Even In Basketball, Short Players Can Have Advantage

Host Rachel Martin speaks with NPR's Mike Pesca about the role of height in the NBA.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Time now for sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEME MUSIC)

MARTIN: And NPR's Mike Pesca joins us on the line from New York. Good morning, Mike.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: How you doing?

MARTIN: I'm doing all right.

PESCA: Happy Mother's Day.

MARTIN: Hey, thank you. There is no place I would rather spend Mother's Day than with you here.

PESCA: I won't tell your children that.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So, what's going on in your world? What sports-inspired thoughts are running through your head this morning?

PESCA: Well, I'm watching a lot of basketball. This is the month for it, right, with the NBA playoffs. And so there is a dynamic going on in each of the four series that the NBA is conducting. And it is - I'm not going to say a referendum - but there is a little bit of a small versus big dynamic in all of the four series.

MARTIN: I'm intrigued.

PESCA: Yes. So, teams could play small ball, which is to put a smaller lineup on the floor, or the more traditional high-bound, let's put in a bunch of seven-footers or guys close to that, close to the basket to guard the basket, and, you know, it comes in and out of favor. But in general, it seems that playing bigger players gives you better defense and that's the way to go.

MARTIN: OK. So, what are the advantages to each?

PESCA: OK. So, the big players, like I said, defensively, big players are seen not as good on offense. Smaller players, more dynamic but it's a defensive liability. In fact, there's an analogy, I think, to the big-small NBA thing, to kind of thing to kind of how we think about so many things in life. Like, you talk about the old, traditional brick and mortar stores and the agile, younger Internet companies. That's kind of a small versus big thing. When they talk about, like, big battleships versus, you know, small cruisers that can do more damage in a quick amount of time. I mean, you know, this is a thing that they talk about in the military. And it's kind of analogous to what is going on in the NBA. Now, in each of these series, the Knicks - let's take the Knicks versus the Pacers. The Knicks were a better team in the regular season, but here in the playoffs, the Pacers, a bigger team, who can pound the Knicks, who have guys at almost every position who are bigger than their equivalents on the Knicks - they seem to be doing better. They've taken a 2-1 series lead. In another series, the Golden State Warriors, they're the smaller team, especially because one of their biggest players, David Lee, got hurt. He got replaced by Harrison Barnes. And when we say smaller players...

MARTIN: Yeah, how small are we talking about? These are guys are...

PESCA: Harrison Barnes is 6-8, OK. But he's replacing a 6-11 guy and the smaller Golden State lineup seems to be doing well, although, again, they're trailing. So, there are two small teams that are trailing. And the Oklahoma City Thunder is trailing the biggest, stockiest, beefiest team in the NBA, the Memphis Grizzlies. So, it seems like in all of these series so far big is beating small. Then you have the Heat and the Bulls. And the Bulls are a big team and the Heat are, quote-unquote, "a small team" because LeBron James, this freakishly athletic greatest player on earth, etc., does play a position that technically he's a couple inches short for when he plays power forward. So, the Heat are technically a small team. It might be the case that the Heat win it all, but big ball kind of wins in general.

MARTIN: All right. There you have it. Do you have a curveball for us this week, real quick?

PESCA: Yeah. Let's talk about the most exciting play in baseball, the walk. I actually think the walk is exciting, but the statisticians don't. They don't even include getting a walk in your batting average. But there's a player on the Reds, Joey Votto, who is currently on a pace. He's a little below 150 walks, a pace for 150 walks this year. And that is - no one cares about these stats. Everyone cares about the home runs. But the 150 walk club is a rare, rare club. It's filled with Barry Bonds, Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams three times, then Bonds and Ruth. Mark McGuire, when he hit 70 home runs, is in that club. And there's one other guy in the 150-walk club...

MARTIN: Who is it? Who is it? Quick.

PESCA: He's Eddie Yost. Not a great player, but his nickname was the "Walking Man."

MARTIN: There you go. NPR's Mike Pesca. Thank you so much, Mike.

PESCA: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEME MUSIC)

MARTIN: And you are listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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