This might have been the watershed year in terms of the NBA really, truly becoming a smaller league, with more wing players shifting to power forward in “small” lineups, two teams (the Knicks and Rockets) breaking the record for most 3-point attempts, and a larger general emphasis on shooting and ball movement. And, of course, the defending champions have become a majority small-ball team after winning the title that way last season.
The trend toward smallness was something people had talked about for years, even if much of the data indicated that no such transformation had really happened on a large scale. Starting lineups still almost universally included two traditional big men, and the heights of the five players in those lineups were about the same as they’d always been. The changes were mostly on the margins — on change-of-pace bench units that would log a few helter-skelter minutes before a team returned to normalcy, units that didn’t play at all in some games. Teams that played heavy doses of small ball in one season would revert to big ball in the next.
This season appears to have been different, though we still have to put the data through a lot of tests. The Knicks made small ball, with Carmelo Anthony at power forward, the foundation of their team identity. The Rockets in the first round just said “Screw it!” and played small ball for nearly an entire series against the Thunder, coaxing Oklahoma City to downsize along with them. Other teams, including Denver, Charlotte, Toronto, Boston, and the Lakers, all turned to small ball a bit more than they had in prior seasons.1
And yet there were 28 players this season listed at 6-foot-11 or taller that played at least 1,000 minutes and put up a Player Efficiency Rating higher than the league average of 15.0, per Basketball-Reference.com. Only 19 such players pulled those numbers in 1992-93, during the alleged modern heyday of big men, with Shaquille O’Neal, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Rik Smits, and others all in or near their primes. Only 16 did so in 1994-95, during the same general era. Perhaps the whole “death of the center” thing has been a bit overdone?
But executives and coaches around the league have looked at the eight remaining teams and taken notice: A lot of the very biggest teams are still alive, including perhaps the league’s three beefiest behemoths in Memphis, Indiana, and Chicago. The Spurs have dabbled in small ball before, but they’ve reestablished their preference for “big” lineups this season by centering themselves on the Tim Duncan–Tiago Splitter pairing. In very general terms, small-ball lineups are better than “normal” ones on offense and a bit worse on defense; San Antonio decided that tradeoff didn’t work for them anymore.2 The Thunder play mostly to their opponent, and they’ve used Kevin Durant at power forward only sparingly against the Grizzlies this season — including for about 8:30 in their Game 1 win. The Warriors spent most of the season avoiding small ball, even if doing so meant playing Andris Biedrins; Draymond Green is something of a tweener who saw a decent slice of minutes at power forward, but Harrison Barnes, the true small-ball power forward, spent essentially zero meaningful time there until David Lee’s injury.
The small lineup the Spurs used most often, with Kawhi Leonard at power forward, logged only 36 minutes all season and appeared in just 10 games, per NBA.com. Matt Bonner is the sort of player that confounds traditional positional designations, but he’s more of a shooting power forward than a wing player shifting up a position.
That leaves New York and Miami as the only true small-ball outliers left, and the Heat have the benefit of the world’s greatest player, a totally unique multipositional cyborg who defies almost everything we know about basketball players. The playoffs have reinforced two very basic NBA realities we sometimes forget in anointing this the Era of Small Ball:
1. Size is really important, at all positions. I think Jarrett Jack just hit another midrange pull-up over Ty Lawson.
2. A big guy who can actually play both ends of the floor at a B-plus level is the most valuable non-superstar commodity in the league. This is why Josh Smith is getting a max deal this summer, no matter how distasteful you might find it. This is why Al Horford, earning a flat $12 million per season through 2015-16, is rising up through the informal “best contract in the NBA” rankings every league exec keeps in his head. It’s why David West is underpaid, even if the real reason he’s underpaid is because he signed his current deal while recovering from an ACL tear. It’s why Tyson Chandler, when healthy, is easily worth his $14 million annual salary, even though dunking on pick-and-rolls constitutes 80 percent of his offensive game.3
That’s not an insult. A big guy who can catch and finish on pick-and-rolls from anyplace inside the foul line is enormously valuable, especially one who can hit 75 percent of his foul shots. Chandler sucks in an entire opposing defense simply by cutting down the paint, because that defense knows he can finish lob passes and nail free throws at a rate that takes Hack-a-Shaq off the table. You can count on one hand the number of 7-footers in the NBA who can match Chandler’s speed, jumping ability, hand-eye coordination, and physicality. Like, imagine Kendrick Perkins trying to jump from the dotted line, catch the ball in traffic, and dunk it explosively in one motion. The other 20 percent of Chandler’s game, by the way, is tipping out offensive rebounds.
