In the first game of the season, with the Hawks down big in the fourth quarter, coach Mike Budenholzer juiced the offense by going as small as he dares: Paul Millsap at center with Mike Scott at power forward.
And it worked! Detroit's plodding backup center, Aron Baynes, couldn't keep up with Millsap around the perimeter, and Atlanta dashed its way to a pile of wide-open 3s:
The sequence captured the inflection point at which the league finds itself after watching Golden State lay waste to everyone with super-small groups featuring Draymond Green at center. You watched and wondered: what if the Hawks had stuck with it? Budenholzer wondered the same. "That combination -- of Mike and Paul -- has really surprised us," he told me. "You are a little scared when you put it out there, but it usually works."
Warriors general manager Bob Myers was scared when Cleveland opened a 7-0 lead to start Game 4 of the Finals -- the game in which Steve Kerr swapped Andre Iguodala into the starting lineup for Andrew Bogut, and staked the season on small-ball. "Everything you've been taught in basketball is that size always wins," Myers says. "And you're watching the start to that game, just thinking, "Oh, crap.'"
Golden State wasn't the first champion to lean on small ball, but no team had ever gone that small, for that many minutes, on the league's biggest stage. That move now has coaches across the league reimagining the limits of small ball and the very nature of the sport itself.
"This is a copycat league," said Randy Wittman, who has Kris Humphries jacking 3s and Jared Dudley working as the Wizards' closing-time power forward. "The success of Golden State has propelled coaches to play more small ball than maybe they even wanted to. More teams will push the envelope."
The Warriors even surprised Mike D'Antoni, who was ahead of everyone but Don Nelson in the small-ball revolution. "Shoot," he said, laughing, "maybe we didn't even go small enough in Phoenix."
The Warriors slotting Green at center during the highest-leverage minutes is really just the logical end-game of a decade-long evolution that started with foundation-shaking rule changes. Scrapping the old illegal defense rules freed teams to play zone, and that turned every post entry pass into an exercise of needle-threading. Defenses could stick one guy in front of a post-up brute, one guy behind him to snuff out the lob pass and a third defender nearby just in case that brute spun into some unexpected position. Timofey Mozgov could have been Hakeem Olajuwon trying to post up Iguodala during the Finals, and it wouldn't have mattered; the Cavs couldn't even pass him the ball. "If you can't make an entry pass to a 7-footer posting up my 6-6 guy, then why wouldn't I go small?" asked Bucks coach Jason Kidd.
Being on the wrong end of those exchanges against the small-ball Heat teams motivated Frank Vogel to downsize in Indiana. "It wasn't even about the Warriors," Vogel said. "It was about not being able to overcome LeBron and Miami three straight years. We couldn't even throw the ball inside. We had a lot of turnovers just trying to do that."
If size doesn't matter as much as it used to, you might as well replace at least one behemoth with a smaller guy who can dribble, pass, and shoot 3s in a league where hand-checking is illegal. Coaches (other than Byron Scott) finally grasping the power of the 3-point shot has accelerated small-ball experimentation. On a basic level, three is a lot more than two in a game of finite possessions. Three-point shooters drag defenders away from the rim, leaving open paths for layups. A lineup with five 3-point shooters presents the biggest player on the other team -- the classic rim-protecting center -- with a brutal choice: stay near the rim and allow his guy to jack open corner 3s or hover close to him and leave the rim naked?
Mozgov couldn't adapt to that scenario in the Finals; Iguodala destroyed Cleveland with the easiest 3s he'll ever have. What if you could shove that same dilemma in the face of, say, Rudy Gobert in Utah? "Gobert is huge," Vogel said, "but is he athletic enough to contain shooters and drivers, or does he become a liability?"
You have to go really small -- Golden State level small with five perimeter players -- to foist that choice upon Gobert. Play one traditional big guy, and Gobert will chill near the basket, leaving the quicker Derrick Favors to chase a small-ball power forward. Playing five out is tough to manage. It's hard stocking the roster with enough skilled wings who can shoot 3s, and having all five guys flinging the ball around the arc can almost be bad for spacing. They end up standing near one another in a semi-circle, and opposing defenses can downsize and switch every action -- effectively forming a forcefield around the paint.
You still need someone to puncture the defense -- a rim-runner who sets picks, slices down the paint, sucks in defenders and forces the other team to scramble. "You need one guy going to the rim," Wittman said.
"Four skilled guys out there around a rim-runner -- that's just hard to defend," said Celtics coach Brad Stevens.
