Skip to content

Pro Basketball Crosstalk: Has the small-ball fad passed?

Sep 9, 2010, 3:15 PM EDT

Gorilla Fire.jpg

Sometimes, the NBA’s most important issues can only be fully understood when two college students talk at each other about them. It is in this spirit that we here at NBC bring you Pro Basketball Crosstalk, featuring Rob Mahoney and John Krolik.

Resolved: Contrary to earlier reports, the crackdown on hand-check rules that took place in the 2004 offseason has not led to small-ball teams finding success at the highest levels of play. 

John Krolik: It wasn’t long ago that small-ball teams looked like the wave of the future. The crackdown on hand-checking and the concurrent rise of the D’Antoni Suns made it seem like small-ball was taking the league by storm; stodgy old offenses built around feeding the post or setting up mid-range jumpers were being replaced by small guards and wing players flying into the paint to get a layup or draw a foul, kick the ball out on the break to an open three-point shooter, or find a hyper-athletic big for a resounding dunk. Nobody could stop ultra-fast guards with finishing ability like Tony Parker, Devin Harris, or Monta Ellis from getting into the lane and wreaking havoc. The freaking Warriors beat the Mavericks in the playoffs. (Sorry, Rob.) The winds of change were blowing. 
But here we stand in the year 2010, and not that much has changed. Both NBA finals teams featured a seven-foot power forward and an absolute behemoth at center. Only three of the ten “fastest” teams in the league made it into the playoffs, and only Utah and Phoenix made it out of the first round. Orlando has been the only Eastern Conference contender to run any sort of “progressive” offense, but they also have the best center in the league. 
Meanwhile, guys like Parker, Harris, and Monta no longer seem like the point guards of the future — Monta, in fact, has become the bane of the advanced statistics community. The best pure scorer in the league is, in the objective, non-basketball, sense of the word, slow, and isn’t a particularly good passer either — In short, Durant was a guy who was supposed to dominate the old NBA, but I guess sometimes a great player is just a great player. 
What’s weird about everything being more or less the same on a macro level is that everything seems so different on a micro level. Offenses built around feeding the post are all but gone — the Lakers won a championship without relying on post-up play, and they have Gasol, Bynum, and Kobe. Players like Rashard Lewis and Lamar Odom are now considered legitimate power-forward options. It’s still all but impossible to keep the quicker guards in the league from blowing past their first defender. Teams are shooting more threes than ever before. Yet it’s still the slow-it-down, defense-first, up-with-big-men teams who end up playing each other come May and June. 
One thing I’ll say before swinging it to Rob is that great big men seem to be as valuable as ever, just in different ways. For example, Dwight Howard doesn’t dominate games by getting the ball on the block and making a move every time the Magic have the ball, because that’s not how things work anymore. However, his ability to guard the paint has become invaluable, because there’s no way to stop faster players from getting into the paint without fouling them on the perimeter. Offensively, Howard’s ability to turn Jameer Nelson’s penetration into an alley-oop finish is more valuable than it would have been previously, because Jameer now penetrates more. (The best case study on this might be “MVP KG vs. Best player on a championship team” KG.) 
Rob, your thoughts on all this? 
Rob Mahoney: To say that small-ball teams haven’t found success at the highest levels of play is both indisputably true and an incredible disservice to the Phoenix Suns. 
If the criterion for success is to COUNT THEM RINGS, then certainly, the Suns and every team of their ilk have failed. The six NBA champions since 2004 have averaged a pace of 91.4 possessions per game, which is somewhere between plodding and the ideal habitat for moss. The kings of the hill tend to climb it rather slowly, and that’s as true now as it ever has been.
Still, if the Suns are the poster children for the small-ball movement, to say that they haven’t been successful is way off-base. In the six seasons since the hand-check rules were revamped, Phoenix made the playoffs five times, made it to the conference finals thrice, and the semifinals once. That’s in spite of an evolving and eventually overhauled core, two coaching changes, a season-long injury to a star player, and an owner looking to trim expenses at every turn. There were all kinds of factors working against the Suns, and yet they’re one of the decade’s quintessential teams, despite never hoisting the ol’ Larry O’Brien. 
If Amar’e Stoudemire didn’t have to go under the knife, if the league office didn’t issue some curious suspensions, if they hadn’t continually run into the Spurs, or if the Lakers hadn’t found Pau Gasol on their doorstep, we might not even be discussing this in such uncertain terms. Phoenix was that good for that long, and yet just because they never punched their title tickets doesn’t mean their style is invalidated.
From there, I’d offer this: the Suns (under Mike D’Antoni and Alvin Gentry, not Terry Porter) did it right, and most of the small-ball elements you noted represent the idea in its impure forms. The Warriors had their day in the sun in 2007, but ultimately, their rosters have been mistranslations of an otherwise beautiful concept. Claiming that small-ball failed because teams like the Warriors stumbled is akin to pinning the Clippers’ failures on all moderately paced teams. Sure, other franchises were never quite able to replicate the Suns’ model, but Seven-Seconds-or-Less requires a steadfast commitment to counterintuitive ideals. Run off the make. Don’t foul. Trust the transition three. These are things that basketball players need to be taught to embrace, and that’s an insanely difficult task without a franchise willing to dive in headfirst. Not many are.
If you’d ask me to define why small-ball teams on the whole have failed to find success, I’d start there. Personnel is an issue, too — just because T.J. Ford is fast doesn’t mean he should be running your fast break offense. Additionally, I think a lot of people (fans, players, coaches, etc.) saw small-ball as some easy, as-seen-on-TV method of transforming a team overnight, and it’s certainly not. Like any other basketball system, it takes discipline and proper construction, and the hastily assembled copycats that have been touted as small-ball outfits are only so in form, not function.
