But with the recent success of some undersized options, the league's top team may find itself facing an identity crisis.
The Warriors downsized to beat the Milwaukee Bucks on March 4, slotting Draymond Green at center and surrounding him with mostly like-sized players for most of the second half. The tactic worked, as Golden State turned a nip-and-tuck affair into a comfortable win with a strong closing run.
Stephen Curry's fourth-quarter ignition, punctuated by four made triples, had a lot to do with the result, but the momentum created by consistent defensive stops and turnovers was key.
That's what going small does for the Dubs. It allows them to switch liberally, which stymies just about every opponent's primary offensive staple, the pick-and-roll. Not only that, but Golden State's impossibly rangy collective of wings—Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and Harrison Barnes—swarm ball-handlers, tip passes and bolt down the floor like thoroughbreds once they've finished wreaking havoc.
Green, as usual, was the principal agent of chaos against the Bucks. In addition to teleporting all over the floor and hounding anything that moved, it seemed the 6'7" forward developed the power to shape-shift, per Ethan Strauss of ESPN:
Warriors head coach Steve Kerr has pushed all the right buttons this season, and going small against Milwaukee was just another example of his measured resourcefulness, via Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News:
We don’t necessarily want to, but we feel like we’re really good at it. And Draymond allows us to do that, along with Andre and Harrison. But Draymond’s sort of the key guy because he can play the 5. Looked at some numbers today, when Draymond is at the 5, our defensive rating is just off the charts, like 87.5 per 100 possessions. To give you some context, we’re No. 1 in the league overall, we’re at I think a defensive rating of 98 points allowed per 100 possessions.
When Draymond’s at the 5, that number is 87.5. It’s crazy. Small ball is the way everyone’s going and it’s good for us; we’re good at it.
Kerr, of course, knew what he was talking about. Golden State's defensive rating following the win over Milwaukee is down to 97.9, while the Warriors' three most frequently used Green-at-center lineups boast respective defensive ratings of 79.2, 84.6 and 85.8, per NBA.com.
The problem (if you even want to call this a problem) is that the Warriors, on balance, are best with Bogut. Among five-man units that have played at least 300 minutes together this season, the Warriors' starting group (with Bogut at center) is tops in the league, posting a net rating of plus-17.8 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com.
That number is no fluke, having been established over the course of nearly 600 NBA minutes this year.
Green's sample of minutes at the 5 doesn't come anywhere close to that. Those three lineups with Green at center we mentioned a moment ago? They comprise a grand total of 54 minutes of court time this season.
It's important not to frame this as a Green vs. Bogut decision. The two play extremely well together, and their individual net ratings prove both are indispensable to Golden State's success.
|Bogut and Green: Individual On-Court Ratings|
What we're really dealing with here is a question of strategy, one suddenly made more complicated by the recent success of small ball. And the key to properly valuing Golden State's undersized attack is recognizing that it is never a first option.
Going small is not the Warriors' default, and it's easy to understand why.
The Dubs are 9-5 this season in games Bogut has missed, and when you look at the teams they've fallen to in those contests—the Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies, Oklahoma City Thunder, Chicago Bulls and, inexplicably, the Los Angeles Lakers—the trend is easy to spot.
Those first four teams boast hefty frontcourt rotations that demand a similarly bulky strategic response. You don't attack Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph with Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala—not unless you want to lose battles on the glass and in the paint.
And we know the Warriors can't handle the Clippers' healthy front line of DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin in a playoff series if Bogut's not involved, because we watched it play out last spring.
Take the Thunder as another example. Going small against them in a potential first-round matchup would invite the use of Kevin Durant at power forward, a terrifying thought for Warriors fans. Better to lean on Bogut and more conventional lineups against OKC's bigs.
When you take the numbers and consider the potential risks of going small, it becomes clear: This is an option the Warriors should use when they need to adjust to specific opponents—one that allows them to keep David Lee and Marreese Speights off the floor in favor of better (and smaller) defenders.
It's a weapon, but one that has to be deployed selectively.
In an ideal world, Kerr would head into the playoffs determined to trot out his best unit and force the opposition to adjust to his team. That means Bogut at center and Green at power forward.
It sounds like Kerr gets that, per Kawakami:
We generally like to have Bogut at the rim for defense, that’s when we’re at our best, when we can switch everything but still have the rim protection.
But yeah, we can do it to other teams as well if we choose. So I would rather use it in spurts, which we try to do, than do it the whole game.
Obviously, if there's an opportunity to exploit a weak second unit by flinging the Warriors' whirlwind of undersized defenders at them, Kerr would be wise to try it. And if that unit, as it so often does, gets a run going, leaving it in as long as the momentum's positive makes perfect sense.
Golden State can lean on both tactics, conventional and innovative, but it may be tricky to decide when to use which.
Choosing between an elite big lineup and a devastating small one: Toss that onto the pile of tough decisions the Warriors face that make other teams wish they had it so good.