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Diminishing Returns of Small Ball

After making back-to-back trips to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2013 and 2014, the Indiana Pacers appeared to have found an identity that could keep them atop the East for years to come. The Pacers posed a unique obstacle to their competition with the big-man duo of David West and Roy Hibbert. The Pacers over this two-year run were the only Eastern Conference team to actually make LeBron work hard on his journey to the Finals.

Last season was a lost cause for the Pacers after Paul George broke his leg in gruesome fashion playing in a Team USA scrimmage. The Pacers were a team that needed just an average offense to complement their incredible defense in order to contend for a championship. With George, the team’s best offensive creator, lost for nearly the entire season, the offense transformed from average to mostly terrible outside of a few good stretches.

After missing the playoffs last season, the Pacers made a clear decision to take the roster in a different direction for 2015-16. In their exit interview with the media, coach Frank Vogel and team president Larry Bird announced that should Roy Hibbert opt into his contract for next season, he should expect a greatly diminished role. The Pacers had decided that they were going to join the small ball revolution, and having a lumbering seven-footer play 30 minutes a game wasn’t going to allow them to execute their vision.

Hibbert has since been traded to the Lakers in a straight salary dump that netted the Pacers just a future second-round pick. David West opted out of his $12.6 million contact so he could chase a ring in San Antonio. The Pacers, after looking like Memphis East for the last several years, suddenly became another team embracing the small ball roster-building model.

Without a traditional power forward on the roster worthy of big minutes, Paul George will see a lot of minutes at power forward, and perhaps even start. It’s hard to find fault with the Pacers for making this philosophical 180. Larry Bird just watched the same Finals we all did and decided to join the party. Moving George to power forward and drafting Myles Turner, a 6’10” freshman from Texas who can shoot, seem like logical moves in the changing NBA landscape. But at what point does building a roster to play small stop being effective?

Every time a team commits itself to small ball, it inherently removes a chunk of the advantage held by teams that have already gone small. It also yields smaller returns to teams taking the plunge now than for the early adopters. The overwhelming benefit of playing small is the ability to stretch out the defense and create space for players to drive to the basket and find open shooters. By playing smaller, perimeter-oriented guys at power forward, teams were exploiting the inability of lumbering big men to cover ground 25 feet from the basket.

Thinking back on the Pacers, George will easily be able to blow past bigger guys off the dribble where he may have struggled getting to the rim against traditional small forwards. But every time a team adopts this strategy, it theoretically is replacing the slow-footed 4 with a player capable of guarding George and other small ball forwards on the perimeter. The advantage created by going small doesn’t exist when everybody has gone small.

There will always be some value in having lots of long-range shooting on the floor. No matter what, three points will always be more than two. But again, the advantage of hoisting more threes diminishes every time another team goes all in on the three-point bonanza. This isn’t to say that teams shouldn’t take more threes. Rather, it’s to say that teams should start finding different, more creative ways to create hidden margins for success.

If everyone is committed to the same strategy, then the value of the strategy goes out the window and the quality of the players on the court is your only hope for success. The Warriors have the best collection of shooters and perimeter players in the league, and they won the title. Other teams trying to mimic that model will find it hard to beat the Warriors when there’s only one Stephen Curry to go around.

The pendulum hasn’t yet swung completely in the direction of small ball. Memphis, Chicago and Utah are still built around having a strong interior presence. But at some point soon the entire league will begin to look one way. And as soon as it does, some revolutionary general manager is going to figure out a new way to win.

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