Projecting the NBA's Best Small-Ball Teams
The Golden State Warriors employed small ball as a tactic to outlast the lumbering Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2015 NBA Finals. Their success with downsizing wasn't an instant revolution but rather the culmination of a decade of smart coaches and open-minded organizations deconstructing dogma in the aftermath of changes to the rule book.
According to Bleacher Report's Howard Beck, Alvin Gentry—then Steve Kerr's top assistant in Golden State and now the leading man in New Orleans—claimed the Warriors' triumph as "vindication for Mike D'Antoni," who got the small ball rolling with his "Seven Seconds or Less" Phoenix Suns in the mid-2000s.
In truth, Golden State wasn't the first squad to lift the Larry O'Brien Trophy by following the trail blazed by those Suns of old. The Dallas Mavericks, Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs all won titles while using elements of D'Antoni's hoops philosophy before the Warriors did.
Still, as Roland Lazenby wrote for Vice Sports, Golden State's triumph could be a tipping point toward basketball becoming a small(er) man's game: "A league that already was flirting with small ball is on the verge of fully embracing it, and traditional post players, diminished in recent seasons, are being questioned like never before."
Just because everyone's more open to downsizing doesn't mean that all teams will be able to do so effectively. For a team to win without a traditional lineup, it helps to be deep, with plenty of players who can defend multiple positions and knock down threes at no worse than a passable clip.
Not every team has both the tools and intent to not only survive against small ball but use it as a weapon of their own. These 10 squads seem the most likely to do so, based on the above criteria (depth, positional versatility and shooting ability) and past experience with the tactic. To rank them we'll assign scores out of 10 in these four categories and combine them for a final tally out of 40.
May the smallest team win!
10. Indiana Pacers
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The same might be said of the Pacers' overall depth.
On the one hand, their frontcourt is short on size, experience and reliability. With Roy Hibbert and David West gone, Ian Mahinmi and Lavoy Allen now stand as Indiana's only returning bigs. The Pacers hope that Myles Turner, the No. 11 pick in the 2015 draft, will be the man in the middle, but the spindly rookie out of Texas will need time to bulk up and adjust to the NBA game.
As for Jordan Hill...well, he has his own problems to deal with.
On the other hand, head coach Frank Vogel could have an intriguing abundance of options to occupy the rest of the court. The Pacers have plenty of playmakers (Paul George, George Hill, Monta Ellis, Rodney Stuckey) and enough shooters (C.J. Miles, Chase Budinger, George Hill) to open up the floor for them.
The Pacers' superb defensive infrastructure will be put to the test this season. Hibbert and West will no longer be around to contest shots and clog the paint. Instead, it will be up to Indiana's smaller, quicker players to wreak havoc on the perimeter—and up to Vogel to deploy them accordingly.
Unfortunately for the Pacers, they're thin on bona fide perimeter stoppers. Ellis, Stuckey, Miles and Budinger have never been lockdown defenders. George Hill is well above-average in that regard, and Paul George can be an All-World defender when he's right.
But if Larry Bird has his way, George won't be spending as much time roaming around the floor as he once did. Bird has insisted on several occasions this summer that he expects his All-Star forward to play the 4 offensively and defend it on the other end.
The better George can hang against power forwards, the more time it will afford his teammates to acclimate themselves to Vogel's schemes and his own leg to heal up further.
Shooting Ability: 7/10
Playing at a brisker pace could do plenty to perk up Indy's offense, which sunk to 24th in the league in efficiency last season, per NBA.com. An uptick in three-point shooting would work wonders, as well.
The tools could be there for both. On the latter count, George Hill, Paul George, Miles, Stuckey and Budinger are all respectable shooters from deep. Ellis isn't the sharpest three-point proprietor around, though he's not one to shy away from taking (and making) the most important shots in a given game.
And while the Pacers' bigs won't own the low post, they could be effective as pick-and-pop options. Jordan Hill hit well over 40 percent of his shots between the restricted area and the three-point line last season. Turner, Indy's future at center, hit 17 of 62 threes as a freshman at Texas—not a sparkling percentage but perhaps indicative of bigger things to come for the 19-year-old.
