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As The League Has Gotten Bigger, The Warriors Are Getting Smaller — Will It Work?

In a recent podcast episode on The Old Man & The Three with JJ Redick, Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch was asked about what he thinks the next evolution of the game will be. Finch and Redick both inevitably came to the conclusion that stars are the ones that dictate the style of play in their respective eras. And when you look back at NBA history, that is unequivocally true. 

In the ’60s, teams had to find a way to stop the dominant presence of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain in the interior and so, the age of the big man was born.

As Bird & Magic came into the league, they introduced entirely new positions: the star wing and point-forward — two archetypes we still see in today’s game.

When Michael Jordan rose to power, the prevalence of the scoring guard rose with it — birthing a generation of Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Dwyane Wade, Allen Iverson, and others.

LeBron’s introduction into the league forced teams to desperately try and find wing players who were big and strong enough to match him physically.

When Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors’ 3-point shooting magic took over the NBA, its impact was much the same. Teams had to find a way to match Golden State’s high-octane offensive style, going smaller and eventually adopting and leaning into that patent high-volume offense— hello James Harden’s Houston Rockets. 

Why? Because in order to be the champ, you have to beat the champ. 

The stars, particularly the stars that are on championship-winning teams, set the example for the other 29 losing teams to try and mimic or at the very least counter/stop that patent style.

With that being said, who are the stars in today’s game?

Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Joel Embiid have the last 5 league MVPs and two of the last 5 championships. So by proxy what era are we entering?

The age of the skilled-big. And that’s what Finch’s answer was. “Kevin McHale used to say ‘Skilled-big beats skilled-small every time.’” 

And when you look around the league, you can tell that size is being emphasized more and more, with the average height of all 5 positions increasing over the last 5 years. 

Teams are getting bigger because they know that if they want to have a chance of competing, they have to have a way to either counter or defend the Jokics, Embiid, and Giannis of the league. Even players that conventionally are guards or forwards have gotten taller and longer, in an effort to make things even harder on offenses. Some of the premiere guards in the NBA today are taller ones: Luka Doncic, SGA, Tyrese Haliburton, LaMelo Ball, and so on and so forth. 

Peaking into the future, we can see that the trend isn’t going to stop anytime soon. Prospects like Chet Holmgren, Victor Wembanyama, and Paolo Banchero can be seen as evolutions of this “skilled-big” era and with their impact, will probably set the next precedent for what’s to come after this. 

But what does that mean for a team like the Warriors today? For the most part, as the league has gotten bigger, they’ve stayed relatively small and as things currently stand, the Warriors are the shortest team on average heading into the 2023-2024 season. 

The ever-dominant Kevon Looney is only 6-foot-9, Draymond Green at his tallest is probably 6-foot-7, and while both of those players can both rebound and guard bigger than their respective heights, with large frames and wide bases, the dominant big men in the league can still tower over them — posing a unique matchup problem specifically for the Warriors.

Still, smaller teams like Golden State can and have found counters: drawing the often-slower-footed big men out of the paint, exposing them with their quicker guards on the perimeter, and making them more susceptible to defensive lapses in the interior. They can play an ultra-aggressive defensive style that forces turnovers and helps them get into transition where the matchup problems of a skilled-big are easier to deal with. 

That was one of the prevailing reasons the Warriors were able to secure their 4th NBA title in 2022 against the larger, double-big lineups of the Boston Celtics. While Al Horford and Robert Williams are lower on the spectrum of “skilled bigs” than Jokic or Giannis — they too pose a dynamic threat offensively, especially Horford who can guard multiple positions and knock down perimeter shots. 

Still, the Warriors found a way — starting Otto Porter over Green to space out the Celtics on defense, allowing Curry more room to operate and therefore dominate against the Celtics’ perimeter defenders. 

On defense, the Warriors pinched in against the likes of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, pressuring their playmaking abilities and forcing them to turn the ball over — and as a result, fall out of rhythm offensively. 

But the following season, the Warriors’ lack of size was exposed in the playoffs. Against the Kings in round 1, they went fairly unscathed because of Sacramento’s own issues in the size department — and while offensive rebounding helped dictate that series in a major way (the team that won the battle on the glass won the game in 5 of 7 contests) — Looney helped tip the scales with his monstrous rebounding, particularly in Game 7 where he nabbed 10 offensive rebounds on his own. 

Against Los Angeles in round 2, it was an entirely different story. The much bigger Lakers punished the Warriors in the interior. They attacked the rim without mercy, applying pressure, drawing fouls, and getting Golden State to play to their style. The Dubs had no answers for Anthony Davis in the middle on both ends, finding it difficult to get to the rim on offense because of Davis’s length, and struggling to contain him defensively. 