Sussing out the players who fit that definition, and are thus worthy of that kind of huge money, is a very important and basic test for a GM. David Lee is overpaid because he’s essentially a one-way player. Ditto for Al Jefferson. A defense-first rim protector making half of Jefferson’s money — someone like Omer Asik — is probably properly paid, and Andrew Bogut is only worth his current contract if he can consistently bring the playmaking skills we’ve seen in the last couple of weeks.
If teams are indeed going small more often, it’s not because they’ve figured out that small ball is better in some objective, all-encompassing way. It’s because they’ve realized playing small is better for teams who simply don’t have enough competent big men. The Rockets played small against Oklahoma City because they were underdogs in search of a high-risk, high-upside strategy (i.e., shoot a ton of 3-pointers), and because the Patrick Patterson trade left the coaching staff with precisely one true big man (Omer Asik) whom they trusted. As their GM, Daryl Morey, has told Grantland before, productive two-way big men are a scarce resource, and teams that don’t have two such big men are showing an increasing preference to play a quality ball handler over a 7-foot stiff.
Let’s tour the big-versus-small issues in each of the four remaining series:
Chicago vs. Miami
A big-versus-small clash that never gets old. The Bulls under Tom Thibodeau have played regular doses of small ball, with either Luol Deng or Jimmy Butler (this season) at power forward, only when injuries have absolutely forced them into it. Two units with Deng at power forward logged over 55 minutes in 2010-11, when both Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah missed significant time with various injuries. Given better health last season, Thibodeau nearly abandoned small ball entirely, only to revisit it this season as his big men suffered every nagging injury imaginable and various other players began vomiting on the sidelines. Chicago has typically stayed big against Miami, even when the Heat have gone small with either James or Shane Battier at power forward.
They did so again for the entirety of Game 1, hiding one of their big men on either Battier or the suddenly relevant Mike Miller — a strategy that will yield the occasional wide-open 3-pointer when a Chicago big drifts too far into his natural paint habitat. The Bulls have historically used their size advantage to hurt Miami on the glass, and Noah did grab two big offensive boards when matched up with LeBron in the first half. But Chicago finished with just nine offensive rebounds and is clearly too concerned with Miami’s transition game to crash the glass as aggressively as it would surely like. We even saw a rare instance late in the second quarter of Miami going back to a big lineup, with both Chris Bosh and Chris Andersen, to briefly counter Chicago’s size. It’s an open question, given Bird Man’s consistently strong play, whether Miami should go big whenever James sits instead of sticking to small ball.
The Bulls are also an example of a team that built a functional NBA offense despite lacking a single big man with any reliable range outside of 18 feet.4 Playing two big men close to the basket crowds the lane and brings spacing issues, and those spacing issues, plus the emergence of ace 3-point shooting power forwards (Ryan Anderson, for instance), has created the impression that it’s just too difficult for teams to score with two traditional interior players — especially if neither brings a Zach Randolph–style post game.
That offense was much less functional this season without Derrick Rose. Duh.
Boozer has a bit of a post game, but his go-to post move is a face-up fading jump shot. The Bulls, when Derrick Rose was around, built a top-10 offense around Rose’s brilliance and the ability of both Boozer and Noah to work in very sophisticated ways, and in tandem, south of the foul line — as screeners, passers, and occasional shooters/drivers. And that offense, sans Rose, was still good enough to squeeze out a league-average number of points against the Nets’ very average defense in the first round. They did so again last night, keenly using Noah’s passing and the threat of Boozer’s jump shot to beat Miami’s trapping defense on just enough occasions to wring out their average scoring output. (There are times, against elite defenses like Miami’s, when it almost feels as if Noah’s passing skills are as important an asset as his all-world defense. What a brilliant player.) There are a bunch of lottery teams ready to follow this same pattern of building an above-average offense around two interior bangers, including Detroit (Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond) and Toronto (Amir Johnson, Jonas Valanciunas). If the skill sets are right and varied, it’s possible.
