Playoff teams are winning with non-traditional big men

Throughout the history of basketball, we have been taught one important lesson: height is might. In a game where your objective is to throw the ball into a hoop suspended ten feet in the air, it makes sense that those who are vertically blessed have an advantage over their smaller brethren. Think Shaquille O’Neal, Bill Russel, Wilt Chamberlain, or Hakeem Olajuwon. These guys just dominated the competition because their height and skill were too much for their opponents.

But lately, there’s been a seismic shift in how we view basketball as a whole. Gone are the days where having a seven-foot center is a huge advantage. At this point, it might even be detrimental for your team to play their centers! Such is the reality that teams face with the rise of small-ball basketball in the NBA, where centers taller than 6’10 can be outplayed if they can’t shoot or defend the perimeter to save their lives.

This postseason, the Celtics, Heat, and Lakers have all found success playing a ton of small-ball in the postseason. Let’s take a look at how their “big men” impact their success.

Photo from AP

Boston Celtics

Houston is often considered the standard bearer for the small-ball revolution. After all, this is the team that went nano-ball this playoffs. It might come as a shock to you, then, that Boston might be the most successful team that runs a ton of small-ball. Their smallness isn’t as apparent as Houston’s, but that’s the exact reason why the Celtics are in the East Finals and the Rockets almost got swept in the Second Round.

Would you believe me if I told you Daniel Theis was only 6’8″? I know, shocker. Theis’ height disadvantage against other bigs isn’t that apparent because he’s a great rim protector for Boston. Opponents are shooting only 52.5% within five feet against Theis this postseason. That’s elite numbers for a guy who’s giving up at least two inches against other bigs. And those aren’t small-sample numbers either: with Kanter’s infamous defensive limitations, Stevens needed to play Theis big minutes in these Playoffs. 

Defense wins championships. Boston has found a way to play small-ball without sacrificing defense at all. Theis has been protecting the back end while also getting excellent effort from their talented wings, both in the starting line-up and off the bench. Now, let’s see if this can translate this into a ring this season.

Photo from Getty Images

Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers are the giants of the NBA.

That’s not a hyperbole: they’re one of the few teams that still have a traditional two-big line-up to start a game. With Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee, and Dwight Howard, the Lakers have THREE serviceable big men who can play big minutes.

However, the true power of the Lakers is unlocked by Davis. The Brow is a cheat code, an exception to the norm. He has the mobility and skills of a guard while also being an insanely talented big man as well. He’s one of the few players in the league who can, quite literally, do it all on the court. Against the Rockets, with McGee and Howard struggling to get position under the basket, Frank Vogel decided to unleash the full potential of the Lakers. To match Houston’s micro-ball, Vogel moved Davis’ minutes to the five spot, while keeping a steady rotation of players around him and LeBron James.

No one on the Rockets could stop Davis one-on-one, especially if he simply just faced up and took jumpers over his defender. The  constant doubling on James Harden and Houston’s inability to punish Davis on defense (his defense on guards is underrated) rendered the Rockets basically useless on both sides of the ball.

Great scheming helps a lot with making small-ball work. But sometimes, all you need is an anomaly of a player to make it work, and Davis is exactly that type of player for the Lakers.

Photo from USA Today

Miami Heat

No one expected the Miami Heat here.

Everyone except for the Heat, who know that they belong here.

Behind Jimmy Butler’s heroics, Tyler Herro’s breakout, and Goran Dragic’s steadying presence, Miami has burst its way to the top of the league, obliterating the Milwaukee Bucks en route to their first Eastern Conference Finals appearance since the LeBron era. But crucial to that series win, and for future wins by this Miami squad, was Bam Adebayo’s defense.

The Heat center isn’t usually the tallest (6’9) player on the court. He sure as hell wasn’t when they faced the Bucks, who had two seven-footers in their regular rotation. But he makes up for it with his agility, quick hands, upper body strength, and great defensive rotations. He’s not Rudy Gobert on defense where his presence deters shots, but he’s great at coming from the weak side and helping out his teammates.

His man-to-man defense is also underrated. Jae Crowder was the primary defender on Giannis for most of the Bucks series, but in the few times where Bam was switched on Giannis, he did very well, like in the clip below. Watch the footwork on the Giannis draft, pivoting his hips during the spin and instantly throwing his arms up to contest cleanly.

The Celtics-Heat matchup might be the most even series we’ll see. If Miami wants to win, Adebayo is going to be the lynchpin to their success.