NBA coaches counterpunch trend of “small ball” league

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LOS ANGELES — Every team in the NBA has done it — search for their small-ball death lineup.

After Golden State won an NBA title then 73 games going smaller and faster than everyone, other teams jumped on the bandwagon (which frankly was started by Miami playing LeBron at the four). With the advent of a zone defensive scheme making a post pass to a traditional big on the block next to impossible (if a team chooses to shut it down by fronting and backing), stretch fours and even stretch fives became the trend — that’s the modern NBA. Replace traditional bigs with another ball handler. Four out. Small and fast.


“The Spurs are big. The Clippers are big. Memphis is big,” said Quin Snyder, coach of another big team in the Utah Jazz. “Depending on whether you want to call Ryan Anderson a four or a shooting four or a three, Houston can be big. Oklahoma City’s big.

“So this is an interesting question to me, because Golden State has driven a perception that the whole league is small…. Because Golden State’s been the best team, you’re forced to match up with them, and then people will try to play small, but if you’re playing small just because someone else is, and then you’re not playing your best players, that’s a tough question. Do you chase a mismatch or do you play the way you play?”

Talk to coaches around the league and they lean heavily toward the latter — be yourself. Play to the roster’s talent. They are not caught up in the myth of an all small NBA — like Snyder they point to all the size on the other elite teams. Coaches want versatility that allows different matchup options, but what they want most is whatever gives them the best chance to win. If that’s playing big, then they go big.

“Golden State is an anomaly, with the group of players they have,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said during the preseason. “And they’re a monster. Definitely the toughest team in the league to guard. But the rest of us poor fools, 29 of us, are kind of a hybrid. Everybody tries to be flexible. Not team is going to be all big or all small. Every game, teams play small for a while, they play big for a while. That’s the way it is. That’s the truth.”

That’s also the truth for Golden State.

“If Kevin Durant is on your team, he’s probably going to play the three or the four, whatever you want to call it,” Snyder said. “You can also argue that Golden State’s big. I mean, is Draymond Green and Zaza Pachulia small? I think the biggest thing is get your best players on the floor, and that’s what happened.”

“I think it’s an advantage doing what’s best for your team,” Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers said, a guy getting Blake Griffin to play inside and get to the rim more early this season. “I think it’s a mistake trying to be someone else. I said it last year, it’s a news flash: Anyone who is trying to play like Golden State is and then tries to beat them, they’re going to lose. Golden State has the three best shooters in the league. So if you’re trying to spread the floor with shooting, well, they’re going to do it better. If you have a great shooting team and smalls, then play that way. We have bigs — play big. Be who you are.

“If us or the Spurs win this year, everyone’s going to go big next year.”

One reason more teams don’t go big is the dearth of quality big men, like DeAndre Jordan with the Clippers or Rudy Gobert of the Jazz.

“I think those guys are invaluable,” Rivers said. “I think the only reason other teams don’t have them is they don’t have them. All those teams playing the other way, if they had DJ or Gobert they would take them tomorrow… There are just not a lot of guys who do what they do.”

All the coaches kept coming back to one thing — versatility.

Especially on the defensive end. They want to be able to counter other lineups. Rivers prefers to play big, but he also acknowledged using their second unit the Clips will play small at times this season with Griffin at the five — if that’s the matchup that works.

“To have the versatility to play both ways is important…” Snyder said. “When we’re talking about playing small, what we’re really talking about is versatility. It doesn’t have so much to do with the size as it does versatility and the ability to guard different matchups. That’s why Draymond is so effective at the four, and that’s to me why Blake (Griffin) is so effective, because what’s happening is everybody is switching one through four. That’s really what it comes down to.”

The other part of this, beyond talent, is getting buy-in from the players.

“There’s a lot of teams that can play different groups, but there’s very few teams that all the players can handle those different rotations when they are not in it on a given night,” Rivers said.

Coaches realize they can’t beat the Warriors at their own game, what they need is a counter. Tristan Thompson at center and LeBron James at the four (guarding Green and switching onto Stephen Curry) worked last year. Kevin Durant may change that dynamic.

In the search for answers, a lot of teams are bucking the trend and thinking big.