Small-Ball Experience: 2/10
The Pacers have never really played small ball, and Vogel has never really coached it. It wasn't to their advantage to do so when Hibbert and West were around and Paul George was healthy at the 3.
Now that the former two are gone, the latter will get to spread his wings and see where else he's capable of dominating. If George comes back strong and slides seamlessly up a spot in the lineup, the Pacers could quickly extend the reach of basketball's latest tactical fad into the tradition-rich realm of the Hoosier State.
Total Score: 20/40
9. Miami Heat
The Miami Heat's starting lineup of Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Goran Dragic, Luol Deng and Hassan Whiteside could be one of the best in the East, if not the entire league. But beyond that fearsome fivesome, the Heat may have some difficulty cobbling together a decent bench.
As Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote:
Josh McRoberts is rebuilding his knee...Amar’e Stoudemire hasn’t been able to move on defense in five years. The Heat have tried to trade Chris Andersen and Mario Chalmers to anyone who would have them, per sources around the league, but if they deal them now to trim their repeater tax bill, they’d also thin their bench to red-alert levels. Gerald Green and Tyler Johnson will help, but it’s too early to count on them.
Justise Winslow could be key to extending Miami's rotation, but it's tough to count on a 19-year-old rookie to make an instant splash on any team, much less one with championship aspirations.
Quality, not quantity, figures to be the Heat's strong suit this season. By and large, their roster is comprised of veterans who have defended different positions under different schemes.
Wade and Dragic can divvy up backcourt duties however they see fit. Wade used to be an All-Defensive performer and, as with his offensive prowess, has been known to flash his former tenacity on that end of the floor from time to time.
Deng, too, was one of the NBA's best perimeter defenders in a past life. The years he spent grinding under Tom Thibodeau have taken their toll on his body, but Deng can still get after it opposite 2s, 3s and 4s.
Bosh, meanwhile, was the lynchpin of Miami's frenetic, trapping defense during the LeBron James era. His ability to protect the rim and defend well away from the hoop with nearly equal proficiency made him invaluable to a team that lacked size and bulk on the inside.
That's no longer the case for the Heat now that Whiteside has blossomed into a potential star. The Marshall product can lock down the paint in a more traditional manner but boasts the requisite length and lateral quickness to check forwards if need be.
Shooting Ability: 4/10
If anything, the greater impediment to Miami rekindling its small-ball past might come on the offensive end. That may seem strange, given the apparent abundance of individual scoring prowess available on South Beach. But as Lowe noted, the Heat's collective shimmy can't cover for its shooting, or lack thereof:
The Heat, beyond Bosh, can’t really shoot. Deng has hit just 33 percent for his career from deep. Wade has basically punted on the entire concept of 3-pointers. And Dragic has been a below-average 3-point shooter outside his All-NBA campaign in 2013-14. A Dragic-Whiteside pick-and-roll can’t really go anywhere if defenses swarm the middle.
Josh McRoberts (36.5 percent from three over the past two seasons) and Gerald Green (36.8 percent from three for his career) might have something to say about that. Still, if Miami's main creators can't be credible threats from beyond the arc, the Heat may have some difficulty engineering a floor-spreading, quick-hitting offense on the strength of attacking skills alone.
Small-Ball Experience: 8/10
The Heat don't quite count as the small-ball hipsters of the NBA (that title belongs to Mike D'Antoni's Suns), but they were winning titles with that tactic before it was cool to do so.
Miami first stumbled across the arrangement during the 2012 playoffs, when Bosh's abdominal injury forced head coach Erik Spoelstra to reshuffle his rotation on the fly. What he found was that the Heat could more than hold their own with James making plays at small forward and Shane Battier sacrificing his body at the 4.
Those two no longer reside on Miami's roster, but there are plenty of holdovers from those days (Wade, Bosh, Mario Chalmers, Chris Andersen, Udonis Haslem) who still draw paychecks from team owner Micky Arison. Also remaining is Spoelstra, who orchestrated that aforementioned transformation on the way to back-to-back championships.
Some of the Heat's newer members know a thing or two about small ball, as well. Stoudemire and Dragic both absorbed D'Antoni's decrees during the "Seven Seconds or Less" years in Phoenix. The former was subsequently featured by D'Antoni as small-ball center in New York, while the latter spent the 2013-14 season and the first half of 2014-15 playing in small-ish, two-guard lineups with the Suns.
