NBA's Small-Ball Era Won't Be Blueprint to Success for All 30 Teams

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistJuly 21, 2015

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The Golden State Warriors have left us with little doubt about the potential merits of so-called small ball.

Faced with a 2-1 deficit in last season's NBA Finals, head coach Steve Kerr made an adjustment of historical importance, starting swingman Andre Iguodala in place of center Andrew Bogut in Game 4 and for the remainder of the series. Power forward Draymond Green became the lineup's closest thing to an interior presence, and small ball enjoyed its grandest stage yet.

The Warriors went on to win three straight games en route to the championship—and the most compelling argument yet for deploying a center-less lineup. For Golden State, it was a calculated strategy to space the floor with playmakers and shooters while also increasing tempo. As a macro-trend, however, there may be other explanations.

"The evolution of small ball has been, in part, because of necessity," ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla recently told the San Francisco Chronicle's Rusty Simmons. "It seems to me, the way the league has gone, with the dearth of low-post scoring in recent years, the game has evolved to a faster, more wide-open, spread game."

The advent of sized-down lineups isn't an entirely new phenomenon, either. As Simmons noted:

All-time wins leader Don Nelson introduced the point forward and played with small lineups when he didn't have dominant centers, Mike D'Antoni brought the European style of play to the States when he coached in Phoenix from 2003-08, and Dallas, Miami and San Antonio all showcased stretches of positionless basketball during championship runs in 2011-14.

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USA Today's David DuPree described small ball as "the in thing" all the way back in 2006, citing league-wide rule changes that favored a more open style of play. Golden State may have perfected the formula, but it certainly didn't invent it.

The success of smaller rotations hasn't persuaded every organization to abandon its big men, however. And, for the record, Bogut figures to remain a prominent (and likely starting) fixture in Kerr's rotation moving forward. Even the Warriors understand the fundamental importance of rim protection and rebounding in most game situations. We may be living in strange, miniaturized times, but some truths remain eternally self-evident.

Size still matters in the NBA.

It mattered to the Utah Jazz in June's draft, even with power forward Derrick Favors and center Rudy Gobert already in the fold. The organization selected versatile 6'10" forward Trey Lyles with the No. 12 overall pick and has avowedly prioritized adding longer, bigger frames to the roster.

"When you're making personnel moves, there's a best-player-available thought," Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey told the Salt Lake Tribune's Aaron Falk. "But each stop along the way, we've talked about size relative to position, and we've erred on bigger players at the position."

The club isn't entirely opposed to small ball, but it is assembling a roster with other things in mind.

"We need to be able to react to the league," Lindsey added, per Falk, "But it's also nice to be contrarian as well and be as big as possible. The players that we have added are big and long for their positions."

Utah isn't the only team thinking big these days. The evidence is literally everywhere one looks, often in the form of a 6'11" or 7'0" difference-maker.

The Draft Evidence

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - June 26:  The First overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft Karl-Anthony Towns of the Minnesota Timberwolves poses for a portrait on June 26, 2015 at the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx Courts at Mayo Clinic Square in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
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The Minnesota Timberwolves and Philadelphia 76ers eschewed small-ball hysteria in June, selecting Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor with the No. 1 and No. 3 picks, respectively. Prior to the draft, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas noted an inconsistency between draft boards and the purported emergence of small ball.

"If we're going to accept that the game has changed and you don't automatically go with a big guy, like people were saying you did in the old school, why aren't we talking about D'Angelo Russell, Emmanuel Mudiay and Justise Winslow more at the No. 1 spot?" Bilas argued, per Simmons.

"Where do we go on some of these things?" he continued. "If we're saying the game has changed, then why aren't the rest of these (prospects) higher up in the discussion for the No. 1 pick? If the game has changed, and that's why we're not going to take Jahlil Okafor No. 1, why are we taking him in the top five?"

The Towns and Okafor selections confirmed Bilas' suspicion: Big men are still a valuable asset in today's NBA, even for organizations with quality size already on the roster.

