It’s no secret the landscape of the NBA has changed.
Fewer teams employ traditional five-man lineups with a power forward and center. Rather, you will find a small forward or swingman playing a stretch-four alongside a power forward at the center position.
“When we started in Phoenix, they said you couldn’t win playing the way we wanted,” Lakers assistant coach Dan D’Antoni said. “We were the only team playing that way.”
Those Suns’ teams, where Dan was an assistant on his brother Mike's staff from 2003-08, often used Shawn Marion at the four and Amaré Stoudemire at the five, both players generally more athletic and quicker than most opponents they matched up against at their position.
With Steve Nash engineering high-powered offenses, those Phoenix teams tallied seasons of 62, 54, 61 and 55 wins. The furthest they advanced in the playoffs, though, was the Western Conference Finals.
Conventional thinking remained that teams needed a big man or big men to be championship contenders. The Lakers had Shaquille O’Neal during their “3-peat” run during the early 2000s; the Spurs had “Twin Towers” in David Robinson and Tim Duncan while winning three titles (1999, 2003, 2005); the Lakers had Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol during back-to-back championships in 2009-10.
"Some of the hard part of coaching is to be able to drag people over to the next side,” Mike D'Antoni said at Lakers' exit interviews. “People are comfortable with doing business a certain way. When that business kind of shifts to get people to change, it’s not easy. It’s a process.”
Over the last two seasons, however, the Miami Heat have bucked that trend. Coach Erik Spoelstra used LeBron James, listed at 6-foot-8, 250 pounds, at the four, and Chris Bosh, at 6-foot-11, 235 pounds at the five, while traditionally playing smaller lineups centered around the versatility of James.
”Last year, you essentially had both teams – (Miami and San Antonio) – playing the same style that we had in Phoenix,” D’Antoni said. “Not only did (Miami) win once, but they won twice in a row. Obviously playing this way doesn’t inhibit you from being an NBA champion.”
During the 2013-14 season, a number of teams boasted more success employing smaller lineups.
Golden State’s top two lineups used David Lee at the five, with Draymond Green or Harrison Barnes at the four, plus Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry. Their best combination of Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Green and Lee boasted an offensive rating of 123.4 and a defensive rating of 89.2 – a net rating of 34.2. *Net rating measures a team’s point differential per 100 possessions.
Even during the 2012-13 campaign, the Warriors frequently used a three-guard lineup of Curry, Jarrett Jack and Thompson, alongside Green and Lee towards an offensive rating of 105.1 and defensive rating of 89.5. Golden State has now appeared in the postseason in back-to-back years for the first time since the 1990-92 seasons.
San Antonio, who secured the best record in the league this year, were at their best this season with a smaller lineup featuring Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Boris Diaw and Tim Duncan. In 104 minutes together, that five-man unit had an offensive rating of 112.6 and defensive rating of 85.3 for a net rating of 27.2. During their 2013 Finals run, the Spurs second-most used lineup featured Parker, Manu Ginobili, Leonard, Diaw and Duncan with a net rating of 6.8.
Despite a number of injuries and a constant shuffling of the starting lineup during the 2013-14 campaign, the Lakers played far better going “small” on the floor. Eight of their top 10 lineups featured a stretch four in either Ryan Kelly or Wesley Johnson, alongside one big man – either Pau Gasol or Chris Kaman. Their most-productive, most-used lineup consisted of Kendall Marshall, Jodie Meeks, Nick Young, Kelly and Gasol. In 71 minutes of floor time together, that unit boasted an offensive rating of 121.9 and a defensive rating of 120.0 – a rating of 1.9.
"Small ball” wasn’t just something Mike D'Antoni created overnight. Using these lineups also coincided with crucial rule changes the NBA has implemented over the years.
“It’s not something that one person came up with,” Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said. “It’s really based on the rules and the way the NBA is, I guess, how they feel the game should be played. The NBA just felt an open game, more up and down, more scoring and less physicality is a better game to watch.”
The league average for scoring during the 2000-01 season was 94.8, and only four teams averaged more than 100 points per game. In 2013-14, that figure increased to 101.1, and 17 teams topped the century mark on a per game basis. Teams played at a much faster pace and the three-point shot became much more valuable.
During the 2000-01 season, Boston led the league in three-point attempts with 1,633. In 2013-14, 20 teams attempted more than that amount, with the Houston Rockets leading the NBA with 2,179 attempts. In fact, seven teams attempted more than 2,000 three-pointers over the course of the year, the others being the Atlanta Hawks, Portland Trail Blazers, Phoenix Suns, New York Knicks, Golden State Warriors and Lakers.
“Everything is with logistics now,” Dan said. “They’re finding that spacing the floor and certain shots are more valuable than other shots. Probably the most valuable is the three-point shot.
Kupchak echoed similar sentiments.
"The rules today promote that style of play,” he said. “There are actually coaches today that tell their team we’re going to score in one of three ways: free throws, layups and three-pointers. The idea of a two-point shot doesn’t even come up in a conversation with some coaches. That’s just the way it is today.”
Starting in 1994, the NBA eliminated hand checking, in essence giving more of an advantage to the offensive player.
In 1997, the league cut down on the “no-charge area,” from a two-by-six foot box to an area to a half-circle with a four-foot radius. This rule change encouraged offensive players to get to the rim or get fouled and go to the free-throw line. Two years later, the league eliminated contact with hands and forearms by defenders in the backcourt and frontcourt, unless the offensive player was below the free-throw line extended.
“When they said you couldn’t put hands on defenders, it allows for easier penetration,” Dan said. “In Phoenix, we were one of the NBA leaders in points in the paint and the reason we were able to do that is because we pulled the defenders out of there that allows that drive and penetration and quickness and mobility of a five or a four to move around and get to the rim against players that aren’t quite as mobile.”
In 2001, illegal defense guidelines were eliminated entirely, and a new defensive three-second rule prohibited defensive players from remaining in the key for more than three consecutive seconds without guarding an offensive player. Again, this placed more importance on players on the weak side, or shooters who could space the floor were much more valuable.
“It’s essential that spacing is maintained and takes away the defense,” Dan continued. “That way when you beat your man – which we use the pick and roll a lot to do – to get into the paint, the defender has to come a long way and then he has a long way to recover, and that’s when we’re throwing the ball out and trying to get as many layups, (free throws) and three-point shots.”
For most teams now, that is what they will do: put the five best players on the floor and try to maximize their skill sets.
“We should name it skill ball,” Dan said. “You’re playing guys that are skilled. You see that across the line. Miami has shown that. I thought we showed it at times in Phoenix. Your five best guys are going to get on the floor and play, and you’ll find the right position for them.”