The era of small ball was born years ago when effective big men developed into two types of players. The first is a big time screen setter and dunker. Tyson Chandler was a trendsetter for this style of big man while he won the NBA Championship with the Mavericks in 2011. His success set the table for big men in their prime today like DeAndre Jordan, Rudy Gobert, and Nerlens Noel. The other type of big man floated outside, shooting jump shots and leaving the lane open for guards to drive. Instead of traditional post skills, centers began catering their games to guard-centric, pick and roll basketball by focusing on outside shooting or technique related to screening and dunking.
This development allowed space for the “Draymond Green Revolution.” A feisty, undersized player can guard a seven-foot behemoth because the behemoths in today’s game struggle to capitalize on their size advantage. The dunkers and shooters alike have forgone developing post skills in the name of creating space for guards. The Warriors can guard DeAndre Jordan with 6’6” Green because Jordan doesn’t have the low post skills to take advantage of his height difference. Like wise Green can guard a taller shooter using his athleticism to close off space and make shots difficult. Teams have gotten bold with this strategy putting players like Jae Crowder, Marvin Williams, and Paul Millsap on much taller players and daring them to take advantage down low. This style of play worked on the biggest stage in the NBA Finals when the Warriors played Draymond Green at center in order to get more skill onto the court in the form of small forward Andre Iguodala. Thus the small ball revolution was begun.
In 2017 the goal of most NBA coaches is to get their most skilled five players on the court regardless of size or position. The NBA is a guard-centric, drive heavy, three point shooting league where the simple math of three points being worth more than two informs virtually all game plans. In order for this style to be done effectively, big men have willingly obliged, creating space by drifting further from the hoop or rolling hard down the lane to the hoop. Because of this development, post up players have become difficult to find and use because they occupy the space right by the basket.
However, while little guys have been ruling the league for the past few years, a new generation of big men have been growing that will be the antidote to small ball. Big men who can handle the ball, have low post moves, have the size to punish smaller defenders, and guard at the rim and on the perimeter are coming to destroy small ball. The days of a player like Roy Hibbert being effective are over. Standing in front of the rim and being tall is not enough anymore. Big men have evolved and a young crop of them have the ability to put a smaller defender in the basket on a post up, drive past or shoot over a lumbering big man, draw double teams and kick out to shooters for wide open threes, and defend at the rim and on the perimeter.
As long as three is worth more than two, teams will be trying to find new ways to get open three point shots. The post up will be the next phase in opening up the court for threes. Just like having shooters on the perimeter opens up space in the lane for drive and kicks, inversely having a scorer in the post will open up room on the perimeter. Nobody worries about Tony Allen on the perimeter shooting threes and nobody worries about a player in the post who can’t score. However, a player who is a threat to score down low and can draw a double team will be incredibly efficient at manufacturing three point shots.
As soon as the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid, and Kristaps Porzingis are in a position to make the playoffs, the small ball teams are in trouble. It will be cute when teams run out a sub 6’9” guy at center until he gets pounded in the post and on the boards. These young studs will bring in a new era of evolved bully ball that combines finesse, skill, and brute force that no small man can compete with. Their bruisery at the basket will wear teams down and create wide open looks for three point shooters. And just like it took only one team going small and winning on the biggest stage to set the small ball era in motion, it will only take one team winning going big to bring back the reign of the centers.