by Jack Maidment
The two best teams in the NBA as of right now, going on what they have actually put on the court, are the New York Knicks and the Memphis Grizzlies.
Now, before anybody plays the ‘but it’s only 8 games’ card, yeah, I am aware.
I’m not saying they will meet in the Finals.
The reason it is interesting is because the success of the two different teams can actually be seen as a revealing microcosm for basketball as a whole.
On the one hand, the power ball team – Christmas past if you will.
The Grizzlies game plan is far from advanced algebra. Get the ball to the post, watch your two big guys pound the ball down low and then capitalise on what the other team gives you: either open jump shots on the perimeter or one on one opportunities at the basket.
On the other is the small ball team, Christmas present.
The Knicks, just like the majority of teams in the NBA in 2012, have shifted away from the twin towers model of the 1990s and early 2000s, instead focusing on athleticism and an ability to get up and down the court.
Now, part of that is down to the fact Amare Stoudemire has no knees, but still, just like the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder, New York now plays their small forward at the four instead of the three most of the time.
The impact on most teams is killer.
99% of power forwards in the league have no chance of staying with Carmelo Anthony on the perimeter and he is able to do just enough defensively to make the game plan work.
But does it have to be this way?
Well apparently not. Memphis is proving this season it has the recipe to flummox the seemingly irresistible move to small ball.
When Miami did their thing last summer, rolling to a title, the question of how to stop them with LeBron James at the four seemed unanswerable. ESPN talking heads looked like they might have a seizure when asked how they would tackle the system.
But is it really that complicated?
If a team goes small, how do you shut them down if your strength is size?
The answer, according to Memphis, is a combination of versatility and talent.
Here’s the formula:
#You can play two big guys against a small ball team and win but they HAVE to be legitimate offensive threats. Dump the ball in low post guys. Double team guys. Then go to work on the mismatch.
#Slow the game down. No running. No running at all. Foul at all costs.
#Play one, preferably two uber-athletic swing men AT ALL TIMES to protect the wings (see Rudy Gay, Tony Allen) and to make sure the three playing four on the opposing team always has a comparable body type on him defensively.
Do those three things and there is no reason a big talented team shouldn’t beat a small talented team.
So the Grizz are winning the title, right?
The problem for Memphis and to a lesser extent the Lakers is one of playoff match ups.
The reason is that while the Grizzlies might be able to solve ‘true’ small ball teams like the Heat and the Thunder that doesn’t mean they have more flexible teams like San Antonio figured out.
If the Grizzlies were able to make it to the Finals, I would give them a 40% chance against the Heat of winning a 7 game series.
But getting there? A series against the Spurs with their deep front line and tricky backcourt, I’m not sure they would progress.
Which is why this season is so important. If the Grizzlies make the West Finals or even the Finals they could buy a reprieve for old ball.
If they lose in the first round, never getting the chance to pound the truly great small teams into the ground, well, that could be the end of big ball.
At least until it comes back into fashion again.