The NBA is turning into a small-ball league. Everywhere you look, teams are trotting out lineups without traditional big men. The era of the back-to-the-basket behemoths is over, and wings in bigs’ clothing are all the rage. The Golden State Warriors just won the Finals by starting all players under 6-foot-9, supposedly revealing the strategic superiority of small ball. Then, as the offseason commenced, teams around the league rushed to copy the “blueprint” the Warriors set forth, but the Philadelphia 76ers took a different approach, using their high draft pick on Jahlil Okafor, a 6-foot-11 post-up monster with few skills outside the paint.
This narrative of small-ball dominance is overblown, however. For one thing, the Warriors of this past season were not all that small. Per NBA.com/Stats, less than 15 percent of the team’s regular-season lineups did not include at least one of their true bigs (Andrew Bogut, Marreese Speights, and Festus Ezeli). Moreover, the players who were key to their small-ball style are much larger than their heights would indicate, as they have massive wingspans – Harrison Barnes and Andre Iguodala’s are 6-foot-11 and Draymond Green’s is 7-foot-1!
In addition, only focusing on the Warriors obscures the reality that several of the best teams of the past few seasons relied heavily on traditional big men. The Warriors’ Finals opponents, the Cavaliers, for instance, tore through the Eastern Conference playoff teams with massive contributions from Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov. The Pacers of 2012-13 and 2013-14 were similarly successful, as well as similarly sized, building their team around the paint presence of Roy Hibbert and David West. The current Sixers are unquestionably a long way off from reaching the level of the ’14-’15 Cavs or the ’12-’13/’13-’14 Pacers, but these examples (as well as recent Grizzlies, Spurs, Clippers, Blazers, and Bulls squads) still illustrate that teams with traditional bigs can succeed in the “new NBA.”
Not conforming to the trend of the rest of the league could actually provide a competitive advantage – the “everyone else zigs, we zag” strategy. There is value for the Sixers in playing big when others are playing small since opponents will struggle to match up with the Philly front line, particularly Okafor. Jahlil Okafor’s primary NBA skill is his ability to get buckets in the post, and he will be able to finish time and time again over the smaller defenders that will be put on him.
It would be unfair to write an entire article on how Okafor fits in the small-ball universe without consulting the big man himself. Jah is completely unconcerned with struggling to find a place in the latest version of the NBA. On the contrary, he is quite confident he will be able to dominate in the league, and I wholeheartedly agree.
The Sixers’ selection of Jahlil Okafor can be a source of strength. The pick caused concern for some because of his nature as a “throwback” big man in a league that is rapidly downsizing, but this incongruence is not something to worry about. A league-wide trend such as the small-ball movement still leaves room for just about any kind of player, as long as they are good enough. Okafor has tons of talent, and I have no doubt he will carve out a niche in the league.