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Small Ball

Everyone's talking "small ball" with regard to Phoenix-Dallas, but it's worth pointing out that the very different Detroit Pistons arguably fit the mold as well. Ben Wallace is listed at 6'9" -- very short for a center. Barely taller than Boris Diaw and shorter than Tim Thomas and significantly smaller than Nowitzki. Of course, Wallace is a muscle player in a way that Dirk and Thomas clearly aren't, but he is small and we saw at times during the Cleveland series that even though we're used to thinking of him as an interior guy he can guard a taller perimeter player like King James. Rasheed Wallace is actually the tall guy on Detroit, but not really a "big man" in the traditional sense.

May 25, 2006 | Permalink


I've never believed Ben Wallace is 6'9". With the blowout, maybe, but not with the 'rows. But, yeah, the Pistons are basically playing two power forwards, both of whom are good enough defenders to handle much bigger centers.

The "small ball" thing is overrated, IMO, but that's because I think the last ten years have been a Shaq-induced period of insanity. Which is to say, the Suns really are playing small ball, because Marion, Diaw, and Thomas are all tweener forwards at best, but last year I didn't think of it as small ball with Amare in the middle.

Posted by: Quarterican | May 25, 2006 12:14:45 PM

There goes Matt, talking old school. Sheed isn't tall, he's long. NBA players stopped having height sometime around the end of the 20th Century, I think. Now they have length.

Posted by: LowLife | May 25, 2006 12:56:35 PM

I think of "small ball" more as a style of play, not regarding the height of the players. It means, to me, running and driving rather than post play or pick & roll. It's called small ball because usually smaller guys excel at that type of play. But if you play pick & roll, you aren't playing small ball, even if your players are not actually very tall.

Posted by: Al | May 25, 2006 1:08:58 PM

Al, I think you need to take the pick & roll off the table, because if Phoenix doesn't play small ball then I really have no clue what it means, and Nash and Diaw run pick & roll's all the time.

Posted by: Quarterican | May 25, 2006 1:19:01 PM

Ben Wallace is more like 6'8", if you're feeling generous. Probably more like 6'7 3/4" or so.

Posted by: Haggai | May 25, 2006 1:28:34 PM

The last 24 hours have not been kind to my typing clarity. I'm aware that "roll's" doesn't actually have an apostrophe.

But to add something more of substance: I think in basketball small ball is about the combination of player type (not so much height as skillset) and strategy. A transhistorical team of Wes Unseld, Charles Barkley, Adrian Dantley, Allen Iverson and Earl Boykins would be exceedingly short, but they wouldn't necessarily be playing "small ball". OTOH, it would seem wrong to say the Kings of three years ago played small ball even though they emphasized running, slashing and shooting over set plays in a halfcourt offense, because Divac, Webber and Stojakovic were all big for their position. To piggyback off of something either Kerr or Collins said last night (can't remember which now) - these teams are playing a [rather less gimmicky] version of Don Nelson Ball, and occasionally they do it with players who are small and fast enough to make it Small Ball.

Posted by: Quarterican | May 25, 2006 1:29:20 PM

Quarterican: here i thought you were a young feller. how do you know about wes unseld? (i love imagining wes and barkley on the same team!)

Posted by: howard | May 25, 2006 1:46:03 PM

I'm 23, but my dad's also a big basketball fan who used to tell me about some of the players from before I was born (though I've probably passed him in random basketball history, thanks to having a much more obsessive personality. The sort of personality that occasionally has me think things like: "I need to know something about Gail Goodrich. He was a Laker, right? I need more information!" and scurry off to Google and NBA.com's History page.)

Posted by: Quarterican | May 25, 2006 1:52:04 PM

The point that the Pistons are small makes me wonder, for the first time, whether Phoenix could actually beat them if Phoenix gets through. I really think that matchups might be determinative here. Heat beat Suns, Pistons (maybe) lose to Suns, Mavs beat Heat, and Mavs (less likely, but possible) lose to Pistons.