Power Forwards and Centers Taken in 2015's First Round
No. 1TimberwolvesKarl-Anthony Towns7'0"
No. 376ersJahlil Okafor6'11"
No. 4KnicksKristaps Porzingis7'0"
No. 6KingsWillie Cauley-Stein7'1"
No. 9HornetsFrank Kaminsky7'1"
No. 11PacersMyles Turner7'0"
No. 12JazzTrey Lyles6'10"
No. 22BullsBobby Portis6'11"
No. 25GrizzliesJarell Martin6'9"
No. 26SpursNikola Milutinov7'0"
No. 27LakersLarry Nance Jr.6'9"
No. 29NetsChris McCullough6'9"
No. 30WarriorsKevon Looney6'9"

The New York Knicks apparently agreed, taking 7'0" Kristaps Porzingis with the No. 4 overall selection rather than going with a sure-thing perimeter player such as Emmanuel Mudiay or Justise Winslow. Porzingis may be a project, but his size was particularly attractive in light of his varied, inside-outside skill set.

Towns, Okafor and Porzingis are a particularly intriguing trio because they're all quite different. Towns is a mobile rim protector whose defense ultimately earned him the first overall selection. Okafor is a rare low-post talent who draws double-teams and scores anyway. Porzingis is a polished shooter with all kinds of range, the draft's closest thing to a legitimate stretch 5.

Together, they represent a compelling argument on behalf of size and interior play.

Not only are big men still relevant; they're thriving in a variety of shapes, sizes and contexts. They're being used in different ways, and their frames are integral to their effectiveness—they're abilities to block or alter shots, finish at the rim and shoot beyond a defender's extended hand. Those are capabilities worth drafting, and that's never changed.

Big-Fish Free Agents

HOUSTON, TX - MAY 17:  DeAndre Jordan #6 of the Los Angeles Clippers reacts in the fourth quarter against the Houston Rockets during Game Seven of the Western Conference Semifinals at the Toyota Center for the 2015 NBA Playoffs on May 17, 2015 in Houston,
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The draft wasn't this summer's only rebuttal of small ball. Among free agents who were legitimately available, LaMarcus Aldridge and DeAndre Jordan were almost certainly the most sought-after. The former will join Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs in arguably the league's finest 4-5 punch (along with David West and Boris Diaw on the bench).

Meanwhile, Jordan remains with the Los Angeles Clippers despite previously reaching a verbal agreement with the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavericks viewed Jordan as a franchise-altering addition, and the Clippers viewed him as a potentially catastrophic loss. The prospect of small ball was unlikely to appease either side.

While Jordan will reprise his role as a dominant above-the-rim presence, Aldridge will lean on what may be the best mid-range game this side of Dirk Nowitzki. The 6'11" power forward isn't a prolific three-point shooter, but he can certainly space the floor in San Antonio's pick-and-roll and motion-heavy system.

Free-Agent Bigs and Their 2015 Deals
PlayerTeamYearsTotal Salary
Marc GasolGrizzlies5$110 million
LaMarcus AldridgeSpurs4$80 million
Kevin LoveCavaliers5$109 million
DeAndre JordanClippers4$88 million
Tim DuncanSpurs2$10.85 million
Draymond GreenWarriors5$85 million
Brook LopezNets3$60 million
Paul MillsapHawks3$59 million
Greg MonroeBucks3$50 million
Tyson ChandlerSuns4$52 million
Enes KanterThunder4$70 million
Robin LopezKnicks4$54 million

Greg Monroe and Tyson Chandler quickly found lucrative agreements despite the fact that neither has anything resembling a perimeter game. And even though Tristan Thompson emerged as a capable 4-man in Cleveland, the Cavaliers didn't even think about parting ways with Kevin Love. The New York Knicks turned to center Robin Lopez in a bid to forge a defensive identity, and the Brooklyn Nets re-signed his brother Brook to a three-year pact worth $60 million.

It may be a point guard's league, but big men remain valuable on the open market. Organizations didn't hesitate to throw max-level money at bigs this summer. The New Orleans Pelicans handed franchise face Anthony Davis a five-year, $145 million contract while re-signing center Omer Asik to a five-year deal of his own.

