It is well known that this is the era of small ball in the NBA. Small ball is not just a rhyme, but an attempt at a description of this era – it is the league-wide and increasingly worldwide trend within professional basketball to go away from traditional two big men line-ups and instead often feature only one, if not sometimes none.
That said, “small ball” is still something of a misnomer. Or at least, it is if “small” is used to mean “not tall”. More power forwards are playing centre, and more small forwards are playing power forwards, but those position alignments are more about changing styles of play than decreasing size. Those players are still tall. The tall guys just play differently now.
“Small ball” is not so much “play three guards” as it is “speed the game up”. The game is sped up in large part by speeding the players up, particularly those who traditionally were slow. If “small” is used as an antonym of “wide”, it becomes more accurate. The game still features seven footers, nearly if not quite as many as before. They just almost all run rather than stand now. Such is a requirement for the increased perimeter play of big men that small ball truly entails.
The small ball tendency was in part a product of analytics, and the increased understanding of offensive efficiency that it brought about. The direct by-products of this understanding were not only an increased value in the three-pointer (initially the Bruce Bowen corner three, but soon to include all threes and now including 35 footers) and the demise of the planned pull-up two (unless you are Randy Wittman), but of spacing in general. The ability for bigs to do more when coming out of the paint than just screening, loafing back on defense and occasionally hitting a two-point mid-range jump shot. The pick-and-roll is fully in vogue, and particularly the spread pick-and-roll; the bigs are spotting up from three now, as well as driving closeouts, and defending their counterparts who are doing the same. Teams will normally have four shooters now, not two posts.
It was also in part something of a concession to the encroachment of the international game onto the NBA shores. International and European basketball are physical leagues, no matter what unfair and under-researched stereotypes may tell you; nevertheless, the lack of athleticism in comparison to the NBA in part created a culture of outside shooting. Outside shooting big men was not unheard of in the NBA, with Bill Laimbeer in particular long being lauded for his ability to draw the Mark Eaton-type shotblockers of his era away from the basket with his ability to spot up and hit flat footed threes. But Europeans have always done it more, and with the rise of Dirk Nowitzki and varying unsuccessful attempts to clone him, a wider small ball ethos was born in the NBA.
However, small ball was also a product of necessity. Teams went small when going big was futile. And this futility was in large part due to Shaquille O’Neal.
Shaq’s career went on for so long that it is somewhat difficult to remember his prime. Towards the end, he was a plodder, an absolute monster of a man but a flat-footed one who travelled far more than he was ever called for (superstar calls have a legacy), who would camp in the paint and call for the ball, normally getting it, but not running or jumping like he could. Old Shaq was still good and effective when healthy, especially because old Shaq was even more mammoth than young Shaq, but he looked little like prime Shaq.
Prime Shaq, though, was a ridiculous combination of power and agility. He may not have run as well as Ryan Hollins, but nor did he need to. Shaq was far stronger than almost everyone else, far quicker than most of his peers, and smart and skilled enough to make them work for him.
Shaq was so good that they made rules about him. He was the latecomer to an era of tremendous post players – most notably Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning – all of whom had their role in reshaping the game. When it became obvious that there was no filling that centre void within the next generation, Shaq stood out further from his peers. Turn-of-the-millennium Shaquille O’Neal was as good as he wanted to be.
There was a time when players existed to foul him. Hack-A-Shaq was in large part a product of O’Neal’s permanently poor free throw shooting, but also because there was not much else that could be done. Shaq got position around the basket whenever he wanted, and unless you could deny the passing angle, jump the pass for a steal, pull the chair like Kurt Thomas or somehow have Priest Lauderdale in there to body him up, his ability to turn and raise up or power through could not be stopped. The foul was thus the only option.
Teams planned for Shaq not just from game to game, but in terms of their roster composition. To win the title, you had to go through Shaq. And although you could not rival him, you had to at least try and body him so that he would not throw a 40/20 playoff series on you without a fight. Teams could therefore get away with seven foot “stiffs” on rosters far more easily than they can now. The roster spot that now goes to the extra shooting wing once went to the third seven-footer, used on a player whose points, rebounds and fouls totals were always similar.
It is a fun thought experiment to imagine what Shaquille O’Neal would look like in the NBA of the now. An era in which Kevin Durant, rather than Ervin Johnson, is the new style rim protector.
