What is “Small Ball” in the NBA?

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The fast-paced, scoring-heavy brand of basketball has fully engulfed the NBA. Gone are the days when teams scored 150 points combined in the fourth quarter; now, it’s more like 150 points after 24 minutes. The game’s evolution can be attributed to a concept called the “small ball.” What is small ball basketball in the NBA?

What Does Small Ball Mean in BasketballWhat Does Small Ball Mean in Basketball?

Small ball basketball is a strategy where teams play without a traditional center so they can play at a faster pace. The center is replaced with another ballhandling guard or forward. This allows the team to spread the floor and take advantage of their quickness. On offense, utilizing the small ball approach means scoring mainly comes from the perimeter.

Most basketball fans point to Mike D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns in the mid to late 2000s as the pioneer of small ball basketball. However, the late Don Nelson championed this strategy while coaching the Golden State Warriors in the late ’80s to the early ’90s. Nelson often used a three-guard lineup in the “Run TMC” era, with the 6-foot-7 Chris Mullin and 6-foot-8 Rod Higgins as the “big men.”

Pundits back then thought it was a gimmick, but little did they know that it would be the foundation of modern basketball offenses decades later. After his first Warriors stint, Nelson still used the strategy with the Dallas Mavericks and his second tenure in the Bay Area.

Why Do NBA Teams Play Small BallWhy Do NBA Teams Play Small Ball?

The idea behind playing small ball is about versatility and exploiting the varied skills of the five players on the floor. Since guards and forwards are generally considered more skilled than traditional centers, the point of attack may come from any player at any given time.

In many situations, playing small ball presents certain disadvantages on defense. That said, it’s also very switchable, and quicker players defend three-point shots better. On top of that, even if there’s a mismatch down low, a team that employs the small ball strategy could simply double-team and rotate to keep up.

Here are more reasons why NBA teams prefer playing small ball:

  • Since guards and forwards are more comfortable handling the ball and passing, this often leads to better ball movement.
  • Playing small ball spaces the floor better, taking advantage of players who are particularly good at penetrating and driving to the basket.
  • The small ball strategy exploits mismatches, especially when the other team plays a slower, traditional center. The offensive team could just target the opposing team’s center on high pick-and-rolls and force him to keep up with speedy guards.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Using Small Ball StrategyAdvantages and Disadvantages of Using Small Ball Strategy

There is a reason why many teams couldn’t play small ball the entire 48 minutes. While there are definite advantages in strutting out small ball basketball, they may also be subjected to a plethora of problems, especially on the defensive end.

Here are the pros and cons of using the small ball strategy:


  • Small ball lineups are hell to match up with in transition. Everyone is agile and could take off in a heartbeat during fastbreak situations.
  • Besides guarding them in open space, defending the small ball in the halfcourt is also a tall task (no pun intended). The ball movement and the spacing make it extremely difficult to cover and rotate to everyone.
  • Quick and athletic small ball lineups are great when playing catchup. The speed and the emphasis on playing with pace results in more possessions and possibly causing turnovers.


  • Most modern offenses using the small ball strategy often live and die by the three-point shot. The over-reliance on three-pointers is the undoing of most small ball teams.
  • Smaller lineups get pounded on the glass and the interior. The players are forced to foul because of the lack of size and ceiling, resulting in free throws for the opponents after getting into the penalty situation.
  • Say what you want, but playing small ball takes a toll physically and mentally on both ends. There is nothing deflating when somebody like Anthony Davis or Joel Embiid dominates the interior, and you can’t do anything about it.

Who Should Consider Small Ball StrategyWho Should Consider Small Ball Strategy?

The way basketball is played now, every team should consider playing small ball, at least as a secondary or a tertiary strategy. But for this to be a possibility, a team should have the personnel for it. In a nutshell, you should consider playing small ball basketball if you have at least two of these “prerequisites.”

  • You have a glut of unselfish ballhandlers and 3-and-D players who need minutes.
  • You have a skilled wing who can play power forward in a pinch. The presence of this type of player cushions the impact of not having a physical presence down low.
  • You have players who can play multiple positions, such as an agile big man or a guard who can handle the ball or play forward.
  • If you don’t have a reliable interior and post scorer, you should probably consider playing small ball to generate offense elsewhere.
  • When you have young and athletic players, it’s probably best to implement a form of the small ball strategy.

