Can Golden State's Super Small Ball Lineup Be Beaten?
It’s the most important question in the NBA right now: how do you stop the Golden State Warriors’ super-small-ball lineup?
According to stats.nba.com, the data matches our eyes. The five-man unit of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, and Draymond Green has played 56 minutes together on the season and have a ridiculous Net Rating (Offensive Rating minus Defensive Rating) of +70.8. Seems good.
Further, 74.2% of their shots have been assisted, they’re holding their own on the boards, and they’re obviously shooting the lights out, with a crazy 83.8% True Shooting Percentage. The lineup gives just about every team fits -- it’s a true five-out lineup where every position can penetrate, pass, and shoot. Every NBA fan knows about the triple-threat; the Warriors have five guys who are capable of all three threats, making teams worry about 15 different things on a defensive possession.
So the question again is, can anyone stop them? First, let’s identify a possible blueprint of what that might look like. Let’s look again at the data.
They’re just about perfect in every area so far, but there is one data point that I think is telling and could be exploited by an opposing team: their ratio of three-pointers to two-pointers. That lineup is taking half of their shots -- 49.0% to be exact -- from behind the three-point line. That is why it’s so deadly. Opposing defenses are hemorrhaging points because of the multiple threats issue, but more importantly, they’re hemorrhaging more valuable shots. Against the Warriors, that’s instant death.
The problem with guarding the lineup is picking your poison. Do you want to go with a traditional lineup of two big men and hope to punish them on the offensive end? Good luck. Math just doesn’t work in your favor in that regard; three-pointers are worth more than twos. What about going to a small-ball lineup with four wings and a rim protector? Again, Draymond makes that ineffective because he’s better at defending your center than your center is at defending him.
However, the solution might be something that sounds drastic because of how trendy the phrase is in the NBA in 2015: give up rim protection. That sounds incredibly dangerous, but that particular small-ball lineup of the Warriors wants to get out and jack up three-pointers against big men. Put a lineup of five wings against them, switch every screen, and, well you could still get into trouble with Steph penetrating, but that’s a poison much preferred than wide open three-pointers on multiple possessions.
Further, there’s a trend of smaller guys -- Draymond is the ultimate example here, along with his teammate in Barnes -- very adequately defending big men in the post. The reason is because of how matchup-based the NBA has been for years. Players, and importantly, coaches too, want to take natural advantage of mismatches, especially close to the basket. Would going super-small to match the Warriors trick Barnes or Draymond into trying to body up a player on the block? Maybe not, but it’s definitely worth exploring, as the expected value of that possession is almost infinitely less than the current alternatives.
Teams will probably not want to take out all rim protection from their lineup -- again, it’s been all the rage since we watched LeBron James and Roy Hibbert battle mid-air in the playoffs a couple years ago. However, this Warriors team is making rim protection less and less important because of how great they are at hitting three-pointers. When you have a true-shooting percentage of almost 90%, line protection is immensely more important than rim protection. However, it may not be this year before teams (really, we’re talking about LeBron at the five here) are willing to get out of their comfort zone -- which is what makes Golden State so good -- and revamp their lineups.
Until then, keep expecting the Warriors’ small lineup to destroy the league.