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Friday, December 28, 2012
Big and small in the NBA

By Kevin Arnovitz


Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesFor many coaches and teams, this is the prototype for the new-wave NBA frontcourt.

Size and position have become dominant themes in any conversation about the state of NBA basketball heading into 2013.

The Miami Heat fulfilled their potential last spring, but it wasn't until LeBron James bought into Erik Spoelstra's proposition to turn the Heat into a smaller, more agile group that effectively employed James as a power forward. Meanwhile, in New York, Carmelo Anthony resisted Mike D'Antoni's suggestions to embrace his inner power forward, but agreed to give it a go under Mike Woodson. The results for the Knicks have been stellar. Now in Los Angeles, D'Antoni is trying to figure out how to sell his system to a team that has relied on size and length in the post for the better part of a decade.

All over the league, coaches are toying with how little size they can get away with, who on their roster can fit the bill as a power forward, and which lineups maximize their assets. Yet for all the talk of the End of Positions, about half the NBA still relies on traditional units -- a point guard, two perimeter wings and a couple of big guys.

Here's a quick spin through the league to see how each team is approaching the question:

 

The Big Boys

Boston: Jeff Green is the player on the fulcrum here, but of the Celtics' 15 most frequent lineups, Green plays power forward in only one (Interestingly, that unit with Green alongside Kevin Garnett has excelled defensively in 56 minutes, giving up only 88.6 points per 100 possessions). But barring an injury in the frontcourt, it wouldn't appear Doc Rivers has much intention to use Green in that capacity.

Brooklyn: Before his departure, Avery Johnson toyed with some smaller lineups using Gerald Wallace at power forward, but it was rare. Those units were shredded defensively.

Charlotte: Although he displays some iconoclastic traits as a coach, Mike Dunlap has been conventional in this respect, though Byron Mullens spends little time near the basket.

Chicago: The Bulls are endowed with a full rotation of solid big men and are pretty thin on the perimeter. Length is a real asset in Tom Thibodeau's defensive schemes, and it seems unlikely he'll ever have a burning desire to play small for significant stretches.

Cleveland: Anderson Varejao is the Cavs' second-best player, and they're committed to the development of Tristan Thompson and Tyler Zeller.

Detroit: The Pistons are always big, though it would be interesting to see them experiment. Jason Maxiell doesn't give them a whole lot, not even on the glass. So what would be the downside of surrounding Greg Monroe with a unit of, say, Brandon Knight, Rodney Stuckey, Kyle Singler and Tayshaun Prince? That lineup has played a grand total of five minutes in situational, let's-get-the-shooters-on-the-floor scenarios.

Indiana: Not much to see here, as the Pacers haven't broken convention at all this season. With Roy Hibbert and David West anchoring the backcourt and depleted depth on the wing with Danny Granger out, that's unlikely to change.

Los Angeles Clippers: There was talk early on about using Matt Barnes as a power forward in spots, but the Clippers have settled into a smooth rhythm with fairly distinct first and second units, each featuring two big men. Even when Del Negro mixes and matches the lineups, traditional positions are maintained.

Memphis: The Grizzlies have two rocks up front in Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, and Gasol might be their best distributor. The Grizzlies' depth on the perimeter, where they don't have a ton of proficient shooters, is relatively thin, and Rudy Gay has never all that amenable to playing the 4.

New Orleans: With Anthony Davis, Ryan Anderson, Robin Lopez and Jason Smith (once he recovers from a torn labrum) up front, it's no surprise Monty Williams relies on length.

Orlando: The Magic are another one of those teams just trying to make it through the day, and their lineup combos are statements of necessity, not philosophy, especially with Glen Davis out indefinitely. For now, Orlando has settled on starting a traditional tandem of Gustavo Ayon and Nikola Vucevic.

Phoenix: Who would've thunk it? The vanilla Suns haven't logged any meaningful minutes with small-ball lineups. Even when Michael Beasley was on the floor regularly, he was playing those minutes as a small forward.

Portland: There's an argument to be made that an asterisk should be affixed to any team with a 6-foot-9 center, but functionally that's what J.J. Hickson is. He's taking virtually all of his shots at close range. Some coaches would be tempted to use Nic Batum in spots as a small ball 4, but under Terry Stotts, he's exclusively a small forward.

San Antonio: Gregg Popovich likes to have a big man alongside Tim Duncan with some ball skills or range, but the Spurs lineups are conventional by standards of big and small.

Toronto: When Jonas Valanciunas left the game Wednesday with a broken finger, Dwane Casey went with a smaller unit that had Linas Kleiza at the power forward slot. The Amir Johnson-Kleiza combo up front has done well for the Raps in limited minutes, though gleaning much from Toronto's lineup data is a futile exercise because so many guys have been in and out of action with injuries.

Utah: Well, they're no longer supersized, but the Jazz are as fundamentally big as any team in the league given their depth up front with Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter. Millsap isn't a classic power forward, but there aren't many of those around these days.

Washington: When entirely healthy, the Wizards are Big Guys, sporting a frontcourt of Nene and Emeka Okafor. But for most of the season, they've been a beleaguered, banged-up team trying to make a go of it with anyone who can give them productive minutes, including a bunch of othersized, hard-to-peg players like Cartier Martin, Jan Vesely, Chris Singleton, and even Trevor Booker before he went out with a bum knee.

 

Going Small

Miami: With Shane Battier back from his brief stint on the shelf, the Heat are one of the most committed small-ball outfits in the league, and for good reason (for more specifics, check the trophy case at 601 Biscayne Blvd. in Miami). This season, the Heat have a net rating of minus-5.4 with LeBron James as a small forward, and plus-11.4 when he's sharing the floor with only one big man.

