‘Small’, The New ‘Big': The New Era of Basketball
Earlier this week, Chris Bosh announced his plans of adding some weight this offseason in anticipation of spending more time playing the center position. Bosh will add the extra muscle in an effort to improve the only one, real, glaring weakness in the Heat’s roster, and that’s the center position. Once a position of immense importance and influence to the game, the center spot is now perceived as a defensive force and not much else on offense other than a hindrance to a faster, perimeter oriented game style. The only thing better than having four, quick, athletic players to spread a court, is having five of them, dictating a floor spacing that is almost impossible to defend. Even Kevin Garnett, whose physique sparked concerns of durability coming out of high school, for a power-forward let alone as a center, is much more valuable to Doc Rivers when he plays the “5”. Both defensively and offensively, KG has shown he can more than hold his own. Last year’s Finals confirmed the departure of convention, and the arrival of the trend to go smaller, with the Heat and Thunder both using four perimeter players around an undersized center.
It requires, however, a unique set of players to best execute this latest revival of ‘small ball’. Athletes who can perform bigger than their size might let on, and withstand the physicality it comes with are like gold. ‘Tweeners’ and the athletically dominant are coveted and highly evaluated for this very reason, their versatility of possessing perimeter skills with larger physiques. The Finals showcased just that, showing how position transcending players such as LeBron James and Kevin Durant can play multiple roles, effectively unlocking the potential of a faster lineup for a coach to experiment with.
The Heat were almost forced to play this way because of their lack of size in the trenches. Heat Head Coach Eric Spoelstra played with his lineups like play-dough, and with James at his disposal he had help. James personifies basketball versatility and is its very pinnacle, maybe the League’s most multifaceted, of all time. He’s the only player that can play every position defensively and offensively at All-Star levels. Still, Spoelstra deserves credit in fully maximizing James’s all-around game along with the Heat’s overall roster. James, along with Shane Battier, playing a forward role let’s Bosh slide to the center where he can step out and shoot a three (Haslem also has range to 20 feet). A wide open court for James, Wade, Chalmers, and (Insert: Mike Miller, Battier, James Jones, here) to operate. The Thunder also claim a few players of their own who make it fun for Head Coach Scott Brooks to coach. Serge Ibaka’s length, strength and athleticism allows the Thunder to field a lineup with Ibaka, Durant, James Harden, Derek Fisher, and Russel Westbrook. An overwhelming style of play for their opponents.
This shift in basketball paradigm is a far cry from the once conventional strategies that still focused on spacing, but for the purpose of working the ball into the paint instead of having room to maneuver and dribble. “Stretch Four’s” have evolved to just “Small Forwards Playing Power Forward’s”, an evolution that has been heavily influenced by both the advents of new rules, and the way basketball has been officiated in the last decade or so. Dribble drive’s, kick-outs, and free throws have dominated recent offensive philosophies , a new definition of efficiency.
It was nearly eight years ago when coach and guru Mike D’Antoni introduced his offensive philosophy, letting the reins loose on a Phoenix team led by Steve Nash in his prime. The vision D’Antoni pushed, deftly called the ‘Seven Seconds or Less Offense’, can be pegged as the grandfather of the revival of going small. But it entailed much more than going small and shooting quick as D’Antoni helped reshape the conventional roles of different positions. He had players who could fulfill multiple positions to make if effective, guys like Shawn Marion and Boris Diaw, both of which are highly versatile. Multiple screen-and-rolls, tons of motion and like magic, there you have a creative offensive explosion.
D’Antoni’s offensive concepts have grass-roots overseas, due to his legendary playing career in Italy. Versatility in bigger player’s, and an open style of play is nothing new to European leagues. The level of finesse and fundamentals shown overseas has impressed stateside pundits and scouts for some time now. The 2012 Olympic U.S. Men’s team was also limited in size and often featured lineups with James, Durant, even Carmelo Anthony, and Andre Iguodala playing the power forward spot. That group also set international basketball records in scoring, and with the world’s best players executing this new rendition of small ball, it’s no coincidence. They scored 156 points in 40 minutes. Against other human beings.
Are the Lakers truly the last team to enlist the ‘Twin Tower’ strategy, perhaps the last of all time? Having two seven-footers on the court together just makes for more clutter to cut around, taking up valuable space to operate, drive, and maneuver. It’s a risk the Lakers still consider an advantage, a school of thought that remains from when Phil Jackson’s Triangle focused on post touches.
Basketball, like any competition, is about imposing one’s will on an opponent. Your strategy has to make the other team make a decision, choose to conform to your style, or force their own. In this case it’s break them with size, or blow by them with speed. The sport is still, in theory, an inside-out game, where scoring from the interior is far more of an efficient strategy than trying to score from further out. Now with increased athleticism and versatility, basketball is headed to a more open court, faster, and explosive playing style that showcases our games best athletes. Playing big is outdated and slow, playing small is modern and fast. Adapt, or get left behind.