Is the NBA Still a Big-Man's Game?

Is the NBA Still a Big-Man's Game?
COusins-KG.png

First, let us define what we mean by the term “big-man”.  In the context of this discussion, a big-man is a player taller than 6’7” who is responsible for protecting the basket, scoring from the post, and rebounding.  A big-man can play the power forward or center positions.  The prototypical big-man is hard to define because different players throughout history have specialized in different aspects of the aforementioned responsibilities. In recent history, names like Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett come to mind when the subject of big-men comes up.  All three of those great big-men were good at different things and affected the game in unique ways.

The traditional, back-to-the-basket big-man has become a rare commodity.  The role of the center in basketball has traditionally included screen setting, rebounding, post scoring, shot blocking and anchoring the defense.  The power forward, the other big-man position, has also been responsible for rebounding, post scoring, screen setting shot blocking, but has also been expected to be able to score from about 15 feet away from the basket.

In the mid 1940's, George Mikan became the first of many dominant big-men in basketball.  At 6’10” and 245lbs, he had the height and agility to score and defend around the basket like no one had ever seen before.  He is often credited with inventing the hook shot, and he is the reason the NCAA and NBA instituted the goaltending rule.  After his emergence, every team was literally looking for the next big thing in basketball.  Mikan did most of his damage in the lane and so did his descendants like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem-Abdul Jabbar.

All the great NBA dynasties have had a dominant big-man controlling the interior on both sides of the floor except for Jordan’s Bulls of the 90’s.  There seems to be a shift going on in the current NBA.  The NBA recently removed the center position from the All-Star ballot, changing it to “front court” players. The game is being played differently as opposed to how it has been played in the past.  Defenses are more sophisticated, and rules have changed to give more freedom for smaller players to operate while making it harder for immobile big men to be useful.  What does this mean for the average NBA big-man?  Is the talent pool actually weaker in this generation’s big-men?  The NBA big man is alive and well today.  Basketball is still a big-man’s game.  Although the game has changed quite a bit since the days of Mikan and Chamberlain, what has changed the most is the big-man.  Big-men are no longer the slow, cumbersome giants of years' past.  The modern NBA big-man is more athletic, agile and, in some cases, more skilled than he has ever been in the history of the sport.  He has adapted his skill set to face the challenges of a more sophisticated game in an era dominated by dynamic guards, pseudo-zone defenses and hyper-athletic swingmen.

Let's start with the great big-men of the past.  Since 1980, the NBA’s Most Valuable Player has been a power forward or center 13 out of a possible 33 times.  In the 20 years preceding, a big-man had won the league MVP award 19 out of 20 times.  The only year a power forward or center didn’t win the award was in 1964 when Oscar Robertson won it with the Cincinnati Royals.  Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell dominated the 60’s, and Wes Unseld and Willis Reed took the last two MVP trophies for the decade.  The biggest change in-between those two periods was the addition of the 3-point line in 1980.  Before the 3-point line, every field goal was worth just 2 points.  This is significant because there was very little incentive to take an outside shot when inside shots were scored at a much more efficient rate.  In a game where interior supremacy was the goal, those who were dominant around the basket dominated the game.  As the game changed, though, so did the big-men.  The arrival of the three-point line increased the amount of space in the lane and spread defenses out.  More and more often, guards were using driving lanes to penetrate defenses and create shots for themselves and their teammates.  These open lanes required big-men to be more agile in their patrols of the paint to keep the rim protected.  The NBA wanted to emphasize guard play by the time the 80’s came around because it was more aesthetically pleasing.  People loved watching the Showtime Los Angeles Lakers because of their fast paced, razzle-dazzle style, complete with fancy dribbles, no-look passes, and fast break finishes.  This wasn’t the ideal style of play for the traditional big-man of old.

Another major occurrence happened in the 80’s that changed how we look at the big-man.  Guards and wing players got bigger.  To put it in perspective, former MVP center, Wes Unseld was 6’7” while point guard extraordinaire, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, and his arch rival, Larry “Legend” Bird, were both 6’9”.  No longer did players taller than 6’7” have to be limited to being paint-dwellers.  Big-men had also become recognized as skilled ball-handlers and proficient shooters which led to the the position of point-forward being developed.  Players who would have been groomed as power forwards and centers were now being groomed to dominate the perimeter with superior length and athleticism.  As a result, the stars of the league got bigger.  This was made evident by the fact that from 1983-1991, there were always at least 3 players on the All-NBA First Team taller than 6’7”.  It would have been 4 players if not for Charles Barkley, the 6’6” power forward from Auburn making First Team honors from 1988-1991.

