The Golden State Warriors playing their personnel out of position isn’t exactly a novel concept.
The peak of the dynasty years saw the Warriors throw out several versions of their famed “Death Lineup.” With Stephen Curry being the focal point of the offense, the Warriors surrounded him with versatile like-sized wings who could guard up and down the positional spectrum. This allowed for hyper-switchable lineups that placed opponents into proverbial chokeholds, meant to invoke offensive stagnation and force inefficient shots.
“Strength In Numbers” meant more than just plurality in personnel; it also pertained to the strength in the small numbers in terms of height and size that the Warriors have often thrown out, much to the dismay of basketball conventionality. Eschewing traditional 7-foot bigs is sacrificing strength, physicality, and tradition — all for a monumental gain in terms of speed, pace, and innovation.
While the dynasty years are a bygone era, the concept of going small and running opposing teams off the floor is by no means a concept that has gone out of fashion. While there has been a recent revival of the 7-foot bigs — albeit, more versatile in their skill sets compared to their predecessors in past eras — there is still value to be had in playing small. But it has become even more of a specialized and situational configuration. Not every team has the personnel to downsize, nor can they survive prolonged periods with such compact lineups.
Or rather, not everyone has a Draymond Green to act as the best 6’6” center in the league to afford to play small.
Green does so many things brilliantly as a small-ball 5, but it’s his ability to hold his own against bigger centers that makes small lineups extremely viable. He won’t be able to stop bruising centers from scoring all the time — the Deandre Aytons and the Nikola Jokics of the world have the pedigree and skill to get buckets against a smaller defender — but he will make sure that scoring over him won’t be a breeze.
More so than Green’s ability to defend centers one-on-one, it’s his supreme versatility and intelligence as a defensive center that pops out. He has complete knowledge of every pick-and-roll coverage in existence. He can meet ball handlers at the level of the screen; he can hedge and recover in a timely manner toward his original assignment; he can blitz and trap ball handlers and place an enormous amount of pressure.
He can even play drop coverage — arguably much better than traditional bigs can. He is able to navigate that precarious space between the ball handler and the rolling big, and is able to simultaneously keep tabs on both offensive players involved in the two-man action.
For example: The Sacramento Kings take a page out of the Warriors’ playbook by running split action in the possession below — but running it against the masters of the split action results in the Warriors having no problem shutting it down, which forces the Kings to resort to an empty side pick-and-roll.
“Empty side” simply means that there is no defender present in the strong-side corner to help on the roll, meaning that the defender — in this case, Green — is left alone to defend the two-man action.
Here it is:
As Green showed in the clip above, he has no problem with defending the empty-side action all on his own. Notice how he steps up to Buddy Hield, as if to bait him into threading a pocket pass to Tristan Thompson. Hield takes the bait, and Green simply puts a hand in the way of the pass to intercept it.
Offensively, with Green as the 5 surrounded by a considerable amount of spacing, he has more room to operate as a roll-man diver and cutter. Lanes open up, allowing him to pressure and attack the rim with more verve and tenacity. Off of defensive stops, it allows him to outrun his lumbering counterparts, resulting in transition points.
Lineups with Green at center this season have been absolutely tearing opponents apart on both ends of the floor, outscoring opponents by a whopping 17.0 points per 100 possessions, which includes limiting opponents to 98.6 points per 100 possessions — 98th percentile, per Cleaning The Glass. Such lineups also limit opponents’ rim frequency: opponents attempt just 23.9% of their shots at the rim (99th percentile), while they are limited to an effective field-goal percentage of 48.8% (93rd percentile).
Green’s success as a small-ball 5 has allowed the likes of Otto Porter Jr. to thrive alongside Green as a small-ball 4. At 6’8”, Porter has the requisite physical attributes to guard power forwards and occasionally switch onto larger centers. One-on-one defense isn’t his strongest suit, but should he find himself guarding bigs down low, he can hold his own and make scoring in the paint a difficult endeavor.
But while Porter isn’t particularly known for his individual defense, he has been quite adept as a team defender, particularly as a capable help defender. His rotations are almost always on point, especially as the low man who steps up to stifle dribble penetration and contest shots at the rim.
Porter’s defense as a 4 in small-ball configurations is complemented by his ability to shoot and act as a stretch 4. The spacing he provides has been monumental, especially when guarded by opposing 4s who aren’t as accustomed to stepping up toward the perimeter to close out on a shooter. They also aren’t as adept as guards or wings when it comes to screen navigation, especially when Porter runs off wide down-screens.
Porter complements his outside shooting with an underrated inside game. He has enough size to power through mismatches and bully his way to the rim against smaller guards — much like a traditional power forward who finds himself with a mouse in the house.
Lineups with Porter at the 4 and Green at the 5 have been effective, especially on the defensive end. Such lineups outscore opponents by 7.3 points per 100 possessions, while limiting opponents to 99.2 points per 100 possessions — an elite mark, per Cleaning The Glass. They limit rim attempts (opponent rim frequency of 26.1%, 96th percentile) and force a numerous amount of turnovers (opponent TOV% of 19.4%, 99th percentile).
A positional shift from being a more traditional wing spacer to a stretch forward has paid dividends, not only for Porter’s career but also for the Warriors.
“(My role) has definitely has shifted a lot in recent years,” Porter said. “Guys that used to be on the wings are now pick-and-pop fours, but that is just the game-changing like that. Pick-and-pop bigs that can pop to the corner and shoot threes, but you still got to be able to get in there with the role guys and be able to help to rebound.”
With the advent of spacing and stretching defenses to their positional limits, the Warriors are entering a new era of small-ball domination, anchored by Green’s two-way-unicorn skill set and Porter’s floor stretching and capable defense. In Porter’s case, it may provide a glimpse into yet another unheard-of small-ball lineup, made possible by the eventual return of Klay Thompson.
“We be joking with Klay, like this ain’t the NBA you left, brother,” Green said. “You’re coming back, you’re going to be a stretch forward. It’s just the way this league works... With Otto, obviously he came into this league a two/three. Now he’s kind of playing more of a four/five. That’s just how the game has gone.”
Thompson as a stretch forward? A possible closing lineup of Curry/Jordan Poole/Andrew Wiggins/Thompson/Green? Or maybe even a Curry/Thompson/Wiggins/Porter/Green configuration? Porter may just have given us a glimpse of how such configurations can be made possible.