Since really the rise of the Golden State Warriors in the 2014-15 season, two things have been shoved down our collective throats as NBA observers. The first and most famous one is the advent of the three-point shot. Second and the subject of this article though is small-ball.
I’m here to tell you, these playoffs proved the value of size in today’s game.
Now I’m not saying we’re going to see the league revert back to the Tim Duncan power forward era but I will tell you though is that size matters in different ways than it ever did before. Take a look at the Houston Rockets, the team that went as all in as one can on the premise of small, skilled shooters this past season.
And the NBA Champions laughed them out of the gym in five games.
One of the things that’s being lost in this Lakers title is how much size came to define their dominance. None of their playoff opponents had anyone with the size to hope to guard LeBron James and he wasn’t even their leading scorer. The combination of Anthony Davis and James on the floor together proved too big and skilled for the league.
If the 2014-15 Warriors ushered in a small ball era into the NBA, the Lakers did the same but in a new era of size meeting skill.
The Warriors out mathed everyone with their attack, won a title and set the wins record. Then they made it even better by adding Kevin Durant and the rest of the league said it’s clear, smaller players are the way to win.
That wasn’t the takeaway that should’ve come out of the Warriors though. Instead, it should’ve been that the math was in their favour and as a result, so was their win column. Now though, everyone plays on the same math playing field (other than the Spurs and Pacers but that’s for another day) and so, we’ve hit this new place where to win a title you need that new extra special edge.
Well, the Lakers found it. Their answer was size.
As the math equalized, it has now become less of an advantage to jack threes all game because everybody does it. Look at the Rockets and Bucks, they bombed at a higher rate than ever before this year and went home in round two in decisive fashion.
What people fail to realize about the analytics movement is the love for the three simply came from the added value it has on a points per possession basis. The thing that people seem to forget about though is that the three isn’t actually the most efficient shot in the sport. Ironically, it’s actually third.
The biggest bang for your buck is at the free throw line and right behind that is layups and dunks.
So, what’s an easy way to get a bunch of layups, dunks and free throws? How about overpowering someone downlow to the point where either you’re dunking the basketball, they’re fouling your or, both.
That’s what the Lakers reminded us this season. Now that the math is relatively equal across the board, it comes down to what team can get the best shots the most. Last year Kawhi did it by dominating the midrange, this year the Lakers did it by dominating the paint.
Stephen Curry made us think that little guys were the future of the sport. Instead, James and Davis reminded us this season that strength and power will never go out of style.
Even when you look at Leonard’s title last season, it can’t be forgotten that his strength against Giannis won that series for Toronto. Raptors fans will forever love Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan but it’s hardly a coincidence their title came when they brought in one of the strongest players in the game in Kawhi Leonard.
It’s not hard to notice when you look around the league that building around a superstar guard isn’t winning titles outside of Curry.
James Harden famously has failed, Damian Lillard has never been close, Westbrook is Westbrook and don’t get me started on Chris Paul. We can hate the game all we want but the truth is that even when the Rockets had the math advantage in 2018, they couldn’t stop a Warriors team that had added the 6’11 Kevin Durant.
As much as we love cheering for the little guy or watching two guards go head to head like Jamal Murray and Donovan Mitchell, the truth is Denver made the conference finals and Utah is searching for answers because their bigger player is better.
We can pretend all we want that small ball changed the game and it did to a point. But that point isn’t where a team with no size can win a championship. As I said above with the Rockets, we proved that this season. Size matters in this league whether we want it to or not.
In the everchanging math equation that is the NBA, it turns out having Davis at the four with LeBron and either McGee or Howard on the floor is a big advantage. As all the league swung further and further one way, the Lakers zagged and no one had a real answer.
I don’t think this means the next ten finals MVPs will be centres or something. What I do think is that the value in having big forwards has never been higher. We have countless role players who can jack threes.
What we’re short on though is guys who can over power their way to the basket.
Size comes in different ways in this league. Sometimes it’s height, others it’s strength and others still, it’s a mixture of both.
What matter most though, is this league is about finding hidden advantages to win titles. Recently it was the three point shot but now everyone does that so it’s effectively neutralized.
Don’t be surprised if having dominance in strength and size is the pathway to the Larry O’Brien trophy. Small ball was fun and changed the game but size and strength will always be in style in the NBA.