Basketball Debates: Is Small-Ball Dead?

by October 09, 2008

As the United States political debates continue, we thought it appropriate to tackle a polarizing basketball issue or two in similar fashion. For this dramatized debate, we call upon three former NBA Coach of the Years…

by John Krolik

Welcome to the 2008 NBA debates. Tonight’s issue is whether or not small-ball is the future of the NBA or merely a fad whose time has passed.

I’d like to welcome our guests. From the half-court party we have Gregg Popovich, coach of the 4-time NBA champion San Antonio Spurs, a combat veteran who served his nation in the United States Air Force. Representing the small-ball party is Mike D’Antoni, who coached the high-scoring and successful Phoenix Suns to 50 wins in four straight seasons and has just been appointed the coach of the New York Knicks. Appearing as an independent is Don Nelson, current coach of the Golden State Warriors and one of only two NBA coaches to win 1,200 games.

Moderator: Mr. D’Antoni, my first question is to you. Your former team, the Suns, failed to win a championship despite having consistent success in the regular season and possibly the most talented group of players in the League, culminating in an embarrassing first-round loss in last year’s playoffs. Mr. Nelson’s Warriors missed the playoffs, and the similarly fast-paced Denver Nuggets were dealt an embarrassing first-round sweep.

Since the League’s renewed focus on perimeter defense rules in 2005-06, the Spurs, Celtics and Heat won titles–none of whom favored small-ball tactics. Is your basketball philosophy a realistic blueprint for success in today’s NBA?

D’Antoni: I’m glad you asked that. Now, I realize that times have not been good. However, the answer to these problems does not lie in merely giving into apathy and accepting a brand of basketball that has consistently proven to be unexciting and quite frankly, ineffective.

Popovich: Excuse me? Ineffective? If I may, sir…

D’Antoni: I’d like to be allowed to finish. May I please finish? I realize my esteemed opponent’s style of play is still lauded by the establishment as the sole effective method of championship basketball. But if you look at the numbers, I believe you’ll find his method of play requires an elite big man, which is not a luxury most teams are able to afford. Our policies serve to benefit all those teams who did not have a Tim Duncan fall into their lap, and we are confident that if our movement can gain mainstream support, then we will be able to move into the future and bring a time of hope and change to the League, and we will be the next champions.

Popovich: I find a number of my opponent’s claims extremely interesting. First of all, I’m not sure how someone who continues to be the darling of the media elite can claim his party’s policies have gotten anything but the fairest of shakes from this supposed “establishment.” Furthermore, given that my opponent had one of the most talented teams in the League during his tenure with Phoenix, I’m very intrigued to know what he would define as “rich.”

D’Antoni: I’m saying that it’s very easy to play the type of defensive game my esteemed opponent so enthusiastically preaches when you have a big man with the speed, length and instincts to cover his ground down low. What Mr. Popovich paints as a “victory of philosophy” is really just a testament to the extreme ability at the defensive end of Tim Duncan, Ben and Rasheed Wallace and Kevin Garnett. If one were to look at the success of the NBA middle-class, you’d find our philosophy is for the benefit of the average team, and not a pipe dream only attainable by those able to attain the services of one of those players. I point you to the third member of this debate, Mr. Nelson, for evidence of this fact.

Nelson: I’m not your g*ddamned pal. I’d just like to mention here that if the NBA scrapped its archaic “salary cap” for my proposed height cap, fewer of these problems would exist.

D’Antoni: Okay. For further evidence of this, I ask you to look at my most recent series against my opponent’s team. He would have you believe that we lose the series because our style of play has run its course, but in reality it was small-ball that drove his team’s victory over my own–Tony Parker was able to pick-and-roll his way to 26 points and 9 assists for the duration of the series.

Popovich: I do not dispute that I reached across party lines in order to utilize the slashing skills of Mr. Parker. However, I would like to point out that Mr. Parker’s effectiveness was due in part to the absence of Shawn Marion, one of the defensive players Mr. D’Antoni spoke so highly of earlier and is on record as having approved the trade of him for Shaquille O’Neal. Don’t listen to the glib interpretations, look at the record!

D’Antoni: This debate is not about reliving the mistakes of the past. There were extenuating circumstances that led to me voting for the Shaquille O’Neal trade, and I maintain that I was simply giving my approval to a course of action that was not originally my own in order to foster solidarity, not get on a soapbox in order to make a misguided and selfish stand. And I was made to understand that there was an exit strategy in place for Shaquille O’Neal.

