Chris' Corner
Issue   |   Wed, 12/09/2015 - 01:01

Since last June, when Steph Curry and the Warriors proved once and for all that small-ball could win an NBA championship, there has been a lot of speculation about how the rest of the league would respond, and Golden State’s historic start this year has only added fuel to the fire. Golden State has perfected small-ball by surrounding the historically great shooting of duo Curry and Klay Thompson with unselfish, athletic players like Draymond Green, Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala.

When the Warriors play all five of those guys together, they’ve outscored opponents by a shocking 90 points over 64 minutes, even though Green, at 6’7”, is far shorter than the average NBA center. To put that in perspective, if that lineup played a 48-minute game together, as well as they usually play, they would win by 66. Offensively, all five players can shoot, drive and pass, which makes them impossible to cover. Defensively, you might expect them to struggle due to their lack of height, but Green and Barnes have proved especially tenacious when guarding bigger players. Interim coach Luke Walton has saved this killer lineup for the last few minutes of close games, and it has been instrumental in keeping the Warriors undefeated streak alive.

What can the rest of the league do in response to the small-ball revolution in Golden State? Teams can either match the Warriors’ shorter lineups with shorter lineups of their own, or they can refuse to give up on playing their traditional big men. The problem with the first strategy is that no one has a small-ball lineup as good as Golden State’s. The problem with the second is that traditional big men have almost no hope of keeping up with Barnes and Green.

The NBA in general is moving toward small-ball, mostly because teams are realizing that three is more than two, which means that it’s important to have two or three good 3-point shooters on the court as frequently as possible. Still, in terms of matching up with the Warriors, I think sticking with traditional big men is a better gamble, if only because the Warriors are so much better at small-ball than everyone else that it doesn’t make sense to challenge them on those terms.

Despite eventually losing in six games, both the Memphis Grizzlies and the Cavaliers challenged the Warriors by going ahead 2-1. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that those teams played big lineups, with two traditional big men. In the games that those teams won, the comparative advantage of height was very evident. The Cavaliers in particular got a lot of offensive rebounds and second chance points. The small successes of Cleveland and Memphis provide insight into how a team built around two traditional big men might have a chance against Golden State’s small-ball lineup of death.

In Memphis’ two victories, one of the most instrumental players was Tony Allen. Allen, a terrible offensive player, is also one of the best, most physical defenders in the league. The Grizzlies were very effective during the stretches when he guarded Steph Curry. This reveals a couple things: first, as good as the rest of the Warriors are, Curry is their only transcendent player. If you can limit him, you have a real chance. Second, the way to limit Curry is to be physical with him; at 6’2” and about 180 pounds, Steph is less imposing than most other guards in the league.

If Allen and the Grizzlies provided the blueprint for defending Curry and the Warriors, LeBron and the Cavaliers stumbled into an offense that slowed down Golden State. Because of the injuries to Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, and the lack of skill on the rest of the team, the Cavs had little choice but to have LeBron shoot almost every possession. The typical Cleveland possession in the Finals was not exactly beautiful basketball: LeBron would dribble up the court, size up his defender as the shot clock wound down and shoot. Usually, this is the type of offense that coaches hate. However, it was surprisingly effective against the Warriors, for a few reasons. First of all, LeBron was the best player in the league playing at the height of his powers. But more importantly, Cleveland bigs Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson crashed the glass, taking advantage of the smaller Warriors to grab a bunch of offensive rebounds. Finally, the slow-down, isolation strategy worked because it conceded very few turnovers, which the Warriors feast on.

One of the elements that drives the Warriors small-ball success is their fast break, which is devastating because it is impossible to guard Thompson and Curry as closely in the fastbreak as you would in the half court. Golden State can score 10 points faster than probably any team in basketball history. Even when you are on offense, you should be worried about the Warriors scoring on you. Turnovers are always bad, but they’re much worse when you’re playing the Warriors. With LeBron barely passing the ball before he shot, the Cavs turned the ball over at a very low rate, which limited the Warriors’ fast break opportunities.

So there you have it. To beat the Warriors, play two traditional big men who are good offensive rebounders and mobile enough to keep up with Green and Barnes, find a physical defensive stopper to rough up Curry, and find a star who scores efficiently on isolations to avoid turnovers. Easier said than done.