Will small-ball eventually put an end to the NBA 7-footer?

Hunter Felt
The Guardian
<span>Photograph: Eric Christian Smith/AP</span>
Photograph: Eric Christian Smith/AP

Last month, the Houston Rockets took the NBA’s small-ball revolution to its logical extreme, defeating the Dallas Mavericks 128-121 without a player listed as taller than 6ft 6in. According to records, it was the first time an NBA team had done so since the 1963 Chicago Zephyrs beat the New York Knicks. The Chicago Zephyrs, for the record, were what the Washington Wizards used to be called three cities and four name changes ago. A lot has changed since then, but considering the evolution of the league, it was probably only a matter of time before a team repeated the Zephyrs’ feat.

How did the Rockets end up playing like this?

The Rockets’ starting center, the 6ft 10in Clint Capela, was injured, which left them with just reserve big men Tyson Chandler and Isaiah Hartenstein. Head coach Mike D’Antoni, never one to shy away from a controversial decision, left both of them on the bench. Instead, the Rockets played 6ft 5in PJ Tucker at center and opened up the offense in order to give James Harden and Russell Westbrook as much space as they wanted.

Were there any downsides to the Rockets playing so small?

Not if you ask Dallas’s 7ft 3in Kristaps Porzingis. With nobody on court to effectively challenge the center in the paint, he scored a season-high 35 points on 12-for-20 shooting. As you might imagine given the Rockets’ super-small lineup, the Mavericks also outrebounded the Rockets 52-37.

That sounds bad for Houston…

Well, the Rockets also managed to outscore the Mavericks while Porzingis was on the court. Shot selection might have been a factor, as Porzingis only attempted four three-pointers despite being an effective long-distance shooter. No team knows the value of the three-pointer more than the Rockets, you can pretty much see the story of the seven-point victory in the final three-point tallies: the Mavericks went 14-for-36, while the Rockets went 21-45.

Is it just me, or does everything in the NBA look a bit smaller these days?

It’s not just you. For a good chunk of its history, the NBA revolved around the center: there’s a reason that the position was called that in the first place. The Dominant Big Man was so key that their names came to define their eras: think George Mikan, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal at his peak. These days, the key players around the league tend to be smaller, faster wings and forwards, with centers falling relatively low on the list of priorities when teams are building their rosters.

What has changed?

Well, much of it has to do with the growing importance of the three-point line. Although introduced in the league in the 1979-80 season, it took some time for teams to adapt to its existence and come to terms with the mathematical reality that shots worth three points were more valuable than those worth two. Eventually, though, teams started to de-emphasize the mid-range shot. With rare exceptions – Porzingis happens to be one of them – centers don’t tend to be the kind of sharp-shooters valued in the modern NBA.

It wasn’t just the three-pointer though. There’s a strong argument that the offensive explosion that we’ve seen in recent years was the result of defensive rule changes the league made at the start of the 21st century. The introduction of the three-second violation and an increased crackdown on hand-checking sped up the tempo of the game and helped make the stationary big man an endangered species.

So is the increased emphasis on small-ball just a result of rule changes?

Even if the NBA remained unchanged, it’s likely that we would have still seen a decrease in the importance of the big man. Over the last few decades, players have become quicker, more athletic and – this is key – more versatile. The center is starting to decline because positional differences themselves are less meaningful. This is reflected in the NBA All-Star Game, where voters no longer choose between forwards and centers but rather “frontcourt players.” In the past, a player’s physical type determined what role they played, but that’s no longer necessarily the case.

The level of competition alone would have altered the game. Yahoo! Sports’s Kelly Dwyer probably put this best in a piece he wrote about the center back in 2012, “at some point, even the quickest-thinking and quickest-spinning big men can’t keep up. And I don’t think that’s a problem … It wasn’t the centers that got smaller. It was the game that got bigger. And better.”

Can we expect the Rockets to keep this experiment going?

Apparently! On Thursday’s trade deadline, they dealt Capela to the Atlanta Hawks in a four-way deal, in which the tallest player they received was 6ft 9in small forward Robert Covington. As of now, Hartenstein and Chandler are the only true big men on the roster. That night they were playing the Western Conference-leading Los Angeles Lakers and the Rockets ended up stunning the Lakers at home, beating them 121-111. Westbrook, in particular, thrived in the undersized lineup, scoring 41 points. Maybe they could be on to something here.

Did that momentum carry over to their next game?

It very much did not. The next night, the Rockets suffered their worst loss of the season to the Utah Jazz. To be fair, they were resting Westbrook on the second night of back-to-back games.

Could the Rockets be ushering in a change in the league?

Let’s see how “very-small-ball” goes when opponents have had time to gameplan around it. The Rockets also happen to have a superb talent in Harden, who is the most efficient scorer in the game. They have teamed him with Westbrook, maybe the only other player who is as ball-dominant as Harden. Even if they manage to have playoff success with this kind of lineup, it’s not a formula that’s easy to replicate without players like Harden and Westbrook.

The era of the Dominant Big is probably gone for good, but size will always be valuable in the NBA. In an essay for FiveThirtyEight, Jared Dubin points out that, despite the Golden State Warriors’ success in recent years, contending teams are already starting to pivot back to the two big-man lineups. Most notably, the Philadelphia 76ers signed power forward/center Al Horford to play alongside their star center, Joel Embiid. While Philadelphia are still ironing out the kinks in this arrangement, the attempt alone shows that NBA teams remain unafraid to bet big.

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