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Small Ball: From Offensive Gimmick to Legitimate Championship Strategy

Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports

The Warriors showed that using small ball lineups at times can win championships, but where did small ball come from? It may surprise some people that the idea of small ball has a long and heavily criticized history in the NBA.

The Early Advent and Criticisms of Small Ball

In its early days, small ball was always seen as a gimmick that couldn’t win games in the playoffs, used to drive up offense but give up a ton of points defensively.

A large part of this legacy was due to Doug Moe. One of the first coaches to use small ball successfully, Moe coached the Denver Nuggets with a decent amount of regular-season success in the 80s. Moe would do crazy things like playing four guards and a small forward together. The signature of Moe’s teams was that they’d push the pace and score a ton of points but be horrendous defensively. As he recounted to the LA Times, he even ordered his team once not to play defense during the last two minutes of a game.

Don Nelson was the next big advocate of small ball, which the media coined as Nellie Ball. Nelson took his Bucks teams, Warriors teams (twice) and Mavericks teams to multiple playoff appearances by playing an extremely up-tempo style of offense with small lineups to create mismatches all over the court. Like Moe before him, these teams struggled on the defensive end and never were able to win a championship.

The Pivotal Change: Defensive Respectability

While many will point to the Warriors as the first team to win a championship with small ball, the championship Pistons were precursors to this style in 2004.

The Pistons used small ball not as an offensive tool to push pace, but rather as a defensive weapon to be active on defense and help on switches. The Pistons played a frontcourt of 6′ 9″ Ben Wallace at center and Rasheed Wallace at stretch 4 as its tallest players. That Pistons team had the second-best defensive rating in the league and beat the Lakers in the Finals, who employed one of the best traditional centers in Shaquille O’Neal.

Like the Pistons, the Warriors were able to use their small lineups in the playoffs to switch on defense and play effectively on both ends. Per NBA.com, the Warriors’ best offensive and defensive lineups in the Finals were those in which they replaced their traditional center Andrew Bogut with either Andre Iguodala or David Lee.

With the ability to be respectable on defense, small ball has morphed from a much-criticized offensive gimmick into a legitimate offensive and defensive strategy.

The New Age of Small Ball, Advantages on Defense and Changing Valuation of Positionless Players

The thinking behind small ball has changed completely. Whereas once it was considered purely a way to score a lot of points, small ball is becoming popularized because there are legitimate arguments that small ball can enable great defense as well.

With lineups like the Warriors used in the playoffs where a smaller player like Draymond Green plays center, teams can utilize switching much more on defense.

Teams like the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers and playoff Warriors have used these concepts to create good defensive lineups wherein players can switch all over the court because of similarities across lineups in height. We’re seeing a major shift towards these types of lineups, and with this shift players like Green become more valuable.

20 years ago, Green would’ve been criticized for not having a natural position to play. Even when Green was drafted in 2012, this is what DraftExpress had to say about him:

Unfortunately, Green’s physical limitations make it quite difficult to project him as being anything more than a liability on [the defensive] end of the floor…
Regardless, Green projects as an excellent pro prospect who should be able to make a solid living at a high level in Europe.

As a second-round draft pick, Green was originally written off as a defensive liability because of his size. That size helped him finish runner-up in the Defensive Player of the Year voting and will garner him somewhere near a maximum contract. Players like Green, Paul Millsap and Boris Diaw are showing the value that positionless players can bring. The word “tweener” is no longer considered a draft-killing negative label for new players coming into the league, and positional versatility is a good thing.

It’s amazing to see how far small ball has come since its introduction into the NBA. Despite winning a ton of regular-season games, Doug Moe and Don Nelson were both ridiculed at the time for their mad scientist ideas on positionless basketball. It’s taken decades, but old school basketball fans are finally seeing that small ball lineups can be great on both ends and positional versatility can be of great value in players.

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