No reasonable thought experiment surely would or should suggest that if he were to come through in this era, Shaquille O’Neal would be a shooter. Nor would anyone surely suggest he would have gone away from what made him so great. Shaq had finesse, more than he is often given credit for, overshadowed as it was by his phenomenal power. But he was a power player. Shaq never shot foul shots, nor mid-rangers. His eight-foot flippy thing does not count. He would not now become a shooter, a stretch big, or anything other than what he was. He was a big man, and played like it. He still would.
Nonetheless, to do so now would be somewhat anomalous, even more so than before. Everyone wanted to play like Shaq then. They don’t now.
Big men, who would otherwise be assigned the post, shoot threes now. Lord knows they have all long since wanted to. By way of example, Zach Randolph decided one day under the reign of Isiah Thomas in New York that he would cast start casting them up, despite a sub-30% success rate and the fact he was a 20/10 double-double guy around the rim at the time, while Tim Duncan and his famed resolution to never try and play outside of what he was capable of enjoyed the fact that he may have been voted into the 2002 All-Star Game as a de facto small forward because he felt it would allow to him “shoot more threes”. Big guys have always liked the novelty – see also, Dwight Howard in the All-Star game. But now, they actually do it.
Take, for example, Brook Lopez. A post player his whole life, a player who operated from the mid-range and in both at Stanford and in his first eight NBA seasons, a player who made three total three pointers in those first eight seasons, and yet now a player with 132 made threes this season alone. [For comparison’s sake, Laimbeer hit 202 three-pointers in total in 13 seasons.]
Or take Serge Ibaka, never a post-offense player but a prolific offensive rebounder who has forgone that skill in favour of being a high volume, high efficiency three-point shooter. His naturally slender frame did not lend itself to post muscle. But his long strong, co-ordination and high release made him suitable for the perimeter, where he now does much of his offensive work. Ibaka is taking four threes a game and hitting them at 40% - this, it should be remembered, was a number it was once thought even for a prime Vince Carter.
Take Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid, the league’s two best young bigs, both taking more than three three-pointers per game. Take wily old man Pau Gasol, shooting 54.7% from three point range and becoming what Mike D’Antoni had always encouraged him to be. Or take Pau’s brother Marc, with 97 made three pointers of his own coming on a 38.0% shooting efficiency. This is the new way, and while saying this in this space is not news, those above numbers are worthy of reflection.
Small ball is not just about the big men shooting threes, but it is the most obvious and measurable embodiment of it. But even with that paradigm shift in mind, small ball has not seen the death of the big man. Indeed, the quality of centres (or de facto centres) in the NBA today is seriously high.
Consider the starters alone. Dwight Howard. Al Horford. Brook Lopez. Cody Zeller. Robin Lopez. Tristan Thompson. Dirk. Nikola Jokic. Andre Drummond. Draymond Green. Clint Capela. Myles Turner. DeAndre Jordan. Julius Randle. Marc Gasol. Hassan Whiteside. Thon Maker. Gorgui Dieng. Willy Hernangomez. Steven Adams. Nikola Vucevic. Jahlil Okafor. Alex Len. Jusuf Nurkic. Willie Cauley-Stein. Dewayne Dedmon. Jonas Valanciunas. Rudy Gobert. Marcin Gortat. That’s a good list. Those are just the starters of today, not including the injured (such as Embiid). There are some excellent backups to be found too. And both beyond that list and within it, there are some legitimate young prospects.
What small ball has done, however, is eradicate the underskilled big. Particularly the underskilled, unathletic big who clogs the paint. The paint does not need clogging any more without O’Neal, Olajuwon et al within it. Instead, if a player is to only have one skill, that skill ought really be shooting, no matter what height. Bruno Sundov came around ten years too early.
Bigs are faster now, and the game has been sped up. The supposedly halcyon days of the 90s were much slower, more physical, ‘grittier’, and, if you like that sort of thing, more big-manny. There was more post play, more hard fouls, and more need for Chris Dudley. Stylistic opinions of that era vary – what can be evidenced, though, is the significant shift away from that. And for that, Shaquille O’Neal should take significant credit.
If transposed into the modern NBA today, Shaq would still be great, because greatness transcends. Yet it is partly because of his greatness that we are where we are.