Small ball reached new heights in Game 5 of the 2015 NBA Finals when Warriors coach Steve Kerr sat year-long starter Andrew Bogut the entire game, moved Draymond Green to center and inserted Andre Iguodala into the starting lineup. Cleveland countered by benching their starting center, Timofey Mozgov, nine minutes into the first quarter, never subbing him back in. Golden State won and then they repeating the strategy to be crowned champions in Game 6.
This isn't a new strategy. Don Nelson championed its use all the way back in the early 2000's with the Mavericks and Mike D'Antoni would famously move Amar'e Stoudemire to center and Shawn Marion to power forward with the "Seven Seconds or Less" Suns. But for the Warriors and Cavaliers to both downshift, getting rid of their centers for basically an entire game at the highest stage, is a huge departure from the traditional positions we're accustomed to seeing. Here's a look at the NBA's latest fixation.
What is small ball?
It can be any lineup using smaller players. A power forward playing center? Yes. A small forward playing power forward? Yes. Two point guards? Yes. Three guards? Yes. Teams go small to get more speed and shooting on the floor. Usually, this means downsizing in the front court and replacing a traditional big with a wing or guard.
Why is small ball taking over?
Last decade, the hottest NBA commodity was big men who could shoot. Today, the NBA is wanting them to do even more: dribbling, passing, versatility as a defender.
Draymond Green is a perfect embodiment of this, guarding everyone from LeBron James to Dirk Nowitzki to James Harden last season. He can hold his own against centers and he's an all-around player on the offensive side. So far, Green is an anomaly, more akin to LeBron in his total versatility than perhaps any other player in the league. Still, other teams are making do with players that at least cover several of those categories.
In the same series, the Cavaliers dropped Tristan Thompson down to center. The Mavericks frequently played Al-Farouq Aminu at power forward last season. San Antonio has used Kawhi Leonard and Tim Duncan together as a frontcourt. After an entire career playing the three, Paul Pierce played power forward in Washington last season. Even with his departure, the Wizards are still committed to it. Most basketball minds will say Carmelo Anthony is better suited to play power forward for the Knicks. The list goes on.
With more players like Green coming into the league and older players like Pierce and Anthony making the adjustment, more teams are finding themselves with the personnel to downsize.
What are the advantages?
It starts with spacing. By flooding the floor with shooters, you can generate one-on-one matchups for players that you could never dream of with a traditional lineup. Like single coverage for LeBron James five feet from the basket.
Shooting is good, but it's certainly not necessary to always have five threats on the floor. By adding another ball handler, teams generate more fast breaks, which is statistically the most efficient play type in the NBA. The extra second it takes for a prototypical big man to rebound the ball and outlet the ball to a guard is sometimes all it takes for a defense to get back. If the opposing team doesn't match small ball for small ball and stays big, then there will also be a speed advantage with the possibility of beating a slow-footed center down the court before anyone is the wiser.
Small ball can also disrupt an opposing team's offense by tricking them away from their normal offense. Yes, Timofey Mozgov has a size advantage on Harrison Barnes. No, that doesn't mean forcing the ball to him in the post will result in points.
How do you stop it?
Small ball is an effective strategy but it's still best used in small doses. In the last frame, the Warriors double team Mozgov because they have to -- they are giving up a size disparity, after all, and he had burned them for 28 points the game before.
Constant small ball means constant double teams. Before Game 5, Mozgov had likely never seen a dedicated double team like that one in his NBA career. If teams are frequently sending them at him, though, he'll learn. Other centers like Mozgov will do the same. Those who can't will be replaced by those who can.
There's centers already like this in the NBA, too. You can't go small for long against DeMarcus Cousins, Marc Gasol, DeAndre Jordan and some of the other freak 7-foot athletes. Golden State has thrown the strategy into the spotlight, but it works for them because they're good. They won last year's title mostly thanks to having the most talented players, not a gimmicky lineup.
Imagine if Kevin Love had been healthy for the finals. He's the perfect player to punish a team that goes small: he has a quality post game, good passing skills, quality shooting and he can easily grab 20 rebounds if you consistently place smaller players on him. With his play, there's no guarantee Bogut ever goes to the bench.
Is it here to stay?
Small ball has certainly entrenched itself for the next few years. More and more of those multi-positional forwards are entering the league, giving teams reason to drop the center and run with a lineup that would have been laughed at in years past.
Eventually, though, small ball will reach a saturation point. The NBA is cyclical in its strategies and how it's played. Big men will come back into focus as the league continues to progress. This is just a fresh look at the same old game that we've been playing for nearly a century.