Who Can Stop Small Ball?

4/5 of Golden State's small ball lineup.
Rick Widner – Getty Images

As fans watch the Warriors dominate the start of this season, their small ball lineup looks better than ever. Consisting of Steph Curry & Klay Thompson in the backcourt and Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes in the frontcourt, their lineup gives every team they face a huge problem. Barnes is the tallest at 6’8″ which makes them position-less and gives them the unique ability to switch anything on the perimeter. On offense, they’re even deadlier because each player can shoot, handle the ball and pass exceptionally well; focusing on one player (usually Curry) gives the other four guys a lot of opportunity. This lineup has played almost 65 minutes on the court together – seems low because Barnes has missed the last six games with a sprained ankle – but they’ve outscored their opponents by 90 points in those minutes and have made 28 more threes than them.

The Lineup 

In order to think about stopping the small ball lineup, you’re going to need players that are two-way players and willing passers. Unselfish players keep the defense moving and stagnant offense is something the Warriors can feast on.

LeBron James, 6’8″, 260+, CLE – Tied with Curry as the league’s best player, LeBron has remained as a type of player the league has never seen. His athleticism and physical gifts make him great on offense, as well as a lockdown defender both in the post and on the outside. His passing ability is also second-to-none.

Jimmy Butler, 6’7″, 220, CHI – Chicago’s superstar has proven himself as a great perimeter defender and now his offense is beginning to rise to the level of his defense. A legitimate 20 point threat, Butler can wear down opponents guarding which renders them less potent when he guards them.

Kawhi Leonard, 6’7″, 230, SAS – Edging out Butler as the best perimeter defender in the NBA, Leonard has shown on multiple occasions that he can lock down the league’s most robust playmakers. Long arms and enormous hands make Leonard a defensive nightmare, while athleticism and respectable shooting are helping Leonard two into a dual threat superstar.

Paul George, 6’9″, 220, IND – Another long guy on the perimeter, George has excellent hands and anticipation. If he doesn’t want to play the passing lane, he can pick his opponents pockets while they try to attack him off the dribble. On offense, he is the most well-rounded and, arguably, the best scorer on this lineup. A slasher by nature, George has the handle to create space and elevate for the jumper or attack the rim. A noticeably improved part of his game is his three-point shot, he can now drain shots with ease from 23, 24 and 25 feet away.

Anthony Davis, 6’11”, 255, NOLA – Shot blocking ability is rivaled by only a few guys in the league and his offense is evolving at an incredible rate. Davis has put on a considerable amount of weight and can shoot over whoever tries to guard him in the post. Once he starts to get hot he can knock down 15-20 footers with ease and is a monster in transition.

I noticeably left out a few superstars like Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin and James Harden but I did it after a lot of thinking and solid reasoning. Westbrook is a great player on both on ends but does turn the ball over a lot which would lead to a lot of transition threes against GS; his hands are also sticky sometimes, not a good quality against a team of this caliber. James Harden, based on this season, doesn’t want to play defense so he wasn’t really considered. As far as KD and BG, I picked George over Durant fully off defensive ability. The two are scoring at the same rate and are almost the same player; long, athletic, unlimited range. AD got the nod over Griffin because of defensive ability as well. Davis can protect the rim better than Griffin, as evidenced by Davis’ 48 blocks to Griffin’s 12 this season.

Matchups

This is the fun part, dissecting how the players would perform against their counterparts. Much like the small ball lineup, my lineup would be able to switch everything on pick plays due to length and athleticism. On offense, all five guys in my lineup have thirty-point ability and can score from multiple areas in a variety of ways. The small ball lineup has only two thirty point threats, Curry and Thompson. Not to say the other three can’t go for thirty, but it’s more likely that the Splash Brothers get thirty.

Jimmy Butler vs. Steph Curry – The challenge of guarding Golden State’s mega-superstar falls into the lap of Jimmy Butler before anyone else. While Butler doesn’t have crazy long arms like Leonard – who would be the second choice to guard Curry – he does have two/three inches and around 40 pounds on Steph. That size gives him the disruptive ability that he lacks with his shorter wingspan. While his size is beneficial on defense, it equally benefits Butler’s offense. He’s not hesitant when it comes to shooting threes, attempting almost four per game and can use his weight and athleticism in the post or slashing to the rack. He can be the primary ball handler on plays and likes to get out and run in transition, whether he has the ball or not.

