Prior to Saturday’s Game 1 between the Golden State Warriors and New Orleans Pelicans, Steve Kerr dropped one heck of a surprise into the starting lineup: Nick Young would be on the court for the opening tip instead of JaVale McGee. It was a little unforseen, given how well McGee played in the first round series against the San Antonio Spurs.
But the reasoning was simple, and twofold. First, the team had struggled with spacing since Andre Iguodala had entered the starting lineup, a fact that was compounded by the disappearance of Kevin Durant’s three-pointer. And second, no one on the team can defend Anthony Davis as well as Draymond Green can.
Now, with Stephen Curry set to return to the starting lineup, Kerr has a choice to make, and it seems likely that he’ll stay small.
The results haven’t really been there
I’m a proponent of the small lineup, but so far it hasn’t really worked out. Young has essentially only played at the start of halves, meaning his minutes have exclusively come in the starting small ball lineups. Yet when Young is on the court this, the Dubs have been outscored by 18 points. When he’s on the bench, Golden State has outscored New Orleans by 45. That’s a rather sizable difference.
Then again, a large part of that is due to Young, who simply hasn’t been playing well. Replacing him with Curry is . . . well, I’d say it’s an upgrade of some sorts. The starting lineup should be a bit more successful with the two-time MVP back in it, spacing the court and running the show.
Where small ball is proving advantageous
Green has, at times, made life miserable for Davis. More importantly, the Warriors are attacking Davis defensively, double and even triple teaming him with regularity, and forcing other players to beat them.
The benefit of the smaller lineup is that anyone can double Davis, while still having the speed and dexterity to recover when the ball is moved. Even when the team moves away from the ultra-small starting lineup, elements of this remain.
Kevon Looney has played 47 minutes this series. Compare that to McGee’s six minutes, and Zaza Pachulia’s pair of DNP’s, and Kerr’s philosophy is easy to spot. Put athletic players on the court who can double, recover, and switch everything. Looney’s plus/minus in those 47 minutes has been a staggering +41, proof that he’s not only playing excellent basketball, but providing an athletic matchup that does a strong job of minimizing Davis’ impact.
But better yet, going forward . . .
If you watched the Utah Jazz beat the Houston Rockets last night, you saw something interesting. The Jazz, long known for slowing the ball down, made life miserable for Mike D’Antoni’s squad, despite the coach’s reputation for pushing the ball.
Here’s the thing about Houston: they’re not a very fast team. They were 14th in the league in pace this season, preferring to march things up and down the court. For all of their impressive defensive improvements this year, they struggle to get back in transition, and wearing them out defensively has a profound impact on their offense.
The small ball Warriors can attack that. If Davis is having a hard time keeping up with Green and Durant in transition, imagine the fits Clint Capela will have. Imagine the hits that Houston’s dynamic offense will take when James Harden and Chris Paul find themselves in a sprinting match up and down the court.
It’s only one game, but Utah exposed something in Houston. And the Warriors’ small ball lineup is primed to attack it.