What does height dominance look like in the NBA?

Which team would be better: one headlined by 6-foot-10 Anthony Davis and Kevin Durant or a 6-foot-7 group with Jimmy ButlerLuka DoncicKawhi LeonardKhris Middleton and Zion Williamson? We’re having some fun with the primary question in this week’s mailbag by constructing teams of current NBA players all listed at the same height — which also reveals something important about the nature of versatility.

Throughout the NBA season, I answer your questions about the latest, most interesting topics in basketball. You can tweet me directly at @kpelton, tweet your questions using the hashtag #peltonmailbag or email them to [email protected]

The best questions focus on a general topic instead of a specific player or team, and anything that allows me to do original research to understand how the game is played is welcomed.

In addition to the lead question, this week’s mailbag also tackles your questions about:
• The relative predictive power of performance in the NBA summer league and during preseason.
• How the loss of P.J. Tucker might affect the Milwaukee Bucks‘ defense.

If you had to field a team of players all the exact same height, what would be the optimal height for success?

— Chris Morgan

I’m going to assume we’re playing a playoffs-style tournament with the best rosters each height can put together. Let’s go through the rosters of the contending teams. All players are categorized by their listed height on NBA.com.

Team 6-foot-3

PG: Stephen Curry
SG: Russell Westbrook
SF: Bradley Beal
PF: Jrue Holiday
C: Marcus Smart

Key reserves: De’Aaron FoxEric GordonCJ McCollumJamal MurrayNorman Powell

In terms of sheer talent, the 6-foot-3 team stands with anyone. Ja Morant didn’t even crack my projected rotation because of the other ball handlers ahead of him and players who function bigger than their height. Still, as much as the likes of Gordon, Holiday, Powell and Smart might be capable of defending bigger opponents on switches, I think the lack of legitimate rim protection would ultimately doom this team to an early exit in our tournament.

Team 6-foot-6

PG: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
SG: DeMar DeRozan
SF: Jaylen Brown
PF: Mikal Bridges
C: Draymond Green

Key reserves: Lonzo BallJae CrowderDanny GreenJoe HarrisCaris LeVert

If we’re going historical, the 6-foot-6 team (captained by Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley) has a reasonable chance of winning the whole thing. In terms of current talent, this group can cobble together enough size with Draymond Green and Crowder manning the middle, but comes up somewhat lacking in terms of star power.

Team 6-foot-5

PG: Malcolm Brogdon
SG: Zach LaVine
SF: Devin Booker
PF: James Harden
C: Matisse Thybulle

Key reserves: Spencer DinwiddieTyrese HaliburtonTim Hardaway Jr., Josh HartDerrick Jones Jr.

This is about as small a team as I think has a credible chance of winning a tournament. Harden already functions as a power forward defensively and Thybulle’s instincts could probably allow him to protect the rim if asked to do so. This team would offer devastating floor spacing for Booker, Harden and LaVine to operate one-on-one. Alas, it’s probably better suited for an 82-game season with Gary Trent Jr. and Josh Richardson not even cracking a deep rotation.

Team 6-foot-9

PG: LeBron James
SG: Kyle Anderson
SF: Pascal Siakam
PF: John Collins
C: Bam Adebayo

Key reserves: Chris BoucherBlake GriffinAl HorfordDean WadeYuta Watanabe

Before going through this exercise, it seemed like a safe bet that LeBron’s team would win. However, there’s not as much depth among 6-foot-9 players as you’d think. So while this team can put together a quality starting lineup, we’re reaching to try to find some “perimeter” players off the bench. I hate to bet against LeBron, but this looks like a hard-fought exit in the quarterfinals.

Team 6-foot-11

PG: Ben Simmons
SG: Karl-Anthony Towns
SF: Jaren Jackson Jr.
PF: Giannis Antetokounmpo
C: Nikola Jokic

Key reserves: Deandre AytonKelly OlynykDomantas SabonisMyles TurnerNikola Vucevic

The tallest contenders, the 6-foot-11 group features the winners of the past three MVP awards and benefits immensely from Simmons’ ability to run the point and defend opposing perimeter players. (We’re going to assume he wouldn’t hold out of this tournament.) Jokic runs point when Simmons rests, but I assume this team has to play zone and that dooms it in the semifinals.

Team 6-foot-8

PG: Joe Ingles
SG: Paul George
SF: Jayson Tatum
PF: Brandon Ingram
C: Julius Randle

Key reserves: Aaron GordonJerami GrantTobias HarrisT.J. WarrenRobert Williams III

This is the first team I wouldn’t be surprised to see win the tournament. There’s tremendous interchangeability across the 2-4 positions for this team, with a variety of capable isolation scorers and credible defenders. There’s a capable point guard in Ingles and a legit center in Williams. I do think a couple of other squads slightly surpass this team in star power.

