This is a trend that is taking over.
INSIDE THE NBA
Small stands tall in new NBA
On Pro Basketball
December 5, 2005
Call it "small ball."
Even better, call it "goodbye to the big stiff."
Either way, one of the biggest and most subtle changes in the NBA has been the increasing use of small lineups, especially the three-guard variety.
"[Hornets coach] Byron Scott just called me and he told me his best team is Speedy [Claxton], Chris Paul and Desmond Mason," Larry Brown was saying last week after his Knicks outlasted the Bulls with a three-guard group of Nate Robinson, Jamal Crawford and Stephon Marbury doing the damage. "More and more teams are doing that to take advantage of the three-point line and playing like they do in Europe: Penetrate and kick. They don't have true post players overseas and you find it happening more and more here. When I was growing up, every game you have two unbelievable centers banging each other and you had to guard the post. Now it's a lot of different matchups."
Much of this has been traced to the Suns' success last season with Amare Stoudemire at center and a run-and-shoot offense, but it's really more than that. A combination of recent rule changes that allow modified zone defenses and fewer true low-post centers who require double teams has led more teams to seek penetration of the defense by dribbling instead of throwing the ball inside. Certainly, if a team has Shaquille O'Neal or Tim Duncan, it will try to pass inside. But low-post play continues to be a lost art for big men, in the Kevin Garnett mold, who learn to play the game from the outside.
"Dribble penetration is the bane of every coach," says Milwaukee's Terry Stotts. "If you have two or three players on the court who can shoot and drive, it makes it hard on the defense."
In bygone NBA eras, there was little help defense and most teams had big centers banging one another. The game then transitioned to defenses double-teaming the center and the ball swinging to shooters. This was also made possible because the rules at that time banned zone defenses, which made teams guard the weak side of the court (away from the ball).
Now teams more often can clog the lane and front the post, which the Bulls were so effective doing against the much bigger Spurs this season in a win and overtime loss against the NBA defending champions.
"It's surprising sometimes how many teams you can drive into a favorable matchup by substituting the right way," says Bulls coach Scott Skiles.
This evolution has leveled the playing field somewhat for smaller teams, like the Bulls, and created a different type of game that continues to find more places for smaller players. It also emphasizes skill over bulk, the rare O'Neal types excluded, of course. Gone is the yearning for the likes of Kelvin Cato, Rasho Nesterovic, Greg Ostertag and Calvin Booth, all of whom received big contracts at one time. Now, teams use the dribble to penetrate with more skilled players and can do such things as produce a more favorable matchup in pick and roll with skilled players by picking off the better defender.
Here's a look at some of the better three-guard rotations that have had success this season:
- Steve Nash, Raja Bell and Eddie House, Suns. They're not quite what they were without Stoudemire to draw the defense in, but still rank second in scoring to the 76ers.
- T.J. Ford, Michael Redd and Mo Williams, Bucks. Milwaukee is shooting almost 44 percent on threes with Ford a jet with the ball.
- Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon and Chris Duhon, Bulls. All are making at least a third of their threes, which translates into 50 percent on twos, can handle the ball and are good in pick-and-roll situations, which Skiles runs from creative angles all over the court with one of the league's more clever playbooks.
- Damon Stoudemire, Bobby Jackson and Eddie Jones, Grizzlies. All are averaging in double figures for one of the league's early surprises. The Grizzlies are the league's best in points allowed and top five in shooting defense with their scrambling game and no true center.
- Steve Francis, Deshawn Stevenson and Jameer Nelson, Magic. All are averaging in double figures and can pass. Wait until Grant Hill returns this month from injury.
Don't forget the Sonics with Flip Murray returning from injury to join Ray Allen and Luke Ridnour. Dallas still is a team filled with guards and with 7-footer Dirk Nowitzki playing like a shooting guard. The Cavs have Larry Hughes and Eric Snow or Damon Jones with LeBron James handling the ball more than all of them.
It's a small world after all.
It's hard to believe the Raptors won't deal Jalen Rose soon. Last summer they, surprisingly, turned down the Knicks' offer of Penny Hardaway, who is in the final year of his deal. Rose comes off the bench and doesn't play much now with Toronto, one of the league's hottest teams. Joining Rose on the trading floor because of lack of minutes or troubling times are Denver's Voshon Lenard, Portland's Ruben Patterson and Boston's Mark Blount. ... One guy who'd be a nice fit for a team seeking a shooter, like the Bulls, is Casey Jacobsen, who went overseas to play last summer. . . . Perhaps the Bulls could interest the Heat in Eric Piatkowski for Michael Doleac when O'Neal returns.
Rocky Mountain, indeed
You wonder if Jeff Bdzelik is smiling. Or at least smirking. The northwest suburban product now coaching the Air Force Academy was run off by the Nuggets when the team was 13-15 last season and struggling through injuries and dissension. Fast forward to this season: Kenyon Martin is having knee problems (with Nene already out for the season), Lenard wants to be traded after being benched and Earl Watson doesn't play after being the big off-season acquisition. The Nuggets are 8-8, as many losses as George Karl had after 40 games last season. The talk is Karl will run off general manager Kiki Vandeweghe, who wasn't instrumental in Karl's hiring, and run his own show. (Hey, maybe Anthony Mason wants to make a comeback.)
Karl, meanwhile, was suspended last week for another rant against officials and that's a good thing. It's time NBA coaches stop giving fans and kids everywhere license to believe officials lost the game. Sure, work the officials in games, but stand up afterward and accept defeat. It's players and coaches who win and lose games with the rare exception of missed call on the final play, and even then it's the team's fault for letting it get to that. Champions dine; losers whine.
All that Jazz
You weep with Jerry Sloan, who remembers when basketball is what mattered. Sloan told the Deseret News: "Jerry West was a great, great player, but he did use his right hand exclusively. He'd give you two dribbles to his left, then you'd jump over there, and then he's got you going right to where he wants you to be. Lenny Wilkens was a left-handed player. He would always draw you over there, then you'd get over on that side too far and he'd take two dribbles to his right, and then you'd really jump to try to get back to him, and now you're [in trouble]. I could tell you right now, Pete Maravich would come up the right side of the floor, two dribbles across halfcourt and he's [using] the left hand." It's the lament of so many coaches these days despite all the modern equipment and scouting to study players. "I don't think guys nowadays, younger guys, study the game the way he did," agreed Ostertag. Meanwhile, the eBay bidding on a full day with Sloan--including airfare, hotel, lunch and tickets to the Jan. 21 Jazz-Cavs game--reached $8,100. It's a benefit for the Bobbye and Jerry Sloan Hand-in-Hand Foundation. Sloan says he naps before games and the package doesn't include that.
The Clippers are the Bulls of this season, leading the NBA in field-goal defense. Their Saturday game against the Cavs was one man's view of the league's future. Said LeBron James: "They're a good team and they're becoming a great team. They are just like us. They are up and coming on the West Coast, and we are up and coming on the East Coast." The Cavs actually have further to go, ranking among the league's worst in shooting defense overall and on three-pointers. ... Marquette's Travis Diener, in just his second game for the Magic, hit all four threes he attempted Saturday against the Bucks in front of eight busloads of fans from hometown Fond du lac. The crowd at the earlier Marquette-South Dakota State game received Diener bobbleheads. After his fourth three, Diener was booed by the Bucks' crowd. ... Heat fans derisively yell for Antoine Walker to shoot when he has the ball in the backcourt. ... Garnett gave each Minnesota teammate for Christmas the long-awaited Microsoft Xbox 360. And you wonder why players today keep guarding left shooters to the right.