How small ball became one of the most popular offenses in the NBA
In November of 1976, three years before Magic Johnson’s NBA debut and eight years before LeBron James was even born, the Milwaukee Bucks, two years removed from an NBA Finals appearance, needed a new head coach and general manager. Larry Costello, who had won an NBA Finals in 1971 with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson, had just resigned with the Big O retiring and Kareem being traded to the Los Angeles Lakers. Costello was a former role player whose only coaching experience before being hired by the Bucks was for a high school team in East Syracuse. Milwaukee decided to copy that method for their next head coach and hired a reliable small forward named Don Nelson, who had just retired from the Boston Celtics the season before.
Nelson never had gaudy numbers in his career, but he was a “sixth man” who was a steady veteran and was always prepared to jump into the fray and make a play. His jump shot that clanked off the back of the rim and dropped right in late to clinch a Game 7 victory in the 1969 Finals is still one of the most famous shots in NBA history. But if there was a trait that you could immediately see with “Nellie,” it was uniqueness. His retired number as a Celtic was the ultra rare No. 19. There was never a wardrobe too cheap for him to wear as if he ran through the back of a dry cleaner. He had by far one of the strangest free throw releases in history, even though he shot nearly 80 percent from the line. Unlike Costello, who was blessed with two surefire Hall of Famers and the great Bob Dandridge to carry him to championship glory, Nelson had to think up some new wrinkles and escape traditional offensive schemes simply because he did not have the right parts in place.
Although he used natural shooting guards like Brian Winters and Quinn Buckner to provide assists in the back court, Nelson strangely relied on a small forward out of UCLA named Marques Johnson to handle the ball and run the offense. By the 1980-81, when Johnson was second on the team with 4.6 assists per game, the Bucks had a 60-22 record, their best since the 6’5” Robertson was overpowering smaller point guards at Milwaukee in the early 70’s. The Bucks’ entire team structure seemed like an elaborate trick to sway their opponents from recognizing their true strengths. They had an unorthodox offense that ran through a small forward and caught media attention, but they were always one of the top five defenses in the NBA. Nelson was viewed as a coach who never relied on a center, but had one of the best centers of all-time in Bob Lanier. Sidney Moncrief was immortalized on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high flyer out of Arkansas, but it was his relentless defensive prowess that really made his career. Junior Bridgman was a “sixth man” just like Nelson was, but he averaged double-digit scoring for nine straight seasons, long before Chuck Daly turned Vinnie Johnson into “The Microwave.”
Then in 1984, the Bucks hit a crossroads with their roster that would force Nelson to spin those off-track wheels once more. Lanier retired, leaving them without a go-to big man or defensive eraser down low, and the team traded Johnson to the Clippers in a trade where the Bucks received Terry Cummings, Craig Hodges and Ricky Pierce. All three were perfect fits for Nelson’s imperfect system: A tough-minded power forward who dabbled at center in Cummings, a 6’5” Pierce who could play guard and forward, and the 6’2” Hodges who had point guard skills but was deadly shooting from the outside. Pierce replaced Bridgman as the team’s “sixth man,” and Nelson replaced Johnson with a 6’5” forward from Tulsa named Paul Pressey. Pressey turned out to be an even more effective and innovative “point forward” for future players and coaches than even Johnson was, averaging 6.6 assists per game or more for five straight seasons. What looked at first like aberrations to fix the team’s holes now became a trend in Nelson’s “positionless” style of play, which was labeled by writers as “Nellie Ball.”
