Playing small to be big

Zach Harper —  February 1, 2012 — 3 Comments

Size matters. Size doesn’t matter. It’s not the size but how you use it.

These all may be hilarious euphemisms we like to throw around like cackling adolescents whenever we talk about wingspan, height, and the overall height charting of various frontcourts but in the NBA, the size you have and the way you use it couldn’t be more prevalent. This isn’t to take anything away from Kobe Bryant and his accomplishments over the last five seasons, but I don’t think we’d see a return to Laker glory without Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom being bigger and longer than every other frontcourt they faced in the NBA.

The Indiana Pacers currently embody this idea that size and length in the NBA can win you games. This team can’t really score and they don’t play at a fast pace, despite the athleticism their roster seems to be dripping with on a nightly basis. Indiana clocks in at 17th in the NBA in both offensive rating and pace. They rely on balance in their offensive outputs because there isn’t really anybody outside of Danny Granger that can create their own shot.

The Pacers have Granger averaging 17.4 points per game (on 38.4% shooting) and then the next highest scorer for the team is Roy Hibbert at 14 points per game. Nobody after Roy averages more than Paul George’s 11.6 points per game. They’re 23rd in field goal percentage. They can’t really make shots at all. There are four ways this team beats you:

1. Post-ups. Synergy has the Pacers ranked fourth in points per possession on offense. They pound the ball into guys like Roy Hibbert (15th), David West (42nd), Tyler Hansbrough (49th), and Danny Granger (42nd) and manage to get points out of the situations.
2. Offensive rebounding. Synergy also has the Pacers ranked sixth in PPP off of offensive rebounds. They’re also third in the NBA as a team in offensive rebounding rate, so not only do they grab a lot of offensive rebounds but they’re also pretty adept at converting those chances.
3. 3-point shooting. Indiana may take the eighth fewest attempts per game from the 3-point line, but they knock down an impressive 37.5% of those attempts (good for seventh in the league). Paul George (46.4%), Darren Collison (42.4%), Dahntay Jones (38.9%) and George Hill (38.0%) are all prolific shooters from the outside for Indiana.
4. Free throw attempts.
The Pacers are fifth in the NBA in free throws per field goal attempts. They get to the line 25 times per game and are second in the league with 79.8% of their attempts converted.

The 3-point shooting really doesn’t have much to do with length, but the rest of these factors have everything to do with it.

The Pacers know how to use their considerable size on the court to their advantage and don’t pretend to be a different offensive team than what they’re capable of. They will be more active on the boards than you because they know they have the reach to tip the ball to themselves. They know they can post up their players because you probably don’t have the length to bother their shot, and you’re more likely to slap them on the wrist or forearm when you try. They get to the line because it’s really hard to get the ball when they extend their reach past yours.

The Pacers also play defense like they’re attempting to recreate Hands Across America. Wingspans consume the width of the court and make attempts at crosscourt passes and pull-up jumpers completely bothered and molested chances. Check out their starting unit’s wingspan measurements when they were drafted:

- PG Darren Collison: Height 6’1.5” Reach 6’3”
- SG Paul George: Height 6’8.75” Reach 6’11.25”
- SF Danny Granger: Height 6’8.5” Reach 7’1.5”
- PF David West: Height 6’9.25” Reach 7’4.25”
- *C Roy Hibbert: Height 7’2” Reach 7’4”
*Roy Hibbert wasn’t measured for predraft stuff but this is from an interview he did while attending Georgetown

Aside from Collison’s meager measurements in the height and wingspan departments, the rest of that team could wipe down the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel from their knees. They are long and they know how to segment the halfcourt by keeping their arms spread out and active. It’s why they’re currently 7th in the NBA in defensive rating.

The Wolves on the other hand have been successful at going small. One of their best lineups on the year has been Rubio and Ridnour in the backcourt with Williams and Tolliver at the forward positions and Kevin Love playing center. In fact, almost all of their successful lineups involve Kevin Love manning the middle and a smaller than usual backcourt, whether it’s Ricky and Luke or Ricky and Wayne.

Minnesota has managed to play exceptional defense through a much better understanding and more effort in getting to their spots in order to disrupt the other team. Both teams attack the offensive glass with ferocity and the Wolves get to the free throw line at a higher rate than the Pacers, mostly thanks to Kevin Love’s insistence on creating havoc in the paint.

Tonight, the Pacers will most likely take advantage of the Wolves’ two-point guard lineups and assign Paul George to cover Ricky Rubio. It will be the most length and quickness Rubio has had to deal with since he was covered by Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James and Luol Deng in key moments of previous games. Kevin Love will have to keep the Pacers honest by effectively scoring from all over the halfcourt. The Wolves will need to knock down 3-point shots, take care of the ball (maybe the biggest challenge) and find ways to free Rubio up to make plays and dissect the Pacers’ vaunted defense.

These two teams go about the game in very different manners. The Wolves like to play small and take advantage of your discomfort in trying to cover that. The Pacers like to throw as many long and big bodies out there to cut down the size of the court and make you force everything through small crevasses in the defense.

Tonight, we’ll find out just how much size matters or if it’s really about how you use what you’ve got.

You may now giggle until the opening tip.

Zach Harper

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3 responses to Playing small to be big

  1. IMHO, I think that the high three point % is directly correlated with the lenght of this team. They put the ball inside once and again, which makes the defense collapse, and the few threes they take are usually wide open due to this factor. Hence, the high effectivity.

  2. I watched the second half of their 10 point loss to the Pacers, so this is after the fact. Being an intense Wolves fan, I usually cringe when they lose, sometimes even writhe in agony. This time, I merely brushed it away. Why? Because they got beat. No beef, no bones about it.

    This happens to every team in the league. You will have a game where the other team just outplays you; e.g. the Wizards beating OKC, or Golden State beating Miami AND Chicago, or the Bucks beating the Heat… not once, but twice, as of tonight.

    It comes as no surprise either, that they manhandled the Rockets in the second half in Houston the other night. Or that they were wearing throwback ABA uniforms (I am not saying this in jest – it all adds up). Sometimes you just get beat.

    That’s what happened tonight.

  3. To go along with Andrew, boy did they get beat. Indiana punched the Wolves in the mouth and then threw them on the floor. To say that game was chippy is ridiculous. The refs really let them play last night and you could see the frustration on the part of the wolves. I haven’t seen Indiana play this year so I was surprised on how physical they were. They were constently pushing and bumping players hard. The refs let stuff go on both sides of the court and that made it seem fair but I can’t help wondering what the score would have been if they called more fouls. It looked more like a pistons game from the early 90′s and I don’t think the wolves were ready for that. Even still the battled hard the whole game and if Granger wasn’t on from out side the arch they still might have been able to steal this one.

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