Team 6-foot-10

PG: Kevin Durant
SG: Michael Porter Jr.
SF: Davis Bertans
PF: Anthony Davis
C: Clint Capela

Key reserves: Danilo GallinariRichaun HolmesMaxi KleberKyle KuzmaChristian Wood

With relatively weaker depth and a distinct lack of ballhandling and perimeter defense, I think the 6-foot-10 team coasts into the playoffs as the 5-seed or 6-seed. Once there, however, nobody wants to face a team led by KD and AD with Bertans, Gallinari and Porter to space the court and Capela and Wood as lob threats. They’re my pick to lose in the Finals to …

Team 6-foot-7

PG: Luka Doncic
SG: Jimmy Butler
SF: Kawhi Leonard
PF: Zion Williamson
C: Robert Covington

Key reserves: Evan Fournier, Khris Middleton, Duncan RobinsonOG AnunobyLarry Nance Jr.

Here’s your winner in my book. Remember when Luka and Kawhi went back and forth in the first round the past two years? Now let’s imagine them both on the same team (and Leonard healthy) with Butler as another on-ball perimeter option and Zion running the court alongside them.

This team is a little lacking in rim protection, but Anunoby, Covington and Nance won’t have as much to clean up with a number of incredible perimeter defenders. And the coach (6-foot-7 Ime Udoka) would have the flexibility to play multiple styles with an All-Star (Middleton) and the NBA’s best shooter (Robinson) coming off the bench. Ultimately, I think this team laps the field.

Given the average NBA player is listed between 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-7, that probably shouldn’t be surprising. Not only are we drawing from the fattest part of the talent distribution, we’ve got players who trend toward perimeter skills, interior skills or a combination of both.

6-foot-7 is about the peak of NBA versatility.

“Are preseason or summer league statistics more or less predictive of success in the upcoming season? My hypotheses: Summer league for rookies is largely not correlated with NBA success in the next year because they have so much to learn. For NBA veterans, a good summer league is moderately correlated with a good season (and might indicate breakout), but failure at summer league is a red flag. Preseason statistics are irrelevant because of the high number of caveats upon the games (not meaningful, limited minutes, stars sitting).”

— James

From a quick updated study, it doesn’t look like these hypotheses hold.

For players who saw at least 100 minutes of preseason and regular-season action between 2005-06 and last season, I’ve graphed their per-possession player ratings from my wins above replacement player (WARP) metric. You can see a decent carryover between the two. About 30% of the variation in regular-season rating can be explained by preseason rating.

Flipping to the second graph, I’ve done the same with summer league stats from 2005 through 2018, coloring players differently if they were NBA rookies the following season or already had experience in the league.

The relationship with regular-season performance is about six times stronger for the preseason than for summer league. We also don’t see much difference in terms of predictive power between rookies and veterans. (This is consistent with what I’ve found in the past.)

After all, it’s worth remembering that all the caveats you raise about the preseason also apply to the summer league. I suppose teams do care about winning the tournament games the NBA has introduced, but the primary focus remains on player development, and current stars play a whole lot less in the summer league (none) than they do in the preseason. It makes sense to me that, despite its limitations, preseason would be a much better comp for the regular season than the summer league.

“Will the departure of P.J. Tucker from the Milwaukee Bucks to the Miami Heat have any impact on defense for the Bucks? He played a major role on defense last season.”

— Uyi Lambert

I think it will be most noticeable in one matchup, which happens to potentially be the most important for the Bucks: against Durant and the Nets.

It’s worth remembering that Milwaukee has a long track record of elite defense. It was the team’s half-court offense, much more than the defense, that broke down in the 2019 Eastern Conference finals against the Toronto Raptors. (Miami had more success against the Bucks in a 2020 second-round upset.) And Tucker was a relatively small part of Milwaukee holding the Heat to 95 points per 100 possessions in the 2021 first round, averaging 20 MPG as a reserve.

After losing starting guard Donte DiVincenzo to a postseason-ending injury, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer promoted Tucker to the starting five to defend Durant in Round 2 and kept him there the rest of the playoffs. Tucker’s versatility and toughness were certainly important to Milwaukee, but I think he ranks behind frontcourt starters Giannis and Brook Lopez and ace perimeter defender Jrue Holiday in terms of credit for the Bucks’ playoff defense.

As for the matchup with Durant, I think Milwaukee’s willingness to let Tucker walk was tied to a couple of factors. First, as much as Tucker made Durant work, KD still averaged 35.4 PPG on 50% shooting during the series. So Tucker wasn’t exactly stopping Durant. Second, Tucker’s offensive limitations were a factor in the Bucks’ struggles at that end. I suspect Milwaukee is betting that any defensive drop-off from Tucker’s departure will be offset by better offense with the more dynamic DiVincenzo back in the lineup.

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