Small Ball Rules!

Note: This was written as sort of a pseudo-response piece to Eric Laboissonniere’s “Tall Ball Revolution” article. Notice my remarkably clever double entendre in the title!

Whenever new, relatively major rules or regulations are added in any sport, it often takes several years for players and coaches to fully adjust to them. Once they do though, it’s not just the expected consequences that occur but also the exploitation of loopholes and other potential inefficiencies.

As an example, a quick history lesson: by 1981 the NBA league office was worried that coaches had become too good at applying various defensives schemes and that this development could potentially hurt the offense. Since the NBA is in the business of entertainment and most fans enjoy high scoring affairs, certain types of defensive formations were banned.

There were several key ways that legal and illegal types of defensive coverages were distinguished but without getting too in depth, most forms of zone defense were essentially banned. The video below does a pretty good job breaking down the illegal defense rules, although I don’t agree with many of the other arguments presented within the clip.

It took the coaches and players some time to fully adjust to the new illegal defense rules in the 80s, but soon enough they began to have a profound effect on the game. Perhaps most famously, the outlawing of zone defense made it especially hard to send extra coverage against some of the more dominant individual scorers in the league.

This led to teams running more and more isolations with their most athletically dominant individual players and it is one of the reasons Michael Jordan was so successful, but also a big reason why the late 80s and the 90s were the era of the great post player. Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, and David Robinson are just a few of the big name centers that made a living dominating hapless defenders down on the block or in isolation situations. Furthermore, as previously alluded to, illegal defense rules began to be exploited to the point of debauchery.

Games now consisted largely of isolation play with three or four offensive players standing idly in the weak side corner in order to provide space for their team’s best scorer to go one-on-one. Even worse, since defenders had to be within a certain distance of their “man,” offensive players would often pretend to run into the lane for a cut, only to suddenly back out and point out their “out of position” defenders to the referees. The officials would be forced to blow the whistle and stop the game to award the offense an obligatory free throw.

This caused the NBA to make zone defenses legal once again in the early 2000s. Once more, the coaches and players took time to adjust, but it has been over a decade now and clearly, pick-n-rolls are much more effective then isolation and post plays in the environment created by the current rules. Sure, teams still run “isos” and post ups when it’s practical to do so, but for the most part, PGs that once would mostly set up wings and bigs, are now running the show and becoming go-to scorers.

Many of the wings that once would’ve used their athletic ability in isolation play now run pick-n-roll or fall into a 3-and-D role. And what of the bigs? It has become more and more clear that skilled post bigs are increasingly falling out of style and are being replaced with big men that can act as roll or pop threats in the pick-n-roll.

Since teams are no longer using big men to post up, defensively it’s no longer necessary to play more than one big and, of course, smaller players are often quicker and more skilled offensively. This makes playing wings in place of traditional power forwards a potent strategy. It also leads to an increase in demand for wings and, in turn, an oversaturation of big men. Just looking through the rosters, almost every team has at least three competent players that could be considered centers in today’s pace-and-space era.

At the same time, the majority of teams are also in a position where they would love to add another wing piece. This is the reason why teams trying to trade Jahlil Okafor/Nerlens Noel, Greg Monroe and other bigs have failed to receive the type of offers they hoped for and expected. It’s also one of the reasons players such as Deyonta Davis and Skal Labissiere slipped so far below where they were projected in the 2016 NBA Draft. Next time any variation of “if they only traded one of their bigs for a solid wing” is said about any team, realize that’s probably not happening.

Trading a big right now would more than likely be considered selling low and probably end up yielding a significantly lower caliber asset. The TV ratings have been doing well recently, so the NBA isn’t likely to change any of the rules related to defensive Xs and Os, at least not any time soon. However, if we do continue seeing big men value regress to a point where large players are almost completely marginalized, this may result in some changes down the line. For now, though, we’re officially in the small ball era.


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