Small ball has been in the NBA since at least the advent of ”Nellie-ball”, introduced by Don Nelson and the Milwaukee Bucks in the 1970s, if not before then. [Nelson himself cites the great Red Auerbach as the original if accidental architect.] The concept has had some success, in recent seasons with LeBron James and other larger small forwards moving to the power forward position in certain lineups. Certainly, it is more prevalent in the modern era. But small ball cannot be said in any way taken over the league. As will be seen, it should not be seen as a strategy for creating a championship team, but rather a tactic to be employed only in stints to take advantage of certain matchups.
Last season, none of the most used line-ups in the league were particularly small ball in nature. And, when looking at net rating, nor were any of the most successful line-ups either. (I use the term “most successful” rather than “best” since outscoring the opponent definitely is a sign of success for a line-up, but we would have to move into more advanced stats and analysis to tell which line-up actually performed better when accounting for strength of opponent, efficiency, and the like.)
The ten most used line-ups, NBA regular season 2013-2014
Hill, Stephenson, George, West, Hibbert
Portland Trail Blazers
Lillard, Matthews, Batum, Aldridge, Lopez
Rubio, Martin, Brewer, Love, Pekovic
Calderon, Ellis, Marion, Nowitzki, Dalembert
Golden State Warriors
Curry, Thompson, Igoudala, Lee, Bogut
Lowry, DeRozan, Ross, Johnson, Valanciunas
Wall, Beal, Tucker, Booker, Gortat
Hinrich, Dunleavy, Butler, Boozer, Noah
Beverly, Harden, Parsons, Jones, Howard
Carter-Williams, Anderson, Turner, Young, Hawes
The ten most successful line-ups, NBA regular season 2013-2014 (200+ minutes)
Los Angeles Clippers
Paul, Redick, Barnes, Griffin, Jordan
Golden State Warriors
Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Lee, Bogut
Augustin, Butler, Dunleavy, Gibson, Noah
San Antonio Spurs
Parker, Green, Leonard, Splitter, Duncan
Los Angeles Clippers
Paul, Collison, Barnes, Griffin, Jordan
Augustin, Hinrich, Butler, Gibson, Noah
Bledsoe, Dragic, Tucker, Frye, Plumlee
Thomas, Thornton, Gay, Thompson, Cousins
Walker, Henderson, Kidd-Gilchrist, McRoberts, Jefferson
Wall, Webster, Ariza, Nene, Gortat
This look at the line-ups, however brief, is enough to demonstrate that the most successful ones have one of the better centers in the league. The same can more or less be said about the most used line-ups, except that Philadelphia 76ers took tanking to such a level that even their most used five-man-unit had a terrible net rating.
Although logic would suggest that the best line-ups would be the ones that play the most, and that the ones that play the most would be the best, only one line-up appears on both lists. There might be several explanations for this.
First of all, it is probably difficult to maintain a very high net rating when you play 800+ minutes together. Outscoring your opponent by 15.4 points/48 minutes like the Warriors lineup did while playing 819 minutes, could very well be the outlier.
Secondly, some of the more successful lineups are not comprised entirely of starters (who, by starting, are guaranteed regular minutes together). The Chicago Bulls have two lineups among the most successful ones, both with backup point guard D.J. Augustin on the floor. This means that the team is in the process of rotating in the bench players when that particular lineup plays together. (Although, looking at these numbers in hindsight, it might have been a good idea to insert Augustin in the starting lineup.)
Thirdly, and most obviously, injuries play a big part in how many minutes a unit can play together. The Clippers had two very successful units, but with Chris Paul out for 20 games, and J.J. Redick out for most of the season, their time together was very limited.
Looking at the numbers with this context in mind, one can start to look for trends pertaining to the idea of two-forward small ball.
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It might just be a coincidence, but while there are several lineups with stretch power forwards among the most used, they are quite rare among the most successful ones. It could be simply because that the best stretch fours are very good offensively whilst limited on defense (like Kevin Love and Dirk Nowitzki), and that, in order to get the highest net rating, you need to get a lot of stops too. It surely is not a coincidence that almost all of the most successful line-ups play for teams with a very good defense. The top six in defensive efficiency last season were Indiana, Chicago, San Antonio, Golden State, Charlotte and Washington in that order, while the Clippers were no. 10.
The most used – and most successful – small-ball line-up last season was, as you might expect, one from the Miami Heat. Mario Chalmers, Dwyane Wade, Shane Battier, LeBron James and Chris Bosh played 421 minutes together, recording an + 8.1 net rating in the process. It is mostly due to injuries to Wade and Battier that this unit was not used more.
Small ball, and its renewed focus, stems from its places as a part of the Moneyball revolution that has taken over the NBA. You want your shots taken from around the rim, from the free throw line or behind the three point arc, for they are the most efficient places to be. The long two-point shot is the worst shot in basketball from a stats perspective. Small ball, in theory, is a great means of stretching the floor in this way, removing the two point shots, maximizing the opportunities to play with three or four out, and opening up better driving lanes to the rim.
