It’s no accident that the two teams in the Finals last year were led by two versatile forwards. LeBron is the prototypical smallball power forward, and Miami’s success came when Coach Erik Spoelstra was forced by injury to turn to a lineup featuring only one prototypical big man. In fact, 4 out of Miami’s 5 most productive units in the playoffs last year according to basketballvalue.com featured James playing power forward and either Chris Bosh, Joel Anthony, or Udonis Haslem as the lone big. We saw how great LeBron was in the playoffs, and his phenomenal play in the post combined with more shooters to space the floor resulted in one of the most frighteningly dynamic offenses we’ve ever seen. Erik Spoelstra deserved a large share of the credit for implementing a huge philosophical shift in the offense, but in the end, this move was made possible because LeBron James is the best player in the world, and possibly the most versatile player ever.
Scott Brooks was more stubborn when it came to implementing a smaller lineup. Despite the lineup data contradicting him, OKC’s two most utilized lineups featured both Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins. Ibaka is a fine young player, but he’s limited on offense and his defense isn’t spectacular yet. Perkins, on the other hand, has no utility at all. He’s terrible on offense, can’t rebound, and can’t really defend all that well anymore. Playing two bigs at the same time mucked up the Thunder’s offense while only marginally improving their defense. They were at their best offensively when they could play their best players together, surprisingly enough, because they were able to spread out the offense for Westbrook, Harden, and Durant, and because Durant improved his play in the post.
The most famous example of smallball this year has been Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks, as you might have heard. Melo is working hard playing alongside Tyson Chandler, and he’s a lot more efficient when he gets to work out of the post. He’s also defending well, and he’s always been an above average rebounder for his size. The Knicks have been the best team in the league this season, and when Amar’e comes back, Mike Woodson will have some tough questions to answer.
The thing all three teams have in common is a large, strong, quick forward capable of playing in the post and defending power forwards. It may be a stretch to say smallball is overtaking the league, because the Grizzlies, Spurs, and Lakers still rely on large anchors, but there’s no denying the importance of players that can move from the 3 to the 4. That’s where the importance of players like Dominic McGuire comes in on defense.
One of the main reasons smallball teams have been so successful on offense is the mismatches created by moving a wing to the 4, where he has to be guarded by a power forward. Versatile defenders like Luol Deng, Andre Iguodala, and, for Toronto’s purposes, Dominic McGuire, are worth a lot because they can defend all over the court. Of course, players like Deng and Iggy also have purpose on the offensive side of the ball. McGuire’s offense, the reason why he isn’t payed 8 digits a year, is nearly nonexistent. Outside of a mediocre jumper that doesn’t quite extend to long range and open dunks, McGuire can’t – and shouldn’t – do anything on offense except pass the ball.
McGuire’s defense makes me salivate, however. Watching Dominic man up on a hapless offensive player one-on-one is a rare treat, because he gets so few minutes. He displays solid defensive principles, and he moves extremely quickly side-to-side. If his defender manages to get to the rim against him, McGuire is long and athletic enough to contest the shot. It’s no surprise that McGuire was the 17th ranked isolation defender according to Synergy last year. His length is put to good use in the post, where McGuire was ranked 47th overall. And he’s persistent going around screens, which helped make him the 59th ranked defender of the P&R ballhandler.
These attributes make him an almost perfect smallball defender. He’s good enough in the post to make Melo have to work for his points, and with 4 games against the Knicks looming, he figures to play an important part for the Raptors if they hope to have success within their own division. He’s also quick enough and long enough to (theoretically) bother Durant, although in the Raptors’ lone visit to OKC so far this year, he couldn’t get much playing time across from KD. And although the Raptors are a long, LOOOOONG way off from having to worry about LeBron James in the playoffs, McGuire is a good enough defender that he can bother James about as much as it’s possible to bother LeBron.
McGuire’s value to the Raptors will forever be limited by his offense, although if he could make his jumper more consistent, he might stand a chance of receiving extended floor time. However, in a league where smallball is the newest trend, and one that’s practiced by the league’s defending champion, it’s nice to know that Toronto has a player almost tailor made to defend the centerpieces of these smallball offenses.