Total Score: 24/40
8. Toronto Raptors
After watching the Washington Wizards eviscerate his Toronto Raptors, general manager Masai Ujiri spent the summer luring defensive-minded players to Canada, save for Luis Scola. By doing so, he extended the reach of a roster that, while not the deepest in the league, looks like a nine- or 10-man group and could feature a longer rotation than that, especially if any of the youngsters (Bruno Caboclo, Lucas Nogueira, Delon Wright and Norman Powell) play their way into it.
Toronto's tally of interchangeable parts on the wing isn't as impressive as Golden State's, but it's nothing to sneeze at, either. DeMar DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll and Terrence Ross should be able to switch assignments with relative ease. James Johnson has long been a running, jumping Swiss army knife on both ends of the floor. The youthful trio of Caboclo, Wright and Powell might make an impact on the perimeter once its constituents get acclimated to the NBA game.
Up front, if Bismack Biyombo is going to stick in the Association, it's going to be on account of his ability to block shots, cover tons of ground in a hurry and harry forwards further from the hoop.
Shooting Ability: 5/10
The Raptors aren't quite teeming with three-point talent. They're down three of their five best shooters by percentage from last season, and their most prominent scorers (Kyle Lowry and DeRozan) are both below-average from long range.
Not that Toronto can't or won't spread the floor. With Amir Johnson gone, Patrick Patterson should have an opportunity to seize a starting spot as a stretch 4. Ross has a habit of catching fire...and flaming out just as quickly.
Among the newcomers, Carroll crept close to 40 percent from three with the Atlanta Hawks last season, and Cory Joseph has improved his three-point percentage every year he's been in the league.
Small-Ball Experience: 7/10
Despite sporting a promising young big in Jonas Valanciunas, the Raptors spent plenty of time on the court in 2014-15 without a true center. According to NBA.com, two of Toronto's four most-used lineups featured Patterson and Tyler Hansbrough—neither of whom passes muster as a traditional pivot—in the frontcourt.
For his part, head coach Dwane Casey isn't fighting the turning of the tide toward downsizing. He said during an appearance at the Raptors Basketball Academy this summer, per the Toronto Star's Doug Smith:
I think the trend now is smaller basketball but I’ve always said as long as the goal is 10 foot high, size matters.
But DeMarre (Carroll) can play the 4, the 3. He can guard the 4 position with LeBron James at the 4, Carmelo Anthony at the 4, Paul George back and at the 4. He helps us in that respect.
You can play Kyle (Lowry) and Cory (Joseph) at the same time, you can play Kyle, Cory and DeMar (DeRozan) at the same time. We’ve got a lot of flexibility as far as our roster is concerned.
Casey and his players, then, will have an opportunity to build on their existing small-ball credentials once the 2015-16 season gets underway.
Total Score: 26/40
7. Los Angeles Clippers
This might be the deepest roster the Clippers have ever fielded from top to bottom. With little more than a couple of bad contracts, the mini-mid-level exception and veteran's minimum slots to spare, Doc Rivers turned his team's biggest weakness (i.e. the bench) into a veritable strength.
Jamal Crawford, Lance Stephenson and Austin Rivers can all split second-unit creative duties, as opposed to the Clippers leaning heavily on the aging Crawford for help. Should L.A. need a savvier, pass-first fill-in for Chris Paul, it can turn to Pablo Prigioni.
Where once the Clippers clamored for any wing help they could find, Rivers now has to figure out how to divvy up minutes between Paul Pierce, Wesley Johnson and Stephenson. As for the frontcourt, the bargain-basement signings of Josh Smith, Chuck Hayes and Cole Aldrich will give Rivers some leeway to rest Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, be it by his own choice or the force of that night's opponent.
By and large, the Clippers aren't replete with players who easily or naturally flow between positions. But that doesn't mean their guys aren't capable of wearing as many hats as their head coach does.
Rivers has already made it clear that he plans to put Pierce to work as an undersized 4—a position at which he thrived with the Washington Wizards last season, per 82games.com.
