The Miami Heat with LeBron James were one of the modern teams that truly embraced small ball lineups and helped pioneer their use in recent years. It isn’t a new idea. The Chicago Bulls used to use “small” lineups in Jordan’s day. The Phoenix Suns are an obvious example. But small ball’s use has reached a fever pitch and some teams are trying so hard to use it that they’re acting against their self-interest to do so.
Let’s look at the Miami Heat now that they play BIG, even though that’s a little misunderstood with the floor spacing ability of Chris Bosh, and the Indiana Pacers, who worked hard to force fit themselves into small ball.
In 2015, (SMALL SAMPLE!) the Miami Heat have played 192 minutes on the season and 77 of those minutes have come with Hassan Whiteside and Chris Bosh on the court at the same time. These lineups have an 6.0 net rating (110.4 OffRtg/104.3 DefRtg) and a predictably slow pace of 94.3 possessions per 48 minutes, that would be the second slowest pace in the league. For full disclosure, the Bosh/Whiteside lineup is the most common lineup, but a good majority of their second units are small ball based by either splitting up Bosh and Whiteside with a player like McRoberts or Deng. I’ll be focusing on these Bosh/Whiteside lineups though.
The extra size in these lineups hasn’t manifested itself in ways you would expect yet, remember just 77 minutes. The Heat are no better in rebounding percentage, second chance points, or opponent field goal percentage with this big lineup. Some of that can be explained with the small ball techniques of Bosh. He spends a lot of time on the perimeter, making him a big man’s version of a small ball four.
The style that Miami plays with Bosh and Whiteside is likely the biggest contributor to these small sample lineups falling near the middle of the league in things we associate with big man lineups. What makes it all click for Miami differently than other teams is the size versatility that Miami has because they can play a small style game – the Whiteside/Bosh lineups score high amounts of points on the fast break – while staying big on defense.
Of course, in the small sample, their defense with this lineup has not translated to success on that end of the floor. SportVU shows that Bosh hasn’t been a positive defender in terms of opponent’s shooting percentage when he’s defending since the first year it became available in 2013-14. Whiteside, though not limiting opponent’s shooting percentage yet this season well, was a positive defender in 2014-15. Nylon Calculus shows Whiteside as a top-6 rim protector in points saved over position average1 and Bosh as a below average rim protector.
I went into this research expecting to find that this big lineup is a successful zig to Indiana’s small ball zag, but in the terribly small sample we’ve seen thus far, the Heat have not played like a big lineup and have not been successful in big lineup ways. Bosh is taking 4.8 3PA per game, resulting in several plays like the one below. Bosh is the blue #1 and Whiteside the Blue #21, but the setup of the entire blue side – the Heat – is most important.
Notice how the paint is only occupied by Whiteside unless a player is cutting through on off-ball movement or is getting into the paint just before Bosh fires his shot. That’s a small ball style of play. Miami is playing a brand of basketball with two long and tall players but using them in a way that is much more similar to the way that a successful Indiana should be playing.
On the other side of this discussion is the Pacers with their most common lineup involving a small ball lineup of Monta Ellis, George Hill, C.J. Miles, Paul George, and Ian Mahinmi. To me, this team seemed like the most forced fit of recent small ball attempting teams. It felt like Larry Bird and the Pacers tried so hard to jump on the small ball train that it hurt them in the end. So far, that’s been true, but it’s a small sample and they should get much better offensively.
It’s almost too difficult to evaluate them right now because their offensive rating in this lineup is just 88.1. That’s terrible and goes completely against the heart of going small. You go small to score and you deal with the lack of defense by outscoring your opponent and with a frenetic pace on defense resulting in steals. Indiana’s defense has been unsurprisingly bad, 107.5 points against per 100 possessions. Of their top three lineups, the only one that features a positive net rating, and it is showing promise (in only 18 minutes), is a more traditional lineup sans Paul George.
Ian Mahinmi was a net positive according to Nylon Calculus in 2014-15 and did limit opposing teams to a 45.3% FG% when he defended the rim. This season though, when being tasked with the sole protection of the paint, opposing teams are shooting 56.1% within six feet according to SportVu, good for 10 percentage points higher than normal. That has a lot to do with the defense around Mahinmi, but it won’t do for a sustainable small ball lineup.
The shotchart above is the reason the Pacers are struggling. They need to rely on Paul George offensively to offset their defensive shortcomings. His usage is “only” at 26.1% of possessions so far, but he’s scoring just 16.8 points on 15 shots per game. His true shooting percentage is also lagging at 46.9% and a lot of that is coming from his shooting from deep. It has to make up for being average around the hoop, and it certainly hasn’t yet. George is a career 36% three-point shooter and is sitting at just 20%, despite five attempts per game, on the young season so far.
There are also some issues with ball movement for the Pacers. Too often I have seen Indiana go into a half court set with the normal small ball lineup where one big is in the middle of the floor and the four players are set up around the three point line. Good start for their ideal style of play. However, the ball doesn’t move nearly enough and more importantly, the players don’t move nearly enough.
A perfect example is the play below. There was some ball movement prior to a steal attempt but right at the beginning of the SportVU tracking video you see the players have stopped moving and C.J. Miles takes a contested three pointer after the offense totally stagnates.
George is at the core of the failures of the Pacers’ small ball lineup so far this season but it’s early. In fact, it’s much too early to decide that it’s not going to work. But, the dichotomy of going small versus going big is one to keep an eye on. Oftentimes smart teams will zig when everyone else zags and teams like the Heat, Utah Jazz, and Toronto Raptors might benefit from hedging closer to a more traditional lineup. Keep an eye on this in 2015-16.
An estimate of points saved by a player when they are protecting the rim as compared to players that play that position ↩