Smallball is the norm, not the latest trend

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Golden State Warriors are just the tip of the iceberg.

The Warriors used sublime shooting and a suffocating defense to capture the Larry O'Brien trophy. Granted, they had a historically prolific shooter in Stephen Curry leading the charge, but that hasn't stopped a slew of imitators.

Wings like Rudy Gay, Paul George, DeMarre Carroll, and Kobe Bryant will all log some minutes at power forward next season as teams prepare to play smaller.

In truth, playing small - either by putting a wing at the four, or by stretching a big out to the 3-point line - is not new, nor is it some gimmicky strategy. Most teams are already playing smallball, or are gravitating towards it.

Smallball practitioners

Teams that ranked in the top-20 in 3-point attempts and regularly played a stretch frontcourt player.

Team Player Position 3PA
76ers Robert Covington SF/PF 6.4
Cavaliers Kevin Love PF/C 5.2
Warriors Draymond Green PF/C 4.2
Heat Chris Bosh PF/C 3.8
Bulls Nikola Mirotic PF 3.8
Mavericks Dirk Nowitzki PF/C 3.6
Raptors Patrick Patterson SF/PF 3.5
Pistons Ersan Ilyasova PF 3.3
Thunder Serge Ibaka PF/C 3.2
Hawks Paul Millsap PF/C 3.0

There's no denying any of the names on the list, as six of the aforementioned teams ranked in the top-10 in 3-point attempts.

Of note, the Detroit Pistons acquired Ersan Ilyasova to replace non-shooter Greg Monroe, a move that closely aligns with head coach Stan Van Gundy's long-held preference for shooting at the four.

The Oklahoma City Thunder, meanwhile, have Kevin Durant on the mend. He can also play stretch-four, although the Thunder's crowded frontcourt might preclude that.

Smallball enthusiasts

Teams ranked in the top-15 in 3-point attempts, but lacked a frontcourt player who averaged more than three attempts per game.

Team Player Position 3PA
Rockets Donatas Motiejunas PF/C 1.9
Spurs Boris Diaw PF/C 2.1
Suns Markieff Morris PF 2.2
Celtics Kelly Olynyk PF/C 2.7
Clippers Josh Smith PF/C 2.7

These teams clearly wanted to play smallball in earnest, but lacked the proper personnel.

That's especially the case for the Houston Rockets, who ranked first in 3-point attempts, despite not employing a true stretch-four. They found ways around that by sneaking time for James Harden at the four, while encouraging players like Motiejunas and Smith to step out to the perimeter.

The Los Angeles Clippers are much like the Rockets: they want a shooter in the frontcourt, but lacked the personnel. Last summer's prized addition Spencer Hawes didn't work out, so they acquired Smith and Paul Pierce.

The San Antonio Spurs added a premium shooter in LaMarcus Aldridge this summer. Aldridge is a master of the midrange, but he posted a career high in 3-pointers attempted last season, a trend that will likely continue.

Smallball adopters

Most of the league has already embraced smallball. These teams are desperately trying to catch up.

Team Player Frontcourt time (*)
Pelicans Ryan Anderson 100%
Bucks Jabari Parker 8%
Kings Rudy Gay 4%
Hornets Frank Kaminsky Incoming rookie
Pacers Paul George 0%

*Basketball-Reference's play-by-play estimate for percentage of minutes at center or power forward

The Milwaukee Bucks prefer to play lineups with three wings on the court at once. That plan was sidetracked with Parker's injury, but Jared Dudley filled in admirably. With Dudley gone and Parker returning, look for Jason Kidd to continue trotting out three-wing lineups.

As for the Sacramento Kings, head coach George Karl is on the record regarding his intentions to play Gay at power forward. The same applies to the Indiana Pacers and George, despite the challenges of changing positions.

Finally, the Charlotte Hornets emphasized the addition of shooting this summer. They acquired Hawes and turned down six picks to draft Frank Kaminsky, who served as a stretch-five in college.

Smallball deniers

Teams that don't have a capable smallball player, or don't want one.

Team 3PA Rank
Timberwolves 30
Grizzlies 29
Wizards 27
Lakers 25
Magic 22
Knicks 21
Nets 20
Jazz 17
Nuggets 12
Trail Blazers 3

It's unfair to put the Portland Trail Blazers on this list because they clearly value spacing and shooting, but they lost so much talent in free agency. As it stands, they have no stretch option unless Noah Vonleh develops, or if Meyers Leonard maintains his hot shooting from last season.

The same logic could be applied to the Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets - they might want to play small, but they don't have the requisite pieces.

The Washington Wizards are a strange case. They stubbornly eschewed shooting and spacing in the regular season, attempting just 16.8 3-pointers per game, but launched 23.3 threes in the playoffs, while shifting two wings in Pierce and Otto Porter to the four. Perhaps during the playoffs, Randy Wittman was just playing it coy.

The remaining teams are set in their ways. The Memphis Grizzlies make it work because they have a dominant defense and a monstrous frontcourt, but there's no excuse for the rest.

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