Sizing Up Small Ball: How the Celtics, Lakers, and the Rest of the League Are Responding to Their Rivals

Doc Rivers is a candid guy and a very good coach, but I’m not totally buying what he’s selling here (via the Boston Herald):

Although the Heat occupy his thoughts, Rivers said the current edition of the Celtics wasn’t conceived with any one opponent in mind.

“That’s the one thing we don’t do,” Rivers said. “We just make moves to make us the best team we can possibly be with our personnel. Hopefully that’s enough to make us a better team than them and everyone else.”

In a general sense, Rivers is being honest. Any team that wants to win an NBA title over the next two seasons (at least) has to look at its roster and consider whether it can beat a healthy Miami team four times in seven games — a team that now plays LeBron James as a nominal power forward comfortable in the post. Some teams will choose to just wait out Miami, either through tanking, developing young players, or just spinning their wheels until the Heat take a step back or a franchise centerpiece becomes available.

But any team who wants to the title now, or next season, has to at least think about how it stacks up against the newish Heat — especially if that team is built around aging stars and/or plays in the Eastern Conference.

Boston, of course, fits both criteria, and it’s naive to think their very smart front office didn’t watch the Finals and concoct the sort of roster it needed in order to compete with Miami. Any such team needs to be able to deal, on both ends, with a lineup that looks like this:

  • LeBron James
  • Dwyane Wade
  • Chris Bosh
  • Bigger Wing Guy X (most likely Shane Battier or Mike Miller)
  • Smaller Wing Guy/Guard Y (Ray Allen, Mario Chalmers)

The version of this lineup with Battier and Chalmers was Miami’s most-used group of the postseason, and it outscored opponents by 10.5 points per 100 possessions — a historically great margin, per NBA.com. The group scored 112.3 points per 100 possessions, miles better than San Antonio’s league-leading mark for the season. In a limited sample size, much of which came against a Thunder team unsure how to go about dealing with it, this lineup was borderline unstoppable.

Even so, it features two players I’d call “hiders” — guys whose offensive games are limited enough that teams can hide subpar defenders on them. Battier is basically a spot-up player, and teams determined to stay big against these lineups will typically stick one of their two big men on him. Sometimes it works fine, and sometimes it fails horribly; ask Serge Ibaka.

Chalmers is a more dynamic offensive player, since he’s speedy and capable of working with the ball. But this lineup reduces him to a spot-up guy and screener/cutter a lot of the time, making him another place where Boston could hide Jason Terry.

Because you have to hide Jason Terry. He had no shot against James Harden in the playoffs last season when Dallas tried to buy some minutes for him there, and Wade can be a brutalizing post player in the right matchup. Dallas was so successful as a defensive team in part because their hybrid zone-man concepts, plus an abundance of versatile wing players, allowed a very smart coaching staff to minimize Terry’s negative defensive impact.

There has been much debate over the last few days
about what Boston’s “closing” lineup should be, but in a theoretical playoff series against Miami, they should be able to find a place in it for Terry — even if Miami slots Allen in for either Chalmers or Battier.

Paul Pierce will of course defend LeBron in crunch time, though I’m convinced a big part of the reason Boston overpaid for Jeff Green is the possibility he may fare much better than expected as a part-time LeBron defender. I recently watched several hours of film of Green’s defense at both forward positions, and after awhile, it became obvious Green’s ideal defensive matchup would be a small forward with a shaky jump shot. Green will always be a tweener, and as such, he has to concede something to both forward types. He’s at a size disadvantage in the post against power forwards and a quickness disadvantage on the perimeter against wings. He makes up for the latter by taking a step or two back and surrendering the jump shot — a losing strategy against an ace jump-shooter. LeBron is not yet an ace jump-shooter, though he’s closer than he was two or three years ago. Green won’t always be able to contain James off the dribble, but he’s smart about how he moves his feet in one-on-one situations, and he’ll have Boston’s help defenders backing him up. He’s strong enough to deal with LeBron in the post. To be clear: Green has never been a plus defender, and he’s not going to be Boston’s best option — or even (as we’ll see below) a part of Boston’s likely closing lineups against Miami. But if he can hold the fort well enough to spare Pierce some LeBron time, that’s good enough.

(As an aside, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Boston experiment with super-small lineups featuring Green at center against small Miami lineups in the regular season, just to see what happens.)

