In today’s NBA, innovation has become synonymous with the small-ball strategy. The style of play has been around for years, but the Golden State Warriors’ NBA Finals win — with the series’ turning point in Game 4, where Steve Kerr moved Draymond Green to center and inserted Andre Iguodala at power forward — seems to have removed any lingering stigma about its legitimacy. Across the league, others teams are trying to follow suit.
After finding playoff success with a small-ball tweak, the Washington Wizards added players like Jared Dudley to help make it a permanent part of their plan. The Indiana Pacers dumped center Roy Hibbert for a second-round pick and are alienating star wing Paul George by making him play power forward in their small-ball transition. Several other teams — the Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Clippers, Milwaukee Bucks — appear to be building their second-units as small-ball change-of-pace lineups. If your team didn’t spend the summer figuring out how they can play small, even if just to counteract a key opponent who will be using that style, then it’s falling behind.
When Kerr pulled the small-ball lever in the Finals, it completely changed the on-court dynamic. Timofey Mozgov, who had been a terrific defender and pick-and-roll finisher for Cleveland, became a defensive liability. Tristan Thompson’s work on the offensive glass was canceled out by forcing him to defend a perimeter player. The defining lineup of that series — Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Iguodala and Green — was an extreme example of something that the Warriors had been utilizing all season. In 2014–15, Green started 79 games at power forward; in his two previous seasons, he had played roughly two-thirds of his minutes as a small forward.
Defining small ball is somewhat nebulous. As a basketball concept, it is closely connected into the ideas of pace-and-space — pushing the tempo on offense and stretching the defense by keeping extra shooters on the floor. The position where those two ideas overlap is at power forward, where pace-and-space requires a fast athlete who can shoot from the outside. There are a handful of players who fit that mold and also happen to be 6'10", but there certainly isn’t one for every team — thus the necessity of sliding a smaller player up to play that typically big position.
The history of small ball can be roughly be divided into two tracks: by design and by necessity. What Golden State did on the NBA’s biggest stage was a powerful advertisement for small ball’s potential, but the Warriors certainly didn’t invent it. Heck, they weren’t even the first team to win a title using it.
The Miami Heat, which also won a title playing small, paved that path by necessity. In the 2012 playoffs, an injury to Chris Bosh forced Erik Spoelstra to lean on LeBron James as his power forward. This put another shooter on the floor, and transformed the Heat’s offense from good to great. The extra shooting allowed space for penetration and cutters and sent LeBron into the post, inverting defenses by pulling big defenders away from the basket.
Miami used this style of play in both of its title runs, and even late in the 2014 playoffs, its offense was significantly better when small. However, small-ball power forward was not LeBron’s preferred position, so there was always a sense that the Heat weren’t quite as committed to it as they could have been.
When the 2007 Warriors pulled off one of the greatest upsets in playoffs history, beating the top-seeded Mavericks in six games, they played small ball because of circumstances out of heir control. Their coach that season, Don Nelson, was an innovator of small ball, but they didn't play that way until injuries mounted and they unloaded two disappointing bigs — Troy Murphy and Ike Diogu — in a mid-season trade.
Those Warriors sneaked into the playoffs by winning nine of their final 10 games. The starting lineup they used for that run featured Al Harrington and Stephen Jackson, both wings, as power forward and center. The only traditional big the Warriors utilized in their series against the Mavs was Andris Biedrins, and he played fewer than 20 minutes a game. Harrington, Jackson and Matt Barnes were able to handle Dirk Nowitzki defensively, fronting him in the post and using their speed to deny the ball. At the other end of the floor, the spacing of playing five shooters created myriad driving lanes for skinny Baron Davis and Monta Ellis to carve Dallas up.
There are plenty more examples of injuries, trades, and specific playoff matchups pushing teams towards unusual lineups. There are just as many examples of the other path — where small ball is the guiding principle before the season even starts.
The Mike D’Antoni-Steve Nash Phoenix Suns are, offensively at least, the prototype for today’s small ball arrangements. Amar’e Stoudemire often played center, capable of stepping out to hit long jump shots, but also crashing toward the basket on the pick-and-roll. Shawn Marion played power forward — capable of defending several different positions, running the floor in transition, and hitting three-pointers from the corner. Nash ran the show with two three-point shooters always on the wings — Joe Johnson, Quentin Richardson, Jason Richardson, Raja Bell, etc.
The intention of Phoenix’s small-ball system was to spread the defense, but that’s not the only reason that coaches have implemented similar strategies in the past. Doug Moe’s Denver Nuggets teams of the early 1980s used small ball as a means to outrun teams in transition. Don Nelson, essentially everywhere he’s ever been, has used small-ball lineups as a way of dictating matchups and taking advantage of unique skill combinations. Small ball usually is thought of as an offensive strategy, but it has also been used as a systematic defensive tool.
Rick Pitino’s tenure as head coach of the Boston Celtics certainly was not a success—it lasted just three and a half season and resulted in a .411 winning percentage—but Pitino used smaller lineups in a revolutionary way. Antoine Walker was usually the power forward, and was a prodigious three-point chucker. Pitino’s philosophy was about rangy defenders who often pressured full court and looked to create turnovers and transition opportunities. Walter McCarty, who likely would have been a wing anywhere else, backed up Walker, and occasionally played next to him as a center, as well. Eric Williams, another sturdy wing, played minutes at power forward as well.
The Celtics had a history with small ball before Pitino, as well. Under head coach Tommy Heinsohn, Boston regularly played small in the early 1970s, although for a different purpose. Dave Cowens — who became their center — was a masterful passer. Playing small allowed the team to preserve the residual up-tempo style from the days of Bill Russell, but also contort the defense in the half court. There were no three-pointers in those days, but moving Cowens around the elbows often forced defensive switches and opened space at the basket for cutters and drivers. Playing this way, Boston added another two titles to their prodigious total during this era.
Reflecting back on history, today’s Golden State is a small-ball hybrid: a designed setup that was then adapted out of necessity.
Historically, teams that played small — whether by design or by necessity — used it exclusively. Not only was small ball their only hope, but that style of play wasn’t adaptable even within those narrow confines.
What makes Golden State unique is the Warriors appear to have solved the puzzle of diversifying advantages within a small-ball environment. They had one of the best regular seasons in league history using Draymond Green at power forward. Then, when the moment called for it, they slid him to center and doubled-down on the strategy. They also, at times, abandoned small ball completely, using some big lineups with David Lee at power forward to help regain their equilibrium in Game 3. And, most importantly, they figured out how to make small ball work to their advantage both offensively and defensively.
Obviously, much of their success is about personnel. Stephen Curry is a uniquely impactful offensive player, and Green is nearly as unique as the small-ball linchpin. But Golden State has broken the ceiling on small ball as a strategy of compromise — of sacrificing one advantage to gain another. As teams like the Wizards and Pacers plan out their version of Golden State’s template, finding the right players will be the hardest part (and there probably aren’t enough of these types of players for everyone to be able to do it). The idea, though, is to finally have it all — pace and space, offense and defense, speed and shooting, innovation and success.