What is “small ball”?  

The game of basketball looks a lot different now than it did 10 years ago. It used to be that if you were 6’9” you played in the post. Then Magic came along and changed that. Then 7 footers were post players and then Dirk changed that. Then KD took that to a different level. Steph made it ok to shoot from 35 feet. The list of players who have changed how the game is played is long.

One of the results of these changes to the game is “small ball.” The term small ball gets thrown around a lot. The Houston Rockets played this past season with a bunch of guys under 6’8”. They traded away Clint Capella and “sold-out” to the idea. Whether the Rockets won or lost due to “small ball” is debatable. I think it’s more complicated and at the same time simpler than that.

Mike D’Antoni was recently asked if “small ball” worked. He responded that’s how the Lakers beat us. The Lakers played with Lebron 6’9”. Anthony Davis 7’. The list goes on. So is that “small ball”?

Basketball is a game that combines size, athleticism, and skill. If two players are the same except for their size, being bigger is an advantage. Bigger isn’t always better.  There is a long list of players who have played at a very elite level even though they didn’t possess elite size. However, being taller matters.

There are a lot of different parts of “small ball” and different coaches have different definitions.  Some use the term to describe how they will defend.  Some use it to define how they will space the court on offense.  Some use it to define which shots their teams will take. Some use a combination of these definitions.

I think “small ball” is just a term for the lack of players like Kevin Durant or Lebron James. It shows how elite those players are. Houston wouldn’t be playing with a bunch of 6’6″ players if they could acquire a player like that for their roster.  The problem is that there aren’t many players like that. Players who have elite size and athleticism but also an elite-level skillset are hard to find.  Giannis might be that one day, but he’s not there yet.

I’m not saying it’s the Rocket’s fault that they can’t get a player like KD. Most teams can’t. There just aren’t many of them out there.  It’s a lot easier to find shorter players who are elite athletes and who can shoot with the hope that it will be enough to compete at a high level. It’s a numbers game. There are simply more players like that. The Rockets placed more value on skill and being able to shoot as opposed to size.

It shouldn’t be surprising however that the Lakers won. They are the better team. It isn’t because “small ball” doesn’t work or that it does. The Lakers had two players 6’9″ or taller with elite skill sets.  That’s what matters.  The Lakers were able to score at all levels and they were better defensively, partly due to the fact that they were bigger and just as skilled and athletic if not more. 

There are a few lessons to be learned.

  1. Size matters.  The smaller you are, the more skilled you have to be. Smaller players have to be better than taller ones in order to compete against them.  It’s just the way it is. 
  2. Just because you’re tall, doesn’t mean you can’t play “small”. Too many players, parents, and coaches look at “tall” players when they are young and make them “post players.” The reason “small ball” is such a new fad as opposed to the “old-fashioned” way to play is that coaches have buried the tallest kid in the post and failed to teach that kid how to dribble, pass and shoot.  What happens when that kid isn’t the tallest kid anymore?
  3. It’s not enough to just shoot 3’s, layups, dunks, and free throws.  Teams who compete at the highest level have players who can score at all levels.

To me, “small-ball” is just a foreshadowing of the future of basketball.  It just means that players who don’t have the skill to play the game won’t be as successful as the ones that do, regardless of their size.  There will be more and more players who have elite size and an elite skill set.

If you’re the tallest player on your team, ask yourself if you would be the tallest player on any team. Don’t let the excuse be “coach puts me in the post.” If you’re that skilled and that good then it won’t matter if “coach” teaches you anything.  You won’t be in the post because you’ll be that dominant with the ball in your hands. If you’re small, you better be working a lot harder than everyone else. You have to be more skilled than players who are bigger than you. Otherwise, the bigger player is going to get your spot, whether that’s on the court or on the roster altogether.

It comes back to the only thing that a player can really control.  They can’t control how tall they are. There are limits to how athletic they can make themselves. Their skill sets are only limited to what they are taught and the work they put into them.

As coaches, we must always be developing the skills of our players. If we aren’t, then we aren’t doing our jobs. I don’t care how many games we win. If your players don’t want to get better, find a way to change their mind or find new players. If you don’t take the time to see where they can improve, the value in that improvement, and show them how to do it, then stop coaching.

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