They don’t call it ‘small ball’ for nothing: the 2022 Golden State Warriors, with an average height of 77.63 inches among their top 8 players in terms of total playoff minutes played, are now officially the shortest team to ever win an NBA Championship, dating back to 1980.
Because I’m a huge stat nerd, I went through the past 43 NBA Champions and recorded the heights of their top 8 players as chosen by total playoff minutes that year. I then averaged out the 8 players’ heights to get a team height average. The 1988 and 1987 Lakers, who went back-to-back, hold the honors as the tallest teams to win an NBA Championship–they’re tied at 80.38 inches, and that’s because they had largely the same players both years. That means they had an average height among their top 8 players of just 6′ 8.5″.
The 2022 Warriors, on the other hand, have an average height of just over 6′ 5.5″.
The craziest part, though, is that the 2022 Celtics, who lost to the Warriors in the Finals last month, had the exact same average height as the Warriors among their top-8 players. This was a surprise to me because I assumed the Celtics were the much bigger and longer team. All the analysts and talking heads raved about Boston’s perimeter length and size compared to Golden State’s, but it turns out Boston and Golden State were the same size.
It does appear that the teams of the past were taller than the teams of today. 7 of the 9 shortest teams to win the title on my list are from 2011 and on. The 2022 Warriors were the shortest at 77.63, then, going up the list, you have the 2019 Raptors (78″ even), the 1999 Spurs (78.13″), the 2013 Heat (78.13″), the 2015 Warriors (also 78.13″), the 2011 Mavs (78.25″), the 2016 Cavs (also 78.25″), the 1989 Pistons (78.38″), and the 2017 Warriors (78.38″).
Meanwhile, 18 of the 20 tallest NBA Champions on the list are all from pre-2010:
The only post-2010 teams in the top-20: the 2012 Heat (79.38″) and the 2014 Spurs (79″).
What’s interesting is that 5 of those teams in the top-20 are the Showtime Lakers, 5 of them are the 1990s Bulls, and 2 of them are the Shaq-Kobe Lakers–meaning some of the greatest dynasties in NBA history were also some of the tallest teams in NBA history. (Well, at least they were the tallest of all the NBA Champions. I’m still working on getting the average heights for the teams that lost the Finals to see how often it is that the taller team wins.)
Could it be that it’s all about just having a tall team? Is it really that simple? Are the best NBA teams really just the tallest teams?
I mean, in a rudimentary sense, yes: height is a tremendous advantage in basketball, more so than in any other sport. If there’s a dramatic height difference between two teams, chances are the taller team is going to win.
Obviously skill and shooting and athleticism are extremely important, but in basketball, with a hoop that’s 10 feet above the floor, being taller and thereby closer to the goal is invaluable.
But then again, this is the NBA we’re talking about: every team has size. If a team doesn’t have size, it’s likely not because that team couldn’t find enough tall players, but rather they just prefer things like skill, shooting and athleticism to size. (Like, for example, the 2020 Houston Rockets when they went all-in on small ball, traded Clint Capela for Robert Covington, and started 6’5″ PJ Tucker at center). It’s not like there’s teams out there in the NBA that literally can’t find tall players and their tallest player is like 6’4″ or something like that. Small teams are small by choice. And so this is why it’s no accident the 2022 Warriors are the shortest team to ever win an NBA Championship.
The Warriors, as we all know, have really been the pioneers of the small ball strategy, which, due to its embrace by much of the league in recent years, has made big men less and less important–even to the point where in crunch time in playoff games, big men who can’t shoot and guard perimeter shots become borderline unplayable.
It’s like teams will go small, and not really care if you have a big man getting easy looks at the hoop, because it means they probably have a smaller guy that your big man can’t defend open for three. Three points is more than two.
This is why the traditional big man is, more or less, a dying role in the NBA.