"I’m going to play him at [power forward] a lot, but what I want him to be is healthy in the playoffs," he told the Boston Globe's Adam Himmelsbach. "So however we can figure that out, that’s what I’m going to try to do. I’m really looking forward to it."
Chris Paul has always been a feisty defender who doesn't flinch when faced with difficult matchups, despite his diminutive (6'0", 175 lbs) stature. Size has never been a problem for Smith, whose reputation as a multipositional stalwart precedes him. Stephenson can serve the same purpose on the wing when he wants to.
Griffin, on the other hand, rarely played the 5 last season and generally had his lunch handed to him when he did.
Shooting Ability: 6/10
To his credit, Griffin started to come into his own as a shooter last season. He knocked down more than 40 percent of his long twos and exactly 40 percent of his threes. On the latter count, though, the All-Star power forward launched just 25 triples in 67 games.
If Griffin can become a regular threat from long range in L.A., he'd give the Clippers a significant boost in that department. Paul and J.J. Redick are the only returnees from last year's squad who attempted more than one triple per game and converted them at a rate above the league average.
The newcomers won't do much to change that. Stephenson is coming off the worst three-point shooting season in NBA history. Smith, a 28.5 percent long-range shooter for his career, is one of the least accurate high-volume trey takers ever, though you wouldn't know it from the work he put in against the Clippers in the most recent playoffs.
At the very least, Johnson (35.1 percent from three in 2014-15) and Prigioni (34.3 percent) are respectable in that regard. And, on the whole, the Clippers were the league's third-sharpest three-point shooting outfit last season.
But when it comes to players who demand defensive attention beyond the arc, L.A.'s ranks are relatively limited.
Small-Ball Experience: 6/10
The Clippers got to trot out a bit of small ball last season when Griffin had to sit due to an infection in his elbow. The fivesome of Paul-Crawford-Redick-Matt Barnes-Jordan outscored the opposition by 25.4 points per 100 possessions over the 56 minutes it shared on the court, per NBA.com.
Barnes, though, is gone; his contract was dealt as part of the Stephenson trade. Pierce and Johnson both project as solid replacements as stretch 4s, though the former's age and the latter's inconsistency over the years could be causes for concern.
Only one group featured Griffin as the lone big for more than 10 minutes, but that lineup (Paul-Crawford-Redick-Barnes-Griffin) posted a net rating of plus-14.5 in the 19 minutes it spent together.
Total Score: 27/40
6. Dallas Mavericks
For the Mavericks, playing small may be more a matter of necessity than choice. Once DeAndre Jordan pulled his all-too-public about face to stay in L.A., Dallas' options at center had all but dried up.
As a result, the Mavericks will start the 2015-16 season leaning heavily on the likes of Zaza Pachulia, JaVale McGee and Samuel Dalembert to man the middle, lest they slot Dirk Nowitzki into that spot.
On the bright side, head coach Rick Carlisle could have Chandler Parsons and Wesley Matthews back on the floor by midseason. John Jenkins and rookie Justin Anderson could lend some shooting and defensive strength, respectively, to the mix.
Dallas might have some decent playmakers at the point too, assuming someone steps up from among Deron Williams, J.J. Barea, Devin Harris and Raymond Felton.
At his age (37) and with his squeaky wheels, Nowitzki might actually be better suited to playing the 5 defensively. The less time he has to spend chasing smaller forwards around the floor, the better off the Mavs will be, even given their dearth of rim protection.
And, for what it's worth, Nowitzki outperformed opposing centers when he played that spot last season, per 82games.com.
Williams and Harris are both big enough to guard 2s, though few would confuse them for defensive stalwarts. Parsons and Matthews, when healthy, can compete against 2s, 3s and 4s, in addition to scoring from all over the court.
However things shake out positionally, the Mavs figure to drop like a stone in the defensive standings next season, after winding up 18th in defensive rating during the 2014-15 season, per NBA.com.
Shooting Ability: 9/10
If you have Dirk, the greatest shooting big man in NBA history, on your team, you have a shot at cobbling together a productive offense. Adding in shooters such as Parsons (38 percent from three last season) and Matthews (38.9 percent) can only make the Mavs more lethal in that department.