New York: "Carmelo at the 4" ranks as one of the bigger on-court stories of the season's first trimester. The Knicks' most frequent dozen lineups have played a combined 737 minutes -- only 29 of them with a traditional "two bigs" unit. Will that change with Raymond Felton out of action for a while?

 

Big ... But with an Asterisk

Atlanta: Josh Smith is one of those guys who's central to this conversation. Twenty years ago, the vast majority of NBA coaches would've looked at Smith's size, athleticism and activity and assigned him to the small forward spot. But in today's NBA, we'd be hard-pressed to find a coach, exec, fan or player who'd look at Smith and say, "He should be playing the 3." Over time, Smith has conformed his game accordingly (those terrible 22-footers notwithstanding). In 2007-08, Smith used 215 possessions in the post over a full season. This season, he's already been down there 121 times in 25 games.

Denver: Nominally, the Nuggets play big, but they're difficult to peg because Kenneth Faried and Danilo Gallinari defy convention. The Nuggets' most frequently used lineup employs pure center Kosta Koufas, with Faried, an interior banger who has takes 84 percent of his shots in the basket area, and the more perimeter-oriented Gallinari at the forward spots. But you'll often see Faried and Gallinari with three perimeter players -- and those units hemorrhage points.

Golden State: Mark Jackson isn't Don Nelson by any stretch, but a team that fields a frontcourt of David Lee and Carl Landry for extended stretches can't be deemed big with a capital "B." Othersized forward Draymond Green also sees about half his minutes at the 4. Expect all this to change when Andrew Bogut is restored to health.

Milwaukee: The Bucks have had so many rotation players miss time with injuries, it's difficult to identify solid patterns. In addition, Luc Mbah a Moute and Ersan Ilyasova are tough to classify positionally -- the 6-foot-10 Ilyasova is listed as a small forward, while the 6-foot-8 Mbah a Moute has a "PF" by his name. The worst performing of the Bucks' five most common lineups features Mbah a Moute alongside three perimeter players and Larry Sanders, but Milwaukee had done OK with Ilyasova holding down the 4.

Minnesota: Like Milwaukee, the Timberwolves have some key players who are forward tweeners (Andrei Kirilenko, Derrick Williams, Dante Cunningham) and have been peppered by nagging injuries. With Kevin Love back in the lineup and Nikola Pekovic so effective, it's safe to say the Timberwolves' primary unit will have those two guys in the frontcourt, but once it's time for substitutions, Kirilenko should see some time at the 4. Rick Adelman's system values skill over size at power forward, so this isn't a fundamental issue for the Timberwolves to figure out, and that's especially true because Kirilenko is such a flexible player.

Philadelphia: The asterisk here is Thaddeus Young, whom Doug Collins has now unequivocally deemed a power forward. Every single one of Philadelphia's top 10 lineups by minutes played uses Young at the 4, something that would've been revolutionary 15 years ago. Does this make the Sixers a small-ball team, or do we price in Young's move to the 4 as unexceptional in today's NBA?

Sacramento: When DeMarcus Cousins is behaving himself, he and Jason Thompson serve as the Kings' regulars up front, backed up by Chuck Hayes (a human asterisk as a 6-foot-6, slick-passing, no offense, defensively sound big man). When Cousins is suspended, left home, sulking or otherwise, tweener James Johnson logs minutes at the power forward spot. Keith Smart will also toy with lineups using both Johnson and Thomas Robinson, another 3-slash-4.

 

Big ... But Might Want to Reconsider

Houston: When Chandler Parsons plays as a small forward alongside Omer Asik and either Marcus Morris or Patrick Patterson (currently rehabbing his right foot), the Rockets basically break even. But stick Parsons at the 4, and the Rockets put it into high gear. In their three most common small-ball lineups -- all with Parsons at power forward and Carlos Delfino on the floor with two of Houston's principal guards -- the Rockets are a plus-27.9, a plus-24.1 and a plus-41.6.

Oklahoma City: The Thunder have established themselves as the league's most efficient offensive team, so they don't spend a lot of time contemplating wholesale change or worrying about an identity crisis. But the data continue to show that when Kevin Durant takes the floor with one big man -- and this season it doesn't matter who that big man is -- the Thunder put up ridiculous numbers and suffer no ill effects defensively. Overall this season, when Durant is at the power forward, Oklahoma City's net rating per 48 minutes is 24.9. That means they score 118.3 points and give up only 93.4. Piques your curiosity, doesn't it?

 

Somewhere in the Middle

Dallas: When we study the history of small ball during this era, Shawn Marion will have a chapter in the book. On D'Antoni's pioneering Phoenix teams, Marion played the 4 in a speed and perimeter-oriented lineup. For Dallas, he's logging about two-thirds of his minutes at power forward. And Rick Carlisle has dabbled ever so slightly with lineups using 6-foot-6 Jae Crowder, units that have been pretty successful in short stints.

Los Angeles Lakers: In 2008, D'Antoni had this to say: "People call it small ball, and that pisses me off. It’s skill ball, plain and simple. I’d start two 7-footers if they could run and shoot." D'Antoni now has those 7-footers, though the running and shooting part of the equation is up for debate. When they're not on the floor together, D'Antoni has made it increasingly clear that the Lakers will have Metta World Peace at the 4, and the vast majority of those minutes right now are net positives for the Lakers.