And that’s why tall players who can move like guards and shoot the ball–think KD, AD, Dirk, LeBron, and to a lesser extent guys like Rashard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu–are essentially the unicorns of the NBA; the perfect players. Normally guys are either tall, or they can shoot–but when you find a tall guy who can shoot and/or move–in other words, a big guy with small guy skills–GMs and scouts go ga-ga over them. That’s why people are so high on Chet Holmgren, and the top prospect for the 2023 draft, Victor Wembanyama.
All this is to say, it’s not really that big a surprise that the Warriors won the NBA Championship despite being shorter than any previous NBA Champion. It’s the direction the league is moving in now. Shooting, athleticism and mobility are now prioritized above size. Of course, size is still necessary–you can’t have a team full of 6′ 2″ shooting guards–but the best teams now are those that have the perfect balance of size and shooting. The perfect team would be a bunch of tall guys who can shoot the ball and have lateral quickness to defend the perimeter.
I mean just think about what the perfect team in today’s NBA would be: it would be a bunch of tall guys who can move and shoot and defend the perimeter. It would probably be LeBron at the point, Kawhi at the 2, KD at the 3, AD at the 4, and Jokic at the 5. That team would have an average height of like 6’9″ and be able to pass, shoot, and defend the perimeter.
The point here is that the league has changed: size is no longer the be-all, end-all because the league is so skilled nowadays. Size alone doesn’t get you as much as it once did. Tacko Fall is like 7’5″ and he can’t even play in the NBA today. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, he probably would’ve had a long career as at least a starter just based on his height alone.
But there’s another fact here that really throws a wrench in my whole endeavor to compare the heights of the past 43 NBA Champions and runners-up: it’s the fact that for many years, NBA teams greatly exaggerated the heights of their players.
In 2019, the NBA really blew the lid off of this whole practice and started cracking down: no more lying about players’ heights. They must now be listed at their true heights, without shoes. This led to many players’ heights being changed, some by 2 inches or more:
- Kevin Durant, who had always been listed at 6’9″, is now listed at 6’10”
- Robert Williams went from 6’10” to 6’8″ (!)
- Derrick Rose went from 6’3″ to 6’1″
- Klay Thompson dropped from 6’7″ to 6’5″
- Draymond Green also dropped from 6’7″ to 6’5″ (although he actually provided indisputable evidence that he’s 6’6″)
- Dwight Howard dropped from 6’11” to 6’9″
- Bradley Beal went from 6’5″ to 6’3″
The height changes mostly affected guys at the far ends of the spectrum–the tallest and the shortest players. Many of the big guys who claimed to be 6’10” or 6’11” actually turned out to be 6’9″ or even 6’8″. And many of the short guys who claim to be 6’0″ are in reality like 5’11” or 5’10”.
I understand the shorter guys lying about their height: there’s just something psychological about a guy who doesn’t crack the 6′ mark playing in the NBA. If I were a shorter point guard trying to make the league and in reality I was 5’11”, I would absolutely list myself at 6’1″. I would not let the teams that were considering drafting me know I was under 6′.
But the bottom line here is that NBA players have been exaggerating their heights for a very long time. The NBA started cracking down on it in 2019, but that then begs the question, since we’re talking about teams from before 2019–the 2010s, the 2000s, the 1990s and the 1980s–how accurate are the height listings for all those teams pre-2019? Probably not accurate, I’d assume.
For example, in the 1992 Olympics, the NBA players on the Dream Team were subject to Olympic height measurements, and people were shocked when they opened up the program and saw that these NBA players were much shorter than they were previously thought to be. The New York Times had a write-up on it from July 27, 1992:
BARCELONA: BASKETBALL; Dream Team Reaching New Heights
How big, and bad, is the United States Olympic basketball team? Both questions, believe it or not, might be considered unanswered.
The first one has to do with the players’ actual heights. Long after the United States beat Angola, 116-48, today, it was noticed that the official American roster lists almost all of the players in shorter heights than they are listed for the National Basketball Association.
