What The %&@* Happened to Small Ball?

Three years ago when Steph Curry burst on the scene in a big way and he won the NBA title in Cleveland, albeit with a not memorable performance,  the immediate overreaction was that the NBA game, after 60 years of big men running things, had changed. It was all about the backcourt and size didn’t matter.

The next season when Curry and Co. won 73 games and set a NBA regular season record, the small ball philosophy was addictive and everyone seemingly wanted three point shooters and stretch fours. Big men like Dwight Howard and even Hassan Whiteside who couldn’t drain threes were dinosaurs. The Warriors Death Lineup was salivated over. The modern NBA emboldened players under 6-5. They dominated the league. Small ball was suddenly the happy thing. For a hot minute.

Seemingly, that minute has expired. The small ball trend needs to make an introduction to the 2018 NBA Draft. Hate to break it to you combo guards who drain threes. Big men are back in vogue.

Number 1 pick, straight outta the Bahamas by way of Nigeria, DeAndre Ayton is seven feet tall. Number 2 pick, a Dukie, Marvin Bagley III is 6-11. Number 3 pick Euro Luka Doncic is 6-8. Number 4 pick Jaren Jackson is 6-11. Number 6 pick Mohamed Bamba, Harlem’s own, is seven feet tall. Number 7 pick Wendall Carter Jr, who turned down Harvard, is 6-10. Number 9 pick Kevin Knox is 6-9. Number 14 pick, often injured but defiant Michael Porter Jr. is 6-10.

What happened to the Steph Curry revolution?

The middle of the 2018 draft was where the guards had their feast but traditionally those are the picks of role players, not faces of the franchise. When did the NBA revert to normal, big men being the thing?

The easy answer is the NBA never left it’s roots. Yeah, it had a quick infatuation, a mistress that made it feel exciting and all into its feelings but if the choice is an athletic big and a happy chucking guard, they will take a big man each and every time.

This is true. The best player is LeBron James. He’s 6-8. The second best player is Kevin Durant. He is 6-11. The third best player is Kawhi Leonard. He is 6-9. The fourth best player is Anthony Davis. He’s 6-10. Steph/James Harden/Russell Westbrook/Kyrie Irving round out the next group. Followed by another big in DeMarcus Cousins. Size matters in the NBA.

Big men are the best players because they affect the game in more ways than a guard. The ones that are faces of the franchise rebound, score, protect the rim, run in transition, finish with both the right and left hand. They are unguardable.

Bigs were a huge part of the 2018 NBA draft but they have issues.

DeAndre Ayton is weak on defense. So is Marvin Bagley III. Luka Doncic doesn’t have NBA athleticism. Jaren Jackson gets in foul trouble and he disappears. Mohamed Bamba is a project on offense and his body needs a lot more weight. Wendell Carter Jr is a master of nothing in particular, solid but nothing exceptional. Kevin Knox has a questionable motor and what is his position?  Michael Porter Jr. has a broken body he hopes will magically morph into something different.

The draft is all about potential because no one really knows how these teenagers are going to manage their careers. It is harder today to craft a NBA career because there is more criticism, pressure, the game is faster, the contracts make it easier to label young players bums. Mental toughness in a social media world is valued more than ever, as is maturity.

Big men can be busts like guards can be busts but at least big men are still seven feet tall. If a guard can’t shoot like former lottery pick and Pistons guard Stanley Johnson can’t shoot, what do you with them? They can’t hide. If a big man is inconsistent, at the very least, he can stand there and grab some boards and finish on lobs.

Small ball is exciting and it’s done well by the Warriors but they are a unique team in a unique period of NBA basketball without a Shaquille O’Neal or Tim Duncan hovering around the margins. But know this. The center always holds. Big men are the NBA. The past is the future.