The secret to the Warriors is that they play five-out basketball with a rim-runner. Green can shoot 3s, but the lineup works because he's so dangerous screening for Stephen Curry, catching the ball in open space and carving up defenses on 4-on-3 attacks. Green is the rare wing-sized player with a center's wingspan, and a low center of gravity allows him to bang with bigger guys. "That's why Draymond Green is one of the most important players in the league," D'Antoni said.
Perhaps the league is rushing to copy a model that can't be copied. Curry is a revolutionary who makes even the tiniest lineups switch-proof; stick some ho-hum 6-7 wing on him, and Curry is snapping into a step-back 3 or blowing by the poor sap on the way to the rim. Green does the rest with expert shooters and playmakers dotting the floor around him. No team has ever had so many high-IQ wings, all 6-6 or taller, darting around as part of an unbreakable, always-yapping string on defense.
The Warriors stumbled into small-ball magic by accident, anyway. Team officials, who made a run at Dwight Howard in the summer of 2013, happily admit they had no idea how good Green was until David Lee was hurt early last season."We never made a conscious decision to go small," Myers says. "All we wanted was to be versatile. I don't think we beat Memphis going small."
Whether Myers is right, Golden State's success has teams wondering just how small they can go. If Green can play center for extended minutes, who else could handle it? The question becomes especially pressing for teams that have to match up with Golden State in the playoffs. Perhaps the Spurs would have to cut Tim Duncan's minutes, and give LaMarcus Aldridge and Boris Diaw more time as the lone big man. Maybe the Clippers would have to sacrifice DeAndre Jordan and slide Blake Griffin to center. Why can't Kevin Durant log time there? Or LeBron? Or Paul George?
"That's not something we're going to do," Vogel said of using George at center. "But whether or not it's insane, I actually don't know."
It sounds insane. But the game is evolving so fast, it's time to contemplate those kinds of questions. We're not even five years removed from haggling over whether Millsap was a small forward or power forward. Now, it's almost obvious he should see at least some spot minutes at center. "Paul is a little bit like Draymond," Budenholzer said.
During a wave of injuries decimating Boston's big men last season, Stevens decided to use Jonas Jerebko at center with Jae Crowder at power forward. And it worked. "It was quick and fast and hard to play against," Stevens said. "There were things we struggled with, but that's part of the game."
"I never lose sleep over size," Stevens added. "I lose sleep over speed and skill."
Kidd has already (briefly) used a big-man combination of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker, and Kidd is confident the Greek Freak can guard most centers -- with help from a swarming defense. "You're going to see more of that," Kidd said. There just aren't a ton of back-to-the-basket scorers skilled enough to scare teams out of guarding them with smaller guys.
Think about the implications of this for team-building under the salary cap. Utah has two shot-swatting bigs in Favors and Gobert as well as four rangy and versatile wings in Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks, Rodney Hood and Dante Exum. If a day comes when the Jazz can't afford all six, whom should they choose? The Bucks have to decide how they'd like to surround Antetokounmpo, Parker and Khris Middleton -- and whether an old-school bruiser like Greg Monroe is part of the answer. Boston has a ton of young wings and two big men -- Tyler Zeller and Jared Sullinger -- headed to restricted free agency. Kelly Olynyk is set to follow a year later. If Durant stays in Oklahoma City, the Thunder have to decide whether they need to devote so much cap room to Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams, Enes Kanter and Mitch McGary.
In the modern NBA, how small can you go? Small-ball teams have typically sacrificed rebounding and defense, and teams facing a single big man are already smart about dragging that guy away from the basket to attack underneath -- like the Pacers' revamped unit:
But what if the math behind the defense-for-offense trade-off is changing to the point where teams can go smaller than we ever imagined?
I'm not sure we know the answer, and that's the point. Beefier teams will concoct counters, though it's becoming clear that playing two bigs who operate from inside the foul line is no longer a viable answer unless that team has a historic talent like LeBron. Three-out basketball is dying in a four-out league.
One obvious antidote Golden State has so far survived: Bigger teams need to slaughter small-ball opponents on the offensive glass. Oklahoma City has rebounded 32 percent of its own misses so far, the highest mark in the league by a mile, and the Thunder surge toward 36 percent -- a ridiculous number -- when Kanter is on the floor, per NBA.com research. "It's just a matter of maintaining integrity on the boards," Budenholzer said.
But there's a flip side here, too: If a big-ball team crashes the glass and comes up empty, the small-ball enemy will be racing down the court on a 5-on-3. "If you don't get that rebound, you're in for a long night," Kidd said. "You might go on a 6-2 run, but we're going on a 10-0 run with 3s and layups." Kanter would be helpless defending Golden State's super-small groups in the half court; can you imagine the carnage if the Warriors jumped out on the break three possessions in a row?