Don Nelson’s Bucks were masters at creating mismatches and deceiving their opponents by thinking out of the box, and they pulled it off with solid results. From 1980 to 1987, Nelson’s last year coaching the team, the Bucks never dipped below 49 wins in the regular season. Unfortunately, they are a forgotten darling in NBA lore because the starless Bucks could never get over the hump against the likes of Dr. J’s Philadelphia 76ers or Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics. The one time they actually bested Larry Legend in a four-game sweep in 1983, they were no match in the Eastern Conference Finals for the “Fo Fo Fo” Sixers who wound up winning the NBA Championship. In his last season with the Bucks, Nelson pushed the Celtics to seven grueling games before losing by 6 at the Boston Garden in Game 7. Like Dick Motta’s Dallas Mavericks and Doug Moe’s Denver Nuggets, Nelson’s Bucks were the forgotten great team of the 1980’s for one main reason: They never reached the NBA Finals. With that footnote on their resume, the Bucks’ run with Nelson, Moncrief, Pressey, Johnson, Lanier, Cummings, and the like was quickly left behind.
Even Don Nelson himself abandoned his history with Milwaukee when he went on to coach the Golden State Warriors. In Milwaukee, Nelson’s game plan was to emphasize the team’s strengths and hide its weaknesses. But in Golden State and later at Dallas, Nelson paid no mind to hiding the fact that he never relied on his centers and was willing to run the other team right off the court with finesse and volume shooting. Nellie’s teams in the 90’s and 00’s were usually at the bottom of the league in scoring defense. It was at Golden State that Nelson embraced more of a run-and-fun style which is what “Nellie Ball” is now viewed as by casual fans. Nelson would routinely throw out lineups with undersized centers like Rod Higgins or disposable stiffs like Shawn Bradley in order to focus the offense on the scorers without having to slow them down in the half court. The Warriors had some good runs with Hardaway, sweet shooting Chris Mullin, and the physical Mitch Richmond, but never further than the second round of the playoffs. In the new century, Nelson helped owner Mark Cuban transform the Dallas Mavericks from a running gag to a powerhouse behind the unique mastery of Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash.
However, with this emphasis on blazing through opposing defenses with smaller lineups and skilled forwards, it seemed like Nelson, who always wanted to be ahead of the curve in the NBA, lost his way a little bit. While Milwaukee could run a slower, more efficient offense without a true point guard and surround Pressey or Johnson with three shooters or attacking guards, Nelson inherited two great point guards in Hardaway and Nash and gave them the freedom to fire up the fast break at a whim. As Hardaway, Nash, and (in later years) Baron Davis ran the offense along with creating their own shots, Nelson amassed more wins than any head coach in NBA history before he retired, albeit without a Finals appearance. But even as he was being inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012, as memories of Dirk & Nash and Run T.M.C. danced in people’s heads, I still feel that it was what Nelson did in Milwaukee with Paul Pressey and Marques Johnson that was his true crowning achievement as a coach. Whether it was by accident, necessity, or just plain luck, Nelson and his evolving “Nellie Ball” helped pioneer what we now know in the NBA as small ball.
It is important, first of all, to differentiate the definition of small ball depending on what you have read. The term “small ball” has been used for two other sports, baseball and poker. For baseball, it is an emphasis on base stealing, sacrifice hits, or drawing walks in order to manufacture runs. In card playing, it is a deliberate strategy to win small money pots with weaker hands in order to keep the money risk at a minimum while piling up earnings. In those two sports, the ideology of small ball is the same: If you cannot go through your opponent, go around them. The whole winds up greater than the sum of its parts. In the game of basketball, the premise is the same, but the style is different. In basketball, small ball directly manufactures big scoring plays by focusing on three-pointers at the arc and easy baskets in the paint, stretching out the defense and forcing misdirection. The strategy comes from unconventional origins, but it has an impactful endgame. Unlike baseball, where a team uses small ball to slowly build towards a victory and skirt around big plays, basketball teams use small ball to create dunks and three’s, which are considered by many basketball fans as “home run” plays.
