How Memphis Grizzlies Are Proving 2-Big Sets Still Work in Today's NBA
It’s the new trend, analytics-friendly and high-scoring and all of that: Take your oversized small forward, stick him at the power forward position and call it small-ball. The Knicks do it with Carmelo Anthony; the Miami Heat with LeBron James; the Golden State Warriors with Harrison Barnes; the Houston Rockets with Chandler Parsons. This style of play is quickly catching on throughout the league, and many teams are making the conversion if only to handle the matchup nightmare on the defensive end.
It’s all a matter of spacing. With the three-point shot's value on a points-per-possession basis becoming ever more apparent, teams are naturally shifting their offensive schemes toward four-around-one: one big man setting picks and off-ball screens, and multiple ball-handlers and shooters scattered around the three-point line, either looking to jack up shots from distance or attack the space and take the ball all the way to the rack.
It's such a normalized offensive lineup configuration, in fact, that coaches who rely on two bigs on the floor together are often criticized. When New York's Mike Woodson started both Kenyon Martin and Tyson Chandler in the crucial Game 4 of last year's Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Indiana Pacers, he faced relentless pressure from fans and media to revert to playing Anthony at the 4.
But not every team has been so quick to embrace the change. With Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol leading the Memphis Grizzlies, their grit-and-grind attack featuring two low-post players flies in the face of this small-ball trend. Only a few years ago, the Grizzlies were the norm. The power forward has always been more power than forward, and it is only the modern emphasis on the three-point shot that has this reversed. But with the league slowly phasing out two-big sets, how are the Memphis Grizzlies surviving?
It's important to remember that Memphis isn't the only team: Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah are prototypical big men for the Chicago Bulls, and Roy Hibbert and David West of the Indiana Pacers took the Miami Heat to seven games in last year's Eastern Conference Finals. But the case of Memphis is particularly interesting because it features two highly talented players who, theoretically, occupy the same spot on the floor. Neither player is particularly effective in the pick-and-roll, and both operate better with the ball in their hands. So how have they made it work?
It starts with defense. The Grizzlies' 97.4 defensive rating last season ranked second in the NBA (behind the two-big Indiana Pacers, as it turns out). Coupled with the second-slowest pace in the game—the Grizzlies' 91.15 possessions per 48 minutes ranked 29th—Memphis negated the speed advantage of small-ball lineups by slowing down the game.
But slowing down the game and pounding the ball down low isn't a formula for success. It's certainly worthwhile in a few isolations here and there, but the Grizzlies still have to run a coherent offense to score the ball. While small-ball teams typically rely on pick-and-roll sets to stretch the defense, Memphis drilled defenses with an array of tricky passing, backdoor cuts and off-ball screens—the structured fundamentals every basketball player learns growing up.
The Mike Conley-Gasol pick-and-roll below is a typical starting point for a Memphis set, and one that actually mirrors much of the small-ball schematics throughout the league. The floor is spread, and the non-involved players are stationary.
Tony Allen's defender, Chris Paul, gets caught up staring at the pick-and-roll. This is what he's used to, league-wide: stationary spot-up shooters waiting for the ball. In most cases, he has ample time to sag, recover and run the three-point shooter off the arc and into the mid-range.
But wait: Why does the two-big set matter here? The difference is this: With Lamar Odom caught up on Randolph under the hoop, he's essentially glued to him. Randolph is too close to the basket to allow Odom to rotate in any meaningful way. Once Allen cuts to the rim without Paul realizing, it's Odom's responsibility to rotate.
Except he doesn't. Is this bad defense? Not exactly. In a small-ball lineup, Randolph would have been stationed in the opposite corner waiting to shoot a three-pointer. After Conley runs off Gasol's shoulder, he would have throw a cross-court pass—a time-consuming maneuver—to hit the open man. The extra flight time of the ball would have likely given Paul enough time to read, react and run the shooter off the three-point line and into the mid-range—a win for the Clippers defense.
