The NBA's Size Prerogative and the Michael Jordan/Kobe Bryant Anomaly

Mayoclinic 32Correspondent INovember 23, 2009

Boston, Massachusetts- Vince Carter had the ball isolated in the wing against Paul Pierce in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. Carter is no pushover at 6'6", 215 pounds, but Pierce's 6'7", 235 pound frame hulked over him. After all, Carter is a shooting guard who hasn't added muscle to his frame since his Tar Heel days, and Pierce is a small forward who can wrestle Lebron James. 

After Michael Jordan's retirement, scouts and general managers scoured the face of the planet looking for the next 6'6" shooting guard with jumping ability. What they failed to understand was that Jordan is an anomaly, that a 6'6" shooting guard is not as efficient as a 6'7", 6'8", or 6'9" small forward. 

And so, we had a bevy of 6'6 Jordan clones—Carter included—shuffle rank and file through unfair media scrutiny, before 6'7" small forwards Lebron James and Carmelo Anthony restored the league back to its pre-Jordan normalcy, when big men and small forwards such as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird dominated the scene.  

There is significant size prerogative in the game of basketball. Bigger is better. Longer is better. Stronger is better. These qualities trump speed and agility. 

Take a look at the league today: the top teams are led by an elite big man or an elite small forward—not an elite guard.

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The Cavaliers have Lebron. The Nuggets have Carmelo. The Magic have Howard. The Spurs have Duncan. The Celtics have Garnett and Pierce.

Guard-led teams are struggling—the Heat, the Hornets, the Bulls, and the Jazz.

The undersized shooting guard is being marginalized as we speak. And although the Suns are off to a hot start, they will not challenge league supremacy.

Size is efficient, and will eventually overwhelm speed, especially in seven-game battles of attrition. The Lakers, led by Kobe Bryant, are the lone exception, but they are backed by considerable size (Bynum, Gasol, Odom, Artest).

Kobe Bryant is the only anomaly to this size prerogative besides Michael Jordan.

At 6'6", he is the consensus best player in the league and has been in the top two for the past decade. But an oft-neglected aspect of his game is his post-game; like Jordan he is the best post-up guard of his generation, and that allows him to shift into more of a forward position on offense.

Even so, Bryant has found some difficulty when matched up against the size of Carmelo and Pierce. 

The history archives support these claims too.

Championship teams have traditionally been led and dominated by big men—Russell, Wilt, Kareem, Reed, Moses Malone, Unseld, Hakeem, Shaq, and Duncan. 

The size of the basketball court is a limiting factor against quickness and speed. Players are confined to a small space where open lanes are rare and speed bursts can only gain small advantages. Furthermore, bigger players operate closer to the hoop, where field goal percentages are higher.

As triangle offense proponents Tex Winter and Phil Jackson repeat, basketball is a game played inside out, not the other way around. 

Ignoring the size prerogative has negatively impacted franchises looking for fresh talent. Trying to find Jordan clones, or Iverson clones, or clones of other successful guards, has largely led to failure. 

But, I digress. 

I remember thinking to myself that Carter didn't have a lot of options when matched up against Pierce. He certainly would be at a disadvantage trying to post, so after a few useless dribbles he took Pierce baseline. After Pierce cut him off baseline Carter could only  spin back and launch an impossibly difficult fade-away.

On this night, Carter's world class talent would tease us again as his shot fell through, propelling his Magic to an impressive 83-78 victory over the Boston Celtics. 

While Carter beat Pierce on that possession, we certainly can not expect that success to repeat, especially in the long run. It took a magnificent fade-away off a spin for a shooting guard to score against a small forward. Advantage, small forward.

And the only exceptions Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. But to the next 6'6" shooting guard, he may as well be trying to replicate Rembrandt.