There are a variety of trends and happenings that have brought about this renewed focus on what was originally maligned as an ill-fated fad in the NBA. The first shoe to drop was the stricter rules put in place in 2005 and 2006 that prevented defenders from hand checking and mauling guards from penetrating or moving with the ball. That reinvigorated freedom of movement along with the arrival of multiple All-Star point guards in the last seven years have made it easier for guards to drive to the basket or shoot with space. Secondly, the famine of true centers in the league has forced many coaches to adopt a style of play that leans more on their wing players and guards rather than post play. Outside of towers like Dwight Howard and Roy Hibbert, the lack of the go-to big man in the wake of Shaquille O’Neal’s best days has been ongoing for a while. There is a reason why last season was the first time that the NBA did not allow fans to vote for the center position in the All-Star Game: There aren’t many to go around! Because of this lack of big men, coaches are more willing to play with three guards or an athletic wing player who flashes to the paint in order to create open shots. Unlike ten years ago, when power forwards and centers never shrunk below 6’10”, teams are turning disposition into a distinct advantage.
Another important element that has brought about this small ball era is the growing popularity of three-point offense and how easy it is to implement into a smaller lineup. Even though 3-point field goal percentage hovers around 35 percent every year, the number of attempts has grown steadily from 14 attempts per game in 2000 to nearly 20 per game last season. It is no secret that three-point shooting has become a go-to weapon in the NBA today, especially when you consider the fact that in the most recent NBA Finals, the Heat and Spurs combined to average a record 42 three-point attempts per game. The Knicks and Rockets shattered the record for most made 3’s in a regular season last year with 891 and 867, respectively. The three-pointer was no longer a specialty or desperation move but the bread and butter for teams hunting for an NBA Championship. If having multiple three-point shooters means you have to sacrifice your mid range game by spreading defenses out and abandoning the center spot, so be it. The corner was permanently turned, however, on something that happened right before the 2011 lockout.
In the 2010-11 season, Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra’s offense was clearly a work in progress. Their scoring average was in the top ten thanks to their much hyped Big Three, but they were at the bottom of the league in assists and in the middle of the pack in three-point field goals attempted and made. That would come back to bite them hard in the NBA Finals that year against the Mavericks. Regular season stats are great, but it is in the postseason, when everything is on the line, that weaknesses are exposed and NBA teams maximize their best options, and Dallas did so by averaging an astounding 9 made three’s per game. Dallas showed off its three-point offense earlier in the playoffs by blasting the Lakers with 20 long bombs in a Game 4 victory to complete a sweep. Teams had done this before in the playoffs, but never on the way to a championship victory, which the Mavericks pulled off by eliminating the Heat in six games. The questions surrounding the Heat’s offensive identity continued throughout the next lockout-shortened season as LeBron James won another MVP but the offense looked exactly the same. Even in their Eastern Conference playoffs wins over the Pacers and Celtics, the Heat’s scoring creativity outside of LeBron’s individual magnificence was less than stellar.
Then Spoelstra and his coaching staff devised a game plan against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2012 Finals that changed the landscape. Being reminded of the 3-point blitz that Dallas unleashed on them, the Heat knew that the young and athletic Thunder were susceptible to leaving their man and giving up open three’s. The three-ball was falling in Game 1 for the Heat, but they lost. Ironically, their lowest number of makes were in Games 2 and 3, both of which they won. But it was in the final two victories for Miami that the story was told. Rallying from an early double-digit deficit in Game 4, the Heat made 10 out of 26 three-pointers while the Thunder only had 3 in a 104-98 victory. Then in the title-clinching victory that gave LeBron his first ring, Miami scorched OKC with 14 made three’s, 7 of which came from specialist Mike Miller, to finish the Heat’s Finals average at more than 8 made three’s per game on their way to a title. Before the 2012-13 season began, Spoelstra said in interviews that the Heat would run what he called a “position-less” offense, fully embracing the game plan that they pulled off in the Finals.
