It’s undeniable that small ball is a major trend in the NBA today, but we may have just seen the culmination of small ball with the Golden State Warriors winning the 2014-15 NBA championship. They won with a lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green. Facing a team that was lauded for its ability to crash the offensive glass and create second chance opportunities, it seemed like suicide on paper to face a team wielding a seven-foot behemoth, one of the best offensive rebounders in the league and the best player in the world all with a lineup with HARRISON BARNES as the tallest player, topping out at 6’8.
Small ball is effective during stretches of a game, with the smaller lineup able to space out the floor for dribble-drive penetration and three-point kick-outs and the ability to push the pace. The reason that teams usually cannot run small ball lineups for entire games is the weakness of small ball — your team will give up the edge in rebounding, your team will struggle defending the interior and your team will have no threat on the inside. The only team that was able to win big with a small ball lineup in the past was the Miami Heat (Spurs have also enjoyed small ball success), and they had the benefit of having one of the best players ever to play on their team.
The teams that can play small for longer stretches are the teams that really focus on gang rebounding, that can swarm and play pesky team defense, and can push the pace and knock down threes at a dangerous rate. Not coincidentally, that’s the identity of the Golden State Warriors. Lauded all year for their defense, the Warriors benefit from having so many similarly sized players. Dating back to when Mark Jackson used to coach the Warriors, Jackson realized the benefit (and blessing) of having defenders with an average height of 6’7 (Thompson, Green, Livingston are all 6’7, Iguodala is the most versatile defender at 6’6 and Barnes is the tallest non center at 6’8). Jackson preached the importance of team defense, of switching on the fly and being able to help the helper.
Under the tutelage of Jackson, the Warriors blossomed on the defensive end – they jumped from 26th in the league in defensive efficiency to 13th to third. Say what you will about the greatness of Steve Kerr’s coaching, but Jackson built the foundation of the incredible defense in Golden State. The Warriors play a seamless team defense, able to switch on the fly with minimal communication and cover each other when they get beat. Seemingly able to read each other’s mind on when they want to switch, this incredible chemistry that the Warriors have on the defensive end didn’t happen overnight, but it culminated to the point where now it looks to the viewers that the entire defense has a single mind. A great coach once told me the best man-to-man defense looks like a zone, and you can really tell with the Warriors that they embody this – that defense is on such a tight string.
This defense allowed Kerr to make the most important (and ballsy) adjustment of the Finals; starting Iguodala and playing without a center against the Cavaliers. Playing to the slow pace LeBron James dictated wasn’t working, so it was time to flip the script. Play small, push the pace and shoot the ball with some damn confidence! The Warriors won all year with their foot on the pedal, pushing the pace and creating transition opportunities with their team defense and with their ability to scramble teams in transition by having deadly three-point shooters spaced out in exact formations so that the person penetrating could find them on the kick-out.
It was choosing the lesser of two evils many times; if the defense stayed home on the three-point shooters and didn’t help, it was more often than not a made layup. Help, and give up the most valuable play in the NBA – a set, wide open three-point shot. Kerr trusted his team defense so much that Andrew Bogut, a member of the All-Defensive Second Team this year, played a combined three minutes over the last three games. He didn’t play a single minute the last two games.
Why do teams find so much success with small ball in the modern NBA? Yes, there are better three-point shooters today than ever, and much more of a focus on using the three-pointer as a weapon, but the biggest reason is that there are just not enough players to capitalize on the weaknesses of small ball. Teams that use small ball as a big part of their identity typically give up the rebounding edge to the other team, rather focusing on pushing the tempo and creating more possessions. Not to say teams can’t win the rebounding battle when playing small, but usually it’s the first thing that’s sacrificed in lieu of the strengths of small ball. Giving up rebounds to the opposition can be made up for in other ways, but what can’t be made up is giving 20+ points to centers on a night-to-night basis. Look at the Cavaliers before the acquisition of Timofey Mozgov; the opposing big men were having a field day on the interior. The Cavaliers didn’t have a good enough team defense to help down low, and they were just too small to prevent even mediocre centers from scoring at will.
Small ball can be so effective because there are just not enough low-post threats. In the last five seasons, the only centers who have cracked the top 10 in season leaders in points have been DeMarcus Cousins, Brook Lopez and A’mare Stoudemire. Without the threat of a center who can drop 20-30 on a nightly basis, teams have gotten more and more daring in playing smaller and faster. Teams have consistently been looking to find more athletic 4s in the league and (ability willing) pushing them out to the three-point line.
The fact that Golden State won the NBA Finals this year doesn’t necessarily usher in nor cement the era of small ball. The recipe for success still remains relatively the same – pair an elite talent with one other bona fide star, and surround the duo with a supporting cast of role players who can shoot, rebound and play defense. There’s no shortage of role players in the NBA, but finding that elite, franchise-level talent is the hardest thing to do.
For teams with an elite talent on their team, the future will move on with an emphasis on small ball. The Warriors just showed the world how to win an NBA championship. Play selfless, team defense. Have multiple shooters who can stretch the floor. Have one player who can play effective defense on the opposing superstar. Have a player on offense who can penetrate and create the three-point opportunities that teams so desperately crave. Not every team will be blessed with a Stephen Curry, a generational talent. But for those teams with elite talent … the blueprint might just have been released.