Much like their 2022 Finals series against the Celtics, the Warriors tried to expose the Lakers’ size, drawing Davis out onto the perimeter — and while they found some success early in Games 2 and 4 — the Lakers inevitably just doubled down on their size on the wings with guys like Rui Hachimura and LeBron James and Davis proved formidable as a switch-big. 

It became evident that Golden State had no answers against the Lakers’ length. How would that have looked against the even larger Nuggets in the Conference Finals?

Even for the bigger Lakers, the Nuggets’ skill in the frontcourt, especially from their enigmatic star Jokic, was just too much to handle. 

You see it’s not enough to just be big, but you have to be versatile and big and ultimately, the Nuggets were better at both than the Lakers. 

Admittedly, Golden State has comfortably dealt with Denver in the past, but that wasn’t a fully healthy Nuggets team. 

It wasn’t a Nuggets team that had the three-headed monster of a frontcourt of Jokic, Gordon, and Michael Porter Jr. It didn’t have the 6-foot-4 Jamal Murray nor the rangy wing defender Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

This Nuggets team poses a special type of threat to the Warriors. 

It doesn’t help that the Warriors have seemingly gotten even smaller this season, adding a 38-year-old Chris Paul to the mix, who is reportedly going to start — which means either one of Looney or Wiggins are coming off of the bench. 

Offensively, it’s easy to see what Paul can bring to this team. A change-up. A player who can run multiple high pick-n-rolls, something that’s a rarity for the Warriors, and maybe help provide some structure for their younger players in Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody. But it isn’t without its flaws. 

For example, Paul doesn’t apply pressure on the rim, attempting less than 10% of his shots there in his last 4 seasons, including shooting 5% of his shots at the basket in his final season in Phoenix. And the Warriors as a whole already struggle in that department, ranking 29th in rim frequency last year, only behind Paul’s Suns. 

Still, you can sell yourself on Paul as a connector on offense who can help keep the Warriors afloat in their transitional lineups without Curry on the floor. 

On defense, it’s even harder to see the fit. 

Paul, for all of his basketball intellect and brilliance, has adopted a slower, more methodical pace in the tail-end of his career and has lost a step defensively — particularly at the point of attack where the 6-foot point guard isn’t as good of a screen navigator anymore and can’t be trusted to switch out onto wings and bigs. 

That puts even more pressure on Looney, Draymond, Kuminga, Wiggins, and the newly added and still relatively small Dario Saric to make up for the lack of size. 

They’ve shown in the past that they can counter, but at this point, with the league evolving, can they find that same success against the larger Nuggets and Lakers? 

That remains to be seen. 

And to be fair to Golden State, they’ve tried to address their skilled-big issues but I’m not going to hash out the James Wiseman conundrum in this piece. 

But zooming out and looking at the bigger picture, it’s hard not to see a sort of changing of the guard, a shift in the style of play, and an emphasis being placed in the areas of the game where the Warriors are clearly lacking. 

And it only makes it that much more interesting because it was the Warriors who helped create this movement of skilled bigs. 

It wasn’t too long ago that teams were struggling to contain the skilled big that was and is Draymond — and that forced players, especially big ones at the grassroots level to become even more skilled — improving as ballhandlers, passers, and as switchable defenders. 

Never in the history of basketball have big men been tasked with as much responsibility as they are in the modern game. And that’s thanks in large part to Green and the Warriors — who set the precedent for the style opposing teams had to match in order to beat. 

And as their core begins to age out (the Warriors are the second-oldest team on average in the league) — could they be falling behind? Could we see the Warriors becoming yesterday’s news in real time? How can they maintain their competitive edge in the era of the skilled-big?

I’m not ready to be another guy in a long list of guys to doubt Steph Curry and his brilliance only for him to make these concerns seem asinine. 

But to me, the concerns are legitimate enough to at the very least bring up. And heading into this season, it places an even more important burden on Looney, Green, Wiggins, Kuminga, and Saric to alleviate some of those size concerns. Or for them to seek assistance via trade or buyout. 

And maybe more than that — even if Curry and the Warriors’ smaller nucleus still find a way to become successful and dare I say even win another championship or two — the dominance of these skilled bigs like Jokic and Giannis signals a change in what’s emphasized as far as roster construction goes. 

Teams have to find ways to replicate, match, or even counter what those guys can do on the floor — in hopes of somehow beating the champs. 

Much like teams had to do almost 10 years ago against the Warriors. 

Oh, how the turntables.