And for all his faults as an aging point guard, Williams can still knock them down with regularity (36.7 percent). Barea and Harris are both passable three-point shooters, as well. Jenkins came into the NBA with a reputation for marksmanship and finally got to demonstrate as much last season, when he shot 21-of-52 from three for the Atlanta Hawks.
With that group in place, Dallas should have enough sure shots available to construct a few lineups that push the pace and score points in bunches.
Small-Ball Experience: 8/10
Before it was called small ball, there was "Nellie Ball," a fast-paced style of play that focused on speed and shooting over size and was pioneered by Hall of Fame coach Don Nelson in Dallas, among other places. Nowitzki spent the first seven years of his NBA career under Nellie's watch, so he knows a thing or two about what we now call small ball.
So do other Big D residents. In Game 4 of the 2011 Finals against the Miami Heat, Carlisle made the call to downsize, dropping Barea into DeShawn Stevenson's spot.
The result? The Mavs won the last three in a row on the way to claiming their first NBA title. Fast forward to last December, and you saw Carlisle going back to the itty-bitty well. This time, it came during a regular-season game against the Thunder, with Barea joining Parsons, Monta Ellis and Rajon Rondo in the lineup.
Total Score: 28/40
5. New Orleans Pelicans
With bigs such as Anthony Davis, Omer Asik, Alexis Ajinca and Ryan Anderson on hand, New Orleans figures to favor a taller, thicker frontcourt most of the time.
But head coach Alvin Gentry has made it clear that he wants his club to play "uptempo basketball," according to the Advocate's Ted Lewis, which is part and parcel of what small ball is about. The Pelicans will have the proper body count to play that frenetic style, with a solid 10-man rotation and a slew of others (Kendrick Perkins, Alonzo Gee, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Luke Babbitt) ready to sop up spot minutes.
GM Dell Demps put together a roster full of traditional role players. There are shooters (Anderson, Babbitt), rebounders (Asik, Ajinca) and defenders (Gee, Perkins, Norris Cole) but not a whole lot of guys who can swap spots with ease.
Except, of course, among the Pelicans' true core. Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans all have the requisites skills to play and defend the guard and wing positions interchangeably. This summer, Davis has added the weight he needs to battle with bulkier bigs while hanging onto the freakish length, lateral quickness and leaping ability that have already made him an all-court terror on the defensive end.
Still, as Gentry told NBA.com's John Schuhmann, he doesn't plan to put Davis in harm's way too often:
He'll be a 4 and a 5 in certain situations. The one thing I don't want to do is have him banging, night in and night out, against the Dwight Howards of the world. Physically, I don't think he's ready for that. And I don't want him to be that.
Obviously, there's going to be times when he'll have to do that. But for the most part, we want him to be a 4 man.
With defensive wizard Darren Erman on staff, the Pelicans should get the schooling they need to slow down opposing offenses under any circumstances, including those that put size at a disadvantage.
Shooting Ability: 9/10
Offensively, New Orleans is well-equipped to score in bunches by spreading the floor with three-point shooting. Gordon and Anderson rank among the NBA's most feared marksmen when healthy. Holiday routinely beats the league average in that regard. Cole (37.8 percent from three) and Quincy Pondexter (43.3 percent) both shot superbly from beyond the arc after joining the Pelicans during the 2014-15 season.
Evans, a career 27.8 percent three-point shooter, certainly isn't afraid to launch. Neither will Davis, who has Gentry's blessing to shoot threes after spending time during the offseason sharpening his stroke.
"I think we'll try to expand his game," Gentry told NBA.com. "He's a good enough shooter where he can step out and make corner 3s right now."
New Orleans was already the league's fourth-best three-point shooting team by percentage. If The Brow comes correct with his jumper, the Pelicans offense could be among the most lethal in basketball, big or small.
Small-Ball Experience: 7/10
From a coaching perspective, there aren't many who know small ball better than Gentry. As Steve Kerr's resident offensive guru, he played a pivotal role in crafting Golden State's victorious small-ball attack. During the Warriors' locker-room celebration, he took the opportunity to speak directly to his newest star, telling Davis, "We're going to be right back here."
