It’s Not Who Invents It, It’s Who Perfects It: Using Small Ball in the NBA as an Example

NBA basketball was a very different game a generation ago. It used to be, you would see these big lineups, with a center being in control of the ball, and the big men always had their backs turned to the basket, trying to body their way to the hoop. It was a physical, scrappy playing style.

In today’s NBA, you see much less of that. You see smaller lineups being controlled by the guards. This style of play is much less physical, but it works. These small ball lineups have brought us incredible shooting efforts by players like Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and James Harden. In today’s game, players rarely look to post anybody up, play physical offense, or even play physical defense. The game has changed.

Is small ball the latest new thing?

No. Small ball has been around for many years. Don Nelson used a version of it going back as far as the 1970’s. While the style has its drawbacks, it is an effective way to beat big, physical lineups without having to compete directly with them on sheer size.

So, why is small ball only dominating the game now? Part of it is that changes in the rules of the game favor the style. There are more fouls called on contact created by a player, effectively giving an advantage to teams that use less physical play. The other issue is that teams like the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers are simply very good at small ball. They didn’t invent the style, but they have perfected it.

History is full of business leaders who have done something similar–taken an existing idea or technology, perfected it, and succeeded on a scale that the original innovator did not. Often changes in regulations, tax structure, or the market itself play a role in the idea taking off when it does.

Steve Jobs is a great example. He did not invent the smart phone, but the iPhone succeeded in a way that earlier efforts, such as the BlackBerry, had not. Jobs’ specific approach to the technology—the different types of functionality he bundled together, the sleek design, the user-friendly operating system, the apps—not only succeeded very well for Apple, they also triggered a revolution in the industry. Now, almost everyone who can afford it has a smartphone, and all smartphones have the same type of functionality and design that the first iPhone did. Steve Jobs perfected the smartphone.

Look, this is not about stealing other people’s ideas and running with them. This is about being aware of all of the ideas and techniques that are out there and knowing when a slight change in circumstance (regulations, market interest, new innovations elsewhere) opens the door to something working that didn’t work before. It’s also about knowing how to make the slight tweaks and adjustments that take a good idea and make it great.

Remember, it’s not always the person who invents a new technique who succeeds—it’s the one who perfects it.

Image of Stephen Curry was taken by Keith Allison under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license