If you tuned into basketball in the mid-2010s, you may have thought you were watching a revolution, twisting the traditional definition of what it means to be a point guard. At last, it had become acceptable for the smallest guy on the floor to look to score as much as distribute. Indeed, between 2011 and 2017, a 6’3″ guard took home the MVP in four out of seven seasons. At the time, the small, scoring point guard appeared poised to establish itself alongside the rest of superstar archetypes, a worthy fulcrum for a true contender. In an increasingly skillful and “positionless” league, many began to wonder: how vital is size and strength in the modern NBA ? Well, fast-forward a half decade and this truth of basketball still rings true: size is the cardinal attribute of this sport, for stars and role players alike.
As the regular season kicks off in just over a month, we cannot forget what we watched in June. Throughout the regular season, we will be watching and grumbling about the refs being ticky-tacky with their whistle. But make no mistake — come June, we will see two teams in a complete and total bloodbath. It happens every year. In the environment of the NBA playoffs, size and strength is essential.
The Importance of Size in the Postseason
It’s simple really. For the average player, impacting the game is easier when you are bigger, particularly if you can move their feet. If a player can, on the defensive end, cover ground in rotation, sky for rebounds, hold position in box outs, in post ups, and offensively be a threat in second-side action, they will last very long in this league.
Among stars, the benefits of size are quite clear. It’s easier to initiate offense, consistently score in the playoffs, and be an impactful defensive player when you are bigger. One man, however, presents in interesting caveat. We cannot forget what we witnessed from Stephen Curry in June. Curry’s dominant postseason demonstrates how much must go right for a small player to dominate the playoffs.
The One and Only Stephen Curry
Curry is not the exception simply because he is exceptionally talented. Damian Lillard is 98% of what Steph Curry is with the ball in his hands. No, Curry is the exception because of the winning characteristics that have matured alongside his exceptional talent. There are two characteristics in particular: his commitment to developing as a defender and his commitment to off-ball actions.
Commitment to his defensive development over the course of a 14-year career has turned Curry, with his limited athletic tools, into an above average defensive guard. He won’t make an all-defense team, but with his new strength and developed instincts, he is far from the liability he once was. We all saw him lock down Marcus Smart in the Finals! Offensively, his movement without the basketball has two crucial effects: generating himself higher quality shot attempts, and generating his teammates the highest quality shot attempts.
Every great scorer must, in some way, supplement the more difficult areas of their offensive attack with easier looks. For bigger, rim-pressuring forwards, this can be found by living at the rim – putting your head down and going through people to get layups and fouls. For Curry, it is found by constantly moving without the basketball. How does the deadliest shooter in history get wide open three to four times a game? By constantly staying in motion and capitalizing on defenders having brief lapses in attention. Conjointly, moving without the basketball allows the Warriors to initiate from the outside in rather than from the inside out, creating high quality opportunities for his teammates to finish around the rim. For a bigger, scoring wing, this manifests in closeout-attacking opportunities for other players in second-side action. For Steph, it manifests in short roll situations and easy slip actions for his big men.
Without a Steph, The Spurs Height Requirement Makes Sense
So, that is the price necessary for a small guard like Curry to become a top three player in the game and a top ten player of all time. Other small guards, like Ja Morant, Trae Young, or Donovan Mitchell have yet to prove that small guards can be a consistent championship building block. A Steph-like combination isn’t easy to find, and few know how to put in the work to achieve it.
As a result, the Spurs have shied away from the small guard archetype in their draft process. The last player San Antonio in the first round that was 6’3” or shorter was Cory Joseph back in 2011. Since 2000? Only Tony Parker. Instead, the organization has fallen in love with a different, more sizeable archetype.
San Antonio’s “type” is very specific. Just look at their last three first-round point guards. Dejounte Murray was 6’4” with a 6’9.5” wingspan. Joshua Primo and Blake Wesley, are reflections of each other at 6’5” with a 6’9.25” wingspan.
Size is still the name of the game. San Antonio surely seems to agree, judging but the apparent Spurs height requirement. Call them old-fashioned, but you can never doubt the Spurs. If I had to guess, the rest of the league is just late to the party.