Small ball â€” or, trying to emulate the success of the Dallas Mavericks circa 2004 or the Phoenix Suns now â€” is clearly all the rage in the NBA, with teams from Golden State to New York giving it a shot in various forms.
But a few teams â€” several that have looked successful so far â€” are going with some counter programming to the trend. The Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers back east, and the Lakers, Jazz and Clippers are having success so far with â€œtall ball.â€
First, letâ€™s define â€œsmall ball,â€ which is not as easy as it sounds. I would characterize it as going with a quick, athletic but not as tall lineup in an attempt to speed up the tempo of the game and take advantage of the current way the game is being called on the perimeter, with every touch a foul (and a foul for anyone within 18 inches of Dwayne Wade). Phoenix is the poster child â€” their starting center is 6-9 Kurt Thomas (Amare, when heâ€™s full back, will up that to 6-10).
Letâ€™s compare that to the other front-lines having early success. The Lakers have 7-1 Andrew Bynum (to be replaced when healthy by 7-0 Kwame Brown), 6-10 Lamar Odom and 6-9 Luke Walton (who could someday give way to 6-10 Vladimir Radmanovic). Then there are the 6-6 and 6-4 starting guard combo of Kobe and Smush. The Lakers are off to a 3-1 start because they took advantage of their height and got 40% of their shots close to the basket according to 82games.com (a very high percentage, and many of the shots classified as jumpers are inside 10 feet).
Now, you can argue (and some have) that the Lakers donâ€™t really represent tall ball because Odom is a classic 3-4 combo forward and Radmanovic (and Walton) are perimeter players. But I would counter that while not a classic station-to-station NBA team, the Lakers are working to be both tall and athletic take advantage of the way the game is being called.
Regular commenter JonesontheNBA made a good comment about Phil liking to go tall:
The Bulls last three peat and the Lakers first championship under PJ had a similar line up with all 6â€²7â€³ and up guys in their starting lineup. With playmaker such as Kobe, Lamar, and Walton all on the floor together, I could see that being a successful lineup. The question is how well that lineup could defend the pick and rollâ€¦
Look at some of the other teams having early success. Utah is 3-0 with a big front line of 6-9 Andrei Kirilenko at the three, powerful 6-9 Boozer at the four and 6-11 Mehmet Okur at the five. I think we all know the Clippers may have the best classic front line in the NBA, with Kaman (7-0) and Brand (6-10), plus they are starting 6-6 Livingston out at the point.
Look at the two trendy picks in the east: Chicago starts 6-9 Loul Deng at the three, 6-11 P.J. Brown at the four and I-donâ€™t-care-what-heâ€™s-listed-as Ben Wallace at the five; Cleveland gives you 6-8 LeBron, 6-10 Drew Gooden and 7-3 Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
Can the length of the big teams clog up the lane for the smaller teams? The Lakers were able to do it to the Suns on opening night, even without Kobe.
But, it also depends on talent â€” you look smart going small when you can have Steve Nash dishing to Marion and Diaw and Stoudemire. You can go small if youâ€™ve got the horses, if not you look, wellâ€¦.. like this.
Itâ€™s too early in the season to start saying, â€œThe bigs are beating the smallsâ€ or visa versa. But apparently some favorites are betting that big and talented will beat small and talented at the end of the day.