
In particular, Leonard has rebounded far better than most players his size, showing off good instincts and incredible strength. You can see those skills manifest themselves in these three defensive rebounds, but pay close attention to him out-muscling Festus Ezeli for the final board.
The most-used lineup in which Leonard plays the 4 sees Popovich use Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Danny Green, Leonard and Tim Duncan. It's been used for 38 minutes during the postseason, making it the second-most common lineup.
However, it still seems like a bit of an aberration.
In each of the three other lineups that San Antonio has used for more than 30 minutes—including the No. 1 lineup, which has 83 minutes of action—Leonard lines up at small forward. In fact, that's his position in six of his eight most-used groupings.
The Spurs are occasionally going small, but that's not their primary strategy. Using the big boys is still the most common decision.
Out West, there were most assuredly a few teams that employed the guard-first stratagems. Mark Jackson's Splash Brothers come to mind immediately, as does the Denver Nuggets' tendency to play Andre Miller and Ty Lawson together.
The Houston Rockets loved going small and surrounding Omer Asik with a bevy of shooters, and Eric Bledsoe and Chris Paul were quite difficult to stop at the same time when Vinny Del Negro used a two-point-guard lineup.
What do they have in common? They've all been eliminated from contention for the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
It's telling that the two teams competing for a berth in the 2013 NBA Finals are ones that use big guys first and foremost.
It's not so simple in the East.
The Miami Heat are clearly the class of the conference, and they've adopted a smaller lineup. It's one that helped win a championship in 2012, but it doesn't exactly feature gunner guards.
Instead, Miami goes small by having LeBron James play power forward rather than his more natural spot at small forward. James is big and physical enough to handle opposing 4s, and his developing postgame allows him to fill the more traditional big-man role on offense as well.
With Chris Bosh at center and James at power forward, the Heat are undoubtedly using a small lineup quite successfully. However, they've still recognized the necessity to match up against big units.
That's where Chris Andersen enters the picture.
Birdman gives Miami the ability to match up against the big boys because he can capably defend opposing centers while letting Bosh and LeBron slide over a spot to their more natural positions in the lineup. Expect to see this quite often if the Heat have to worry about Roy Hibbert in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Hibbert and David West definitely count as big boys for the Indiana Pacers, and Frank Vogel doesn't really like to go small. This would be different if he had a healthy Danny Granger at his disposal, but that's not the case.
Indiana's primary backup bigs are Ian Mahinmi and Tyler Hansbrough. Usually you see either Hibbert or Mahinmi line up at center, and they're typically joined by West or Hansbrough at power forward.
In fact, the most-used five-man squad without two of the four aforementioned frontcourt players features D.J. Augustin, Gerald Green, Paul George, Jeff Pendergraph and Tyler Hansbrough. During the postseason, that group has played a grand total of eight minutes together.
There's no small ball in Indiana, but that's one of the few exceptions in the Eastern Conference. Even the Brooklyn Nets liked to occasionally go small by having Gerald Wallace play power forward.
The New York Knicks use a similar strategy to the one employed by the Miami Heat. They often shift Carmelo Anthony to the 4 and then bring on an extra backcourt member. Iman Shumpert, for example, tends to play minutes at small forward.
Just as is the case with the Western Conference, there is no hard-and-fast rule in the East. The best team happens to play small ball a lot, but even the Heat rely on the big boys at some point.
As for the Association as a whole, although guards like Stephen Curry, Tony Parker, Deron Williams, Chris Paul and Nate Robinson tend to steal the headlines, the bigs are the ones who have been owning this postseason in particular.
Of the five remaining teams, three rely predominantly on their big men: the Memphis Grizzlies, San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers. The other two—the Miami Heat and New York Knicks—prefer going small but recognize the necessity of matching up with an opponent's size.
We may often complain about the relative dearth of old-school big men who play with their backs to the basket, but it's still the frontcourt members who are helping teams advance.
The guards can gun threes all they want, but it's the teams with size that are moving on in the march toward a championship.
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