When the New York Knicks got former All-Star guard Steve Francis from the Orlando Magic before last month's trade deadline, intending to pair him in the backcourt with Stephon Marbury, a majority of the analysis focused on whether the similar players could co-exist on offense. Little attention was paid to another big (or small) issue: their height.
Francis is listed in your program at 6-foot-3, but there has long been speculation that that's an overstatement. There's no debating that he's one of the smaller starting shooting guards in the NBA. The league-wide average at the position is a hair over 6-5. However, the Knicks can take comfort in that small backcourts have become more common and more effective throughout the NBA in recent years.
In January, I wrote about how the NBA's new rules interpretations restricting contact above the free-throw line had helped the league's perimeter players get more points in the paint and more free throw attempts. Because the new interpretations emphasize quickness and reward the ability to dribble and penetrate, another key effect has been to make it much more difficult for bigger teams to match up with those using small backcourts.
Isolating this effect is much more difficult, but one key piece of evidence that speaks to the effectiveness of small backcourts is simply how common they have become. To measure this, I looked at backcourts in which both players were listed at 6-2 or shorter, ruling out a handful of players who play shooting guard strictly because they play bigger than their height (such as Willie Green, Fred Jones and David Wesley). 82games.com's player pair data records how frequently these groups played together. I focused on small backcourts playing at least 100 minutes together in the last three seasons (through Monday):
Small Lineups Play Big
No. of small lineups playing 100 min.
Total min. played by small lineups
No. of small lineups playing 400 min.
Even though this season still has about 20 games to go, small backcourts have already become more prominent than they were a year ago, the first year of the new rules interpretations. Two seasons ago, when the rules were less favorable for smaller players, only three small backcourts -- Denver's Earl Boykins and Andre Miller, Atlanta's Jason Terry and Jacque Vaughn and Sacramento's Mike Bibby and Bobby Jackson -- played a substantial number of minutes.