Still: Pierce will be on LeBron at money time, and Kevin Garnett will obviously take Bosh. That leaves Wade and one other “hider,” with Wade the much larger problem. Rajon Rondo will obviously be on the floor, and he has defended Wade at times in the past. But that’s not ideal, especially with both Courtney Lee and Avery Bradley around.

Wade shot only 9-of-27 against Boston with Bradley on the floor in three regular-season games, compared to 14-of-26 in those games when Bradley sat, per NBA.com’s stats database. Watch the tape, and you’ll see only 13 of those 27 shots actually came head-to-head against Bradley in the half court. Wade was 4-of-13, and Bradley showed a surprising ability to body up Wade in the post, keep his feet on pump fakes, and force difficult shots. Bradley is probably too small to be a consistent Wade-stopper, a thing that doesn’t really exist, but he looks like a reliable option.

Boston could, in theory, stay big with Brandon Bass and Garnett, as they did down the stretch of Game 7 against Miami last season, when Bass defended James as best he could. (Shockingly, LeBron eventually solved that riddle). Bass can hide on Battier, but doesn’t really have the kind of on-the-block skill set to punish smaller guys. Boston has better options now.

Look: Rivers can say what he wants about not planning for Miami, but Boston, with very little cap flexibility, has done about as well as possible in planning for Miami. How have the other title hopefuls fared?

Los Angeles Lakers

Boy, would this be fun. Going small would indisputably hurt the Lakers, who feature exactly one above-average wing player (though Metta World Peace is clearly in great shape) and two of the half-dozen best big men in the world. The Lakers had even less financial flexibility over the summer than Boston did, at least in terms of pursuing free agents, since their payroll was so high they had only the mini mid-level exception with which to attract potential wing targets. And so they went the opposite way, loading up on high-level talent via trade (and one large trade exception) in hopes of simply acquiring enough firepower to overcome some awkward positional issues that could crop up against San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and Miami.

A common refrain I’ve heard when spitballing with folks around the league: “I really hope the Lakers don’t cave and go small in the playoffs if they face a majority-small team.” Impartial execs are rooting for this, just to see what happens. Coaches (not all of them, as we’ll get to) tend to change gears and go small if they feel a smaller opponent is hurting them over a short stretch. On the flip side, some coaches go small for a bit, have some success, and go right back to big lineups after one opposing post-up bucket. Teams will switch back and forth between lineup types before ending up in a size/style stalemate, robbing us of a chance to see what would happen if ultra-big faced small over a longer sample.

The Lakers might not have a choice, given the state of their bench and the sheer talent of Gasol and Howard. The Heat have been comfortable with LeBron guarding Gasol (and other post threats) in stretches, but what about the full 48? And how would the Lakers adjust their offense to account for that matchup? On the other end, Gasol can’t guard LeBron (that’s World Peace’s job), necessitating the same sort of lineup bending the Thunder went through for much of the Finals.

Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder kept right on starting Kendrick Perkins and Ibaka in the Finals, even though it was clear after two games that doing so would most likely result in giving Miami a head start. This was especially maddening, since the Thunder’s three best players are all Olympian-level guards/wings, giving Oklahoma City an unusual leg up in playing small. Scott Brooks’s approach evolved as the series went on, just as it did in a really nice performance in the conference finals against the Spurs, but the Thunder’s defense collapsed regardless.

This year should be different. Ibaka has gained another year of experience, hopefully preparing him to be a more stable defensive presence on the glass and in space — crucial ingredients for the lone big in small-ball groups. Remember: While Ibaka is a very good offensive rebounder and elite shot-blocker, he’s been average on the defensive glass (Kevin Durant snagged a higher share of defensive boards last season) and shaky defending away from the rim.

And Eric Maynor is back! Remember Maynor, the guy who in 2011 looked like one of the league’s best backup point guards and replaced a benched Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City’s only Western Conference Finals win? Replace Derek Fisher/Daequan Cook/Thabo Sefolosha with Maynor as the fourth guard/wing in the Thunder’s small lineups, and they should become even more dangerous. Almost any player, big or small, can guard the Cook/Sefolosha/Fisher types — classic “hiders,” all. But Maynor is a good long-range shooter and an accomplished off-the-bounce guy, and that presents problems for any second big man trying to stay on the floor against these guys. A head-to-head against Miami raises the question of whether Durant is ready to guard LeBron for extended stretches. If he’s not, Brooks may be forced to slot Sefolosha in for one of his better offensive options.

