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.

Right?

“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.

Pelican’s Green says Zion ‘dominated the scrimmage pretty much’

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The Zion hype train keeps right on rolling. First were the reports he was in the best shape of his life, then he walked into media day and it looked like he is.

Now Zion has his own hype man in Pelicans coach Willie Green, who said he dominated the first day of team scrimmages. Via Andre Lopez of ESPN.

“Z looked amazing,” Pelicans coach Willie Green said on Wednesday afternoon. “His strength, his speed. He dominated the scrimmage pretty much.”

“What stood out was his force more than anything,” Green said. “He got down the floor quickly. When he caught the ball, he made quick decisions. Whether it was scoring, finding a teammate. It was really impressive to see.”

Reach for the salt shaker to take all this with — it’s training camp scrimmages. Maybe Zion is playing that well right now — he’s fully capable, he was almost an All-NBA player in 2020-21 (eighth in forward voting) before his foot injury — but we need to see it against other teams. In games that matter. Then we’ll need to see it over a stretch of time.

If Zion can stay healthy this season, if his conditioning is where everyone says it is, he could be in for a monster season. Combine that with CJ McCollum, Brandon Ingram and a strong supporting cast in New Orleans, and the Pelicans could surprise a lot of people — and be fun to watch.

 

PBT Podcast: What’s next for Celtics, Suns? Should NBA end one-and-done?

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NBA training camps just opened and teams have yet to play a preseason game, but already two contenders are dealing with problems.

The Celtics have the suspension of coach Ime Udoka as a distraction, plus defensive anchor center Robert Williams will miss at least the start of the season following another knee surgery.

The Suns have the distraction of a suspended owner who is selling the team, plus Jae Crowder is out and demanding a trade, and Deandre Ayton does not seem happy.

Corey Robinson of NBC Sports and myself go through all the training camp news, including the wilder ones with the Lakers and Nets, breaking down what to take away from all that — plus how good Zion Williamson and James Harden look physically.

Then the pair discusses the potential of the NBA doing away with the one-and-done role and letting 18-year-olds back in the game — is that good for the NBA?

You can always watch the video of some of the podcast above, or listen to the entire podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google Play, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

We want your questions for future podcasts, and your comments, so please feel free to email us at PBTpodcast@gmail.com.

Report: Price tag on Phoenix Suns could be more than $3 billion

Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Clippers - Game Six
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In 2004, Robert Sarver bought the Phoenix Suns for a then-record $401 million.

When Sarver sells the team now — pushed to do so following the backlash prompted by an NBA report that found an 18-year pattern of bigotry, misogyny, and a toxic workplace — he is going to make a massive profit.

The value of the Suns now is at $3 billion or higher, reports Ramona Shelburne and Baxter Holmes of ESPN.

There will be no shortage of bidders for the team, with league sources predicting a franchise valuation of more than $3 billion now that revenue has rebounded following the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and with a new television rights deal and CBA on the horizon. Sarver purchased the team for just over $400 million in 2004.

Saver currently owns 35% of the Suns (the largest share), but reports say his role as managing partner allows him to sell the entire team (the minority owners have to comply, although they would make a healthy profit, too). Sarver also decides who to sell the team to, not the NBA or other owners.

Early rumors of buyers have included Larry Ellison (founder of Oracle), Bob Iger (former Disney CEO), Laurene Powell Jobs (widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, she has a 20% share of the Washington Wizards), and others. There have been no reports of talks yet, and Sarver does not need to be on a rushed timeline.

Meanwhile, a contending Suns team tries to focus on the season despite the owner selling the team, Jae Crowder not being in training camp and pushing for a trade, and Deandre Ayton does not sound happy to be back with the Suns.

Steve Nash on his relationship with Kevin Durant: ‘We’re good’

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In an effort to gain leverage for a trade this offseason, Kevin Durant threw down a “either the coach and GM are gone or I am” ultimatum.

Now coach Steve Nash (and GM Sean Marks) are back in Brooklyn, on the same team and trying to build a contender together. Awkward? Not if you ask Nash, which is what Nick Friedell of ESPN did.

“We’re fine,” Nash said after the Nets’ first official practice of the season on Tuesday. “We’re good. Ever since we talked, it’s been like nothing’s changed. I have a long history with Kevin. I love the guy. Families have issues. We had a moment and it’s behind us. That’s what happens. It’s a common situation in the league.

“We all were hurting, seething, to go through what we went through last year, not being able to overcome all that adversity. Sometimes you lose perspective because you expect to win, but the reality is we were able to talk and discuss what we can improve on from last year. And also keep perspective. We went through a ton of stuff.”

First off, what else was Nash going to say? He knows the power dynamic in the NBA, and Durant has far more leverage than he does — not enough to get Nash fired this summer, but still more than the coach.

Second, Nash could be telling the truth from his perspective. NBA players and coaches understand better than anyone this is a business and things are rarely personal. Grudges are not held like fans think they are (most of the time). Nash saw Durant’s move for what it was — an effort to create pressure — and can intellectually shrug it off, reach out to KD and talk about the future.

What this brings into question was one of the Nets’ biggest issues last season — mental toughness and togetherness. Do the Nets have the will to fight through adversity and win as a team? Individually Durant, Kyrie Irving, Nash and others have shown that toughness in the past, but as a team it was not that hard to break the will of the Nets last season. Are their relationships strong enough, is their will strong enough this season?

It feels like we will find out early. If the wheels come off the Nets’ season, it feels like it will happen early and by Christmas things could be a full-on dumpster fire. Or maybe Nash is right and they are stronger than we think.