JK: I’m a big opponent of the “History is the propaganda of the victors” construct, so I definitely hear what you’re saying w/r/t the Suns. They were a few bad breaks away from a championship, no doubt. You could, of, course, say the same thing about a number of teams: LeBron’s Cavaliers were two Rashard Lewis threes away from playing Kobe’s Lakers in the Finals. The Magic were one Dwight Howard free throw/missed Derek Fisher three, and Courtney Lee layup
from putting up a real fight against the Lakers. Wilt Chamberlain was a Frank Selvy mid-range jumper from taking a game seven from Bill Russell. They were a few good breaks away; so were a lot of teams. 
(My point about the Suns? The Marion trade absolutely devastated their ability to beat top-tier teams playing their style. Like I said about Howard/KG earlier, the hand-check rules have benefited great defensive reactors as much as great offensive actors, and Marion’s ability to cover ground and guard multiple positions was CRUCIAL to their success.)
My main point was how I’m disturbed that the Suns didn’t find anybody to take up their mantle. The Suns were a tremendously talented team; look at those rosters sometime. They had all the talent to win championships, even many of them — the year they did it without Amar’e was a testament to how good their system can be, but that was still a team with great talent at multiple positions perfectly suited to making that style work. 
Furthermore, what made the Suns special was Steve Nash, one of the most talented (and unique) offensive players we’ve seen in the last decade. The question of whether the Suns’ system is a blueprint for a team that wants to win a championship or the best system to utilize Steve Nash’s talents has yet to be answered at the highest levels, from where I stand. To make my point clear: the Moneyball A’s didn’t win a title either, but the Sabermetrics/big-ball/Value-on-OBP way of building teams swept the league in their wake. The Suns way of building teams has not. 
Here’s my small-ball thesis for the time being:
(Talent) +/- (Coaching/Chemistry) +/- (X-Factor) = Success
Assume “X-Factor” has more inherent variation than the former two considerations. If you accept that postulate, you see why small-ball is a good idea for “mid-level” teams but has trouble producing finals berths: The faster you play, the more you’re embracing variance and increasing the value of your X-Factor, be it positive or negative. (I realize that, theoretically, more possessions would suggest less possibility for randomness, but that’s not the way the NBA, a game of runs, operates.) 
The 2007 Warriors had a pantsload of X-Factor, and that was great for them: it allowed them to beat the Mavericks, but led to them getting beaten fairly handily by the Jazz. For an 8-seed playoff team, that’s something you’ll take every day. For the past few seasons, my beloved Cavaliers sought to limit their X-Factor as much as possible, because they had LeBron, and it led them to the league’s best regular-season record for the last two years. (It did backfire on them pretty badly when the Celtics had the matchups to bully them in the 2010 playoffs and the Cavaliers had NO answer for them.) 
Now that LeBron is gone and they’ll be an (at-best) moderately talented team, they’re going to play faster and up their X-Factor, and I support that. But at the highest levels of the game (read: Conference Finals/NBA Finals), relying on variance/your ball movement to be there/your shooters to be hot is generally a losing strategy against a team with a methodical gameplan and a lock-down defense. Great small-ball teams have a greater chance of beating teams with more talent than them as well as a greater chance of losing to teams with less talent than them. In the regular season, where things even out over 82 games, that’s a fair proposition. For elite teams, the ones that need to win 4 playoff series in a row, it’s not as favorable. 
I’ll return to the Suns/small-ball in general issue with one last metaphor before letting you run the anchor: David beating Goliath doesn’t interest me. An army trading in their crossbows, swords, and shields for slings would. 
RM: I’m with you in principle that fast breaking teams have greater variance in their performance at times (though I’d love for a savvy statistical mind to either confirm or deny that), but isn’t that what the playoffs are all about? Playing your best basketball at the right time and all that? Call me crazy, but I don’t mind betting on a well-constructed squad like the Suns, slightly parabolic though their play may be, over a team slogging through the season and waiting to flip the switch. 
Plus, it’s not as if the Suns were slacking in the post-season. Phoenix played well enough to win the damn thing during some of those playoffs, they just happened to run into their antithesis over and over again. Prior to this year, San Antonio was the death of them, and the only teams Phoenix had lost to in the playoffs were the Spurs and a team constructed in SA’s likeness (the Mavericks under Avery Johnson). Maybe that’s just another break that the Suns never got, but it’s also a pretty consistent obstacle that kept those Phoenix teams from consummate immortality.
It’s not about pace or style, really. It’s about reliability. That’s at the core of your X-Factor contention, but where we seem to diverge is in how that factor impacted the Suns. Good teams need reliable players as their foundation, and it doesn’t much matter whether that player is Tim Duncan or Steve Nash, as long as the roster around them is thoughtfully assembled and the system is fitting of their talents. The Suns may have more give to their game than say, the Spurs (do pardon the redundancy of that counterexample), but with a talent of Nash’s caliber at the center of the operation, they can still find success by almost any standard.
Oddly enough, that means that while I’d love to say that the game done changed because of small ball, it really hasn’t. Rather, it’s simply become more apparent than ever that teams need to embrace talent in all of its forms in order to pursue the exact same element (reliability) that has always been crucial to success in the NBA. In my eyes, the Suns have validated small-ball as a possible avenue through which to do that. No one has put down their swords and crossbows because it’s not about the weapons. It’s about how they’re used, and while the traditionalists have won battles aplenty by standing in formation, Phoenix wasn’t afraid to turn to guerrilla tactics.
  1. johnmaine - Sep 9, 2010 at 4:01 PM

