Michael Jordan and the secret Larry Brown/David Stern kabbalah tryst aside, the key to winning an NBA championship, over the past 15 years, has consistently been revealed to be the big-man/little-man combination. Whether manifested in the traditional center-and-slasher composition, such as with Shaq and Kobe, or in the less conventional Big-with-rugrat format, as with Duncan and Ginobili/Parker, this basic arrangement has been the cornerstone of playoff success in recent years. The formula is rather simple: the Big’s post-up game opens up the floor for outside shooters and cutters. The swingman with sufficient slashing ability and speed reciprocates by penetrating the lane to dish off dunks for the Big. On defense, the guard patrols the perimeter to prevent 3-pointers while the Big clogs up the lane to swat away would-be lay-ups. This two-man game is time-tested, its simplicity staring into the faces of zone-defense technicians and young coaches with Melville-sized playbooks, yet by most teams it is ignored, as they look to innovate where no innovation is necessary.
Last Wednesday, the big-little formula was again overlooked, as the NBA draft led teams to fawn over a thousand small forwards, the league’s most frustrating and least impactful position. The term “small forward” itself is almost oxymoronic; and, by definition, SFs do not fit the big-little arrangement, as they are neither big nor little. Nonetheless, these players hold some intuitive appeal to the league’s general managers. Although no small forward has dominated the game perhaps ever—Larry Bird came closest, with the assistance of a number of Hall of Fame teammates—these players are enticing, for they offer the potential of being able to “do it all.” They are hybrids, inspired as much by the Baltic-bred Divac/Sabonis philosophy of teaching all positions to garner all skills as they are by the emergence of Kevin Garnett, a lanky center-sized spectacle who perhaps ruined the NBA forever by deciding to pattern his game after Magic Johnson instead of Robert Parish.
One by one they marched up to the podium. Selected first in this year’s draft was the Italian Andrea Bargnani, a player in the Dirk Nowitzki mold, a 7-footer who embodies the style of a 6-7 jump shooter. Next was LaMarcus Aldridge, a true power forward, but one who has chosen to focus on a midrange, rather than a post-up, game, making him more of a Kevin Garnett–type forward than a true banger. Third was Adam Morrison, the much-racially-bantered-about sharpshooter, probably the truest small forward in the draft. And fourth went Tyrus Thomas, again one who deems himself a power forward, but his game resembles a rawer, more hopeful version of the small-forward paradigm of the last few years. Rudy Gay, another potential do-it-all guy, fell a few spots to No. 8 due to conspiracy theories about his “will to win,” but make no mistake, this was a draft of small forwards.
Perhaps it was by divine regression to the mean that God, instead of blessing the earth simply with 7-foot behemoths and 6-2 speedsters, fashioned the plethora of 6-8 wandering souls that emerge persistently each draft night. And perhaps it is the sheer number of these “tweeners” that blinds GMs, causing them to forget the sins of past small forwards when looking for a true impact player. Paradoxically, amid the emotional enthrallment with small forwards, rational thought champions pure Bigs and Smalls. The Atlanta Hawks were unanimously praised for selecting Shelden Williams at No. 5 even though there were players with more star-caliber potential still available. Williams plays as a true Big. He bangs, rebounds, posts up, and gets putbacks. His role is clearly defined. Similarly, early predictions for Rookie of the Year immediately gravitated toward the No. 6 pick in the draft, Brandon Roy, a zero-bullshit shooting guard: 6-6, like MJ; aware of his strengths and limitations; and “pure” at the guard position. Impact belongs to those players with distinct identities. The small-forward position, with its requirements resting somewhere between those of the power forward and the shooting guard, is a position inherently bereft of such distinctiveness. The mind of an NBA executive harbors all this knowledge, but his heart is enchanted by the promise of a Renaissance man who will never evolve.
The clearest case study of “small forward as fool’s gold” comes from this year’s NBA finals: the Dallas Mavericks’ small forward in power forward’s clothing, Dirk Nowitzki. Dubbed “the toughest player to guard in the series” by ESPN’s Marc Stein, Nowitzki was expected to lead the Mavericks to glory with a style of play that supposedly would be too quick for the Miami Heat’s Udonis Haslem (power forward) and too big for James Posey (small forward). Next to Garnett, Nowitzki is perhaps the most talented player in the league. In the finals, he put up respectable numbers, averaging 23 points and 11 rebounds a game for the series, but proved incapable of ever truly overpowering the opposition. On the other side, Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade provided further testament to the big-little success schema, boringly dominating with quickness and pure size.
And so it has come to this: Small forwards have a choice to make in terms of how to utilize their athleticism. They can become either Shawn Marion or Tracy McGrady. I use these two players as examples of individuals who, while physically fitting the small-forward frame perfectly, have adapted to become either big (Marion) or small (McGrady). Marion plays like a power forward, capable of guarding and out-bodying much taller and bulkier players in the low post. McGrady, actually an inch taller than Marion, has fashioned himself into a shooting guard and has become one of the most prolific scorers in the league. Both of these players are capable of dominating a game, Marion on defense, McGrady on offense. They are role models for the Tyrus Thomases and Adam Morrisons of tomorrow.
The young brigade of small forwards can stare into a mirror and see a composite of Gerald Wallace, Josh Smith, J.R. Smith, and Al Harrington—players who, although we love them, infuriate us to no end with their enigmatic profundity wasting away at such an undefined position—staring back at them. Or, like Marion and McGrady, they can take matters into their own hands, honing specific crafts instead of trying foolishly to master the game of hoops in its totality. As much as this is a League of Ambiguity, NBA basketball is a game that thrives on instinctual choice-making as well. And, for the sake of these young dynamos of intermediate stature, I can only hope they choose to play big, small, or not at all.