With the Rise of the Small Ball the NBA’s Future Seems Big?
Orlando may be the only NBA franchise dumb enough to think the 6’8 hard-dunking, yet poor shooting Aaron Gordon is a small forward. The NBA is experiencing a “small-ball” renaissance; proliferated by the warriors “Line up of Death” teams are looking for versatile wing/forwards who can shoot and guard 2 through 4 on the court. Outside of Oakland Boston runs 3 guard sets with Thomas, Smart, and Bradley; while Cleveland has even put LeBron in at the five to out maneuver slower bigs.
You would think this would mean an abundance of 19–24 year old, 6’6 wings dominating the league, but the isn’t the case. Of the league’s newest stars: Towns, Davis, Antetokounmpo, Porzingis, Booker, Jokic, Gobert, and Embiid only Booker stands under 6’11. Not 6’9, 6’11! These players aren’t small at all,l and most spend minutes at the power forward, except Gobert and Embiid. This holds true for Ben Simmons if he ends up being a star as Sixers coach Brett Brown has said the 6’10 Simmons will play point guard for Philadelphia.
This begs the question, is the NBA really a small ball league? And, if not, where is it trending? My answer: the NBA isn’t getting smaller, it’s getting better. Both LeBron and Jordan were over-sized for their positions entering the league. Wilt’s 7’1 frame didn’t hurt his dominance in a league of 6’4-non-shooting-white guys. The best players have often been bigger than the competition. But the thing about our new crop of studs is that, beyond their athletic freakishness, they are deadly skilled.
Another overlooked, yet highly important commonality of these future superstars is the staggeringly good nicknames they’ve received: Kat, Brow, Greek Freak, The Unicorn, Joker, Stifle Tower, and of my favorite nickname after Paul “The Truth” Pierce: “The Process” given that it is simultaneously an acknowledgement of the 2 years we waited for Joel Embiid and a subtle dig at Sixers ownership for firing the man who drafted him. Being a superstar is primarily about filling the stat sheet, but part of it is also having ridiculous nicknames to make bank on merch (Anthony Davis trademarks “the Brow”.)
Back on topic, big men. “Why?” you ask, “I though NBA big men were uncoordinated slobs just meant to pull down rebounds and intimidate little guys?” to those people I respond, you still have Boban Marjanovic! But seriously how did the 7 footer turn into a giant Pete Maravich?
As a sophomore in high school Anthony Davis was listed at 6’2, and until he grew into his 6’11 frame Davis only played point guard. If like me you spent anytime as a crappy big man on a high school basketball team, point guards generally don’t feel obligated to pass; where are my post touches dammit! (I didn’t deserve post touches). So Davis got to practice with his ball-handling and shooting skills, instead of being asked to post up, set picks, and grab boards. My freshman year basketball nickname was “big pick” but for the record I also dived for a lot of loose balls, and cheered very hard from the bench. Another thing you’d know if you played middle school basketball is that the coach usually just makes the best kid a point guard, doesn’t matter if he’s 5’5 or 6’5 if he was your one competent scorer he was taking the ball up the floor. Simply, in the past young bigs didn’t get there hands on the ball, but now, they do.
This isn’t an indictment of small-ball rather it is the next step in its evolution. First Big > Small, then Quick and Skilled > Big, and finally Big and Quick and Skilled > basically every other non- blazing fast- cross overing- 7 foot human being (Monstars, clearly excused). I like Harrison Barnes at the 4, but I really like Giannis Antetokounmpo taking the ball up the court, while still making him look like a little boy in comparison.
So here’s the deal, play 6’6 Jae Crowder at the 4, he’s a decent rebounder and will give Issiah Thomas space inside while taking awkward contested 3s. Just get ready for Anthony Davis to smash that little orange sphere so hard down Crowder’s throat that Brooklyn gets its draft picks back. Also, the warriors “Line up of Death” isn’t small-ball Kevin Durant is almost 7 feet tall and Draymond thinks he’s 7’5 so I do to. Back to nicknames Gobert recently said his favorite nickname is “Gobzilla” which is fine, but pales in comparison to “Stifle Tower” and “French Rejection”. I believe in the long standing tradition of NBA commentators and analysts constantly reminding audiences that foreign players are foreign. Nice conclusion Nick *High Fives Self*