Lately there has been a ton of talk about how modern basketball is all about "small ball". Both Kevin Durant and LeBron James spent plenty of time playing the power forward last year in their respective NBA teams and it appears that coaches everywhere, most prominently Olympics coach Mike Krzyzewski flocked to imitate. But here's the thing: This SmallBall phenomenon isn't really the panacea it's been built up to be. The idea that it is the most effective modern strategy of team building is mostly bullshit.
When Coach Spo put LeBron James in at power forward, it was good for a couple of reasons:
With Bosh out, Miami's power forwards weren't very good. Playing LeBron out of position was better than any of the options he had with Bosh injured.
As it turns out, LeBron James is better at power forward than Chris Bosh is (in fact, he's better at it than almost everybody)
Bosh, when he returned, seemed a little better at Center than at PF.
Miami had some pretty good wing talent in Mike Miller and Shane Battier; but those players weren't producing any wins because they were on the bench, and putting James at PF let him get more of his good players on the court at the same time (this may be a factor with Ray Allen next year)
This experiment only worked because it is LeBron James we're talking about here. Here are some other positions that Spo could have used LeBron at: Point Guard, Shooting Guard, Small Forward, and Center.
Like James, Durant is also a freak of nature, who can play power forward because he's about 7 feet tall and can rebound, and the Thunder worked this to their advantage at times. But I believe we saw during the finals that he's not dominant at the power forward. He has trouble guarding muscular big men; I imagine that strong low-post scorers like Zach Randolph or Pau Gasol would give him just as much trouble as James did. And he isn't as versatile as LeBron; I doubt you could put Durant at point guard and get away with it. This also worked well for them because they put Serge Ibaka at center, and Ibaka is much better than Perkins, even out of position. So, again, it helped because it was a way to get their most talented players on the court at the same time (and their least talented players moved to the bench).
But here's where it gets interesting. LeBron is a great power forward, but he is an even greater small forward (because he dominates his opponents so much more at that position). So if you had another great power forward, it wouldn't be "modern basketball" at all to play LeBron at PF and sit your other power forward to play "small", it would be "stupid basketball".
When allocating minutes as a coach, you should be trying to get lineups where your five best players are on the court at the same time. This means that if you have two really great power forwards, you probably need to play one of them out of position at center so they get on the court together -- this is pretty much what Adelman did with Love and Pekovic all last year (at least, whenever both were healthy), since Pek is really more of a power forward, but they were the best big men in the rotation. Similarly, this is what L.A. did most of the year; Pau is really much better playing on the low block at center, but getting him and Bynum on the floor at the same time required moving him to play more in the high post, where he is a little less effective, but still better than most, and that's much better than having him play backup minutes to Bynum. You don't swap players around in and out of their natural positions just to get fancy (ask Avery Johnson how that worked out for him, when he sat Erick Dampier, his best rebounder and shot blocker, for most of a playoff series against Golden State, all because he wanted to be cool like Nelly and show that he could play small ball too).
Which brings me back to the Olympics. LeBron James was great at the power forward, but the idea that he's better than Kevin Love is debatable. And irrelevant. Even if he's better than Love at PF, wouldn't it be better to have them both on the court at the same time? In limited minutes, Love had an absolutely monstrous olympics. In the final, he played a mere 19 minutes, scoring 9 points on 3 field goal attempts and grabbing 9 boards. His line was pretty similar most nights, being the best rebounder on the floor when he's out there, and generally wreaking havoc on opposing frontlines getting to the free throw line, and being rewarded by coach K with time on the bench. By playing LeBron so much at the power forward (or even center), Coach K was keeping one of his best players on the bench. If keeping Durant on the floor was a priority, he could have even played Love and James together at PF/C. After all, Love was in MVP conversations
this past year, and he spent plenty of time at center. Playing so much small ball meant having two of the US's best players (Love, Chandler) on the bench a lot while having some of its weaker players (Westbrook, Williams, Bryant) on the floor a lot. That is simply a frivolous coaching tactic when you're gifted with a lineup as powerful as this one.
Team Building in modern basketball isn't about "going small" any more than it is about "going big". It's about finding ways to get your 5 most talented guys on the floor at the same time
-- and usually, that means it's about finding freaks of nature like Dwight Howard who have bodies 7 standard deviations from the norm and are the best center in the league, then you surround them with competent guys who "only" won one of the 'freakishly large / freakishly athletic' combo. Sometimes, it involves finding freaks of nature like LeBron or Durant whom you can juggle around at multiple positions. And yes, that is as every bit as hard as it sounds. It's why the Lakers and Celtics combine for 33 championships and have played each other 12 times in the finals -- those guys don't grow on trees and that's where the superstars happened to play. If there were enough of these kinds of talents around that every team could have one, there would be more parity (and this short supply of tall people
is why, no matter how much the owners will babble about it during CBA negotiations, lockouts are never, and will never be, about parity).
Arturo wrote an interesting piece about this once
. If you could clone any player, which of them would make the best 5-man squad? And you'll find that the list of candidates is not long. 5 Michaels would probably lose to the size of 5 Magics. 5 Birds wouldn't be fast enough to keep up with 5 Michaels or Magics.
In other words, Spo's "small ball" lineup is not a "small ball" lineup at all, it's just a "Lineup where I put LeBron wherever the hell I need him". Good luck adapting that as your strategy without the LeBron part.