Studies of rebounding in the SportVU era have found that most boards are snatched about 8 feet above the ground, where players of any height should be able to battle for them. "A guy like Gobert will get some you can't reach," D'Antoni said, "but the others, you should at least have a fighting chance." That's especially true for the Warriors, a ferocious gang-rebounding team. Again: If you're going to build a smaller team, you'd better find taller wings who love to play inside.
But that dirty work is grueling. Part of the challenge of going all-in on small ball is selling players on the drudgery, and your training staff has to keep those players healthy and zippy all season. The Warriors use Green at center in small doses; we don't know how he'd hold up playing there 15 or 20 minutes per game.
And for other counters, the post-up isn't going extinct. Teams are always tinkering with strategies to drive the ball into the post before defenses sandwich the target, and player-development coaches are teaching big men how to back down smaller guys on switches. Skilled post players feast on size mismatches, and the smart passers among them can punish double-teams by whipping the ball to open 3-point shooters.
But bad post passers are turnover machines, and some undersized power forwards beat size with sneaky hands:
In the distance looms the next anti-small-ball evolution: the stretch center. Think of a rim protector who can also shoot 3s, drive, pass and switch onto almost anyone on defense. Anthony Davis, Chris Bosh, Aldridge, Horford and Ibaka are stretch centers who still play some power forward. DeMarcus Cousins qualifies, and Karl-Anthony Towns will be there soon -- if he isn't already. This is what Indiana hopes Myles Turner can become. This should be the ultimate destiny for Kristaps Porzingis, the most exciting sustainable thing to happen to basketball in New York since Patrick Ewing arrived there 30 years ago.
As long as the rim is 10 feet off the ground, skilled size will trump everything. It gives you the best of both worlds -- the shot-blocking bigs provide on defense without the cramped spacing on offense. This is what makes the Millsap-Horford combination so potent.
But not everyone is lucky enough to have skilled size at both big-man positions, and the teams that don't are becoming more adventurous by going smaller. We haven't seen the upper bounds of that experimentation, in part because no one has figured out the Warriors. We don't know when the trade-offs start heading in the wrong direction. But I can't wait to find out.
10 Things I Like And Don't Like
1. The rise, again, of Paul George
Come down from your latest hit of Porzingis, and you'll realize this might be the single happiest story in the league so far: Paul George is back, and he's having the best season of his career. He scored at least 25 points in eight consecutive games, he's on fire from deep and he's still gliding around on defense in perfect sync with his guy.
George is probably taking too many midrange jumpers, but he's canning them, and his turnovers are down. The Pacers are drilling teams with George on the floor and drowning when he sits. Indy is 8-5 against a tough schedule with the fifth-best point differential in the league. The Pacers need to get their starting lineup going, but keep an eye on these guys -- and revel in George's emphatic resurgence.
2. Dirk Nowitzki still bending defenses
This dude is just incredible. Dirk is dragging his body up and down the floor on one leg for a motley crew and firing up a near 50-50-90 season at age 37. Behold, the power of the greatest shooting big man in history.
Teams break out special defenses just for Nowitzki, and Rick Carlisle is an expert at leveraging those tactics to open looks for other players. Here's one basic set the Mavs use to shift the defense:
Griffin, guarding Nowitzki, has to lunge and recover in a flash; it's the only way Griffin can help on the ball handler for even a split second without letting Nowitzki loose for an easy jumper.
While Griffin leaps out, Jordan has to sag away from Zaza Pachulia and slide toward Dirk -- a means of buying time for Griffin's retreat. Pachulia knows this and scurries into a pick-and-roll with Devin Harris, who can then turn the corner free and clear, since Jordan is meandering back from Dirk duty.
The genius of Dirk is that his shooting has always opened more looks for teammates than for him.
3. Tim Duncan's old-school block-and-drop
Timmy needs to patent this sequence:
He barely jumps to block Al-Farouq Aminu's shot, and he keeps the ball in play, because he's Tim Freaking Duncan, and he has no time to spike balls out of bounds and engage in some unbecoming, chest-pounding outburst. The Spurs have recovered better than 80 percent of Duncan's rejections this season, the highest rate in the league among high-volume shot-blockers, per SportVU data. Duncan is near the top of that leaderboard every season.
And that soft, two-handed, overhead bounce pass to Tony Parker? That is a Tim Duncan special. He owns that thing. It's not even really a bounce pass; Duncan just kind of plops the ball down there for Parker.