Brooks has publicly opened up the backup point guard role for the unproven Reggie Jackson, but that feels premature. The Thunder would surely like it if Jackson proved capable of that role, since they won’t be able to afford re-signing Maynor, a restricted free agent this summer, and would like at least the opportunity to shop him (and his Bird Rights) for a future asset.

Perry Jones also looms as a versatile ingredient in all sorts of lineups, but it’s dicey now to project rookie playing time.

San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs are ready to play any style and size you’d like. San Antonio actually scaled back the small ball pretty dramatically last season, as Richard Jefferson lost favor and both Matt Bonner and Tiago Splitter gained more of Gregg Popovich’s confidence. But they flipped right back for portions of the Conference Finals, with both Stephen Jackson and Kawhi Leonard around to work as small-ball power forwards. The results were mixed, but this is a tool Popovich has at hand against the right opponents, and one that would prove especially useful if Leonard is ready in Year 2 to defend the Durant/LeBron types full-time. On the flip side, the Spurs are still searching for the ideal big-man complement to Tim Duncan — someone who can both defend and space the floor. DeJuan Blair and Tiago Splitter have both failed the test, though the Spurs haven’t yet given up on the Splitter/Duncan front line. Is Boris Diaw the answer?

Indiana Pacers

The Pacers aren’t in the title discussion yet, but they’d like to be, and they deserve mention here after their hard-fought six-game loss to Miami last spring. The Pacers would seem ideally suited to play smaller, with three rangy starting wing players in George Hill, Danny Granger, and Paul George. They played small a ton in both 2009-10 and 2010-11, with Granger sliding to power forward.

But Frank Vogel essentially abandoned that setup last season, a move that made sense considering how effective Indiana was with both Roy Hibbert and David West on the floor. Also: Leandro Barbosa was the only backup wing Vogel trusted for major minutes at the end of last season, and he was borderline unplayable against Miami if there wasn’t someplace convenient for him to hide on defense. The Magic actually forced the Pacers’ hand by going small in one first-round game, and the Pacers looked totally out of sorts in blowing a late-game lead.

And that was essentially it for small ball, even as Miami transitioned into a nearly full-time “small” team over the last three games of the conference semifinals. Indiana dipped its toe into the water, but no small lineup (i.e., a lineup featuring just one of the Hibbert/West/Lou Amundson/Tyler Hansbrough group) logged more than four minutes combined over the six-game set, per NBA.com.

Would that change this season? Indiana found a new backup center in Ian Mahinmi, and this team clearly identifies itself as a big, physical group. They thrive off of offensive rebounds, earn a ton of foul shots, and often work inside-out. They swapped one small point guard (Darren Collison) with another (D.J. Augustin) and essentially replaced two backup wings with one in Gerald Green. Lance Stephenson is set to get minutes as the second backup wing, but we’ve heard that story before. Lineups featuring all four of Hill, George, Green, and Granger hold promise, though that removes either West or Hibbert — arguably Indy’s two best players. Perhaps Indiana in a Miami rematch would approach things the same way, hoping to win via size; after all, the Pacers were plus-31 against Miami in those six games when the Hibbert/West duo played, and minus-70 otherwise.

All evidence suggested a healthy Bulls team would have approached a Conference Finals against Miami the same way — by staying true to its identity, playing two bigs at almost all times, and trying to beat the hell out of Miami on the glass. It helps to have three big men who can switch onto LeBron in a pinch, and one (Taj Gibson) who might actually be able to guard him one-on-one for stretches.

Chicago is one of many teams that might play “small” a bit more often this year as a way to make up for Omer Asik’s departure. That could take the form of playing a perimeter-oriented power forward (Vladimir Radmanovic, in the Orlando-era Rashard Lewis mold) or shifting a traditional wing player (Luol Deng) to power forward — something Chicago did often, and to great effect, early in 2010-11, when both Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer went down with injuries.

Other teams of interest that may be ready to play traditional wings at power forward more often this season include New York (Carmelo Anthony), Brooklyn (Gerald Wallace), Denver (Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler), and even the Clippers, now pretty well stocked on the wing. Finding the right lineup balance is tricky, given the egos involved and the physical strain that can come with changing positions. Plus: No one else has LeBron James.

Filed Under: Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers, Lebron James, Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat, NBA, Oklahoma City Thunder, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, San Antonio Spurs, Zach Lowe

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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