Small Ball is a popular term in today’s version of the NBA. With the three-point shot becoming more important than ever in the last five years, teams have opted to go versatile instead of traditional when putting together a five-man team on the floor.
The conventional basketball lineup has at least two big men- the center and power forward. Traditionally, there two players play on the inside because of their size. Nowadays, some team has players who are dubbed as “unicorns” because they are rare big men who can shoot, pass, and dribble like the smaller player.
Unfortunately, not all teams have unicorns and for those who don’t, they have to use small-ball lineups to be versatile. To do this, these small ball teams usually eliminate the center and use the power forward as the center. Others do away with both center and power forward. They use taller small forwards or even guards to play the 4 and 5 positions.
Let’s take a look at the best small ball line-ups in the NBA during the 2019-20 season:
1. Boston Celtics
Line-up: Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, and Daniel Theis
The Boston Celtics lost both centers from the previous season in Al Horford and Aron Baynes but that hasn’t prevented the Celtics from landing the 3rd best record in the Eastern Conference this season.
Boston has utilized Daniel Theis as their starting center, even if he is a natural Power Forward at 6-8 and 215 pounds. Their ticks the boxes for your unconventional center. He can pass the ball at 2.5 assists per game. He can switch defenders and guard smaller players. And he makes 36% of his open three-pointers.
The Celtics also lost Kyrie Irving but they got Kemba Walker who is a high-scoring point guard like Kyrie. Jayson Tatum has blossomed into an All-Star this season while Gordon Hayward is finally playing with more confidence in his leg. What’s contributed largely to Boston’s success this season is Jaylen Brown who has blended well playing alongside Tatum in their line-up.
Coach Brad Stevens has always been preaching about positionless basketball. After losing both centers, he drafted 7-6 Tacko Fall and he has been a revelation. But when it comes to his starting and finishing line-up, Stevens still practices what he preaches. The Celtics are the most versatile team in the league and their version of the “death lineup” is the best small ball unit in the NBA during the 2019-20 season.
2. Houston Rockets
Line-up: Danuel House, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Robert Covington, and PJ Tucker
The Rockets surprised us when they traded Clint Capela at the trade deadline and decided not to get any big man after that. Head coach Mike D’Antoni has been eccentric about his line-up decisions but sending away Capela when they were in the thick of the playoff race during the 2019-20 season was a shock.
Capela was 6-10 and was slowly developing into one of the best centers in the league. But he didn’t have the versatility to shoot from the outside which is D’Antoni’s favorite skill. So despite Houston having a good run with Capela, they sent him to Atlanta. Since Capela’s departure, D’Antoni has gone mostly with 6-6 P.J. Tucker in the middle.
Tucker has always been a tough guy who was assigned to guard bigger opponents in the past but this is the first time that he’s been designated to man the 5 spots regularly. Tucker is undersized but he’s physical and would even fight with Shaq underneath if the latter were still playing. He can also hit the three-ball which makes him ideal.
Since the trade, Russell Westbrook has flourished with a faster and smaller lineup Russ averaged over 30 points per game while shooting more than 50% from the field since Capela left. Along with the NBA’s leading scorer in James Harden, Danuel House, Robert Covington, the Rockets have the 2nd best small-ball unit in the league.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
Line-up: Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and Montrezl Harrell
When the Clippers signed both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, we know they were going to be versatile. Both are listed as small forwards but we know that Kawhi has the size to play power forward while George can always slide down to the two-guard spot. You can even make a case for Kawhi playing the two positions as well.
The Clippers start with Ivica Zubac as their center but when it comes to crunch time, Doc Rivers likes to play with Montrezl Harrell who has become their second “sixth man” after Lou Williams. Sure, we know Williams is 6th man supreme but Harrell was one of his competitors for the award last season. Now Harrell can’t shoot from deep but he’s a natural power forward who can run the break well and make the decent pass from the post.
Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams make an interesting pair because while Williams is an automatic scoring weapon, Beverley is one of the toughest defenders on the planet who can knock down the open three. You can also make an argument for taking out Beverley and putting in Reggie Jackson whom the Clippers acquired after his buyout with the Pistons. Then you can also put Harrell out and insert Marcus Morris.
Doc Rivers’ team has a versatility that perhaps only the Boston Celtics can match. Talent-wise, they may even be better than Boston although the latter has more chemistry. Los Angeles doesn’t have any big man behind Zubac and plays with power forward Harrell more at the center position. If only they played together longer, I would have placed them at #2. But that nor anything doesn’t matter to this team. All they wanted to be a chance to go the playoffs and win the title.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder
Line-up: Chris Paul, Dennis Schroder, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari, Nerlens Noel
The OKC Thunder were supposed to struggle this season after losing both Russell Westbrook and Paul George during the summer. However, the unlikely trio of Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Danilo Gallinari have clicked and the Thunder found themselves winning games after Thanksgiving.
The Thunder have a very productive big man in seven-footer Steven Adams. But while the Kiwi is a force inside the paint, Adams isn’t a decent shooter from the outside. Although he’s played in crucial stretches of games, Billy Donovan favors having a power forward Nerlens Noel play the five position instead. Noel isn’t as productive as Adams but at 6-10, the Thunder gets smaller with him.
Gallinari is 6-10 but he plays more like a small forward during his entire NBA career. Alexander, Schroder, and Paul are 6-5 and below. While Alexander is sometimes listed as small forward, his height, build, and game makes him more suited for a shooting guard. He also has terrific handles and good passing skills, making him a third point guard in this very versatile line-up.
Chris Paul has given this team stability while Dennis Schroder is having a terrific season for the Thunder. This three-guard line-up has more than enough scoring, plenty of passing, and the ability to run the floor well. The Thunder had the 4th best record in the West when play was halted, thanks mainly to this small-ball unit.