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On the NBA’s Irreversible Small-Ball Revolution

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It’s hard to know when a trend becomes a full-blown revolution; when a fad officially morphs into the established norm. But the NBA’s ongoing infatuation with small-ball is accelerating at a pace that is beginning to feel irreversible.

Look around: Draymond Green stands 6’6″ on a good day, and he played power forward (and more center than anyone would have ever imagined) for the title-winning Warriors. If that’s too conspicuous, consider Marcus Morris’ recent preseason start at the 4 for Stan Van Gundy’s Detroit Pistons—a position he can occupy now because Greg Monroe, a wholly conventional power forward in the NBA that existed five or 10 years ago, is gone precisely because he didn’t fit into that spot anymore.

It’s happening everywhere. The rapid rise of the three-point shot has been exhaustively covered this offseason, and the dwindling size of most NBA lineups is directly tied to it. Teams are getting smaller, more skill-focused and far less concerned with things that once seemed vital to success…like post-up scoring.

So you wonder: Is this just how the NBA works now? Could a league whose 10-foot baskets made height and strength the obvious keys to success for decades someday be dominated by ever-shrinking personnel?

The math is pointing that way. And as long as the analytics show a three-point attempt has a higher expected value than a two-pointer, things won’t reverse course. As teams shoot more and more threes, the quality of those attempts will dwindle—both because poorer shooters will be attempting them and because defenses will develop strategies to defend them better. But until we reach a point of equilibrium when the average two-point attempt has the same expected value as a three, long-range shots will only continue to increase.

We’re nowhere near that point now.

Consider this: Al Jefferson averaged .93 points per post-up play last year. And though it was something of an off season for Jefferson, one of the league’s last remaining post-up technicians, he still ranked in the 74th percentile in scoring efficiency on those play types.

Just for reference, Morris averaged .98 points per play on his spot-up attempts. And that’s including two-point shots, plus the fact that he wasn’t even particularly good at standstill jumpers, ranking in the 59the percentile on such play types last year.

When one of the league’s better post-up threats can’t generate a higher expected value than one of its middling stretch big men, the strategic decision is clear: Go smaller and shoot more threes. Forget the post-up.

Old heads may still lament the death of inside-out basketball, and as recently as last year, some still thought jump-shooting teams couldn’t win a championship (even as the four conference finalists ranked 1-4 in percentage of offense generated via the three-point shot). But the truth is that a well-spaced drive-and-kick attack has rendered straight post-ups mostly obsolete.

The way teams have tried to combat undersized, better-spaced lineups is no secret. The Cavaliers leaned on size and offensive rebounding against the Warriors in the Finals, hoping to offset shooting and speed with bulk and glasswork. Unfortunately for Cleveland, it didn’t work.

But you can see how, given the right personnel, it could.

The problem is, the types of skills it would take to punish someone like Green or Morris (or whatever other smallish frontcourt player you prefer) aren’t making their way into the repertoires of most of today’s big men.

DeMarcus Cousins is a dominant post player—one you can’t guard with any single defender in the post, regardless of size. But there aren’t exactly a lot of Cousins clones stomping around the NBA.

Sixers rookie Jahlil Okafor has one of the most polished post games we’ve seen from a prospect in years, and maybe he’ll be the next guy to punish smaller defenders like Cousins has—perhaps to the point that full-on small-ball ceases to be an option against him.

At the same time, it’s just as easy to see teams doubling down on skill and speed, betting they’ll get back much more on offense than they give up on D. Why look for the elusive next Okafor or Cousins when you could more easily seek out the next Green to space and run right along with the Warriors?

When you weigh out the possible futures ahead of the NBA, one featuring a new wave of dominant post-up bigs who extinguish small-ball with force and one where everybody downsizes to keep pace, the latter seems far, far more plausible.

Viewed that way, it’s probably time to stop calling small-ball a trend. It has officially entered it’s-not-going-anywhere revolution territory.

All hail our new, significantly smaller basketball overlords.

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