While it’s not the only way to play small-ball, one of the more obvious choices, as seen with the LeBron example, is to insert an extra small forward who can both shoot from behind the arc and attack the rim. If he cannot do this, he is just an undersized power forward. Whether you choose to remove the center or the power forward depends on the talent you have on your team.
Last season, a team like New York Knicks used Tyson Chandler at center and Carmelo Anthony at power forward, because they wanted to keep Chandler as the defensive anchor. On the other hand, Miami used Chris Bosh to stretch the floor on offense, in order to clear the paint for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. On the defensive end, the Heat compensated by playing very aggressive on the perimeter, and with LeBron James as the defensive anchor.
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Stretching the floor is essential in modern basketball. Not only because the three point shot is more effective than the long two, but also because you need to clear the paint in order to allow the perimeter players to attack the rim. It makes it possible to run pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop at the perimeter instead of near the free throw line, theoretically opening up open three point shots from players so tall as to be hard to contest out there. Small-ball is one way to create this perimeter space, and thus a lot of regular power forwards are now stretch fours with three point range, and we even see some ”stretch fives” like Atlanta’s Pero Antic and Boston’s Kelly Olynyk.
Perhaps the best example from last season of a team choosing small ball to mix things up was the first round series between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors started the series with Jermaine O’Neal replacing injured center Andrew Bogut in the starting lineup, but after three games coach Mark Jackson started using forward Draymond Green as a means of trying to slow down Blake Griffin, while David Lee shifted onto DeAndre Jordan. It worked pretty well – Griffin went from scoring 35 and 32 points in game two and three to not scoring more than 24 in either of the following four games. (As for how and why, watch Coach Nick’s breakdown of Draymond Green’s defense in game four.)
It is clear that the Warriors gave up any hope of matching the Clippers in the paint with the switch from O’Neal to Green, but Green and Lee are both better outside shooters than either Griffin or Jordan. When you add the ”Splash Brothers”, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry, and even Andre Igoudala, you create a team that stretches the floor like few other teams in the league, if any. The Clippers ultimately won the series, but the shift to small ball is what took it to the coin flip of a game seven.
This season, it is probable that the Warriors will go small again, if Bogut again gets injured. And there will be plenty of others. The Miami Heat will keep likely their small ball principles in play this season, despite all their personell changes- in this regard, it has not changed much, as Luol Deng replaces LeBron James’s role in the small ball. This preseason, the Sacramento Kings have started experiments with a three-guard lineup to speed up their game, using two point guards, Darren Collison and Ramon Sessions, together with either Ben McLemore or Nik Stauskas, moving usual small forward Rudy Gay to the power forward position.
On the other hand, teams such as the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets, who both have new head coaches and new systems to adjust to, likely look to move away from small ball, at least for now. Carmelo Anthony slimmed down this summer to be in shape to play small forward once again in the new triangle offense. And although this might seem strange considering his success at the power forward position in recent years, the blurred positions in the triangle make it not so much about which forward position he should play, but whether he still can create matchup problems.
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The problem if Anthony remained at power forward would be the defensive matchups, for the Knicks badly lack interior protection after Tyson Chandler was traded. New York would have to use Amar’e Stoudemire and/or Andrea Bargnani at center, or trust in whatever Sam Dalembert offers on any given night, alongside J.R. Smith at small forward, which on both ends and at both positions would be pretty bad matchups against many teams. The defensive puzzle is not solved by moving Anthony to small forward, but his new, more athletic shape should help the team a lot in that regard.
For the Nets, it was partly out of necessity that they played a lot of small ball last season, while Brook Lopez was injured. The drop in talent of their bench big men after Mason Plumlee was simply too much, and while Kevin Garnett is still a defensive presence, he can no longer play 30+ minutes each night (managing only 20.5 minutes per game last season). However, with Lopez now back, and Mason Plumlee emerging as a solid center in his absence, they might as well go back to playing big. This is new coach Lionel Hollins’ basketball philosophy, and the center play of Lopez is what the roster has been built for.
It seems then as though the league is moving in both directions. Some teams are opting to go smaller while others are opting to go bigger. It makes sense that Moneyball principles are taking over, but it is not as clear that large amounts of small ball are sustainable. It may have salvaged the Brooklyn Nets last season, but even the Miami Heat, who had ridden the formula to two straight titles, ran into matchup problems with all their small ball talent last season. And every small ball team has to answer the question whether they can live without the rim-protection from the really big guys. Ultimately, the team that won the title was the team that was able to go both big AND small, and to space the floor and run an offense that incorporated all of the virtues of small ball basketball without the defensive mismatches it so often cuases. Small-ball in small dosages will probably remain relevant from here on it, but small ball alone is not enough.