Casey’s comments regarding the state of the NBA spells trouble for Jonas Valanciunas.
Smallball is no longer just a voodoo strategy engineered by mad scientists like Don Nelson and Mike D’Antoni. It’s the new way of the NBA and it’s here to stay.
Look no further than the NBA Finals. The Golden State Warriors are an anomaly, sure, but they turned the tides against LeBron James by trotting out a lineup with just one 6-foot-8 “big” in Draymond Green and a handful of interchangeable wings. Steve Kerr extrapolated smallball to its logical extremes — he benched an All-NBA defender in Andrew Bogut — and won the championship.
Golden State serves as a loud wake-up call to the league. But keen observers have seen this trend play out for much of the past five seasons. The Mavericks won in 2011 with an offense built around the best stretch-four of all-time. The Heat won two titles with Shane Battier and LeBron James splitting time at the four. The Spurs ran a ruthless system, flush with high-speed pick-and-rolls and deadly 3-point shooting en route to a championship in 2014.
That is to say the NBA is no longer dictated by hulking centers duking it out in the paint, which spells trouble for young Jonas Valanciunas. Those were the sentiments expressed by Dwane Casey when the Toronto Star caught up with him on Tuesday.
“I would love to be stubborn and just try to have (Valanciunas) guard a smaller, quicker center when a team goes small, but it’s difficult to do now in this stage of his career. Maybe someday he’ll get there, but he’s not there yet,” Casey said. “The day of the centres has gone by.”
Casey’s words are difficult to swallow for fans of Valanciunas’s clunky but effective style. But it’s true. It’s hard to envision Valanciunas playing any part in this year’s Finals. The defensive challenges would be too great. Valanciunas wouldn’t have the instincts to serve as a help defender against LeBron in the post and lacks the quickness to guard Golden State’s smalls. He would be watching from the sidelines along with Bogut, Timofey Mozgov, Marreesse Speights and Festus Ezeli. In Steve Kerr’s own words, “it’s not a series for bigs right now.”
This is not a new line of thinking for Casey, who routinely benched Valanciunas against teams with an abundance of floor-spacing. And it’s hard to blame Casey: Valanciunas simply doesn’t have the mobility to guard out to the 3-point line. He thrives in the paint, checking post-ups and waiting at the basket with a vertical challenge. It also doesn’t help that Valanciunas lacks quick defensive instincts which only exacerbate his shortcomings. That’s why Casey trusted Patrick Patterson and Amir Johnson in crunch time. They couldn’t rebound, block shots or score like Valanciunas, but they could rotate, adapt and anticipate.
Changing up the defensive scheme to something more conservative will help. The Raptors routinely chased guards over screens and conceded the lane, which put Valanciunas in tough spots to guard 2-on-1. Funnelling action towards the sidelines, with Valanciunas sagging back to protect the drive would probably be best for Jonas. There’s less ground for him to cover and there’s less consideration with decision making.
But ICEing falls apart against screeners who pop. Imagine Jonas dropping back on a Draymond-Curry screen and roll. The guard forces Curry away from the screen and towards the sideline while Valanciunas cuts off the lane to the basket, but it leaves the swing to Green wide open. Then, with Valanciunas rushing out of the paint to contest, Green has options to shoot the trey, drive past, or swing if a third defender helps on the play. It’s an untenable situation.
Valanciunas could probably offset some of his defensive shortcomings by pressing his advantage on offense. But while it’s tempting to assume that the league’s most efficient post-up scorer can simply bully his way into points, Valanciunas has difficulty imposing his will against small opponents. He’s leery of double-teams, he’s a poor passer and isn’t inventive enough to score outside of his sweeping right hook or left-shoulder spin push shot. It also doesn’t help that his teammates aren’t particularly creative post-entry passers. Valanciunas often gets looked off, even when he has the advantage.
Outside of posting up, Valanciunas really struggles to make plays. He’s not a heady passer. The Raptors can’t dump it into Valanciunas in the high post and ask him to find cutters like Atlanta can with Al Horford. He’s not an option in pick-and-pop scenarios because he can’t shoot. That also means he can’t stretch the defense. Valanciunas isn’t a Kevin Love-type with range extending beyond the 3-point line. Finally, Valanciunas is a good scorer in the pick-and-roll, but he struggles to generate space for the passer with his screens and often gets himself out of position for passes. He might get there one day, but right now, he’s very limited.
That’s why there’s unease with the Raptors’ center. He was billed as the blue chip prospect with All-NBA talent, but the results have been decidedly mixed. His efficiency numbers have always been strong (he led the team in PER last season) but his plus-minus tells a different story. In three seasons in the NBA, Valanciunas has never once posted a positive net rating. The Raptors’ offense has been worse with him on the floor in three straight seasons and the defense has suffered in two, with the lone plus coming in his rookie year where he was +0.2.
Of course, Valanciunas is young and there’s reason to believe that he will improve. Verticality was a point of emphasis for Valanciunas’s development and to his credit, his rim protection has improved significantly. He also refined his post game and is now very effective in one-on-one situations. The learning curve is steppest for bigs and what we’ve seen out of Valanciunas could be him taking his lumps.
But he will have to continue to improve if he’s to edge himself into the positive column. Play making, lateral quickness and an 18-footer should top his to-do list this summer. If he comes back with that, Valanciunas will cement himself as an effective two-way force.
In truth, “smallball” has become a nebulous term without much meaning. It’s used to encompass a multitude of sins, but at its essence, smallball is a philosophy based around leveraging scoring threats. Use shooting to create space, use movement to contort defenses and use passing to find a better shot. It’s not necessarily about the death of centers, rise of stretch-fours, importance 3-point shooting or playing “positionless basketball” with lineup of long-armed 6-foot-7 wings. Those are just manifestations of a principle. At the heart of it, smallball is composed of the core tenants of basketball. It’s still about the ability to make a play.
That’s why this isn’t a hit piece on Valanciunas. Rather, it’s an indictment for players who can’t make plays and and indictment against players who aren’t defensively versatile. There are plenty of players who fit Valanciunas’s mold and of the bunch, our Lithuanian pivot is one of the best. He has great size, he works hard, he stays healthy, he’s a huge hurdle for opponents at the rim and he can score in the post. But he’s not so dominant, nor is he so versatile, to play extended minutes. Rather, he’s match-up dependent, just like 90 percent of NBA players.
“I still believe in the old school. I still believe you need to have a solid centre to get you there, to get you in a winning situation, because size does matter in a lot of situations,” Casey said of centers like Valanciunas.
Centers like Valanciunas still serve a purpose. It’s damn near impossible to find 7-footers who can stay healthy and score around the basket. But with the rising popularity of smallball, Valanciunas finds himself on the losing end of an undeniable trend. The day of slow, plodding, post-up centers is over.