Miami, of course, is the league’s premier small-ball team, the pied piper everyone is allegedly following. Nonsense. The Heat can play this way because they have James, an unprecedented NBA physical specimen, plus a wing player in Battier willing to do whatever it takes to win titles — even if it means guarding Boozer, David West, and Randolph in succession.
Memphis vs. Oklahoma City
The most intriguing potential big-versus-small matchup on the board, mostly because of Oklahoma City’s adaptability and the added intrigue of Russell Westbrook’s season-ending injury.5 The Grizz have built around the Zach Randolph–Marc Gasol pairing, reasoning they could build at least an average offense around two post-up brutes — a duo that includes the best passing big man in the game in Gasol. Teams can contend with an average offense and a top-three defense, and the Grizz have had the latter half of that equation covered all season.
Westbrook’s injury brings up a very interesting hypothetical that has been making the NBA rounds since the James Harden trade: Even putting aside the possibility of waiting a year to trade Harden, did the Thunder make the wrong choice in essentially picking Serge Ibaka over Harden long-term? The notion that a solid two-way big man is the most valuable non-superstar commodity in the league would seem to indicate the Thunder made the correct choice; Ibaka is one of the league’s dozen best defenders, a fierce rim protector, and he sports a widening offensive repertoire. But that theory might only hold if Harden is something less than a superstar, and time has proven that assumption false. Power forward is probably the deepest position in the league, in terms of the sheer number of average or slightly above-average players, and it’s possible Oklahoma City should have chosen three perimeter superstars over two such players and one big man sub-star. The Westbrook injury has obviously upped the volume on this chatter, but it existed from the moment OKC made the Harden deal.
Only Utah and Indiana finished a larger share of offensive possessions via post-up plays, and Memphis is leaning on post-ups even more so far in the playoffs, per Synergy Sports.6 Like the Bulls, Memphis stands as proof that teams can create their own version of floor spacing in an inside-out fashion, with interior bangers drawing attention toward the rim and moving the ball in smart ways from there.
Indiana is also using post-ups a little more in the playoffs, and there is some evidence that teams in the postseason rely a bit more on both their go-to half-court actions and on half-court offense in general. That’s in part because pace typically decreases in the playoffs, and that in turn is linked to postseason play naturally weeding out most of the league’s worst defenses.
But the Thunder have the trump card in this series: small-ball lineups with Kevin Durant at power forward. Those lineups over multiple seasons have been frighteningly explosive offensively, even if they can be hit-and-miss on defense — as is typical for smaller lineups. Scott Brooks has been a bit reluctant to break these bad boys out against the brutish Grizz, and when he has, Memphis has generally responded by downsizing and shifting either Tayshaun Prince or Quincy Pondexter to power forward. Oklahoma City played small for only about 26 minutes over three regular-season games against Memphis, and followed the same pattern in Game 1; Brooks didn’t go to Durant at power forward until late in the third quarter, eventually staying with that setup for about 8:30 of continuous play in which the Thunder were plus-10.7 Memphis shifted into small-ball mode for almost the entirety of that duration, save for a brief stretch in which Darrell Arthur, the team’s third big man, tried and failed to defend Durant.
They were also plus-10 over those 26 regular-season small-ball minutes, but those lineups mostly included Westbrook.
It will be fascinating to see if Brooks gets more aggressive with small ball in an effort to take Memphis out of its game. No Grizz lineup with Prince or Pondexter at power forward logged more than 26 minutes all season, and on a very basic level, going this route removes one of Memphis’s three best players from the floor.8 Brooks should clearly feel free to play small whenever Memphis inserts Arthur (or Ed Davis, if he ever plays), and to once again relegate Hasheem Thabeet to full-time bench duty.
