Skill, Versatility, and Small Ball

by on December 9, 2015
in Strategy

Twitter is not conducive to an actual argument or explanation. After trying in futility to make a point about small ball and the Golden State Warriors, a full article is required. The argument started with a tweet that was retweeted into my timeline:

I believe that there is confusion in this argument. Stephen Curry is the best player on the Warriors. He is the MVP. He is the best player in the NBA. He is not the person that allows Golden State’s small ball lineup to be so explosive.

I have been using small lineups at various levels since the last century. In fact, I published an article in 2002 in Basketball Sense titled “How Quick Beats Tall.”

Small lineups essentially replace size with skill. Traditional lineups favor size because coaches traditionally have believed that rebounding and post play were the keys to victory, as interior play led to free throws and higher percentage shots. However, as Dean Oliver pointed out in Basketball on Paper, field goal percentage offense and defense are the most important statistics in basketball. Evan Zamir expanded upon Oliver’s ideas and found that shooting (offense and defense) accounted for 54% of point differential, and turnovers 20%, whereas rebounding accounted for only 15% and foul rate 10%. A small lineup, theoretically, should be able to outshoot a big lineup and force more turnovers, whereas its weaknesses would be rebounding and foul rate (potentially), which are lesser liabilities than traditionally imagined.

When I coached in Sweden, my first decision was to move everyone up one position: The previous SF became a PF and the SG became a SF. During games, we went smaller, and my new PF played as a center, a true stretch 5, as she was close to a 40% three-point shooter. My new PF/C went from a 13 PPG, 5 RPG small forward to a 19.9 PPG, 11 RPG All-Star PF/C, and my new SF was selected an All-Star too. When I took over my team in Denmark, a new player to the club was astonished that I played him as a PF, as he had played as a SG in the previous season for a smaller club. However, with him as a PF, we had more speed on the court and had 5 players who shot above 38% from the three-point line. I put my five most skilled players on the court, and hoped that our skill could overcome other team’s size (In Sweden, we were picked last and finished 5th; in Denmark, we were picked 4th or 5th, and lost in the final game of the championship series).

I sacrificed rebounding, and interior defense, for shooting, scoring and forcing turnovers.

Small lineups have two advantages that are key to their success: Shooting and switching; skill and versatility. When the Warriors go small with Draymond Green as their center, they have five 3-point shooters on the court. Furthermore, they have five ball-handlers on the court. A traditional post cannot guard Green on the perimeter, which gives the Warriors a big advantage or forces the opponent to downgrade to match up.

A traditional, shot blocking center loses much of his value when chasing Green around the three-point line, but he cannot ignore Green because of his shooting. Against the Clippers, as one example, when Andrew Bogut plays, Deandre Jordan plays close to a one-man zone protecting the rim; they dare Bogut to shoot elbow jumpers. Jordan cannot do that against Green because of his shooting. They make Jordan less effective. Whether he stays in the game or not, the Warriors have created an advantage. They have disorganized the Clippers’ defense with their lineups. The Clippers cannot stick to their normal rotations and schemes.

Most small lineups suffer on defense. They give up defensively what they gain offensively. To have success, it helps to have the versatility to switch. Switching can take teams out of their normal sets, and can create turnovers. Of course, switching can lead to mismatches that the opponent can take advantage of. Because of the Warriors perimeter size and strength, there really is only one opportunity to exploit a mismatch (Curry). With Igoudala, Barnes, Green, and Thompson, switching is easy. The smaller players front and fight with the bigger players and make the passes difficult. My friend Oscar has dreamt since I have known him of coaching  team filled with 6’7 small forwards; that’s the Warriors! They have perimeter length to disrupt passing lanes, speed to turn steals into points, and Green to defend much bigger than his size to eliminate the perceived mismatches.

This is how we defended in Sweden. We defended the best interior scorer in the league with my SF (who had been a SG), and we fronted. We completely nullified her. Because they kept their normal lineup on the court against our small lineup, their center was a non-shooter, and we did not guard her, like Jordan defending Bogut. Of course, we had no defensive 3-second violation, which made our help defense better and deeper. They could not run their normal sets, and they could not isolate their best player. Offensively, their center did not want to defend my center at the three-point line, and she hit several open three-pointers. Skill (shooting) beat size.

Green is the key to the Warriors small ball lineups because he has the strength to defend centers at an all-defense level. Therefore, the Warriors go small without giving up a defensive disadvantage. In fact, because of his ability to check posts, their defense excels because they can switch and create chaos for their opponents. Bogut is a great defensive presence, but in a different way than Green.

Curry is the best player in the NBA. However, he is not the player who allows Golden State to play small-ball lineups. He presents no more of a match up problem in small lineups than in big lineups because he squares off against the same player either way. He is the hardest player in the NBA to defend, but that is true in small lineups or big lineups.

Green allows the Warriors to play small. His ability to shoot the three as a center forces opponents to adjust their lineups or risk a 38% 3-point shooter shooting open 3s. His ability to defend opponent’s posts eliminates the matchup issues that plague many small teams and maintains the Warriors’ team defense at an elite level, whether small or big, which is practically unheard of (I eventually had to go big in Denmark to defend the top 3 teams).

Would the Warriors win without Curry? Unlikely. Would they win without Green? Maybe. However, they would have to win differently, as his absence would prevent their ability to play their explosive small lineups. They would have to count on Ezeli and Bogut for more minutes, which is a nice problem to have. Curry can excel with any lineup grouping. However, Green makes the small lineup go. Green is the player that adds skill and versatility to the small lineups because he brings a small forward’s skill set (shooting, passing, perimeter defending) to the center position.

The Warriors are a nightmare to defend in a traditional lineup, but when you put a 38% three-point shooter who can lead the fast break and who averages 7 assists per game at the center position, and do not give up anything on the defensive end, the nightmare just gets worse.

In honor of the Warriors start, I create a 3>2 t-shirt in the Warriors colors. Available through this link!

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice and Fake Fundamentals

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