It'll be incumbent upon Gentry to teach his new team how to play small. Under Monty Williams, the Pelicans often employed two and, sometimes, three bigs on the floor at once. In fact, according to NBA.com, groups featuring three of the four between Davis, Anderson, Asik and Dante Cunningham—a power forward by trade—comprised three of New Orleans' 10 most-used lineups last season.
The blueprint is there, though, for the Pelicans to punish the opposition with Davis at the 5. They poured in points at a prodigious clip whenever he and Anderson shared the frontcourt:
With the right voices guiding them, the Pelicans could learn to pack a punch defensively when they go "small" as well.
Total Score: 29/40
4. San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs of 2015-16 won't be as deep as their two most recent predecessors, but that's no slight; the 2014 champions and the title defenders who followed had so many reliable guys that only one person between them (Kawhi Leonard in 2014-15) averaged more than 30 minutes per game.
San Antonio's upcoming incarnation comes equipped with at least 10 trustworthy members, with the likes of Kyle Anderson, Ray McCallum and Jimmer Fredette competing to extend Gregg Popovich's rotation.
Either way, with so many quality bigs onboard (i.e. LaMarcus Aldridge, Tim Duncan, David West, Boris Diaw), the Spurs won't need to go small very often and should have just enough perimeter options to hold the fort against more liberal small-ball proprietors.
As Grantland's Zach Lowe noted, whatever measure of small ball the Spurs do play will hinge on the abilities of Aldridge and Leonard to slide up a spot:
Aldridge makes noise about not wanting to play center, but he’ll have to do it in all kinds of lineups — including smaller groups with Leonard at power forward. He’ll serve as the nominal center alongside Diaw or West in bench lineups, but both of those guys can spend time guarding post-up behemoths so Aldridge doesn’t have to.
Lowe went on to note that Aldridge wasn't much of a rim protector in Portland but that he actually fared better in that capacity than did Tiago Splitter, per NBA.com.
As for Leonard, there should be no grave concerns about how he'll match up with bigger, stronger forwards from time to time. According to 82games.com, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year outpaced the production of opposing power forwards when he played the 4 last season.
Beyond Aldridge and Leonard, Diaw is already an undersized 5 (6'8', 250 lbs) who's proved he can defend players of all shapes and skill sets, including LeBron James. The same goes for Danny Green. And if Anderson gets to play meaningful minutes this year, he just might make a splash at multiple positions, courtesy of his ball-handling ability and lanky 6'9" frame.
Shooting Ability: 8/10
Every returning Spur who attempted one or more three-pointers per game last season knocked down at least 32 percent of them. Of those seven players, three are guards (Tony Parker, Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili), two are wings (Leonard, Green) and two are bigs (Diaw, Matt Bonner). The additions of Aldridge (35.2 percent on 1.5 attempts last season) and Fredette (38.1 percent for his career) should only extend San Antonio's collective range across positions.
The only thing holding the Spurs back in this regard? Just one of their constituents has established himself as a sharpshooter in the NBA: Green, who's converted well over 40 percent of his long looks in each of the last four seasons.
Small-Ball Experience: 5/10
Sussing out the Spurs' precise usage of small ball in the past can be tricky. You might think that any lineup featuring two bigs can be dismissed out of hand. But what if the second big in that equation is Diaw, who stands at 6'8"—undersized for a 4 or a 5—can shoot threes and defend multiple positions? What if the second big is Bonner, who's launched a shade under 51 percent of his career shots from beyond the arc?
Barring such fudging of the definitions, the Spurs fielded just three small-ball lineups that played at least 20 minutes together last season:
Though Pop went small sparingly during the 2014-15 season, he got great results whenever he did. The samples are small, but clearly, the tools are there for the Spurs to downsize when it suits them.
Total Score: 30/40
3. Oklahoma City Thunder
Billy Donovan inherits the deepest roster the Thunder have sported since they settled in Oklahoma City. His bigs all fill different niches—as low-post behemoths (Enes Kanter), pick-and-poppers (Serge Ibaka, Nick Collison, Mitch McGary) and defensive enforcers (Ibaka, Steven Adams). So do his wings, from shot creation (Dion Waiters) to three-and-D (Andre Roberson) to three-and-that's-it (Anthony Morrow, Kyle Singler, Steve Novak).