Indiana vs. New York
Random thing to watch: Memphis is playing Pondexter and Prince together more in the playoffs. They’ve already logged 79 minutes as a duo in the postseason after playing just 189 together after the Prince trade in the regular season, per NBA.com.
The Pacers are another team that dipped their toe in the small-ball pool before snagging a game-changing acquisition — West — and declaring, “Forget this small-ball crap. Let’s beat the shit out of everyone!” Danny Granger logged almost 20 percent of Indiana’s power forward minutes in 2010-11, when Indiana’s rotation big men behind Roy Hibbert were Tyler Hansbrough, Josh McRoberts, and Jeff Foster. The Pacers signed West in the following offseason and promptly ditched the small-ball thing.
And Frank Vogel doesn’t budge when the Pacers face a majority small-ball team, as is the case in this series. He’s content having West hide out on Iman Shumpert or Jason Kidd while the Pacers’ small forward, Paul George, defends Carmelo Anthony — New York’s nominal power forward. It’s a bit awkward, since West has to float around the perimeter and George has to scramble to locate Anthony while transitioning from offense to defense (since Anthony rarely defends George), but it’s a tradeoff Vogel is willing to make in exchange for having Anthony defend West on the other end.
As we saw in Game 1, the Pacers will go at Anthony in the post with both West and Hansbrough. Anthony is actually a pretty stout post defender; he’s held opponents to sub–40 percent shooting on post-ups in each of the last two seasons, per Synergy Sports, and whatever defensive problems New York creates for itself by playing smaller have more to do with Anthony’s lack of shot-blocking ability and shaky help defense on the back line. The Pacers are confident that both bigs can score over and through Anthony, and that New York will have to send help off the Pacers’ perimeter shooters or bend to Indiana’s style by playing two big men.9
Anthony will guard Ian Mahinmi whenever Mahinmi plays. The same probably goes for Jeff Pendergraph, who didn’t see any time in Game 1.
Kenyon Martin is already making noise about the Knicks going big and using Anthony at small forward, which of course would mean more playing time for a guy named Kenyon Martin. But the Knicks’ spread-the-floor, perimeter-oriented attack might not function as neatly with two bigs and a wing in Anthony who likes to operate from the elbow and in; Martin and Chandler logged just 27 minutes together in the regular season, and New York’s other big-big combinations struggled to produce points, per NBA.com.
The looming mystery, of course, is Amar’e Stoudemire, who may return from knee surgery as soon as Game 3 and work as a third big man whose jump shots don’t appear as if they are going to crash right through the backboard. After struggling in their first season together, the Knicks thrived offensively with all three of Stoudemire, Chandler, and Anthony on the floor this season, per NBA.com. But they were a disaster defensively, surrendering about 107.6 points per 100 possessions — equivalent to New Orleans’s 28th-ranked defense. It feels needlessly risky to reinvent the team on the fly — again — against a very good opponent in the playoffs.
There has always been a spot in New York’s rotation for Stoudemire’s offensive game, even as he works his way back into shape: as a go-to scorer, alongside J.R. Smith, on New York bench units on which he could serve as either the lone big man or at least the lone pick-and-roll guy. But we have a fairly large sample size now indicating that New York is a very dangerous team with Anthony at power forward, Chandler at center, and a bunch of shooters around them. Messing with that is dangerous, unless Indiana’s size proves too big an obstacle for New York as the series proceeds. But the teams split their regular-season series, and New York found just as many benefits from the small/big dichotomy over those four games as Indiana did. Anthony can bully George in the post, hunt transition 3-pointers as George struggles to track him, and blow by West or Hansbrough when Indiana gives them the Melo assignment in short stretches.
San Antonio vs. Golden State
The natural move for Golden State after Lee’s injury would have been to start Landry, or perhaps even Green, in Lee’s spot. But they surprised most observers, including the Nuggets, by instead starting Harrison Barnes as a small-ball power forward, even though no such unit had logged more than 28 minutes the entire regular season.
