Teams around the NBA are increasingly going smaller for the benefits it provides on both offence and defence.
On offence, the advantages are obvious — surround the perimeter with more shooters, and it will spread defences out, creating more room to drive and score at the basket, the best shots in basketball.
However, provided you have the right personnel, there are advantages to going small on defence, too: greater speed and the ability to switch defensive assignments, quickly plugging up holes that could be opened by any movement on or off the ball.
In some ways, it’s not just going small — it’s positionless basketball. If like-sized players can all switch assignments in a fluid rotation, it plugs up any potential holes the offence may open up.
The Utah Jazz perfectly captured this Wednesday night in a blowout of the Portland Trail Blazers. As Nicholas Sciria of Basketball Breakdown and Nylon Calculus pointed out, the Jazz stifled the Blazers into a turnover with some perfectly executed switches.
It begins with some off-ball action. Noah Vonleh goes to set a screen for Allen Crabbe, who instead tries to run the other way. Utah’s Joe Ingles and Joe Johnson cover it up by switching.
Then, underneath the basket, Gordon Hayward and Johnson switch as Crabbe and Pat Connaughton cross paths.
And finally, as Connaughton runs to the baseline, Vonleh dives to the basket to create space. No problem — Ingles takes Connaughton and Johnson takes Vonleh.
Blazers guard C.J. McCollum ended up driving, kicking the ball out to Connaughton, who ran an ill-fated pick-and-roll that was stuffed up and resulted in a turnover.
Steve Kerr — whose Warriors helped bring small ball to new heights, thanks to Draymond Green’s versatility, and who can put on a masterclass in switching — recently discussed the strategy on Bill Simmons’ podcast.
“There’s so much switching now in the NBA, and we do a ton of it ourselves,” Kerr said while discussing his team’s defensive schemes. “And that’s the trend, you get a bunch of guys that are 6’7″ and strong and they can all guard all five positions. A bunch of Draymond Greens, Andre Iguodalas. If you can do that, then switching really becomes a difficult defence to attack, because every offence is designed to create an advantage for penetration… But every time you switch, if you do it well, there’s nowhere to go.”
This is just what the Jazz did. With George Hill, Hayward, Ingles, Johnson, and Derrick Favours on the court, they ran out a lineup of players ranging from 6-foot-3 to 6-foot-10. As a result, each player is long and strong enough to guard every player on the floor and cut off openings the offence creates.
This is the direction the NBA is headed in, and this type of scheme is likely to become more prominent until some player or some offence finds ways to overcome it.
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