During the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Team USA, also known as the Dream Team dominated all of their opponents and inspired a whole new generation of international basketball players.  These international players brought their own brand of basketball when they made their way to the NBA.  If there is one influence that Europe has had on the NBA, it is the introduction of the “stretch” power forward.  The “stretch” power forward or, "stretch four" is a power forward that uses his 3 point shooting ability (or long-two's) to stretch the defense out and create better spacing for other players to drive into the lane or post up in the low post.  Some of the best European players in the NBA today are stretch fours, including Dirk Nowitzki, Andrea Bargnani and Ersan Ilyasova.  The stretch-four strategy is so effective that American basketball has adopted it, and there are many examples of American stretch fours all over the league.  Some examples of American stretch fours are Kevin Love, Ryan Anderson, Spencer Hawes, Paul Millsap, Channing Frye, and Chris Bosh.  A young big-man like Serge Ibaka has added the 3-point shot to his repertoire so that he doesn’t clog the lanes for his superstar teammates Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.

Contrary to the changes discussed above, the big-man’s role as the anchor of the team’s defense has remained intact through the years.  Since 1990, the defensive player of the year has been a big man all but twice, in 1996, point guard Gary Payton won the award and in 2004, a small forward, Ron Artest, won it.

The 1990’s featured a plethora of skilled, dominant centers play against each other in their primes for the first time in league history.  Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, and Shaquille O’Neal headlined the top tier of centers during that decade.  Even some of the less-heralded centers of the period were very proficient and could control a game on any given night.  Names like Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, Rik Smits and Brad Daugherty made up the second tier of All-Star-caliber centers around the league.

The end of the 20th century brought in a new brand of big-men.  Players like Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Rasheed Wallace, and Dirk Nowitzki took over the league at near, or around, 7-feet-tall.  They were doing things never before seen from players of their size.  Nowitzki and Wallace would routinely shoot from three-point range and cause all kinds of mismatches for opposing defenses.  Duncan and Garnett could dominate the game from midrange and drive the ball to the basket with both power and finesse.  The new millennium brought in more great big-men that were selected to multiple All-Star games, including Yao Ming, Pau Gasol, Amar’e Stoudemire, Jermaine O’Neal, David West, and Chris Bosh.  There was no shortage of good big men, but their necessary skill sets were changing.  For instance, 6’11” Amar’e Stoudemire is a 6-time All-Star who averaged over 20 points per game seven different times in his career, but he didn’t have much of a back-to-the-basket game.  He dominated the league as a pick-and-roll finisher.  When Chris Bosh played for the Toronto Raptors, he dominated from midrange.  Although he had skills in the low post, he was much more comfortable in the high post where slower big-men couldn’t keep up with him off the dribble but still had to respect his stellar jump shot.

The style and pace of play was also quickened once the remnants of the dominant centers of the 1990’s began to decline.  Coaches like Don Nelson and Mike D’antoni instituted fast-paced offenses that marginalized slow centers who weren’t dominant.  D’Antoni’s “7 seconds or less” offense pushed the pace and kept opposing defenses scrambling while scoring at incredibly high rates.  His system was predicated on a high-IQ point guard, solid shooters to spread the floor, and a dominant pick-and-roll finisher.  Amar’e Stoudemire was his pick-and-roll finisher whose rare combination of speed and power made the Phoenix Suns a formidable championship contender.  Don Nelson used a 7-foot German sharpshooter named Dirk Nowitzki as the focal point of his offense.  Nelson was known for encouraging his big men to shoot from the perimeter because their shots were so hard to contest.  Having big-men who were legitimate threats to shoot from the perimeter also pulled the opposing big-men away from the paint and open driving lanes for the rest of the team.  In the 2000's, these were two of the best offenses in the NBA, and teams around the league tried to build rosters that could take elements of both to enhance their chances at winning.

There were enough versatile All-Star big-men in the early 2000’s to have a functional All-Star lineup of players over 6’11”.  In fact, it was a running gimmick at one time during the period to have all the big-men play at the same time during the All-Star game.  The Western Conference played a lineup of Dirk Nowitzki (7’), Pau Gasol (7’0), Kevin Garnett (6’11”), Tim Duncan (7’0), and Yao Ming (7’6”).  This lineup of giants still had enough perimeter ability to space the floor offensively and enough skill with the ball to make intricate dribbles and passes, much to the delight of the spectators.