Posted by: SomeCallMeTim | May 25, 2006 1:52:35 PM

I think Al is on to something. Small ball does not refer to size, but to the roles assigned to each player. Diaw plays center only inasmuch as he _defends_ the opposite center. And Marion is PF because he defends the opposing PF. But in offense, neither is playing down low. Both can shoot the 3, both can take their man off the dribble. Diaw has more triple doubles this season than anyone still playing! So small ball: not how you match up in defense, but how you play offense. Detroit, with Wallace in the post, Big Ben who never leaves the paint, and Dice coming in in the post as well: not small ball.

Posted by: cedichou | May 25, 2006 2:02:37 PM

Funny, without looking at the regular season results, I would've said the Pistons would look better than the Heat if matched against the Suns. Year 2000 Shaq would've dominated a series like that, just asserted his willpower and physical dominance as superior to D'Antoni and Nash's, but Year 2006 Shaq...I think the Suns could run him off the floor and turn him into a liability. All 5 starters for the Pistons are perfectly capable of playing uptempo, and their lack of depth isn't an issue against Phoenix, since they've got no bench either.

Posted by: Quarterican | May 25, 2006 2:04:22 PM

quarterican, very impressive, so here's the single most important thing to know about wes: he was the greatest outlet passer in history.

as for small ball, back in the '80s, when quarterican was just a wee little lad, pat riley was talking about the center-less future, how he'd like to have a team made up of magic, worthy, cooper, and 2 others like them (not that he objected to having kareem around, of course: fun's fun, but you like the sure 2 from the skyhook).

Posted by: howard | May 25, 2006 2:11:32 PM

I probably wouldn't take the Heat against the Suns either. Not enough athleticism on Miami to keep up with Phoenix, and Shaq would tire out even quicker than usual.

Posted by: Haggai | May 25, 2006 2:41:19 PM

Bill Russell was only about 6-9, I think.

Posted by: Mac | May 25, 2006 2:54:38 PM

"I probably wouldn't take the Heat against the Suns either. Not enough athleticism on Miami to keep up with Phoenix, and Shaq would tire out even quicker than usual."

Agreed. The Bulls gave the Heat a decent series playing small ball, and they don't have nearly as much talent as the Suns.

Posted by: a | May 25, 2006 2:57:58 PM

he was the greatest outlet passer in history.

Two Bills (Russel and Walton) might disagree. Willis Reed was also good at this IIRC...

Posted by: Pooh | May 25, 2006 3:03:09 PM

Sorry for the whoring, but my thoughts on game one are rather longer than comment length...

Posted by: Pooh | May 25, 2006 3:05:37 PM

Pooh -

I'm in general agreement with what you said over at your blog, except for (1) You seem to feel that if all the games resemble last night's, it's to Phoenix's advantage, whereas I think that even if the Lil General doesn't make *any* adjustments Dallas will come out on top more often than not (and I think Johnson will make excellent adjustments; he's shown a great ability to be flexible while making sure that he's dictating the game and not being dictated to), and (2) Wasn't Dallas halfway into a matchup zone anyway? After a while they'd pretty well embraced the concept of just grabbing whomever they were closest to as the Suns screamed across the halfcourt line, and Johnson's dictate to sacrifice the paint before sacrificing the three point line is (unorthodox) zone-ish as well, since it often ended up looking like four guys on the rim with one guy patrolling the paint.

Posted by: Quarterican | May 25, 2006 3:23:15 PM

Pooh, i stoop to no one in my admiration for russ (as you undoubtedly know from other comments i've made) (and yes, Mac, he was only 6'9"), but i rate him second to wes, partly because russ got to throw it to cousy (as compared, for instance, to phil chenier) and partly because wes, with that two-handed throw, was, i think, more accurate.

yes, walton was a great outlet passer, but since he played so little thanks to his injuries, i can't really call him the best.

and while reed was a very fine outlet passer, the knicks almost never ran, so he didn't really get much chance to display it (now his semi-contemporary cowens was an excellent outlet passer on a running team).

and now back to our regularly scheduled discussion....

