The Golden State Warriors, who went on a five-year string of NBA Finals appearances between 2015-2019, winning the Larry O’Brien trophy three times, are the template for small-ball imitators like the Toronto Raptors.
While small-ball suggests moving to a smaller lineup to facilitate better speed, shooting, ball handling, and defensive flexibility, it does not come without its flaws. It requires sacrificing size and girth on the interior at both ends of the floor, reducing a team’s ability to rebound effectively, a philosophy the Raptors found themselves burned by several times over last year.
The Warriors during their championship runs employed a 6-3 point guard in Stephen Curry and a shooting guard at 6-7 in Klay Thompson. Draymond Green is 6-8, Kevin Durant is 6-11, and Andre Iguodala 6-9. Part of the reason the Raptors struggled was their insistence on playing a style similar to those Warriors without the height or talent to make it work.
The “death lineup” Golden State used was not small, but it was athletic and talented. Curry, Durant, and Thompson were elite for Golden State at the time. The Raptors, in contrast, didn’t have anyone that good before or after Kawhi Leonard.
A lack of skill impacted the Toronto Raptors’ smaller lineups.
Small ball is more a description of skill set than it is size, and the 2020 edition of the Houston Rockets is a study in how being too small can hurt. The Raptors trying to rip fragments of Moreyball and Frankenstein them together in their offense failed miserably.
For large portions of the season, Mike D’Antoni would rely on a seven-player rotation. The Rockets would lose in the second round of the playoffs to the eventual NBA Champion Los Angeles Lakers.
This year, Toronto looked very similar to that 2020 Rockets roster without the superstar power of James Harden or Russell Westbrook. A 6-9 Pascal Siakam had to play center due to an ineffective Aron Baynes, and an effective athletic Chris Boucher limited by his size and girth.