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Small-Ball vs. Big Ball, Lynx in Must Win, Notes

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Some thoughts about trying to play big in a small ball era.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Minnesota Timberwolves Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Today’s Discussion Topic (Ha. Like You Jerks Ever Discuss the Articles)

The Wolves will start the season with three true big men in the rotation: Karl-Anthony Towns, Gorgui Dieng, and Taj Gibson. Two other full-sized bigs, Cole Aldrich and Justin Patton, will occupy roster spots and await their chances. Nemanja Bjelica will push for minutes as a full-sized, but more perimeter oriented power forward.

I run this down because it appears there are a handful of teams that are pushing back against small ball and trying to play bigger, and whether that has any real chance of stemming the tide of smaller and smaller lineups.

In addition to the Wolves, who last season almost always had two bigs on the floor, and indeed started two centers and likely will again this season, the New Orleans Pelicans are relying on two star bigs to carry them. Anthony Davis, like Towns, makes this easier given his versatility and agility, but finding a way to win behind he and Boogie Cousins is this season’s task in New Orleans.

The Utah Jazz will likely play a significant number of minutes with both Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors on the floor, and rely on their defense for success. Gobert, of course, is one of the best defensive players in the league, and Favors is no slouch. But can they keep Gobert on the floor when opponents go ultra-small?

The San Antonio Spurs are the other team that jumps to mind. They swapped out two of their bigs who played significant minutes last season, David Lee and Dewayne Dedmon, and acquired Rudy Gay who is a small ball four, so we might see more smaller lineups from the Spurs this season. They still have LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol who are likely to start up front, but after staying big over the last few seasons as the league went small, the Spurs might be following the trend.

So my question is: What does a successful big lineup look like? Is there a way for such a lineup to take advantage of smaller groups? In some ways it’s hard to see. Consider the Wolves big lineup with Dieng and Towns in there. Obviously we expect the Wolves to be successful this season with Teague-Wiggins-Butler alongside those two, but can the Wolves take advantage of their size? The problem is, opponents will hide a smaller/weaker defender on Dieng, right? That isn’t a knock on Gorgui, he’s a fine player. But you aren’t going to win a match-up by force feeding Dieng because he has a smaller guy on him. That’s just the other team baiting you.

And ultimately, perhaps with the Pelicans as an exception, that’s the problem with playing multiple bigs. In most cases, at least one of them isn’t going to be able to consistently hurt opponents offensively. Which means opponents aren’t really paying a defensive cost for having smaller guys out there, guys who can force bigs to guard in space and run around them at the other end.

So that’s my question for today. Can teams in today’s game find ways to take advantage of going big, or are the advantages of smaller, more athletic and agile groups simply too much in the modern NBA?

Lynx Back in Action

Tonight at 7:00 pm Central at Williams Arena. The game will be televised on ESPN2. We’ll have a game thread up later, but this is a must win for the Lynx after they dropped game one in heartbreaking fashion, and very much like the lost game one of the 2016 Finals.

The truth is, the Sparks looked like the better team for most of the game, and dominated early to the extent that the Lynx had to change up the way they play, which is a victory for the Sparks. Their quickness, defensive aggression, and agility forced the Lynx to go small (see, it relates!) with Maya Moore at the four. That worked, but it took Rebekkah Brunson out of the game, and she has been a key player for them all season.

Notes

Some good stuff here from Gregg Popovich on race and protests. I encourage you to click the link and read it.

Lebron James also had things to say about sports and politics and our president.

While I admit to being a bit cynical about some of these anthem “protests” (or should we call them “brand building?”) the truth is we have to keep talking. We have to keep calling out both the overt and systemic racism in the U.S. We cannot just “stay in our lane” or “stick to sports.”

And so I’m happy to see so many NBA players (and coaches—Stan Van Gundy also gave some good rant yesterday) with things to say. Keep it up. Making people uncomfortable isn’t popular, but it is necessary.

On the Wolves front, training camp continues in San Diego, with a pre-season game against the Lakers coming up on Saturday. Not much substantive news, though Jamal Crawford is fairly amazed by Thibs, and more interestingly, Nemanja Bjelica is participating and says he feels good and is still expecting to be ready by opening night.

Have a Tuesday.