I can't believe we are watching Nowitzki and Duncan play at All-Star levels as we approach 2016. What planet is this?
4. The Memphis Sounds uniforms
These might be the best throwback-slash-alternate jerseys in NBA history. The bubbly, almost cursive lettering evokes 1970s ABA funk, and that fire-engine red is just gorgeous. Throwbacks are always more fun when they honor some forgotten team, and the Memphis Sounds are the ultimate dustbin-of-history squad. The name existed for one season as the Memphis-based ABA franchise alternated between Tams, Sounds and Pros.
The Grizz need to wear these at least once every season.
Also, uniform junkies: Keep an eye out for the duds the Santa Cruz Warriors, Golden State's D-League team, bust out on Black Friday. They might be all-timers.
5. The Pistons' sad bench
The Pistons are one player away from being really interesting, but as things stand now, their bench is gagging up leads almost every night. Stan Van Gundy has been diligent about keeping one starter on the floor at all times -- often Marcus Morris -- but even that hasn't been enough to prop up this group.
The backup point guard position has been especially troublesome; teams are outscoring Detroit by 17 points per 100 possessions -- not a typo -- when Reggie Jackson sits, per NBA.com research. Van Gundy promoted Spencer Dinwiddie over Steve Blake last week, but the team's all-bench lineup with Dinwiddie at the helm has been a disaster so far. There are reasons for hope. Anthony Tolliver finally hit some shots Monday against Milwaukee and even a recovering Brandon Jennings might be better than the Blake/Dinwiddie combination. Stanley Johnson will be a good two-way player with some off-the-dribble chops.
But it feels as if this may be a season-long problem, barring a trade.
6. Russell Westbrook sensing vulnerability
Over the past week, Westbrook faced the Pelicans without Davis and a Mavs team bereft of leapers who could challenge at the rim. Let's just say Westbrook enjoyed himself. When he knows the rim is vulnerable, he's like a bank robber who sees the security guard walk away from the armored car to grab a coffee -- only Westbrook would steal the money, flip the car with his bare hands, drop the People's Elbow on it and scream before walking away past terrified bystanders.
7. Brooklyn's pointless hedging
Brooklyn has many bad defensive players, but the coaching staff isn't helping by asking the Nets' big men to lunge out hard on pick-and-rolls that require no such urgency. Guarding David Lee like this only serves to unleash his playmaking -- his only real NBA skill:
Hey, let's give Roy Hibbert a clean lane to the basket for absolutely no reason!
Teams usually break out an aggressive style like this to quash jump-shooting bigs who like to pick-and-pop. Brooklyn is treating way too many opposing bigs as if they were Nowitzki, and the Nets are paying the price.
8. New York fans, booing Jeremy Lin
I will never understand this. The B.K. (Before Kristaps) Knicks have been exciting for like 50 games over the past 15 years, and Linsanity was the main attraction in most of them. The Knicks never made Lin an offer in free agency; like a lot of teams, they told Lin to draw an offer sheet and planned to match it.
We know what happened next: Lin signed a funky three-year deal with Houston that included an untenable balloon payment in Year 3. Is that Lin's fault? I suppose any player is complicit in the structuring of his contract, and some New York fans felt jilted when Lin decided against playing through a knee injury during the 2012 playoffs.
But this is the kind of stuff that happens when you nudge a player into the market without understanding all the cap ramifications, and Lin did the very human thing by securing as much money as possible for himself.
It just feels as if everyone should get over this and celebrate a unique, feel-good moment in sports history.
9. The big Boogie cross-match
Boogie should be a full-time center, but there is one benefit of George Karl playing him alongside Kosta Koufos, another true center: Cousins usually guards the opposing power forward, which means that if the Kings squeeze out a stop on defense, that power forward might be stuck on Boogie on the other end. And most power forwards have zero chance against Cousins' rumbling post game.
10. Will Barton, transition maniac
Will Barton doesn't thrive in transition. He creates transition from thin air and then somehow improvises his way to the hoop on wild drives through a thicket of defenders swirling all around him. Every foray is a cliffhanger in which the ending could be anything from an emphatic Barton dunk to Barton tripping over his own feet, colliding with a defender and flying into the fifth row.
So far, Barton is averaging 1.5 points per possession on transition chances -- one of the best marks in the league, per Synergy Sports research. He's about to surpass his career-high in 3-point makes, and he's emerging as an improbable Sixth Man of the Year candidate for a frisky Denver bench that keeps the Nuggets afloat.