Nelson: This is all beside the point. The distasteful stump speeches and doubletalk of my opponents is nothing more than a weak attempt to serve the interest at their party. I am not under this pressure, and I’m going to be straight with you. I am the second-winningest coach in history, and have shown in the past that I truly do not care whether or not I get fired. Also, I’m fairly drunk. If you’ll look at these charts I have prepared, you can see there is a clear positive correlation between offensive “pace of play” and offensive efficiency. All my opponents’ attempts to cloud this basic fact is a clear result of their ties to the mainstream pull of their parties, not to mention the larger conspiracy to send big-market teams to the Finals, keep the accepted “status quo” of a big-man dominated game, and send Tim Donaghy to ruin my daughter’s wedding.

Tim Duncan finally showed us in Game 1 that he would be a three-point threat were it not for the constricting influences of Mr. Popovich’s party. And Kevin Garnett played a huge role on the championship team, but I ask you, why was he not allowed to be the point guard? Also, I find it appalling that in a discussion of the ability of small men to guard taller ones, not one candidate has been bold enough to mention the possibility of stilts.

Popovich: I’d like to respond to the point Mr. Nelson made before he went completely off the deep end. Yes, there is a link between offensive efficiency and pace of play, but no team has been able to effectively defend while playing an uptempo game, because playing uptempo basketball requires a defensive strategy based on gambling for steals and pressuring for turnovers, as well as running out instead of crashing the defensive boards.

D’Antoni: I do not dispute that most uptempo teams have been ineffective at the defensive end, although my team did finish 8th in adjusted defensive field goal percentage last season, but instead of simply declaring it an impossibility, we must continue to invite change. Fast-break teams may not be able to be defensive juggernauts, but in the near future a team can certainly defend more than well enough to justify the considerable gain in efficiency on the offensive end. I would like to end tonight by saying that small-ball philosophies extend further than mere fast-breaking.

Citizens, a time of change is upon us. In last year’s playoffs, Carlos Boozer averaged 16 points on 42 percent shooting. Pau Gasol, 17 points. Tim Duncan got 20 points, but shot 45 percent. Not even Kevin Garnett was able to break 50 percent in the playoffs. Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant averaged 30 points on 48 percent shooting, Chris Paul 24 on 50 percent shooting, Tony Parker 22 on 50 percent shooting, Deron Williams 22 on 50 percent shooting. Scoring, and more than that efficient scoring, is increasingly becoming a small man’s game, especially in the playoffs, when it really matters and drives to the basket are the best way to combat the increased defensive intensity. Players like Tony Parker, Dwyane Wade, and Monta Ellis–who regrettably injured himself on a moped–are the future.

Nelson: He was practicing one of our new offensive sets. Also, the league office has refused to answer my inquiries about the whereabouts of the Viet Cong during the “random accident.”

D’Antoni: Anyway, small-ball is not just about running. It’s about quick guards fearlessly slicing into the paint and converting layups, mobile bigs flying around archaic post-up men, and James Posey playing the four during crucial stretches of the NBA Finals. It’s about all of us. America, do not be swayed by my opponent. Realize the change around you and send letters to your local paper, comment on message boards, and yell drunkenly at your coaches to embrace the hope and change that will change the changing atmosphere of our changing game. Think about it when you brush your teeth, when you change your shorts, when you need to make change for a twenty. Change.

Popovich: Rather than complain about my opponent’s cherry-picked statistics or point out how his “revolution” is a league-mandated attempt to upturn the order of things by giving smaller players more favorable calls…

D’Antoni: My players get suspended for walking off a bench in the playoffs and he has the audacity to claim referee favoritism.

Nelson: Again, my proposal to completely eliminate referees is still at the feet of David Stern. Pending that, I would like to announce that we are in talks to replace Monta Ellis with Anderson Silva for the first part of the season.

Popovich: Anyways, I’d just like to say that while times are changing, the fundamentals of the game are solid, and shall remain so when this small-ball “fad” has long since run its course. Post play, solid defense, crashing the boards, these things may not be exciting, but they drive the heart of the game and reward the efforts of the working-class player. Don’t believe the hype, look at the results, and you’ll find that it’s time to stay the course to a brighter tomorrow.