Posted by: howard | May 25, 2006 3:31:57 PM

I suppose my point is that teams that do a lot of running are playing "small ball", regardless of the size of their players (conversely, teams that walk it up aren't playing small ball, regardless of the size of their players). Of course, teams rarely run all the time (is Paul Westhead still alive?). So even PHX needs halfcourt plays. Were the NJ teams that went to the Finals playing "small ball" a lot? Is suppose - although not to the extent of PHX - but NJ wasn't an especially small team height-wise (Kidd and Kittles had good size for a backcourt, for example).

Posted by: Al | May 25, 2006 3:32:06 PM

I'm curious - if MHX plays MIA in the Finals, who matches up with Shaq? Do they double him constantly? Or let somebody play him one-on-one? (If they bring Kurt Thomas back, will that mess up their running game?)

Posted by: Al | May 25, 2006 3:34:55 PM

Well Q, I think with a few very minor adjustments (forcing Harris to go left, like, ever and continue to make him make 18 footers. Also, getting Barbosa to pull his head out and finish every now and again) that style of game dramatically favors PHX. Not to mention that they shot like crap from 3 - if those start dropping...

The one other adjustment the Suns need to make is find a way to steal some minutes for Nash to rest - Dallas's big runs came when he was clearly gassed (and then on the bench).

I think Dallas can win if the games are played in the 110s, I think they are far more likely to win if they are played in the 90s.

Posted by: Pooh | May 25, 2006 3:43:32 PM

"Small ball" is a bad analogy from baseball. In baseball, "small ball" refers to scoring runs through "smaller" plays - singles, walks, bunts, hit-and-runs - rather than through homeruns and extra base hits.

As applied to basketball, it is just plain confusing. If it doesn't refer to the size of the players on the court, then it should be called "run and gun" or something that refers to the speed of play.

Posted by: blah | May 25, 2006 3:44:59 PM

And Q, re zone: first of all, it makes the P&R much easier to defend, as Dallas can always have Howard/Daniels/Griffin switching on to the dribbler, and the screener can't just slide to the post if guarded by harris/armstrong/terry - as it was, PHX can just find the guy guarding Diaw/Marion/Thomas who they want to abuse and Dallas is in a terrible defensive matchup on every possession. (Though if they start 'blitzing' Nash on every P&R, it might wear him down some, I suppose)

Plus, as I said at my place, it lets Dallas keep Dampier on the floor without him being a ginormous liability on D - and it may even allow him to be useful on that end by keeping him near the basket to intimidate Diaw who still tends to shy away from physicality (and Dirk manifestly does not scare him...)

Finally, zone is going to force Barbosa, Jones and perhaps House to make shots to beat you to an extent.

As far as the 'pickup whoever' D that they tried last night, I've already pointed out the serious issues is gives Dallas. Plus, everyone is so discombobulated that there isn't really much help when (and it is when, not if) PHX breaks the D down and gets into the lane.

Posted by: Pooh | May 25, 2006 3:54:11 PM

Al -

I think you'd see D'Antoni try a variety of methods (defend with Kurt Thomas; rotate Diaw and Tim Thomas; always double team; bring in bench guys to foul him) and keep switching them up. I don't think K. Thomas slows the Suns down too much - even if he can't run with them as well as he did in the regular season, their fastbreak will manage as long as he can hit the glass. Essentially, though, I think D'Antoni would try to get Shaq off the floor. I think the Suns can also exploit his offensive foul troubles these days pretty effectively. If Diaw doesn't mind risking the possibility that an enraged Shaq plucks his head off 'twixt thumb and forefinger, I see him flopping around a lot. I think they have a shot at getting Riley to cut Shaq's minutes because he can't keep up with the pace to such an extent that he becomes a huge defensive liability.

Or they could use a modified version of the Larry Brown strategy: make Wade work for his against Bell (assuming he's available), Marion's D pretty much erases Antoine from the equation, and just let Shaq get his. Let him spring for 40 a night. Make Udonis and J.Will and Payton beat you.

Posted by: Quarterican | May 25, 2006 3:54:27 PM

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