Death to Small Ball

by February 07, 2008

By Vincent Thomas

There were a lot of pansy aspects of the current NBA, things that were disappointing me about my favorite athletes and league on the planet. Disappointing events like, say, one of my main dudes throwing a sucker punch in MSG, then doing the cabbage-patch in retreat. Or, a trend where grown men stand in the way of a potential scorer and then get all World Cup on me and fall backwards like they just fainted after seeing Brad Pitt. These things irritated me. But nothing got under my skin more than seeing these teams trot out a bunch of undersized lineups under the wack guise of this Small Ball Revolution garbagio.

I’ve always been a fan of Small Ball Novelties. Those Doug Moe Nuggets teams captured my young imagination. It’d be something like little-man Michael Adams, a skinny dude named Fat, ‘Lex English and/or Walt Davis ripping and running, usually with one of their big, affirmative action white guys – maybe the grossly overpaid Danny Schayes — catching a breather somewhere. A couple years later, G-State and Run TMC was my ISH. Mully, Mitch and Tim, plus maybe a Russian or Billy Owens going bonkers – running the competition clear out of their jock-straps. These squads made my day (much like the current Warriors). But they were all harmless. They were entertaining diversions. I preferred my hoops to be classic, pure and transcendent and these teams weren’t that. They were more side shows meant to entertain the deviant streak of my basketball jones.

But then this Phoenix ideology came along and, for the first time, a free-wheeling, small-ball jester-squad was being hailed as a new paradigm for success. It started during the 2004-2005 season, the Suns’ first with Steve Nash. I loved every player they featured at the opening tip of games: Nash, Matrix, ‘Mare, Q, and Joe Johnson. Those were all some ball-playing fools. But this wasn’t 1989 and it wasn’t the NCAA. It was 2005 and the NBA – no room for the Illinois Fighting Illini in this league. Kendall Gill, Steve Bardo, Marcus Liberty, Kenny Battle and Nick Anderson might have a chance to sneak up on that ladder and scissor off a piece of twine in the late-80s NCAA, but no squad of runts is going to sniff at the chip in the New Millennium NBA, right? You need a mix of finesse and brawn; you need some beautiful flair and a rugged mean-streak. That’s not old-school. That’s classic and pure. Yet, here were the Suns, flying down the court with a Svengali, three slashers and an undersized center, playing with the defensive budget of Canada. They were smokin’ folks and people were taking notice and it was being championed as the new archetype for success.

I remember arguing, until I was midnight blue in the face, with my dude Chuck about that Phoenix squad. “That pack of matador midgets will not win a trophy, dude. It cannot happen,” I’d rant. The foundation of basketball and its set of roles and overarching ideology was being challenged. It would have been Phoenix today and the And-1 All Stars tomorrow. I was sure of it. Thankfully, a real champion took care of that Suns business in ‘05, but not without a fight. We seemed to be at the edge of a cliff, the Suns jumped and I feared the lemmings would follow.

THEN (lawd have mercy!) they returned next year, with an even flimsier bunch of hoopers – including a French man that could double as a backup singer for Maxwell – and they still managed to get a slew of wins. Cue more media fawning, even if a Lakers squad nearly squashed them in Playoffs by simply trotting out Lamar Odom and Kwame Brown (of all players). It surely didn’t matter to the Small Ball slurpers that the 2000, 2001 and 2002 Lakers averaged more than 100 points in route to championships. They actually featured true centers and power forwards. It also didn’t matter, apparently, that the Webber/Divac Kings didn’t have to dispense with post-play to play pretty ball. All the little school-girl experts kept shrieking about the Suns like they were at a Hannah Montana concert. It sickened me. I’m sorry, but I found little excitement in Shawn Marion hot-potato’ing up an awkward floater or Barbosa barrowing down the court doing his jack-leg Clyde Drexler impersonations. The ball movement was extremely crisp. The Nash-‘Mare pick-n-roll was fantastic, but we could get all of that without sacrificing some of the core tenets of pro basketball. This was a squad where Raja Bell was the dude dispensing hard fouls and Nash was the enforcer, a squad where there was no such thing as dropping it down into the post and letting a man go to work for a late-fourth quarter, clutch-bucket.

Shaq had already deebo’d centers into being power forwards and Magic had already made most big men think it was hotter to lead the break and pop 20-footers. This New Small Ball Paradigm Thing was going to exterminate the big man for good.

As this season began, after Phoenix was, perhaps, a game suspension away from the Finals and G-State exiled Dirk to Australia; we seemed that much closer to the cliff the Suns leaped off back in 2004 and I was watching as the lemmings followed. Orlando – a team I don’t respect – was winning misleading games with a starting lineup of Howard, shooters and a point guard. Even the Spurs would trot out a crunch-time squad of Duncan, Bones, Finley, Ginobli and Parker. Dallas liked that Dirk At Center squad a little too much. It was a Small Ball Epidemic. I didn’t mind Small Ball as a mid-game change of pace or the MO for one rogue squad like G-State. But, as a paradigm for success? Gimme a break. No, gimme, like, 23 breaks.

Then two things happened. 1.) An insurgent L.A. added another 7-footer to its dark horse title-contending squad; and 2.) Steve Kerr – he and his classic basketball mind – could see from experience and years covering games as an analyst that Small Ball was indeed a novelty. It was meant to be a jump-off, not a wifey. Yeah, I’m sure he also noted that Nash’s contract ends when Shaq’s does, at which point they could use over $30M to rebuild around ‘Mare. I’m also sure Kerr didn’t want to lose Marion for nothing or resign him for another $80M-$100M. But, at its core, this surprise trade was a green-n-yellow loogey hocked at Small Ball and I’m loving the way the throat-rocket is sliding down its face.

“How’s Shaq gonna run with the Suns?!” That’s what all the skirts are bunching up their panties about. Well, how did Kareem run with the Lakers or Laimbeer run with the Pistons or Divac run with the Kings? They didn’t. That doesn’t mean the Suns can’t remain a fluid and potent offense. What it means is they have presence and balance, now. Shaq and 12-14 points, 7-10 boards and 23-28 minutes bring legitimacy to this once semi-bastardized squad.

True, Classic, Grown Ball is returning – in full force – to the NBA, putting an end to the brief scare that was Small Ball. Take your 6’5, 210-lb power forward with you on the way out. Good riddance.

Vincent Thomas writes a weekly column for SLAMonline and contributes regularly to SLAM Magazine. He can be reached at