ESPN's Beckley Mason has re-upped on the smallball meme:
The Heat just won a championship with their best ball handler playing power forward. Now "small ball" hardly describes LeBron James, but the principles of small ball peppered the playoffs. Kevin Durant sliding to power forward and the Nuggets' two point guard lineups are just two examples.
As I have pointed out before, the 'rise of small ball' as an effective strategy is a fallacy. It's really just a 'rise of having LeBron James on your team' strategy.
Let's be fair, Mason isn't really writing an article about how small ball is all the rage right now, but rather a speculation on who invented small ball. But what's interesting is that the story that Beckley Mason quotes is also full of logical holes:
In an interview with CSN Bay Area, Nelson reflects on the inspiration for his small ball formula:It all happened in the Celtic practices. What Auerbach would do when it got to midseason and practices were drudgery, he would play big guys against the small guys and the smalls would always win. You put Bill Russell on the other team and everybody else big, and put the smalls on the other and it wasn’t a close game as long as it was a full-court game. Now half-court you couldn’t do that. But full-court, the smalls always won, so I’m sure that was the start of it.
Again, there's nothing really surprising about this. I don't think anyone disputes that a team full of guards would crush a team full of centers in full court play. The question, however, is would a team of guards beat a team of 4 guard's and 1 center? Or 4 centers and one point guard? Or a traditional PG-SG-SF-PF-C combo?
Or, to put it another way, if Auerbach swapped John Havlicek out for one of the bigs, so that the 'bigs' don't have any trouble bringing the ball up the floor (or defending the primary ball handler), does the team with Bill Russell still lose? Because I'm guessing 'small ball' doesn't look like such an awesome counter-tactic to Havlicek penetrating and setting up any of his four bigs, while on the defensive end it's Havlicek pestering the ball + All-Your-Rebounds-Are-Belong-to-Us.
In other words, there's just nothing magical about small ball that makes it an effective strategy. Unless, of course, the other team is doing something stupid like playing 5 centers. Or, alternatively, if you have LeBron James.
The dominant 'strategy' revolves around the dominant players of the era. That player happens to be LeBron (and it does not hurt that Miami has plenty of good wing players to put next to him when he plays PF; if they didn't, small ball would suck). If LeBron were not in the league, there would be no small ball strategy that everyone thinks is the evolution of basketball. The 'strategy' has always been, and will always be, 'get the best player in the league and surround him with 4 competent guys' (with variants like 'get two of the top 10 players and surround them with 3 competent guys'). This pretty much always leads to contention. Historically, the game's best player is usually a dominant big man, but some freaks of nature (most notably Magic and LeBron) have blurred the line between big and wing.
It's not about the small ball.