What Is Small Ball In Basketball? Strategy Breakdown

A lot of NBA teams nowadays are going small. Some teams went so far as to even completely ditched the center and other bigs.

But what exactly is small ball?

Small ball is a playing technique in basketball where the coach forgoes some physical attributes of the players, such as body height and body strength, in favor of players who have small bodies but boast of speed and are agile.

What is the Small Ball Strategy in Basketball?

Small ball next to a normal ball

A small ball is an approach where teams choose to play without the traditional center, sacrificing height and physicality for speed and scoring prowess. Low post defense and offense are very much given up in this approach.

The team opts for defensive switchability in its plays, where they can switch defenders on screens. This switching helps cover for any possible “mismatches.”

Another hallmark of a small ball is it allows for a “taller” creator. Position less basketball has become more common nowadays, with the point guard responsible for driving the team’s offenses being a little taller in a small ball.

The average height in the NBA since 1980 has been recorded at six-foot-seven. However, skillsets have evolved. Tactics such as three-pointers, which had been a neglected aspect of the game initially, now account for up to a quarter of points in the league.

So, despite people becoming bigger in basketball, most players, especially forwards, focused on bettering their shooting.

As a result, when every player in a team is extremely good at shooting, the opposing defense stretches themselves thin, making it hard to maintain the integrity and hence making it easy for a team to run them ruggedly using a variety of play options.

History of the small ball strategy

There’s no one reason for the increased prevalence of small ball tactics in basketball but several contributing factors.

The NBA introduced the 3-point 9 for the 1979/80 season, but it was not fully embraced and exploited until many years later.

Over time, the value of the three-point shot and thus the value of those proficient at it was realized.

Teams stocked their lineups with shooters and defensive rule changes, such as the introduction of the three-second violation, which prevents players from lingering in the painted area for more than three seconds at a time.

The crackdown on hand checking was equally impactful, sped up the game, and gradually decreased reliance on physical big men below the basket.

NBA Teams Who Have Employed the Small Ball Strategy

Basketball team posing for the camera

In January 2020, The Houston Rockets beat the Dallas Mavericks 128 to 121, despite fielding no player taller than six foot six.

It was the first time such an undersized lineup had been utilized in an NBA game since the New York Knicks lost to the Chicago Zephyrs in 1963.

The Rocket’s 6-foot 10 center, Clint Capella, was injured, and head coach Mike D’Antoni decided to leave his backup big men on the bench. Instead, the rockets played the six-foot-five PJ Tucker at center D’Antoni’s plan was to give star guards Harden and Russell Westbrook as much space as they wanted.        

The Rockets were betting on an increased scoring efficiency, outweighing any deficiencies the small lineup would cause when rebounding and defending against bigger opponents.

An opposing player said of Houston’s unique style, “everybody is open, and James Harden or Westbrook create something they’re good at.”

Golden State Warriors Approach

Between 2015 and 2019, the Golden State Warriors reached five consecutive NBA titles. They won three championships with elements of small ball central to their philosophy.

Their so-called death lineup featured six-foot-six forward Draymond Green at the center position, surrounded by the all-time great shooting of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and later Kevin Durant. But even this great Warrior’s team was not all in on the small ball.

Traditional big men were still part of the rotation.

Houston Rockets Approach

However, what was unique post the 2020 trade deadline was that the Rockets decided to go exclusively small.

What they lost in Capella’s ability to rise above the rim and finish lob passes, they gained in reliable three-point shooting. This meant the new center could roam further from the basket than the previous incumbent, opening up those desired driving lanes for Harden and Westbrook.

Conversely, on the defensive end, Tucker’s gritty physicality ensured that he would not be bullied and was an elite and versatile defender.

Pros and Cons of the Small Ball Lineup

Small ball was an approach that was opted for due to the speed and agility of the players. 

However, this was not going to guarantee teams any points. The biggest reason the teams chose this technique was that these players would also have to be exemplary at shooting.

Therefore, apart from being agile and squeezing themselves between small spaces, they would also guarantee the team a lot of points.

However, the biggest disadvantages would come when they missed the shots; taller and muscular players had higher chances of winning the rebounds than the small, fast players.

Therefore coaches who preferred small ball had to ensure that their team achieved a high success rate when it came to shooting, lest the rebounds would count against them.

The Pros

The theory behind Houston’s ultra-small approach was that by removing the big man beneath the basket and filling their roster with capable perimeter shooters, there would be more space close to the rim.

This would allow Harden to lean into his world-leading isolation scoring and give Westbrook clearer pathways for his trademark drives.

Opposing centers would be caught between either dropping back and guarding the painted area but risking leaving shooters open on the perimeter or closing out to the perimeter but leaving the paint unprotected.

The small ball plan works superbly for Houston at first. Harden won the NBA scoring title averaging 34 points per game. Westbrook was not far behind, averaging 27.

Starting from their centerless victory over the Mavericks in late January, Houston embarked on a run of 10 wins from 12 games.

The Cons

However, their reduced rebounding came to hurt them. Capella had been one of the league’s best rebounders, averaging 13.8 boards per game.

The Rockets went from averaging 45.6 rebounds per game before the 2020 all-star break to just 40.2, the third-lowest in the NBA, and the team had not been quite the sharpshooters they had hoped either.

They came fully unstuck against the Los Angeles Lakers, the eventual champions. The Rockets made more three-pointers than the Lakers across the series.

Still, they did so at a less efficient rate than their opponents knocking down 36.8% of their efforts from beyond the arc to LA’s 37.7%. The reason in no small part was rebounding. The Rockets were outrebounded by 52 to 26 in that loss.

The Lakers eased into the Western Conference finals with the four games to one victory, and the Rockets had flunked out of the playoffs at the same stage as the previous year.

The revolutionary changes that they had implemented were soon torn up. They had taken the concept to its logical extreme, but the Houston Rockets, small ball experiment ultimately fell short.

Should Your Team Adapt the Small Ball Strategy?

Basketball players playing on the court

Small ball has been described as a playing technique in basketball where teams forgo some physical attributes of the players, such as body height and body strength, in favor of players who have small bodies but boast of speed, are agile, and are wonderful shooters.

Following the dissection of the teams mentioned above, it would be wise to have a balanced blend of skilled small ball players and muscled big players, as the Warriors did. 

Nowadays, short people are playing as big men, tall individuals are playing as forwards, and roles are being mixed up. In the future, teams will have forwards who are seven-foot-tall, can shoot incredibly when in offense, and then fall back to post up twin towers of big men when in defense.

The small ball appears to be a very thoughtful approach. Still, it has glaring weaknesses, the most apparent one being the deficiency it brings to the team during rebounds.

If a team wanted to implement this technique in their play, then it would be wise, therefore, to have one or two players who are equally skilled when it comes to tussling for rebounds. 

This would mean introducing a swift big man, who would fill the requirements of agility and speed when it comes to small ball, but still contest for rebounds with a high success rate.


Basketball is a game of strategy where teams can capitalize on specific attributes rather than usual offense or defense choices. Teams can take certain actions that grant special advantages or abilities to players, such as preferring speed and agility in a small ball.

Small ball was popularized in 2010, but it can be a new addition to any team’s strategy, especially for those with players having less body strength and height. It isn’t old and can only reinvent teams for a refresh.

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