Small Ball Lineups are the future of the NBA
The Rockets did not play a traditional center in their victories over the Dallas Mavericks and New Orleans Pelicans over the weekend despite having 7-foot reserves Tyson Chandler and Isaiah Hartenstein available. Houston became the first team to go an entire game without using a player taller than 6-foot-6 since the New York Knicks in a Jan. 31, 1963, win over the Chicago Zephyrs, according to research by the Elias Sports Bureau.
The link is for an article about a trade that sent Clint Capela to the Atlanta Hawks, but the quote above is the most interesting part of that article for me. I think that small ball lineups is a preview of the future of NBA basketball.
Centers playing with their back to the basket, backing down defenders is a rare sight in the NBA these days. Joel Embiid is probably the last dominant, back to the basket center the NBA has left. Most other tall centers/power forwards nowadays prefer to shoot perimeter shots anyway. Yet these same players can sometimes be too slow in defense, especially in “switch-all” defensive schemes.
You can see this happen when you have a small vs big in a one-on-one situation. Almost always, the small player will be able to drive past the big, or sink a 3-pointer over them. I've seen Seth Curry and Luka Doncic do this all the time with the Mavericks this season. Steph Curry (when he is healthy), Damian Lillard, Kemba Walker and numerous other players all can exploit these match ups.
You would think that not having a big in defense is a liability, but from what I've seen, double-teaming the opposing big will quickly force the ball out of their hands. And with a small ball lineup, the players are usually quick enough to rotate to the next guy after a kick-out pass from a double-teamed player. Also, some of the forwards in the game are now big enough and strong enough to guard taller bigs. Think Draymond Green, Lebron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo. I believe in a few years, even Zion Williamson will be able to do the same thing.
I think it was the Golden State Warriors that proved that small ball lineups were viable in the NBA. They would frequently play a lineup with Draymond Green playing center, which while taller than 6-foot-6, is still undersized as far as centers go. Their “switch-all” defensive scheme is now being mimicked across the NBA. The key is to have players in the lineup that can guard multiple positions. In the Warrior's case, only Steph Curry was the liability in defense, but even that didn't stop them from winning championships anyway.