The Birth of 'Small Ball'

The Heat just won a championship with their best ball handler playing power forward. Now "small ball" hardly describes LeBron James, but the principles of small ball peppered the playoffs. Kevin Durant sliding to power forward and the Nuggets' two-point-guard lineups are just two examples.

Many credit Don Nelson, who will be inducted Sept. 7 into the Hall of Fame, for bringing small ball to the NBA stage. In an interview with CSN Bay Area, Nelson reflects on the inspiration for his small-ball formula:

It all happened in the Celtic practices. What Auerbach would do when it got to midseason and practices were drudgery, he would play big guys against the small guys and the smalls would always win. You put Bill Russell on the other team and everybody else big, and put the smalls on the other and it wasn’t a close game as long as it was a full-court game. Now half court, you couldn’t do that. But full court, the smalls always won, so I’m sure that was the start of it.

I could never understand why small players could never rebound and big players couldn’t dribble. They can. They just don’t do it. But in practice, big guys can dribble and do a lot of things. Guys like Magic Johnson proved that – 6-8 point guard – that it could happen if they believe they can do it. So I always asked my small guys to be rebounders and my big guys to handle the ball and dribble and get into the open court and feel comfortable there.

I think it all started from those practices. Of course, it didn’t hurt that we had John Havlicek on our side in small ball. But the big guys couldn’t get the ball up the court. It was always like 10-2 – small guys always won.