Despite the emphasis on freeing up guard play in the NBA, teams still acknowledge the importance of having (and using) a solid frontcourt.  Starting centers in the NBA had an average usage rate of 19.9% in 2013.  This means that centers are getting their fair share of possessions to work.  However, only 13 of the 30 starting centers have a usage rate higher than 20%.  Players like Tyson Chandler, Bismack Biyombo, and Kendrick Perkins have usage rates lower than 15%, but those are defensive specialists. Young big-men like Greg Monroe, DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, and Nikola Vucevic show promise that there is no shortage of talent in the post today.  DeMarcus Cousins currently has a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 27 this season.  If he kept that up for the rest of his career, he’d only be behind LeBron James and Michael Jordan for career PER.  6’10” Anthony Davis’ current PER is 28.3, and continuing at this rate would make him the best player to have ever played professional basketball.

There are also big-men in the prime of their careers who are giving All-Star-quality production on a nightly basis.  LaMarcus Aldridge, the 6’11” power forward who plays for the Portland Trail Blazers, is currently averaging 23.3 points per game and 11.1 rebounds per game.  Kevin Love is a player standing at 6’10” who plays power forward for the Minnesota Timberwolves, and he averages 25.2 points per game, 13.7 rebounds per game and 4.2 assists per game.  A less-heralded player like David Lee, who probably will not be considered an All-Star this year, is averaging 17.8 points per game and 9.9 rebounds per game.

The most common criticism of the average modern big-man is his limited capabilities with his back to the basket.  This is a product of stylistic differences in the game today.  More zone-like defenses are allowed today than ever before in the NBA.  Against a zone defense, posting a player up against a defender plays into the hands of the defense.  Ball and player movement that cause the zone shift and expose a weak point break zone defenses.  Posting up doesn’t necessarily make that feasible unless the post player is also a magnificent passer.  When a player has his back to the basket and defenders are guarding him tightly, it is harder to survey the defense and find a teammate in position to score, especially if the teammate is in motion behind him.  Another reason for the limited post play of this generation of big-men is that they learned to play basketball during an era that emphasized athleticism over skill.  Plenty of raw talents have been drafted very high in the annual NBA draft because of pure athleticism in hopes of developing a functional skill set on top of the uncommon size and athleticism.  The results of this approach have varied immensely.  Some of these projects turn out to be great successes like Dwight Howard (who is still trying to develop a post game years into his career).  Others become monumental flops like Kwame Brown.  Some fall somewhere in-between like Javale McGee.

Further proof of the premium put on tall talent is the fact that since 1990, only 4 of the 23 possible #1 picks made weren’t power forwards or centers.  Of the front court players drafted #1 overall in that time, only Dwight Howard, Yao Ming, and Elton Brand have led a team to the Playoffs as the best player.  Another recent example of size and potential playing an integral part in the draft selection process is the Detroit Pistons choosing Darko Millicic #2 overall over Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, among others in the 2003 draft which is famous for being loaded with franchise-changing talent.  In basketball circles, there is a saying that goes as following,

“You can’t teach size.”

This implies you can teach most of the other attributes that make a great basketball player.  Darko Millicic was a 7-foot Serbian center who ended his NBA career recently with career averages of 6 points per game and 4.2 rebounds.  Apparently, the Pistons couldn’t teach him much of anything after all.  Other infamous draft busts include Michael Olowokandi, Greg Oden, and Kwame Brown.  All of the aforementioned busts were expected to be franchise cornerstones because of their size.  One reason general managers like to gamble on big-men is because they believe that even if they don’t develop a potent offensive game, they can still be effective defensive anchors.  Kwame Brown, despite being labeled a bust throughout his career, managed to play in the NBA for 11 years.  Plenty of teams believed that he could play a role for them because he was 6’11” with decent mobility and coordination.

Whenever a big-man shows awareness, coordination, toughness, and mobility, teams keep them around and use them as defensive specialists, even if they are sometimes offensive liabilities.  In last year’s NBA Playoffs, of the 16 teams that qualified for the playoffs, 12 of them started centers that were known for their defensive abilities.  This shows that there is some correlation between winning and having a defensive anchor.  Last year’s champion Miami Heat added 6’10” center Chris “Birdman” Andersen in the middle of the season to help with their Playoff push.  He proved to be an invaluable addition as he ended up leading the team in field goal percentage for players attempting more than 100 field goals.  In the Playoffs, he had the highest Defensive Rating on the team at 97.3.  This means that when he was on the court, opponents scored only 97.3 points per 100 possessions.  He also had the highest Net Rating on the team in the playoffs at 19.2.  This means that his presence on the court was worth an extra 19.2 points per 100 possessions.