Throw in D.J. Augustin and rookie Cameron Payne, and OKC has the makings of a loaded squad worthy of preseason title hype.
The Thunder's steady supply of niche-filling role players could make them potent overall but limit their ability to go small.
Fortunately for OKC, Durant, Westbrook and Ibaka are shifty enough with their skill sets that they can form effective combinations alongside all types of teammates. Westbrook can man either the 1 or the 2, be it next to a ball-handler like Augustin or a shooter like Morrow. Durant can bump up to the 4, thanks to his near 7-foot frame and tremendous length, with Ibaka at the 5.
As he told ESPN.com's Royce Young, Donovan is well aware of as much and figures to make use of that flexibility when he sees fit.
Shooting Ability: 7/10
In Durant and Ibaka, OKC features two of the game's most accurate tall shooters. Durant's exploits in that regard are no mystery, but Ibaka's emergence as threat from three (37.6 percent on 3.2 attempts per game) could make the Thunder all the more dangerous under a tactician with Donovan's offensive chops.
Westbrook has never been a particularly accurate long-range shooter (30.4 percent for his career), but his dip below 30 percent last season was more indicative of the types of shots he took—or had to take, given Durant's absence—than of his actual shooting ability. According to NBA.com, Westbrook nailed a sturdy 35.7 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes last season.
Beyond the Big Three, OKC can tout Morrow, Augustin and Novak as floor-stretchers. Now and again, Waiters can look like one, as well.
And if the Thunder are really looking to push the envelope from deep, they can always indulge Kanter's forays into three-point territory. He shot 13-of-41 behind the line in Utah but saw his outside attempts drop to just four in 26 games in OKC.
Small-Ball Experience: 7/10
Durant hasn't played a ton of 4, but the time he has spent at that position over the years has been productive, according to 82games.com:
Ibaka, on the other hand, has had mixed results against centers when sliding to the 5:
If Ibaka can't bang with the big boys, the Thunder can always ask any of their resident behemoths, namely Adams, to man the middle with Durant at the 4. Either way, Donovan won't be walking into a situation where his guys haven't gone small before.
Total Score: 31/40
2. Washington Wizards
The Wizards don't have the greatest roster you ever did see, but GM Ernie Grunfeld has assembled plenty of productive bodies for head coach Randy Wittman to deploy. Beyond the core of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Marcin Gortat and Nene, Washington comes equipped with a whole host of wing-forward types—from shooters such as Jared Dudley and Martell Webster, to creators such as Garrett Temple, to solid athletes such as Alan Anderson, Otto Porter and rookie Kelly Oubre.
Not to mention the skilled bigs (Kris Humphries, Drew Gooden) and veteran floor generals (Ramon Sessions, Gary Neal) who relieve the starters and play alongside them in a pinch.
While some teams derive their versatility from their stars and slot their role players into specific niches, the Wizards seem equipped to do the opposite. Wall and Beal fit the archetype of a traditional backcourt. Gortat and Nene are both essentially hulking centers, though Nene often masquerades as a power forward.
Those likely to fill in at small forward, on the other hand, can handle their own at the 2 and the 4 as well. Dudley is probably the best of the bunch in that regard. He stepped up his game as an undersized (6'7", 225 lbs) power forward in Milwaukee last season and now looks like the best option to fill Paul Pierce's old shoes in Washington's small-ball units.
Webster is more of a shooting guard by trade but has the size (6'7", 230 lbs) to defend forwards. Porter's defensive chops are questionable at any spot right now. In theory, though, he's tall (6'8") enough, long enough and athletic enough to cover multiple positions. Anderson and Temple are better suited to switching between guard spots, albeit with some capacity to check bigger wings.
Shooting Ability: 8/10
Washington isn't exactly hard up for sharpshooters. Beal is a good bet to hit better than 40 percent of his threes every year. Dudley has hovered just below that threshold for much of his career. So had Webster prior to last season's substandard comeback.
What sets the Wizards apart, though, is the sheer volume of shooters they have who merit even a smidgen of defensive attention. It's fair to say that the only players in D.C. who don't have range out to three are the bigs.