For instance: Patrick Ewing, a 7-footer for the Knicks, is listed here as 6 feet 10 inches. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, both 6-9 during their entire careers, have mysteriously shrunk to 6-7. Michael Jordan, 6-6 in Chicago, is a 6-4 Olympian. According to the roster, there is no 7-footer on this team, as David Robinson, 7-1 at home, is really 6-11.
The Dream Team players will undoubtedly be asked to address this question of conflicting sizes, although not before Croatia attempts to diminish them Monday night in stature in a long-awaited game between, by Olympic standards, quality opponents.
Michael Jordan was actually 6’4″, not 6’6″! I can’t believe I never knew that.
In fact, I did a little digging, and I think he is in reality like 6’4.5″ without shoes on, which would mean he’s just about 6’6″, maybe 6’5.5″ with shoes on.
But then, if Larry and Magic were both really 6’7″ instead of 6’9″, then it’s still the same height difference with Michael Jordan: 3 inches. And that’s what really matters, right? It would be one thing if Jordan was truly 6’4″ and Bird and Magic were both legit 6’9″, but they weren’t both legit 6’9″–they were really more like 6’7″ each. And also, how much does it really matter what a past player’s true height was, when he’s already accomplished what he’s accomplished? Finding out he’s shorter than you thought he was doesn’t make him worse.
Charles Barkley was also not 6’6″–he was more like 6’4.5″ or 6’5″ tops, which is crazy because he’s often considered a “big man.” He averaged 11.7 rebounds a game for his career! What Barkley accomplished in his career is even more impressive given the fact that he was really 6’4″.
So what difference does it make if Michael Jordan is 6’4.5″ instead of 6’6″? He still did what he did at 6’4.5″. It’s not like learning his true height makes him a worse player–he’s done playing! If anything it makes his accomplishments more impressive.
The only way it would matter is when we’re comparing him to current players, like LeBron. LeBron is a legit 6’8.5″ without shoes on, and so if Jordan is really 6’4.5″ instead of 6’6″ without shoes, well then that makes a difference: it means LeBron isn’t 2 inches taller than MJ, he’s like 4-4.5 inches taller.
So, while it’s probably true that all the players and teams back then were exaggerating their heights, even if the tallest team in the league wasn’t truly as tall as they claimed to be, they were still taller than everybody else because everybody else was lying about their height, too. If one team has an average height of 6’9″ and another team has an average listed height of 6’8″, it’s probably the case that both teams are lying, but the first team is more like 6’8″ and the second team is more like 6’7″. So it’s a wash.
But where we run into problems is when we compare the heights teams from the 1980s and 1990s and 2000s to teams from post-2019, like, for example, the 2022 Warriors. The Warriors, based on post-2019 height measurements, look like the shortest team to ever win a Title–and a full 3 inches shorter on average than the 1988 Lakers, which is insane!
But if the 2022 Warriors’ height measurements are accurate, and the 1988 Lakers’ height measurements aren’t accurate, then we can assume the real height difference between the two teams isn’t 3 full inches–or probably anywhere even close to that. It’s probably more like an inch to an inch-and-a-half tops.
So I don’t know if the 2022 Warriors are truly the shortest team to ever win an NBA Championship. If we go by official measurements, they are. But we also know that official height measurements pre-2019 are exaggerated, so we may never know the truth.
I think it’s true that they are on the shorter end of the spectrum in terms of NBA Champions, but it’s also true that they didn’t win in spite of the fact that they’re one of the shorter teams in the league (by the way, they ranked 11th out of 20 postseason teams this year in terms of height–the Cavs were the tallest at an average of 79.75″ followed by the Pelicans at 79.25″).
The Warriors are short(er than average) by design. They won because they prioritize skill, shooting and lateral quickness over size. Their size isn’t some setback to overcome–it’s what makes them great. Other teams have to play their style of basketball. They make other teams’ size a disadvantage.