Instead, Odom's stuck. If he leaves Randolph, he's giving up an easy lob for an alley-oop. If he sticks with Randolph—as he does here—he's giving up a layup. This is a lose-lose, no matter what. Not to mention that he's entangled with Randolph anyway, whereas a corner-stationed Randolph would have given Odom space to rotate in time.
In some sense, the small-ball revolution has actually favored Memphis' offense. Defenses are more readily overloading the strong side, trusting their read-and-recover abilities on the weak-side pass out to the perimeter. Memphis, however, is able to take advantage when defenders are a bit too narrow in their defensive focus, such as with backdoor cuts.
This basketball equivalent of the spread offense has bloated the notion that the dribble-drive into space is the only way to penetrate to the rim. As Memphis shows here, nifty screens and dribble handoffs achieve the same end without the inactivity of floor spacing.
Memphis begins in a 1-4 high set, with Tayshaun Prince initiating the play at the point and four guys parallel to the baseline at the free-throw line extended. Once Prince dribbles the ball to the right wing, he gears up for a double pick-and-roll.
Whether or not the design here is for a double pick-and-roll or a dribble handoff, we can't be sure. Prince picks up his dribble, it appears, at least partially due to pressure, and dumps the ball into Gasol at the elbow. Conley then swoops through the lane, receiving the ball and slashing to the rim with one dribble.
Once again, Randolph sucks his defender, Paul Millsap, toward him and away from a help position. This leaves Conley free to float the ball into the rim without a contest.
Though "spacing" is the buzz word these days, the high-low bigs can prove equally effective. But the added bonus of two-big lineups is how they interact. In Los Angeles, Pau Gasol's excellent passing skills allowed him to throw easy lobs and wraparound passes to Dwight Howard. In Memphis, his brother Marc does much of the same with Randolph.
In one-big offenses, entry passes to the post come from the perimeter—a longer pass that is more likely to be deflected. And rarely can a perimeter player work out of the high post, as he's not tall or strong enough to be a credible scoring or passing threat with such immense and immediate ball pressure from multiple angles. But when both Memphis bigs share the floor, it's typically Gasol who operates from the free-throw line, while Randolph battles for position on the block. Therefore, the ball can be entered into the high post, and the high-low pass is easier and more available.
This is a huge advantage offensively. At 7'0", Gasol is tall enough to see the entire floor and keep the ball high and away from guards pinching in. Though he's often prone to holding the ball a bit too long, his excellent court vision allows him to dump the ball into Randolph precisely and quickly. And in the post, where there are only slivers of passing angles and half-second windows for ball delivery, this becomes especially crucial.
The play here is deceptively simple, with Gasol wrapping around the paint to catch the ball at the right elbow. Meanwhile, as he and Randolph criss-cross moments before at the left block, Randolph looks to seal his man.
Conley enters the ball into Gasol at the right elbow; Randolph hits the inside seal and leans toward the rim. But Jason Thompson reacts quickly and gets his paws up in the air in an attempt to thwart the easy two points.
This, here, is a more difficult entry than it seems. Thompson's raised arms negate the lob—there's barely enough room to drop it beneath the backboard and not out of bounds, and Randolph is too tied up with DeMarcus Cousins to leap in the air. A low bounce pass is equally unlikely since the window is extremely tight. But Gasol is tall. He can see from this position, and unlike a 6'2" guard, he is actually able to drop the ball in carefully. With less arc on the pass, the split-second timing of the play works. Less flight time on the pass means Cousins cannot recover, and Randolph has a layup.
Small-ball and two-big lineups have their advantages. It's really just a matter of style and a coach's willingness to adapt his scheme to take advantage of what he's got. In Memphis' case, it has done that well. With new head coach Dave Joerger taking over, it will be interesting to see how the Grizzlies offense changes. But as long as it's working out of those high-low positions, expect continued success when any combination of Gasol and Randolph is featured on a particular play.
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