But here’s a reminder to today’s basketball teams: Just because the game angles toward positionless and small ball basketball doesn’t mean you should follow the crowd. If you have multiple big guys who can score and defend, there is no point in holding them back. The idea is to play to your strengths.

5 NBA Teams Who Implemented Small Ball Line Up5 NBA Teams Who Implemented Small Ball Line Up

As mentioned, Don Nelson laid the blueprint on how to play small ball basketball. He was a visionary in that regard, but he hasn’t had much success as far as championships. Even so, many coaches followed in his footsteps and implemented the small ball lineup.

1. 2004-05 Phoenix Suns (62-20)

The “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns, led by coach Mike D’Antoni, were considered the prototype of modern NBA offenses. D’Antoni said the offense was due to necessity, but that’s just half of the story. They had big men, but none were as skilled as Amare Stoudemire. Shawn Marion was a natural small forward at 6’7, but his length allowed him to play much bigger than he is.

To top off the lineup, D’Antoni played three guards. Steve Nash was the motor that kept the engine moving, while Quentin Richardson and Joe Johnson were the outside-shooting wings. Richardson shot eight attempts from deep, something that was unheard of during the time. Johnson flourished so much in this system that he received a $70 million offer from the Atlanta Hawks.

2. 2019-20 Houston Rockets (44-28)

The Rockets went all in with the small ball strategy and traded Clint Capela in the middle of the season. They started 6’5 P.J. Tucker and 6’7 Robert Covington in the traditional big men spots. The idea was to give Russell Westbrook and James Harden as much space as possible.

3. Steve Kerr-era Golden State Warriors

As soon as Steve Kerr took over coaching duties, it was clear what his preferences were. He wasn’t shy about taking the unconventional route, benching Andrew Bogut for Andre Iguodala during the end of games. They eventually replaced Harrison Barnes with a guy named Kevin Durant, making the “Death Lineup” even deadlier.

4. 2013-14 Miami Heat (54-28)

The Miami Heat tried to win its third consecutive championship by adopting the small ball completely. They started Chris Bosh at center, with LeBron James and Shane Battier as forwards. James and Battier are natural wings, but they easily handle bigger players because of their size.

Unfortunately, with their traditional two-big lineups and beautiful ball movement, the San Antonio Spurs were too much for them in the 2014 NBA Finals.

5. “We Believe” Golden State Warriors (42-40)

This team was probably the most fun small-ball squad to watch besides the “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns. This version of the Warriors toppled the mighty Dirk Nowitzki-led Dallas Mavericks, a team that won 67 games that season.

They started Baron Davis, Monta Ellis, Jason Richardson, and Stephen Jackson in most games, all of whom are guards! Golden State either have Andris Biedrins or Al Harrington as their center. Matt Barnes, Mickel Pietrus, and Kelenna Azuibuke– all wing players– make up much of their rotation.

And you probably don’t have to guess who the coach was. In case you didn’t know, it’s Don Nelson.

Wrapping Things Up: What is “Small Ball” in the NBA?

Basketball has evolved from a structured game into a positionless sport. Much of that evolution was the breaking away from the traditional mold. Instead of an inside-out game dictated by low-post-scoring big men, much of the emphasis is on the perimeter game. In other words, most NBA offenses today employ the small ball strategy.

So, what is “small ball” in the NBA? Small ball basketball is about using five skilled players on the court at once. More often than not, it involved using versatile guards and forwards instead of traditional, slow-footed big men. This results in better spacing and a quicker pace. However, the caveat is that they could get outrebounded and outscored in the paint by bigger teams. Despite this possibility, there is no denying that a small ball is a fun way to play the game!

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Hoops Addict

Hoops Addict was created to help basketball fans of all ages learn more about the sport and find the best basketball gear to improve their ability to hoop. He has been a huge basketball fan for decades, watching thousands of basketball games through the years to learn the ins and outs of the game.

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