Like Don Nelson during the advent of “Nellie Ball,” what seemed like coaching happenstance or tomfoolery became a legitimate system involving swinging the ball around, taking lightweight Chris Bosh out of the post to lure defenders out of the paint, and, most importantly of all, allowing LeBron to run the offense primarily either to drive through open lanes or kick it out to open shooters. After being ranked in the 20’s across the board during the 2012 regular season, the Heat the next season were 3rd in three-pointers made, 6th in attempts, 2nd in 3-point percentage, and 7th in assists. The other elite team in terms of offensive efficiency was San Antonio, who went the distance with Miami in the Finals that season with some money shots of their own. The Memphis Grizzlies and Indiana Pacers, who were both pitiful in every way on offense, made the Conference Finals with defense and classic post play, but there is something to be said about the fact that two teams who embraced elements of the small ball style took them both out. By the time we reached the 2013 Finals, Miami was the red-letter definition of a small ball team, and they would become the first small ball team to actually win an NBA Championship after many previous attempts fell short to the delight of traditionalists.
Even though the league scoring average has been relatively the same for the past three seasons, small ball is a proactive offense that forces the opposing defense to be more reactive, a.k.a. slower and less alert of developing plays. The more you see small ball teams like Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson’s Warriors in the future, the more likely the opposing defense is to give up three-pointers and dunks. Since the NBA is a copycat league, it did not take long for other teams to see what Dallas, Miami, and San Antonio did in the NBA Finals and applied small ball to their own offenses. However, because of the given personnel and resistance to give in completely to an unconventional style, no team has been able to embrace small ball and turn it into gold the way Miami has. The Rockets last season under Kevin McHale were clearly a small ball team with a flurry of three-point shots (including an NBA record 23 in a regular season game) and only one true center for rebounds and dunks in Omer Asik. But now with the arrival of Dwight Howard, who witnessed a three-ball-heavy offense of his own in Orlando under Stan Van Gundy, the Rockets might see an identity crisis in which they might have to abandon their small ball in order to benefit their superstar big man, one of the few remaining in the league. The Knicks set a record for three-pointers made last season, but they still made sure that center Tyson Chandler (who helped Dallas beat Miami in the Finals) would stay involved and anchor the defense. The Spurs got with the times and made a living launching from the three-point line with shooters like Danny Green and Gary Neal, but the presence of Tim Duncan and Thiago Splitter made sure to remind us that Gregg Popovich was not completely abandoning his old school brand of basketball.
Small ball teams come in different shapes and should not always be linked with how fast they are or how efficient their offense is, either. The Pacers stayed classy in the frontcourt with Roy Hibbert and David West dipping in the paint, but it was their emerging superstar small forward Paul George, not guard George Hill, who would routinely push the ball up the court and run the offense for Indiana. Head coach Frank Vogel uses George constantly as a “point forward,” but it did not help the Pacers from being one of the worst scoring teams in the league. The 2011 and 2012 Sixers under Doug Collins were below average on offense and one of the slowest teams in the league, but if you looked at the starting lineup and their average height, they were definitely a small ball team. The only true centers on the team in those two seasons were Spencer Hawes and Nikola Vucevic, neither of whom was on the court longer than 24 minutes per game. The Sixers may have been weak at the 5 spot, but what made them effective was that they were able to use mismatches at the forward spots thanks to the athleticism of Andre Iguodala and Thaddeus Young. And it is there that lies the key trait to the trendiness of small ball all the way back to what Don Nelson thought up in Milwaukee many years ago: It all comes down to mismatches.
It might be hyperbole to say that what the Heat have done is revolutionary, especially when you think of the fact that Nelson had thought up the “point forward” three decades ago and Mike D’Antoni had mastered three-pointer-reliant offenses with the Phoenix Suns ten years ago. But even though the Heat’s offense is merely a wrinkle of different cloths, it is the distinguished talents of LeBron and the unique role that Bosh plays in the offense that allows Miami’s small ball to work better than it would elsewhere. With what LeBron brings to the table, like many great NBA players at their positions, the mismatch is genetic from the start, but that can be amplified or deflated depending on the strategy. It is how these wunderkinds approach the game and their roles on the floor that shows their true colors, and it when it comes to LeBron James, he is truly one of a wunderkind. Many would say that Magic Johnson at 6’9” and his ability to fill in as a big man designates him as the first ever point forward, but Magic had the mindset of a point guard in the Lakers’ “Showtime” offense and never felt comfortable leaving the backcourt unless injuries forced him to do so. Michael Jordan had ungodly hops and large hands that gave him masterful ball control, but he was still a 6’6” guard who stayed in his place and Phil Jackson always used traditional point guards and centers in the Triangle to help M.J. out. Tim Duncan had the frame of a center along with the finesse skills of Karl Malone or Charles Barkley, but Duncan moving from the 4 spot to the 5 spot in his later years was not too drastic of a change for him.
