December 8, 2009

Why Smallball Is Killing Us

Playing small can really, really work. You can flummox a team by surrounding them with speedsters. You can stretch the floor by fielding more shooters than your opponents are used to. For stretches at a time, you can reap offensive benefits that outweigh the defensive risks... you can go on a quick run before your opponent figures out how to overpower your smalls. It's a worthwhile strategy, a strategy that has very much found a place in NBA basketball. There's a reason why every single championship hopeful now has at least one four who can shoot threes and run.

At the same time, there are some crystal-clear limits to smallball. Specifically, 1) you need enough good little guys to make it worthwhile, 2) you probably need one good *big* guy to make it worthwhile, and 3) if you always play small, many of your opponents are going to figure you out and beat you. Both Nellie and Smart have ignored these limits... they've gone small early and permanently in almost every game, context be damned. It's as though coaching this team amounts to pressing one button reading "SHRINK 'EM" at some point in the first quarter, and then sitting back and watching it all fall apart for the rest of the night. Yes, the absences of Biedrins and Turiaf have hurt us... for the time being, we have to play a little small. We don't have to play this small. We're violating all three limits, night after night.

Do we have enough good little guys to make smallball worthwhile? No. Our little guys are good and smallball-friendly -- Monta, Curry and CJ can all hit a shot and wreak havoc in the passing lanes. But there are only three of them. The whole point of smallball is that you're turning the tempo up to a level your opponent can't match; you can't do that when you only dress three guards, and even with Morrow around, it's a stretch. Curry has been visibly exhausted in most of the last eight games, and Monta's execution has degraded quarter by quarter, as teams get more and more used to his tendencies. A primary goal of smallball is to exhaust your opponent -- instead, with this short bench, we're just exhausting ourselves.

Do we currently have the good anchoring big guy that makes smallball viable? For smallball to work, you need a big who can suck up enough rebounds to limit the bleeding on that front, who can alter some of the many shots that get to the rim, who can catch and convert when little guys are looking to kick off the drive. Andris Biedrins can, bless his underrated heart, do all three of those things consistently... but he's hurt. Anthony Randolph can more or less do all three of those things... but we won't start him. We start Mikki Moore, one of the worst shot-blocking centers in basketball, just about the worst rebounding center in basketball (when you correct for pace, and a guy who's about a 50-50 bet to catch any given pass. We not only start this guy, we play him alongside four guards at some point in most games. The result? When Mikki's on the floor, we are outscored more quickly than any team has ever been over the course of a season; when he's on the floor, we play, without any exaggeration, like a 5-77 team. Any bets on who's starting tomorrow night?

Do we adjust our lineup when our opponents start solving smallball? Of course not, silly! We keep at it, so our guards get tired and shoot worse and our opponents get used to our defense! If Carl Landry starts picking apart a smaller defender, too bad! We're stayin' small! If the Magic frontcourt learns to keep the ball high and away from our little guys, sealing off the chance of steals and making the strategy untenable, guess what? We're stayin' small! If the monstrously ineffective Jeff Green gets a double-double against us in the first half, and James Harden finds the path to the basket so easy that he sets a career-high in free-throw attempts within seven minutes of checking in... well, okay. We'll play a normal-sized lineup for a little bit. But only because Maggette got ejected!

Our current game plan is a stain upon the good name of smallball. This is indefensibly stupid, some of the laziest strategy thinking I've ever seen. Hey, Warriors: Baron Davis isn't here anymore. We don't have the impresario to provide the upside, nor the Biedrins to limit the downside. We are getting destroyed out there. Maybe, just once, we could try fielding a normal-sized basketball team.

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