Does size really matter?

From 5’9” Nate Robinson to 7’3” Hasheem Thabeet, 160 pound Darren Collison to 308 pound Dexter Pittman, many different sizes of players can make it in the NBA. Depending upon the unique collection of those sizes on each team, each team determines its style of play. The Houston Rockets play fast because of a preponderance of small, quick players. The Miami Heat play “small ball”, with Chris Bosh at the 5 and LeBron James at the 4. Because of the size of talents like Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer, the Bulls play tough, grind-it-out basketball. There are a variety of styles of play, which are dictated by the size (or lack thereof) that each team has at their disposal. Right?

As it turns out, there isn’t much variability in average team height and weight in the NBA. The New Orleans Hornets, the tallest team, are only 1.7 inches taller on average than the shortest team, the Dallas Mavericks. There is a bit wider of a spread in weight, as the heaviest team, the Detroit Pistons, are 16 pounds heavier than the lightest team, the Milwaukee Bucks. (Note: Average size is determined by controlling for minutes played, so Jrue Holiday’s 1694 minutes played affects the 76ers average height much more than Shelvin Mack’s 7.)

The top visualization is zoomed in as tight as possible, to be able to see the small differences in size among teams. But the more important visualization is the bottom one, where the axes are set at the heights and weights of the biggest and smallest players in the NBA, the aforementioned Robinson, Thabeet, Collison and Pittman. It shows the total range of possible sizes in the NBA, and it is striking how tightly clustered the teams are. This simple visualizations suggests a radical rethinking of the determinants of play styles.

The Rockets are actually the fifth heaviest and seventh tallest team in the league. The reason they run-and-gun has nothing to do with their size, but because James Harden and Jeremy Lin are more effective running and gunning than executing half-court sets.

If we insist on calling the Heat’s offense “small ball”, we should be clear that it is a misnomer that refers to having an abundance of well-spaced shooters on the court at the same time.

The Bulls, the 6th lightest and 9th shortest team in the NBA, play a slow, grind-it-out game because the skill sets of Boozer, Noah and Taj Gibson demand it.

On the team level, size is so uniform that it is a disservice to define our taxonomy of play style by it. Style is derived from skill, not size.

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Using size to describe individual players’ games is problematic as well. Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook are the exact same size and so are Dirk Nowitzki and JaVale McGee, yet those player pairs are almost nothing alike. Could we perhaps find better physical attributes that actually explain how a player plays?

If we had extensive data, not just height and weight, could we create a PER-style all-in-one metric that more accurately describes players game?

More to come in this area, including a study of wingspan and size in the NBA.

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  3. Does it matter if Jeremy Lin is boring?
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