    Read about how Pete Thamel of the New York Times purposefully misquoted a source in his Enes Kanter (Kentucky recruit) article: http://bit.ly/9v1na3

  2. T. Rogers - Sep 9, 2010 at 8:13 PM

    “…the Lakers won a championship without relying on post-up play, and they have Gasol, Bynum, and Kobe.”
    I have to disagree with this. The Triangle offense is built around the post. Gasol operates in both the high and low posts. And Bryant spends a significant amount of time in the high post as well. The Lakers were not a great three point shooting team this past season, nor did the score much on the fast break. They won 57 games because they can pound the ball into the post better than any other team in the league.
    Anyway, the reason “small ball” has not taken off is come playoff time NBA refs change the way the call the games. When teams are allowed to be more agressive on defense it makes mores sense to let the bigs battle it out inside vs. having your PG charging into the middle. In fact, aggressive defense gives teams taller guys, playing closer to the rim a marked advantage. There is a reason the Suns were able to win 60 or so games three years in a row, but still never make the Finals. The game changes in the playoffs and it is because of the refs. The smart teams have figured this out.
    Two years ago the Lakers were a high scoring finesse team. Then they got beat up in Finals with help of some hands off officiating. Then they adjusted. Now they are slow, tall, and bulky. They are also back to back champs. Slow, tall, and bulky wins in the playoffs.

