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Why Small-Ball Is Here to Stay in the NBA

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Why Small-Ball Is Here to Stay in the NBA

Basketball and fashion aren't all that dissimilar. Fads either die, stick or are reincarnated over time, but they all share one thing in common: Styles become popular through the stars in the spotlight. 

The post-up point guard is a good example of this. Guys like Mark Jackson and Gary Payton used to destroy their defenders on the block, and physical point guards were once all the rage. But now? Once Andre Miller finally retires, the point guard banging in the paint will be as obsolete as the puka-shell necklace.

So how do we know that small-ball won't suffer the same fate? It's a copycat league, and the Miami Heat have certainly popularized and had success going small like no other team has before, but will this trend go away when there aren't guys like Chris Bosh around to make it work? 

The answer, of course, lies with the youth.

 

The Cody Zeller Experiment 

The Charlotte Bobcats are a perfect basketball laboratory. Devoid of any elite talent and not tied up by having a successful formula to stick to (phew!), the Bobcats are annually gifted the opportunity to "reinvent" themselves, and they usually do. Coaches and front-office members come and go, the roster gets new building blocks every year, and even the logo and jerseys seem to change all the time.

What's that all mean? The Bobcats can really take on any style they choose. When Charlotte selected 7'0" center Cody Zeller with the fourth pick in the draft, it was a strange signal that small-ball has become ingrained in the entire draft process.

Why is that? Because the Bobcats want to make Zeller a stretch 4. They don't care that Zeller shot just 24 jumpers in 36 games last year at Indiana or that athleticism is probably his best trait. Heck, they even signed Al Jefferson, as traditional of a post scorer the game has, to prove how serious they were about Zeller providing stretch.

The point is, stretch big men are being created now instead of found. That's an important distinction to make.

 

Basketball Darwinism

Charlotte's developmental plan for Zeller shows that stretch big men are being molded now, as opposed to simply found late in the draft (Ryan Anderson, Rashard Lewis, etc.) like they were before. That's how you know this has staying power.

Remember when point-forwards were the obsession, and every prospect over 6'8" who could dribble was supposed to be the next Scottie Pippen or Grant Hill? As we found out, there's much more to playing point guard than being able to handle the ball, and that's why point-forwards are such a rarity.

Creating a stretch big man is a little easier. All he has to be able to do, really, is shoot.

You might think playing two 7'0" players next to each other is the exact opposite of going small, but small-ball isn't about size. It's a means to an end. It's a way to create spacing, open up the floor and create higher-percentage looks. It's about skill. It's just that most often, smaller players provide those skills better. That's in the process of changing.

But why is there a need to stretch the floor? What's causing small-ball to be so effective?

 

We're Getting Smarter

Defenses are more sophisticated than ever before, and they're also faster than ever before. One man can only do so much damage as a scorer now. 

Those same principles apply to why back-to-the-basket scorers are going the way of the dinosaur. It's not because the players are suddenly less talented. That's ridiculous. It's because defenses bring help faster, and posting up pushes the action to one side of the floor and keeps it out of the middle, which is the primary goal of some of the league's best defenses, such as Chicago. 

Offenses have naturally adjusted to this. If mobility and pushing everything away from the middle is a priority defensively, then fighting fire with fire is the way to go. Adding an extra shooter at the 4 or 5 can space the floor and clear driving lanes, but it also encourages higher-percentage shots.

Teams are shooting from deep more than ever before. Consider this: The three-pointer has been in play for 33 seasons. Last year, five franchises entered the top 25 for most team three-pointers ever made in a single season. The New York Knicks and Houston Rockets finished first and second all-time, respectively, and it's not a coincidence that both teams had stretchy frontcourt players. 

Unless Antoine Walker is named NBA commissioner, the three-pointer is not going to lose its effectiveness anytime soon. Since small-ball is one of the most effective ways to create open looks from the perimeter, it's here to stay as well.

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