One struggles to find a team that actually tried to get smaller this summer. Even franchises faced with sizable defections worked quickly to restock their front-line rotations. Some even did so preemptively. The Portland Trail Blazers and Detroit Pistons acquired big men Mason Plumlee and Ersan Ilyasova (via trade) before officially losing Aldridge and Monroe.

The Los Angeles Lakers didn't make a significant splash via free agency, but the organization still wound up using much of its cap space on center Roy Hibbert, acquired by trade from the Indiana Pacers. 

There's a common theme here. Almost without exception, teams pursued and prioritized the addition of 4s and 5s. The bigger, the better. And there's a precedent for that.

The Grizzlies (and Co.)

PORTLAND, OR -  NOVEMBER 28: Zach Randolph #50 and Marc Gasol #33 of the Memphis Grizzlies during the national anthem before the game against the Portland Trail Blazers on November 28, 2014 at Moda Center in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expressly
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While Aldridge and Jordan stole most of the headlines, the Memphis Grizzlies quietly restored their world-class front line by re-signing All-Star center Marc Gasol, all but assuring they continue to beat teams up inside. Gasol is of course joined by the burly Zach Randolph, a below-the-rim mid-range whiz who can back opponents down or face them up. 

Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix described Memphis' approach aptly in March:

The Grizzlies are a relic, the last bastion of bully ball. They play through the paint (an NBA-best 47.1 points per game), are allergic to the three-point line (15.2 attempts, No. 29 in the league) and make teams pay for creating mismatches offensively by beating them up on the other end. It’s a style that began in 2009, when Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol first joined forces. It was fine-tuned by Lionel Hollins and has continued under Dave Joerger.

The formula has accounted for three conference semifinals appearances in the last five years, including a conference finals run in 2013. A perennial dark-horse contender, the Grizzlies unabashedly dominate the painted area, adding Brandan Wright to the mix for good measure this summer. The grind-it-out approach has its limitations offensively, but this team keeps winning anyway. 

"We're one of the last of the dying breed," point guard Mike Conley said, per Mannix. "Chicago is close. But we're unusual. It makes us different and tough to play. People are so used to playing against stretch 4s, our bigs are able to take advantage of it."

Few teams play in the post so frequently, but rumors of the big man's demise may be a bit exaggerated. A brief look around the league suggests that plenty of teams are emulating Memphis to at least some degree.

In the East, the Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards both utilize fairly traditional big-men duos up front. Pau Gasol has range, but there's nothing small about seven feet. The up-and-coming Boston Celtics have stockpiled a variety of big men (Amir Johnson, David Lee, Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk, Tyler Zeller), and the similarly ascendant Milwaukee Bucks could deploy a front line including Monroe, Jabari Parker and the 6'11" Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Out West, the Spurs and Clippers are both banking on their bigs to anchor respective title pushes. The Houston Rockets feature an elite center in Dwight Howard and a power forward (Terrence Jones) who does much of his offensive damage on the inside. DeMarcus Cousins, Chandler, Asik, Hibbert, even Bogut—the list of Western Conference centers is an impressive one. 

Granted, those guys don't remain on the floor all of the time. If there's a lesson, it's that the modern NBA team must be prepared to play several different ways, with varying degrees of size on the floor depending on situations and matchups. Small ball is a symptom of the game's great and emerging diversity—not a universal movement sweeping the league. 

To Each Its Own

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 14:  Stephen Curry #30 celebrates with Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors in the fourth quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers during Game Five of the 2015 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 14, 2015 in Oakland, California
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The Warriors had good reason to go small, particularly when scoring became more important than defending against an injury-riddled lineup leaning heavily on LeBron James. And in general, Golden State is more adept than many at handling the two-way demands of small lineups. The roster has the right personnel, and the organization has the right coach. It makes sense for the Warriors and their exceptionally versatile rotation.

The key is maintaining at least some kind of defensive presence, and as Sports Illustrated's Chris Ballard noted in May, the Warriors can do that in a number of ways:

Sometimes, the 6'8" [Harrison] Barnes is the tallest player on the court, with 6'7" Draymond Green playing center. Sometimes all five players switch on pick-and-rolls. Sometimes they play Bogut alongside a bunch of skinny perimeter specialists. The Warriors will go small against small units but also against big ones, as they did in Game 2 against Houston, when Green guarded Dwight Howard straight up for stretches.

