Ghost in the small ball machine - Warriors poised to embrace Nellie ball as never before
Get ready for the Small Ball (or Death) Squad
Before it led to a super cool anime, the term Ghost in the Machine was coined by famous philosopher Gilbert Ryle as a way to shoot down the notion that mind and body are distinct things that could be separated. Rather, he argued, they exist simultaneously - distinct, yes, but part of the same whole.
And so it goes for the Golden State Warriors, a team that is once again attempting to balance a win-now ethos in support of their core of established stars, while also onboarding a bunch of young talent with an eye on the future.
There is no youth movement here that exists outside of the veteran core; nor is this roster an experienced bunch of ring-chasers designed to provide one good shot at another championship while the rookies languish on the bench. The two movements are inherently linked (well… barring a roster change and the Wiggins standoff).
It looks like the Warriors have embraced Nellie ball again; but this time, it's non-negotiable
One of the more perplexing questions to me over the past offseason was why the team didn’t reunite with center Marquese Chriss. The free agent showed promising flashes before his last season was cut short by an injury. Seemingly content to start Kevon Looney, with support from Draymond Green and Nemanja Bjelica, Golden State is entering the season “short” on big men.
Second-year player, James Wiseman should return soon. He’s looking good working on the court, but there’s no firm timeline for his return. And even when Wiseman is available again, he remains a work in progress.
As the team's sole “big big man" no one is relying on him for 30 minutes against opposing starters anyways. The hope is that someday that becomes an option, but it’s a long way down the alphabet from Plan A right now.
Which brings us back to the roster that coach Steve Kerr has been handed. Last year, defense was emphasized, largely due to the combined presence of Kent Bazemore, Kelly Oubre, and Brad Wanamaker.
This year? Sounds like we are going to get a whole lot of small ball!
We could play big for long stretches, which was great for our defense, then hit teams with a small lineup as a counterpunch.”
“It feels different. The league feels different to me than five, six years ago,” Kerr said. “There are more and more small lineups out there. Every team has more shooting, so you have to cover more ground, which is something Draymond is really good at. Then when we’re on offense, we want to have more shooting, so putting him at five, having him run pick-and-roll with Steph and shooters around them, that’s tough to guard.”
Kerr goes on to talk about the exciting new additions of Otto Porter and Bjelica as floor stretchers. Along with the emergent talent of Jordan Poole, and the eventual return of the missing half of the Splash Brothers, this is a team that is built to run and gun.
Back to that old philosophy guy I mentioned at the top of this article, one of his points is that knowing how to perform an act skillfully may not only be a matter of being able to reason practically but may also be a matter of being able to put practical reasoning into action. In other words, it feels like the Warriors organization finally understands that it’s time to lean into the Small Ball Death Squad (SBDS) and they've built their roster for it.
Back in the halcyon days of SBDS, it was the haymaker. Big bodies like Andrew Bogut or Zaza Pachulia would be the jab, setting up opponents to be socked by the powerful hook of SBDS. Now though? The jabs are gone. Superfluous window dressing. They know going small is their best look. Maybe Wiseman’s development eventually changes that - but not yet; not now.
Because the now matters a lot at this specific point in the careers of the team's franchise cornerstones. Win now. Go ahead and keep and eye on that future too. But mostly: win now.
This is, in a way, the result of years’ worth of organizational inertia. Back in the 1980’s Don Nelson took over as coach and transformed the team, returning them to the playoffs, and adding Run TMC to the lexicon of Dub Nation. He did this by using a revolutionary small lineup of three guards (Mitch Richmond, Tim Hardaway, and Sarunas Marciulionis) and two forwards (Chris Mullin and the 6'8" Rod Higgins at center). His best five players. It worked to a degree, but the team would continue to fight against it’s nature and spent decades looking for a reliable big man.1
The term “Nellie Ball” came to be associated with small teams that could score a lot, but frequently left a lot to be desired on the defensive end of the court. But now the paradigm has become mainstream. Three guard lineups are no longer unusual, and players like Green and Looney belie the notion that under-sized centers are doomed to struggle on defense.
With Green at center, along with Curry and Andre Iguodala, there’s really only a couple of spots that need to be filled as the team now fully embraces the principles that Don Nelson and Run TMC first toyed with. They aren’t a gimmick any more, these small lineups are a relevant, legitimate factor in the modern NBA - and the Warriors just so happen to have some of the best personnel for it.
Filling out the small ball squad
In that same media availability quoted above, Kerr also talked about the need for balance:
“We’ve got to have better balance to our team,” Kerr said. “The goal going in is to maintain our defensive identity, but hopefully rebuild our offensive identity with better balance and better spacing.”
Toscano-Anderson and Poole may be the two that make the most sense. Toscano-Anderson scored more points per shot attempt than Curry last season (138 points per 100 shots, versus 134 for Curry), so it’s not like he can’t shoot… he just doesn’t. It’s all related, but if Toscano-Anderson can keep that same efficiency while also taking more shots, it will give the Warriors a lot of flexibility - which they’ll need in case of injury (or rest) to either Iguodala or Green.
It’s also worth noting that the combo of Toscano-Anderson and Green was a monster force on both ends of the court last season. There’s a clear synergy here.
Both Poole or even Damion Lee can be slotted in to provide some scoring punch. The graphic below shows the relative strengths of those two - either one of which could conceivably slot into the reborn SBDS. If you want shooting, the answer is clearly Poole.
Alternatively, someone like Otto Porter would be fantastic in a smaller lineup alongside Green in the frontcourt. The team needs more shooting. At 6’8” and sporting a career mark of around 40% from deep, Porter is one of the biggest unknowns coming into the season. Healthy, he seems like a fantastic fit. But being healthy and available has definitely been the biggest obstacle to his NBA career to date.
Making Nellie proud
The Warriors can no longer afford the luxury of being a team with a strong duality of purpose. There’s more connection now than ever before between what this team is, and what it looks like it is.
So Curry, Green and Iguodala will be at the tip of the spear, and from everything Kerr has been saying so far, the team will be leaning into speed, regardless of who else ends up on the court with them. Just like Don Nelson would have wanted.
To be fair, they were getting trucked by Shaq through many of these years.