Kawhi Leonard vs. Klay Thompson – Before exploding for 39 points against Indiana on Tuesday, Thompson was having an “off” season compared to what he usually puts up. Still a sniper from outside, the optimal defender against Thompson would be someone with long arms who can disrupt his shots and great stamina to chase him around the court. I bring you…Kawhi Leonard, the long-armed, ironman from San Antonio. Leonard’s long arms would do something in regard to Thompson’s incredibly fast shooting stroke. If Klay decides to put it on the deck, Leonard has the ability to harass him on the drive and alter his shot. Not a slouch on offense himself, Leonard would do a decent amount of running around and making Klay work on both ends. Quietly averaging more than seven rebounds per game, Leonard would have no issue initiating a fastbreak with this lineup.

LeBron James vs. Draymond Green – These two guys play a very, very similar type of game, but LeBron puts up far better offensive numbers. Nonetheless, Green is a considerable triple-double threat and his underdog mentality and hustle make him one of Golden State’s best assets. Numerous times throughout their games, the Warriors will have Green as the primary ball handler and run off-ball plays for Curry, Thompson or whoever; much like LeBron in Cleveland. Offensively for James, he’ll be relentless in his attack on Green and take it to the cup as often as he can. If James gets tired of scoring, he can easily run pick plays with Davis & George because of their ability to pop out or roll to the basket. When James is on Green, however, there will be a lot of physical play and James will have to do his best to prevent Green from hitting long range shots.

Paul George vs. Andre Iguodala – Probably the most underrated player for Golden State, Iggy draws the task of defending one of the most talented scorers in the NBA. His counterpart, Paul George, will also have full hands as he draws the assignment on the former finals MVP who did his best to defend LeBron during his sensational performances. Fortunately for PG, Iggy is usually a non-factor on offense and can be even deemed a liability sometimes because of his poor free throw shooting; “hack-an-Iggy” would possibly be in full effect. On the other hand, PG has superb athleticism and can be a valid choice for the league’s best scorer. Adding in his unlimited range and decent midrange game, Iggy will definitely have to guard George as he did LeBron.

Anthony Davis vs. Harrison Barnes – Although Barnes isn’t an offensive juggernaut, he isn’t someone who you can just help off of and leave wide open as he’s more than capable of hitting shots from outside (39% from three). Davis will definitely be concerned about Barnes’ offense, but not so much because of his defensive prowess and physical gifts; Davis can help on the drives and quickly recover on Barnes with his long arms and giant strides. However, when Barnes is guarding Davis, it’s going to be a lot for Barnes to handle and I don’t think he’ll be able to. Davis undoubtedly need to be double teamed and it’s hard to double team with four other superstars on offense. Despite being a good athlete and solid defender, there’s nothing Barnes can do if Davis decides to shoot over him or dunk on him.

Table Form

PositionGolden State's Small BallOptimal Lineup Against
G
Steph Curry, 6'3" 185Jimmy Butler, 6'7" 220
GKlay Thompson, 6'7" 205Kawhi Leonard, 6'7" 230
FDraymond Green, 6'7" 230LeBron James, 6'8" 260+
FAndre Iguodala, 6'6" 207Paul George, 6'9" 220
FHarrison Barnes, 6'8" 210Anthony Davis, 6'11" 255

Verdict

This lineup was constructed with one intention: being the lineup that beats Golden State. The matchups all favor the optimal lineup, therefore making them the favorites. It was all done on purpose to illustrate how good Golden State’s small lineup actually is. The fact that a team would need five players of the caliber that’s listed is remarkable. Luckily for the Warriors, the likeliness of this lineup is about as close as it can get to being zero, due to financials. However, if these 10 guys were to play a game against each other, like an exhibition game or for charity, it would be so much fun to watch and would turn into a shootout with a wild score at the end.