It's not a formula that will work for every team. Golden State's positionless approach wouldn't go far without players who can guard multiple positions, a hallmark for Green, Barnes and Iguodala. Warriors assistant coach and defensive specialist Ron Adams went so far as to suggest Barnes enjoyed the chance to check larger opposition on the interior.

"He likes guarding people in the post," Adams told Ballard. "I think the way our game is progressing, it's going to be demanded of a lot of people. He's a very versatile defender, and his fundamentals are solid. He's up for the challenge."

Many teams simply don't have those kinds of defenders, and for them, a rim-protecting center may be a virtual necessity. And when possible, most clubs prefer to have size at the 4 spot as well—even if it's of the stretch-4 variety. 

In general, verticality is still an important dimension of the game. So too is interior play in its various guises. No matter how perimeter-oriented scoring stratagems becomes, there will be value in high-percentage field-goal attempts from the painted area—and all the more value in shot-blockers who can deter and deflect those attempts.

Even among teams engaging in the small-ball trend, there's no one-size-fits-all style. While the Warriors took things to the extreme and sat their starting center, other clubs have adopted far more modest adjustments—playing mobile forwards such as LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant at the 4 spot alongside a more conventional big man in the middle. 

There are also varying motivations. The Warriors go small in order to dictate spacing and tempo. The Toronto Raptors, on the other hand, may find themselves going small simply to keep up with the opposition.

"I would love to be stubborn and just try to have [center Jonas Valanciunas] guard a smaller, quicker center when a team goes small, but it's difficult to do now in this stage of his career," Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said in June, per the Star's Alex Ballingall. "Maybe someday he'll get there, but he's not there yet. The day of the centers has gone by."

Traditional centers may indeed be an increasingly rare breed, but it would be an overstatement to proclaim small ball a sustainable norm—or one that fits every roster. Even Casey wouldn't go that far.

"I still believe in the old school," he added, per Ballingall. "I still believe you need to have a solid center to get you there, to get you in a winning situation, because size does matter in a lot of situations."

Most organizations apparently believe the same. In turn, a new, eclectic generation of big men is quite literally transforming the league from the inside out.

The 21st-Century Big Man

NEW ORLEANS, LA - APRIL 25:  A close up shot of Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans against the Golden State Warriors after Game Four of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the NBA Playoffs at Smoothie King Center on April 25, 2015 in Ne
Noah Graham/Getty Images

It's become increasingly difficult to deploy lumbering, hulking rim protectors; that much is true. The speed, motion and pick-and-roll-heavy trends around the league demand a different kind of big man, a more mobile one capable of covering territory, recovering, stepping out to the perimeter and controlling interior airspace. The new breed is capable of switching defensively regardless of who's handling the rock, giving rise to endless talk about versatility.

Think Anthony Davis or Joakim Noah, guys with the athleticism and energy to defend multiple phases of the game. Centers with superior athleticism (Jordan, Andre Drummond) can cause havoc of their own, all while owning the size one needs to body up against the Gasols or Okafors of the NBA world.

Modern big men are also expected to have a variety of skills on the offensive end, a natural progression from 2000s models such as Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett, icons with diversified scoring abilities, passing instincts and a knack for all the little things. 

That's still good enough to become a franchise player in this league.

For the foreseeable future, there will also be a premium on big men who can shoot the ball, heirs to the Nowitzki throne who can strike from anywhere on the floor. From Aldridge to Randolph, there's still a place for 4s with exceptional mid-range accuracy. There's even greater demand for bigs who regularly shoot the three-ball.

It's not that big men are going away. They're changing, multiplying, diversifying—responding to the demands of an ever-evolving league. Big ball is alive and well, in all its many guises.

Small ball will remain a novel topic around water coolers, but it remains more a situational strategy than a way of life. It has a time and place—but that time isn't always, and it's not for everyone.