During the last couple of years a trend toward small ball has taken over the NBA. Exemplified by the Warriors “death lineup”, small ball has become a great way to spread defenses out by maximizing the amount of shooting talent on the floor. With a small ball lineup on the floor and good shooters in positions 1-4, offenses can spread the floor while running high pick and rolls. This forces defensive players to help which, in turn, leaves shooters open.
The small ball trend has spread through the NBA like wildfire. Teams have begun to use players that were universally known as small forwards at the power forward position while putting another wing player that can shoot on the court to maximize shooting and spacing. This offensive strategy creates more floor spacing for penetrating guards and forces defenses to make a tough decision as to whether they will help on pick and rolls and rotate as fast as possible, or will leave their guard and big men to defend the pick and roll in a two on two setting without help defense.
This defensive dilemma has given coaches nightmares and forced many teams that weren’t going small to reverse their strategies in order to get defenders who were quick enough to guard smaller lineups.
However, in the playoffs the Thunder and the Cavaliers were able to find a defensive strategy that countered the Warriors’ small ball strategy and might be a recipe for other teams to defend small ball line-ups. Their defensive strategy included switching everything and blanketing the Warriors shooters’ thereby forcing them to beat the Cavs off the dribble. Even though this strategy created a lot of mismatches that favored the Warriors, it took them away from their ball movement offense and forced them to go to a more one on one based offense and to try to take advantage of mismatches.
As I’ve often written, the hero ball/isolation style offense is never a strategy for success, even if results in Stephen Curry vs. Kevin Love 20 times a game. This style of offense has proven to be less efficient and it also leaves teammates who of the player with the ball that is isolating stand around which can make them bored and frustrated and unlikely to crash the glass for offensive rebounds.
The switch everything defensive strategy that emerged during the 2016 playoffs was the main reason that underdogs Oklahoma City and Cleveland were able to take the former defending champion Golden State Warriors to seven games in their respective series and was a big reason why Cleveland beat Golden State in the finals.
During the next season I think that we’ll see an even greater increase in switching on defense throughout the league after teams saw Cleveland’s success. Teams will realize that the best way to guard small ball lineups and even some traditional line-ups is with switching.
Switching off ball and on ball screens on defense makes it much harder for shooters to get loose and will force more teams into a less efficient isolation based offensive style as teams try to take advantage of mismatches.
This new defensive strategy will make players with enough size to guard power forwards and enough quickness to stay with guards extremely valuable on the defensive end. The prototypical examples of these types of players are LeBron James, Draymond Green, Kawai Leonard, Paul George, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Jae Crowder and some others. The ability of these players to switch on defense and to be able to capably guard positions 1-5 at an above average level will become invaluable as more and more teams switch screens more frequently.
With an increased number of teams switching screens on defense it will be interesting to see if teams will go back to more traditional offensive lineups with two big guys to take advantage of mismatches or if coaches will stick to spreading the floor with as much shooting as possible.
We may also see a new offensive strategy to counter switching by taking advantages of mismatches within a teams’ offense while not falling into isolations. It will also be interesting to see whether coaches choose to trade shooting and floor spacing for defenders that can guard multiple positions when their teams have the lead in crunch time. Overall, I’m interested to see what the offensive counter will be to all the switching that goes on next season and how it will change offensive strategies and late game line-ups.