The Case For and Against Small Ball in the NBA

Much has been made of the NBA’s en vogue trend of playing smaller lineups, with three guards, a traditional small forward and a center or two guards, two small forwards and a power forward or center. Even before that, it was a topic of conversation on a broader level as the United States struggled to adapt to the small ball international game at the Olympics. Luckily, the U.S. has claimed gold in the last two summer games following the debacle that was 2004 in part because LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony are small forwards that are big and strong enough to play power forward for extended stretches.

It’s no coincidence that James’ Heat and Anthony’s Knicks are two of the teams who have embraced the style in the playoffs this year. For both its somewhat of a necessity, as the Knicks have suffered through Amar’e Stoudemire’s injury and the Heat only have one quality big man in Chris Bosh.

So what are the pluses and minuses of going small? Let’s do this.

When you are small and quick, this can happen...

When you are small and quick, this can happen…

The Case For Small Ball

Playing some combination of four guards and small forwards obviously revolves around getting additional quickness out on the court, leading to additional fast break opportunities, more dribble penetration and, consequently, open 3-point looks.

But in today’s NBA, it also means more space for a traditional big man to operate in the post. A team that has two big men both stationed down low runs the risk of clogging the paint, so the one that receives an entry pass and turns inside towards the basket runs right into a help defender. The alternative is to pivot baseline where it is harder to help, but there’s a reason that teams funnel offenses baseline – it’s almost never the best shot attempt and passing angles are limited.

But if a team passes into the post and has the rest of its players beyond the 3-point arc, it creates ample room for the post player to operate. If the guards sag to help (as they often do), the big man can pass out of the double team to teammates who have a wide open look or a lane to dribble around the closeout and wreak more havoc.

Another advantage is having additional ball-handling out on the court. This (theoretically) should lead to less turnovers and open up the offensive playbook a bit since there are more players that can initiate the offense. Also, guards are usually better passers than traditional big men, so overall ball movement is generally better.

The Warriors are a perfect example of all of this. With the injury to David Lee, they have largely gone with lineups that feature Harrison Barnes at the 4 and a three-headed guard monster of Steph Curry, Jarrett Jack and Klay Thompson. The spacing they have for shooting 3-pointers (which they are very good at), dribbling into the lane (which they are also very good at) and for center Andrew Bogut (ANDREW BOGUT!) to work his occasional post magic all work to their advantage.

But there are reasons that not all NBA teams play small lineups, right? Of course there are…

But this can also happen.

But this can also happen.

The Case Against Small Ball

The main reason that NBA coaches, or coaches in general for that matter, like to play two big men is that big men usually are good at basketball. I have no statistical evidence to back this up. It’s all anecdotal and just general logic.

For one, size gives you an advantage on the glass. Rebounding is one of the most important stats in basketball, as the ability to limit the opposing team’s possessions and generate additional scoring chances cannot be overstated. I wasn’t surprised to see that the Indiana Pacers were top rebounding team this year, as they start 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert at center and 6-foot-9 bruiser David West at power forward.

More size on the court also gives a team additional options in the pick and roll, as having two big bodies to set screens for your point guard allows a team to use one post player to set the screen while the other sets up shop in post or set a double screen. And while you can make the argument that you can run a screen and roll with two guards, you can’t argue that if you’re a guard you would rather run into Roy Hibbert than George Hill any night.

A team’s help defense also greatly benefits from added size in the paint. When a guard gets beat off the dribble, having both Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph available to come over and contest the shot is just awesome. It also allows one of them to come over and help and then the other rotate onto the other’s man, unlike Tyson Chandler in New York who is the sole anchor of his team’s defense. Ultimately, the size and length of the opposing defense have as much to do with field goal percentage as shooting prowess.

Indiana and Memphis are at the other end of the spectrum from Golden State, as they rely on their size to beat opposing teams up, outrebound them to no end and post the crap out of everyone. And who can blame them? When you have the talent in the frontcourt that they do with Hibbert/West and Gasol/Randolph, it would be crazy not to.

The bottom line

Which approach is better? Ultimately, I believe it’s a team-by-team case. Teams should play their best semblance of a balanced lineup regardless if it skews a little bit big or small. Notice I was careful not to say a team should play its best five players. What if a team had five amazing centers? They couldn’t get the ball across halfcourt without having it stolen ever.

But I think that coaches would rather have at least two big men with  legit starting ability. Most of the teams that are playing small this offseason are doing it out of necessity. As mentioned before, the Knicks are going small because of the injury to Amar’e. The Warriors because of the injury to Lee. The Thunder are playing Kevin Durant at power forward for stretches because with the injury to Russell Westbrook, they need more scoring on the floor that they just don’t get from Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins. The Spurs, Grizzlies and Pacers are only playing small when they want to match up with those three teams from an Xs and Os perspective.

The wild card in all of this is James. I won’t dive too deep into this because I already devoted an entire post to him last week, but he’s the one small forward that is a legitimate power forward when he wants to be. It allows Miami to play him at 4, Bosh at 5, Wade at 1 or 2, and then two of the Shane Battier/Ray Allen/Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers quartet depending on who is hot and drive other teams bonkers.

Anyway, did anyone see the scores of last night’s Pacers/Knicks and Spurs/Warriors games?