The Numbers Behind Small Ball in the NBA

Is small ball changing the future of the NBA?

This season, there have been gushes of articles by basketball experts detailing how the NBA game is changing. Statistics have always been a big part of the game, but recently organizations have been committing to using analytics in both in-game strategy and roster construction.

This new wave of "advanced stats" has helped us shape the true value of NBA players - it's obvious that LeBron James is valuable to an NBA team, but now we have stats like PER, WARP, RPM, and our own nERD to help us understand just how valuable LBJ is. Through increased attention to numbers, teams have realized how important the corner-three shot is in the game, and teams have adjusted their offenses accordingly to maximize those shots.

In the midst of an increased attention to statistical-based strategy creation, we've heard all about the small ball lineups that have been dominating the league. It seems obvious - switch out, say, Kevin Durant for Kendrick Perkins and move Serge Ibaka to center, and all of a sudden you have a frighteningly fast lineup. The same is true with Miami and LeBron. Even the Knicks with Carmelo Anthony at the four and Tyson Chandler at the five have seen success with this strategy.

Everyone is doing it, right? It's taking the league by storm, right? Well I looked at the top lineups for this year (minimum of 250 minutes) and was surprised at the results. I'll give you the top 10.

1. Chris Paul, Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan
NetRtg: 21.3

2. Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, David Lee, Andrew Bogut
NetRtg: 15.2

3. Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter
NetRtg: 14.6

4. Chris Paul, Darren Collison, Matt Barnes, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan
NetRtg: 13.3

5. Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, PJ Tucker, Channing Frye, Miles Plumlee
NetRtg: 12.6

6. Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Josh McRoberts, Al Jefferson
NetRtg: 11.7

7. John Wall, Bradley Beal, Trevor Ariza, Nene Hilario, Marcin Gortat
NetRtg: 10.7

8. John Wall, Martell Webster, Trevor Ariza, Nene Hilario, Marcin Gortat
NetRtg: 10.5

9. George Hill, Lance Stephenson, Paul George, David West, Roy Hibbert
NetRtg: 10.0

10. Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge, Robin Lopez
NetRtg: 9.3


How many small ball lineups do you see there? I count zero. Why?

The answer isn't that the smaller lineups haven't been successful, because they have. Although in limited minutes, many team's best lineups have been when they go small. In fact, the list above changes pretty significantly if I lower the minute restriction to include the small ball lineups used less frequently.

I'll give you a couple of examples. Miami's best lineup this year has been Mario Chalmers, Ray Allen, LeBron James, Shane Battier, and Chris Bosh. Despite being in the list above, the Warriors' best lineup (in 104 minutes together) has been Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Draymond Green, and Lee. The Spurs has been Parker, Green, Kawhi, Boris Diaw, and Duncan. The Nets has been Deron Williams, Shaun Livingston, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett.

I could go on with more, but I think you get my point. Statistically, many teams' best lineups have been these small ball ones, yet they have been given very little run in comparison to the more traditional lineups. Perhaps coaches are worried that these smaller lineups are giving too much up defensively? Maybe they're trying to protect their smaller guys from getting banged up during the regular season?

The Future

Despite the success of the small ball lineups, the majority of teams rarely use them in a consistent rotation. The team that has really pulled it out consistently is the Heat in the playoffs over the past couple of years. Some people say that the NBA, like the NFL and many other professional sports leagues, is a copycat league - teams try to emulate the most recent winner, as it's the most obvious, current form of success on the market. If this is the case, why are so many teams sticking with the traditional two big man lineups that starkly contrast with the lineups that the Heat have found success with?

It's possible that teams are using a contrarian approach to this idea, however. Instead of being quick to emulate the success of the Heat, teams might realize that matching small ball lineups against one with LeBron James is risky because of his sheer dominance and versatility. Instead, teams like the Pacers, Bulls, Clippers, Thunder and many others are building teams to directly exploit the weaknesses of small ball lineups, as opposed to adapt to them. We'll see what happens in this season's playoffs, but recently they haven't been successful in that venture.

Although it becomes vastly more interesting in the playoffs, it will be interesting to see if teams will commit to this during the regular season anytime soon. The Suns did it in the '90s with Charles Barkley, and then again last decade with Shawn Marion. On the whole, however, teams seem hesitant to commit to this strategy as their primary one. Defense is steady and most teams are statistically better on that end of the court with two big men in the game. But does that strategy warrant stifling the offense? It probably doesn't in many cases, but you can only look at the data you have, and the teams just won't commit to it.

Whether or not this will change in the future will actually have a lot to do with players coming into the NBA. Guys like Jabari Parker are coming in soon - he's a 6'8'' forward who will have to play the four because of defensive limitations. His most usual comparisons in the league are to guys like Carmelo Anthony and Rudy Gay. Those guys can probably defend a bit better on the wing, but the stats have shown that they are extremely effective as a small ball four. A team that takes Parker (or Julius Randle or Aaron Gordon, etc.) might just have to commit to small ball being their core lineup and strategy. Will it work? I guess we'll find out.