With the 6’8”, 250 lb. LeBron, the Heat’s offense began to model itself on the King’s ever-evolving talents in terms of distributing the ball on the slash and kick, driving past slower big guys, making long shots over guards off of ball screens, bullying smaller forwards in the post, and being the defensive linchpin due to the lack of a defensively minded center on the court. The defensive versatility of LeBron, Dwyane Wade at the guard position, and Shane Battier as a one-on-one specialist also sets Miami apart from other attempts at small ball. While playing without too much size in the paint can work on offense, it can quickly become a liability on the defensive end, which scares away many coaches in the NBA who realize that bad defensive teams do not win titles. But even with the newly installed small ball style, the Heat were still 5th in the league in scoring defense thanks to an athletic, pursuing style that created a high number of steals and blocks. The Heat also beat the odds by becoming one of the only teams to win a championship despite being dead last in rebounding in the regular season.
Obviously, only one team has a LeBron James on their team, no matter how many great small forwards show their various skills in the NBA, which is evident by the emergence of Kevin Durant, and the impending arrival of Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins. There is no peer to LeBron when it comes to being capable of pushing the ball at his size, leading the defense on the other side of the court, and reserving enough energy to make the final clutch plays to win games in the end. But small ball has definitely become a pattern born out of new beginnings in the NBA in the past decade that neither players nor coaches envisioned in the days of Wilt, Russell, Oscar, Kareem, Magic, Jordan, Shaq, or Duncan. Like all of those players I just mentioned, it was their ability to draw mismatches and turn the engine on their team’s offenses that garnered greatness and forced every other team in the league to catch up with the times. The current reign of LeBron James is no different from the same quandaries teams faced during the primes of his predecessors, and the emergence of small ball, and the bevy of three-pointers that come with it, has a lot to do with that.
In this past NBA Finals, Gregg Popovich, who is more adept at mixing tradition with new trends than any other coach in NBA history, laid down a gauntlet for LeBron that worked well for the Spurs throughout the series and troubled the King: Protect the paint by backing off of him and double team him at the perimeter to avoid three-point attempts. Pop and the Spurs coaching staff knew that the weakest part of LeBron’s game was the part of the court that routinely gets abandoned in a small ball style: The mid range and the elbow from 15 to 20 feet away, the lowest percentage shot on the court. The Spurs did a decent job of keeping James’ high energy style at bay and forcing tough shots for much of the series, but what LeBron did in Game 7 was not only a deviation but the ultimate counter punch to Popovich’s defensive strategy. The three’s were definitely falling for Miami thanks to Shane Battier and the small ball offense functioned properly, but James threw a new wrinkle into that old cloth by burying mid range jump shots off of screens that the Spurs were begging him to take the entire series. The one biggest weakness of small ball offense was covered up by James’ mid-range shooting, going 4 for 10 from there, including the game clincher.
It is clear with the evolution of NBA offenses today that when Don Nelson retired from the Celtics and sat on his first coaching chair for the Bucks, his tendency to go against the coaching grain was well ahead of its time. I still wonder how different Nellie’s career would have been if he were blessed with a supremely skilled small forward like LeBron or Durant instead of serviceable players like Paul Pressey and Marques Johnson. Nelson was no soothsayer, but his decision back in the early 80’s was a telltale sign of small forwards eventually dominating the NBA many moons after Nelson’s time had passed. Small ball came from small beginnings, but if you watch the NBA today, the end is not nearly in sight as long as the Miami Heat are on top of the basketball world. It’s like most things in basketball: Welcome to the new age, not too far from the old age.