Whenever LeBron James’ name crops up, the conversation inevitably tends toward that dreaded “L-word”: legacy. The debate usually centers on his individual excellence and place in history, but what about his impact on the sport itself? LeBron has made small ball a winner with the Miami Heat, and that might be his greatest accomplishment.
The idea of “small ball” isn’t a new fad. Doug Moe made waves in the 1980s with his Denver Nuggets squad that frequently used lineups featuring four guards and put up a ton of points in the process. He drew the ire of the basketball purists, but his teams were successful—in the regular season.
Legendary head coach Don Nelson adapted that style into his own brand of “Nellieball” that he used with the Milwaukee Bucks, the Dallas Mavericks and the Golden State Warriors—both the “Run TMC” version and the Baron Davis-led team that upset the defending champion Mavericks in one of the most entertaining playoff series ever.
All of these teams relied on three-pointers, a high-tempo offense and undersized big men to create mismatches, but they also shared another trait: a lack of postseason success.
None of those teams made the NBA Finals despite being impressive regular-season teams.
After years of the scheme being labeled as a gimmick that could never win a championship, we're in a season where the Miami Heat are trying to accomplish a three-peat playing the majority of their minutes with only one big on the floor—what head coach Erik Spoelstra likes to call “position-less basketball."
There are, of course, a few unique differences between this Miami Heat team and their small-ball predecessors—the biggest of which is the fact that they actually play defense (check out the video for the end of a game where Doug Moe actually ordered his team not to play any defense).
The Heat rode their small lineups to devastating success—the one speed bump they encountered was named Roy Hibbert—and back-to-back championships.
Have Erik Spoelstra and the Heat found a way to make small ball a winning philosophy?
One cannot question their results, but there are a number of favorable circumstances that have allowed them to do this.
For starters, the dearth of quality offensive big men in the league—those who have some modicum of low-post ability—means that there aren’t many teams that can force the Heat to change their style.
It takes not one, but two big men capable of scoring in the paint to dictate lineup changes to coach Spoelstra. Quite frankly, there aren’t many teams that have the personnel to do so.
The Indiana Pacers and the Memphis Grizzlies are the only two contenders that can make the Heat pay for their undersized lineups, and the Pacers almost got the better of Miami in last year’s playoffs. Almost.
The road to a title will probably go through Miami this year and, while teams with size (like the Pacers) will continue to build on their “bigger is better” formula, other less fortunate teams will need to find a way to counteract the Heat’s small lineups.
Consequently, we will see a number of teams experimenting with small-ball lineups this year. Success breeds imitation, and other playoff teams will try to copy the Heat’s championship formula.
|Playoff Contenders and Their Small-Ball Lineups|
|Miami Heat||Mario Chalmers||Dwyane Wade||Shane Battier||LeBron James||Chris Bosh|
|Oklahoma City Thunder||Russell Westbrook||Reggie Jackson||Thabo Sefolosha||Kevin Durant||Serge Ibaka|
|Houston Rockets||Jeremy Lin||James Harden||Francisco Garcia||Chandler Parsons||Dwight Howard|
|Golden State Warriors||Stephen Curry||Klay Thompson||Andre Iguodala||Harrison Barnes||Andrew Bogut|
|New York Knicks||Raymond Felton||Iman Shumpert||J.R. Smith||Carmelo Anthony||Tyson Chandler|
Considering the extreme ineffectiveness of Kendrick Perkins and the lack of a proven center to replace him (Steven Adams might be the man, but not yet), it would behoove coach Scott Brooks to get his five best players on the court. Of those five players, only one is truly "big": Serge Ibaka.
The Rockets made the second-most three-pointers in NBA history last year, so they have the pieces to take (and make) plenty of threes and give Howard the spacing he needs inside.
The New York Knicks played their best basketball last year after Carmelo Anthony started to log heavy minutes at power forward. They actually beat the Rockets for the most three-pointers made in a season, and the fact that the first two spots on that list came last season is a sign that three-pointers are becoming a focal point of modern offenses.
Like these other teams, the Golden State Warriors burst onto the scene with their entertaining but effective brand of basketball in the playoffs where Harrison Barnes played as a small-ball 4 after David Lee got injured.
The lineup was incredibly effective, especially when paired with the sharp-shooting "Splash Brothers": Stephen Curry (who set a record for most threes made in a season) and Klay Thompson. Barnes spent the summer bulking up to be better prepared for the position this year, according to Sekou Smith of NBA.com.
All of these teams are contenders that will try to incorporate some of the Heat's philosophy into their own strategy this season.
But can Miami’s model be replicated or is it specific to their roster?
The greatest factor working in the Heat’s favor wears No. 6.
LeBron James is the ultimate player for a position-less lineup because he can play every position and role that you could ask of him. His ability to defend bigger players in the post and pick up the rebounding slack keeps the Heat dangerous on defense. On offense, they’re terrifyingly explosive.
The most integral part of the strategy is a hybrid forward who can fulfill multiple roles, and we're starting to see more of those players emerge.
Anthony Bennett was drafted with the first overall pick in a somewhat surprising selection, but he could thrive in a small-ball lineup. His blend of athleticism, strength, skill and rebounding prowess make him an ideal small-ball 4.
In the upcoming star-studded draft class of 2014, Julius Randle and Jabari Parker are two top-five picks that could be molded to play James' role (Andrew Wiggins is most frequently compared to LeBron, but he doesn’t yet have the frame or strength to play the position).
Is small ball the way of the future, or are we witnessing the game’s most unique player exhibit his unparalleled versatility?
We can’t yet know for sure, but we’re going to find out pretty soon. The lack of elite big men, increasing prevalence of hybrid players and the hitherto unseen three-point shooting ability of NBA teams give the system a good chance to succeed.
At the end of the day, success will determine whether small ball is here to stay. Not the success of Miami, but of other teams employing small lineups.
Small-ball was considered to be a gimmick in the past, but over the next five years we’re going to see contenders attempting to follow the model. Whether they’re successful remains to be seen, but one thing is clear: James has changed the way basketball will be played over the next decade.
Small ball allows him to be LeBron James: the most unique basketball player ever. In return, LeBron James has allowed small ball to be a winner. There are many unknowns about his legacy, but his impact on the sport cannot be denied.
LeBron could win not three, not four but five more championships, or he could go the rest of his career without adding another ring to his collection. Regardless, his most important contribution (and the most significant part of his legacy) might just be legitimizing small ball as a winning style of basketball and changing the game of basketball as we know it.