And that's not even true of all of them; Gooden has molded himself into a surprisingly solid stretch 4 late in his career. As for Gortat, Nene and Humphries, they're all capable of knocking down open mid-range jumpers.
Small-Ball Experience: 9/10
The Wizards caught the world—and, apparently, the Toronto Raptors—off guard when they flipped the switch from troublingly traditional in the regular season to shockingly new-school in the playoffs.
In an instant, Pierce slid over to the 4, Porter took on a more prominent role off the bench, Nene and Gortat saw their minutes shrink, and Washington came within Wall's broken hand of sneaking into the Eastern Conference Finals.
Pierce's departure to L.A. could throw a wrench in D.C.'s plans to play small again. On the other hand, Dudley is as capable of playing power forward, which he proved with the Bucks last season, as he is talking about the pros and cons of small ball, which he discussed in depth with Grantland's Zach Lowe.
Assuming Wittman won't try to pull another fast one on the rest of the league in the postseason, the coach shouldn't have any trouble getting his team to play small—and play well in the process.
Total Score: 33/40
1. Golden State Warriors
The next edition of the Warriors looks to be just as deep as the one we last saw slicing up Cleveland in the Finals, even with Jason Thompson taking David Lee's place.
Lee, though, was only a marginal part of the small ball that Golden State played. The core of the club's undersized contingent remains intact.
Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are still entrenched in the backcourt. Draymond Green is under contract for the next five years and figures to see his fair share of time at center. Shaun Livingston, Harrison Barnes and Finals MVP Andre Iguodala will be manning the wings and sliding up to the 4 on occasion. And Leandro Barbosa is still around, be it to give Curry a break or blow by whoever is in front of him.
As ESPN.com's Ethan Sherwood Strauss pointed out this past June, Golden State suffocated its opponents not with size but with the ability of its players—many of whom stand around the same height—to hand off defensive assignments so seamlessly:
It’s paradoxical, but the Warriors are able to boast so much versatility because they have so many players that are similarly sized. Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson and Shaun Livingston all fit a category of wing-sized athletes who defy basic categorization.
More than anyone else, Green was the key to unlocking Ron Adams' schemes. He nearly took home Defensive Player of the Year honors for doing on defense what fellow Michigan State product Magic Johnson once did on offense: play all five positions.
According to 82games.com, Green, who'd be happy to stand 6'6" on bare feet, did some of his best work at center. He's not about to shut down the Marc Gasols and DeMarcus Cousinses of the world entirely or hang stride for stride with burners like Russell Westbrook and John Wall. But his length, lower body strength, competitive streak and tricks of the trade allow him to hold his own against opponents of all shapes and sizes—and, more importantly, enable his teammates to do the same.
And if Green can't fend off giants, the Warriors can always turn to Andrew Bogut, a DPOY contender in his own right.
Shooting Ability: 9/10
Shooters don't get much better than Curry and Thompson. They're arguably the two pre-eminent shooters in the NBA today, and Curry, the reigning MVP, may well wind up as the best ever in that regard. He's already responsible for three of the five most prolific three-point-shooting seasons of all time, including his 2014-15 campaign, during which he nailed a league-record 286 triples.
Barnes, who often slid to the 4 when Green played the 5, hit on 40.5 percent of his triples in year three. Barbosa shot a surprisingly sturdy 38.4 percent from long range—his highest mark since 2007-08.
Green (33.7 percent from three) and Iguodala (34.9 percent) shot well enough to pass muster last season, though neither left defenses shaking in their boots.
All told, the Dubs aren't terribly deep on three-point shooters. Nor do they have a traditionally-sized big man who can step out reliably. But what they lack on quantity, they more than make up for in quality.
Small-Ball Experience: 10/10
There is no better indicator of Golden State's small-ball capabilities than the championship banner they're about to hang from the rafters at Oracle Arena. Three of their five most-used and most-successful lineups from the Finals featured Green at the 5, per NBA.com:
This, after the lineup of Curry-Thompson-Iguodala-Barnes-Green posted a net rating of plus-21.8 points per 100 possessions during 102 regular-season minutes together.
All of which is to say, if any team out there knows how to use small ball to its advantage, it's the Warriors.
Total Score: 39/40
Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.