Sports are often a copycat type of endeavor. When a couple dozen teams watch one team rise to a championship level and end up with the end gain that everybody else is fighting for, they usually will look at what made the eventual champions successful.
Years ago, Isiah Thomas acquired Steve Francis to pair with Stephon Marbury. It was supposed to be a small but dynamic backcourt that provided a lot of firepower. Many people around the NBA scoffed at this decision because it just wasn’t a traditional type of move. It had incredible drawbacks despite the talent of the two players in question.
Two years ago, David Kahn drafted Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn with back-to-back picks, claiming that he thought the two could play together in the same backcourt. The move was probably just an insurance policy for Rubio’s difficult buyout and reluctance to come to Minnesota. And yet, it was spun as a way to change the conventional thinking around the league and try to play a more up-tempo style with two point guards on the court for extended minutes together.
This potential strategy was also met with harsh criticism and laughter. Although we had seen it many times on NBA courts before, playing two small players in the backcourt just doesn’t match up with the idea and historic values of size dominating the NBA. We’re always enamored with the big man ruling the paint. Also, teams just typically don’t win championships with this style.
That is until a few months ago.
The Dallas Mavericks “got away” with playing three point guard-sized players on the court at the same time. Their best lineups included a backcourt pairing of JJ Barea and Jason Terry paired together or Jason Kidd paired with Terry. It worked for two reasons.
First, those three players are very productive offensively. Kidd is now a deadly outside shooter while also adept at setting up his teammates, Terry has been one of the best pick-and-roll and fourth-quarter scorers the last couple seasons, and Barea is great at getting into the paint and causing havoc for the opposing defense. The second reason is they usually had a lot of length behind them. Playing trios of interior players like Shawn Marion, Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler together allowed their overall team length to cover their smaller teammates defensively.
Also, we can’t forget that Nowitzki was just impossibly good.
But the small backcourts worked. The Mavericks used ball movement and shooting to be a suffocating form of offense for the opposing team. They also switched up their defensive looks quite often and were the best team at playing zone for key stretches.
Well, undoubtedly, this strategy is going to be copied at some point, as are most title contending teams. Instead of trying to be ahead of the next curve in basketball strategy, struggling franchises can also just choose to bring in players to copy what’s already worked in the NBA. It’s unimaginative, but that doesn’t mean it can’t work.
Count the Charlotte Bobcats as one of those teams.
As you probably saw in First Cup this morning, Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer talked to Paul Silas about next season. Silas alluded to (without naming names) the idea of playing incumbent point guard D.J. Augustin and first-round pick Kemba Walker on the floor at the same time:
"I'm going to have two little guys out there who I really think can hopefully play together. But it's going to be hard for (either of) them to guard a 2-guard.
But they can play a zone ... out-front, I think.''
I’ve never been much of an Augustin fan in terms of being a starting point guard in the NBA. He had a pretty good year last season with 14.4 points, 6.1 assists, and 1.9 turnovers in 33.1 minutes per game. I just don’t know that his point-guard abilities are completely up to par with where you would want a full-time starter moving forward to be. However, as a scorer, he can be pretty deadly if surrounded by the right people.
The idea of playing him next to Walker while playing a zone is fairly intriguing. If Walker can be a legitimate starter in this league while giving a solid defensive effort, then playing him next to Augustin may be doable for extended stretches. I’d expect the Bobcats to toss out a lineup of Walker, Augustin, Corey Maggette, Tyrus Thomas and Bismack Biyombo when this happens.
The key to this lineup will be getting stellar defense from Thomas while playing alongside Biyombo, and having Maggette buy into something other than just worrying about his own scoring. Ideally, you’d like a much better shooter as the other wing or someone who has a lot of length and the ability to knock down open jumpers.
If Silas’ plan of running a lot more with his team next season is able to happen consistently, then two quick guards like Augustin and Walker could definitely wreak some havoc. Of course, all of this is a best-case scenario type of situation. Ideally, they’d have Gerald Wallace as one of these wing players instead of Maggette, and they would try to win a lot of ugly games in the 85-84 range.
The Mavericks winning with a small backcourt surrounding their star and one of the best defensive systems in the NBA may not just be a single season perfect storm. We may see teams trend this way, rather than trying to go out and compile their own version of the Big Three.