And it worked! Barnes pumped in 16 points per game in the last five games of the series, feasting on wide-open 3-point looks the Warriors generated on the pick-and-roll and against Denver’s porous defense. All season, the Nuggets have been a showcase for the rarity and value of a solid two-way big man. Kosta Koufos understands offensive spacing around the rim and he’s a solid defender in space, but he has zero range and fell out of George Karl’s starting lineup mid-series. Kenneth Faried has energy and speed, and he’s developed a useful little floater, but he also lacks a jump shot and can struggle badly at times to defend the pick-and-roll. JaVale McGee was horrendous on defense and on the glass the entire series, continuing career-long trends on both counts. His teams have always rebounded much better on defense when he sits, mostly because he’s prone to egregious and bizarre non-efforts, such as whatever he’s trying to do here while “defending” Landry:
And McGee still has no clue defending the pick-and-roll. This is why Denver will remain fascinating to watch on the trade market. The team isn’t quite sure how close it is to true title contention, but it’s clear now the Nuggets probably can’t get there unless they find one reliable two-way big man. They’ve got a bundle of interesting trade assets; do they pull the trigger?10
The Clippers were in the same boat this season, and the rumored Kevin Garnett discussions were absolutely real. Blake Griffin is something like an “A” on offense and a “C” on defense, and the Griffin–DeAndre Jordan back line still isn’t good enough defensively. The Clips surrendered 104.2 points per 100 possessions when those two shared the floor, equivalent to a bottom-10 mark, and Vinny Del Negro — and Del Negro’s hair — rarely trusted Jordan for heavy minutes or crunch-time play. The Lamar Odom–Ronny Turiaf–Ryan Hollins trio doesn’t provide enough on either end to log those non-Jordan minutes against top-level competition. Chris Paul is 28 with bad knees. The Clippers’ window is now.
Bad news for Golden State: San Antonio’s big men don’t make the kinds of silly positioning mistakes that would allow Stephen Curry or Jarrett Jack to get into the lane, draw the defense, and kick to other open shooters. But Duncan and Splitter do tend to lay back near the foul line when defending the pick-and-roll, and that strategy creates the possibility of open pull-up looks for Curry if he gets solid screens from his big men. The Spurs’ bigs have shown a willingness to come out a couple of steps farther against elite shooting point guards — they did so against Steve Nash in the first round — and if the Spurs slot Danny Green against Curry, Green’s length trailing Curry around the screens will make some of those pull-ups tricky.
Bottom line: San Antonio isn’t going to adopt some crazy trapping scheme to corral Curry, and its base defense won’t yield holes all over the place. Barnes’s off-the-dribble game isn’t developed enough to trouble Splitter or Boris Diaw, active for Game 1 after recovering from a back injury. The Spurs are probably safe staying big and leaning on the Splitter-Duncan combination that logged 818 minutes this season, up from just 129 last season, and helped the Spurs reconnect with their stingy defensive history.
But just in case, Gregg Popovich during the first round gave Leonard much more time than usual at power forward. Leonard logged about 15 minutes at that spot in small lineups in the first round after no such five-man group logged more than 36 minutes in the regular season, per NBA.com.11 The Spurs went small a fair bit as recently as two seasons ago, with Richard Jefferson as the primary small-ball power forward, and they did the same against Oklahoma City in the conference finals last season. With Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili healthy, and another year under Leonard’s belt, this is a setup Popovich should be able to use comfortably if he wants.
Yes, the series became so lopsided, Popovich ended up using it to workshop a bunch of stuff — Leonard at power forward, the entire existence of Aron Baynes, the dusting off of Tracy McGrady, and this whole thing of being semi-polite to sideline reporters. Let’s hope that last thing didn’t take.
We saw a ton of small ball on both sides in an absolutely bananas Game 1, but it’s hard to know how much of that will last through the series. The Spurs are still missing Splitter, Duncan was suffering from a stomach bug (is everyone sick?), and the Warriors briefly shocked everyone by starting both Andrew Bogut and the hand-less Festus Ezeli. Regardless, both teams are well equipped to play a number of different styles, and we’ll likely see them match each other mostly in terms of size.
This round, and these playoffs, aren’t so much a referendum on the big-small thing as they are a reminder that size will always be an important ingredient to success in the NBA. But this round does provide a lot of delicious size-related X’s-and-O’s questions, coaching choices, and other issues that will help decide the NBA’s final four.