  3. Jeff - Sep 9, 2010 at 9:56 PM

    Interesting point, T. Rodgers on the difference in officiating. You are also right about that iffy quote about the triangle, I was reading it and thought to myself, “wait, the guy just said the Lakers have Bynum, Gasol, and Bryant… so how can they not post-up with all these post-up options?”I think a lot of people (Pau Gasol especially) think the Lakers don’t post-up enough or whatever but you have to remember this is the team’s greatest strength, which means most teams would prepare a gameplan to take away the post options and force them to jack up a lot of 3s, which is what tends to happen to the Lakers oftentimes…
    But back to you point about officiation. The level of physicality does indeed go up come playoff time, this much is undisputable. But its not like the Suns stay finesse and soft like during the reg season, they also rachet up their level of defense and physicality. They had a great run in this year’s playoffs and their level of defense impressed me more than their resiliency and team chemistry. Call me crazy, but I believe that Alvin Gentry this year formed a better team than any of D’Antoni-led Suns, the difference being that Alvin has found ways to incorporate other elements, such as a deeper bench led by a defensive-minded 2nd unit, something that D’Antoni never had much patience for. While I am not sure that the D’Antoni-led Suns would have ever won a ring under better circumstances (though I would bet that had the Suns made it to the finals in 2006 they would have beaten Wade/Shaq’s Heat) I am fairly certain this new version of the run n gun Suns could have beaten any team the old Suns teams had to face. If Amare had only averaged like 5+ rebounds they could have beaten the Lakers. Now he’s bolted for New York, good riddance. Granted, he is a great player but the Suns deserve better, and Amare does not deserve a max contract. Steve Nash deserves better teammates that know how to do other things than score the rock. Though they never won a ring, it has been a pleasure as an NBA fan to watch the Suns, and especially Nash, who is prolly simultaneously the best shooter AND passer in the league.

  4. T. Rogers - Sep 10, 2010 at 2:40 PM

    Jeff, I agree with you about the Suns. They really increased their defensive intensity this year. I was very impressed with them this season. It is only recently that I really grew to appreciate their approach to the game. I have always been one of the fans who loved defensive basketball. However, this year’s Finals gave me a revelation. It was the ugliest playoff series I have seen in a long time. It was embarrasing to see two Finals teams in a game seven tied at 64 points midway through the fourth quater. It is one thing for the refs to “let them play,” so to speak. It is another thing to allow the game to get so ugly that people who actually understand the game of basketball no longer recognize it.
    .
    I really believe the NBA would have benefitted if the Suns would have at least gotten one title during the Dantoni years. Maybe it would have truly ushered in a change of style league wide. A quicker, cleaner style of ball is not only more visually appealing, it harkens back to the roots of the game. It is also more in line with how the game is played internationally. Maybe our guys wouldn’t struggle so much if guys were allowed to actually be in motion while in a half court set. Maybe if the moving screens and flying elbows were more controlled our guys would be quicker to move around the floor in a half court set. The league was lucky it got LA and Boston in the Finals. Had it been any other two teams playing that ugly, MMA version of basketball most people would have turned off the TV.
    .
    I apologize for the rant.

Leave Comment

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Not a member? Register now!

Featured video

Warriors vs. Clippers playoff preview
Top 10 NBA Player Searches
  1. D. Wade (3124)
  2. L. James (3004)
  3. C. Anthony (2817)
  4. S. Curry (2785)
  5. K. Durant (2776)
  1. D. Rose (2617)
  2. A. Bogut (2502)
  3. B. Griffin (2427)
  4. R. Westbrook (2369)
  5. C. Paul (2333)