Another example of a big-man with limited offensive ability making a huge impact on the performance of his team is the starting center for the New York Knicks, Tyson Chandler.  The Chicago Bulls drafted the 7’1” center out of Dominguez High School in California. He was very raw offensively, and he set himself apart by using his energy and athleticism to grab rebounds and block shots.  Over the course of his career, he developed into a solid pick-and-roll finisher, but he earns his money on the defensive end.  Since joining the New York Knicks for the 2010-2011 season, he has been named Defensive Player of the Year (2010-2011) and NBA All-Defensive First Team (2011-2012).  He singlehandedly anchors the New York Knicks defense, and he makes up for a multitude of defensive errors committed by his teammates.  The modern NBA is littered with big-men whose impact is felt more on the defensive end than the offensive end.  Players like Joakim Noah, Omer Asik, Andrew Bogut, Kendrick Perkins, Larry Sanders, Roy Hibbert and Marc Gasol have all made careers from their defensive impact.

In the modern NBA, there are a few centers who possess skill sets that mirror those of their 1990’s predecessors.  Two of the most prominent are Dwight Howard of the Houston Rockets and Brook Lopez of the Brooklyn Nets.  Dwight Howard is a 6’11” juggernaut who uses his strength and explosiveness to overwhelm his opponents.  His post-game may not be as fluid as Hakeem Olajuwon’s or as unstoppable as Kareem-Abdul Jabbar’s, but it is effective enough to demand a double-team on most nights.  On the defensive end, he has been a force throughout his career.  He won the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award 3 years consecutively from 2009 until 2011.  Howard has already carried one of his teams to an NBA Finals and showed that the dominant center still exists today’s NBA. Brook Lopez is a 7-foot post specialist who has an array of moves which make him formidable around the basket despite his limited athleticism.  Lopez’s sheer size is enough to make him a tough cover, but his footwork and touch around the basket make him an All-Star player in the NBA.  He is (was pre-foot surgery) the first option on an offense that features 4 former All-Stars in Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett.  That, in and of itself, is a testament to the consistency and effectiveness of his low-post game.

Some of the game’s most dominant and dynamic perimeter players are really big men with the skills of guards.  Three of the most popular players in the league fall under this category of player.  It is debatable whether these players qualify as big-men or not because the line has been blurred over time.  The first of the three players is the star player of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Kevin Durant.  Durant was 6’9” when he was drafted out of the University of Texas, but he seems to have grown since he entered the league at the tender age of 19.  At his height, he is already a good rebounder and has added a post game to his repertoire.  His slender frame makes it all but impossible to muscle his way down low, but his post game is reminiscent of that of Dirk Nowitzki.  He even added Dirk’s patented one-leg fadeaway jump shot from the post to his game.  Although he does most of his damage from the perimeter, Kevin Durant needed to add a consistent post game to his arsenal to become the superstar he is today.  Adding a post game allows him to play the power forward position where he is absolutely unstoppable to most power forwards.  Because of his size, he has the option to be a great swingman or an All-Time great big-man.

The second of the three players who could dominate from either the perimeter or the post is Carmelo Anthony.  Carmelo played power forward for the first time in his career last season, and he had one of his best years.  He led the league in scoring and caused headaches for opposing defenses en route to 28.7 points per game and 6.9 rebounds per game.  His wide, 6’8” frame makes him too big for smaller perimeter players to defend, but his quickness makes him too fast for most post players.  Defensively, 'Melo seems better suited to defend post players because he can match all but the strongest power forwards when they try to post him up in the paint.  This season he is still scoring at a great rate scoring 26.4 points per game, but he has increased his effort on the boards pulling in 9.1 rebounds game.  This is evidence that he is getting more comfortable with the responsibilities that come with playing the power forward position.  Anthony also possesses one of the best post-games in the NBA.  Last season, the entire New York Knicks offense was predicated on Carmelo Anthony drawing double teams in the low or high-post and for him to pass the ball out to open shooters on the perimeter.  His ability to shoot the three point shot also draws help defenders away from the rim and opens driving lanes for himself and others.  Now that he is approaching his 30th birthday, his athleticism is expected to begin to wane in the coming years and his transition into a full time power forward will be complete.

The third (and probably most interesting of the players mentioned) is LeBron James.  When James is compared to his predecessors, many like to compare him to Michael Jordan as possibly the best player to ever play the game.  However, Lebron James resembles the profile that Earvin “Magic” Johnson created.  He, like Magic, is a 6’9” guard that is big and strong enough to play any position on the court.  Unlike Magic, he may just be the most athletic player in the NBA right now, and also one of the best athletes of all time.  Since his arrival into the NBA in 2003 out of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, he has been a powerhouse and a rare physical presence on both sides of the floor.  With his elite talent and physical capabilities came enormous expectations.  Although he lived up to most of them, he wasn’t able to take his game to the next level until he started working with Hakeem Olajuwon during the offseason to expand his post game.  When he acquired a legitimate low-post arsenal, he literally became the epitome of a complete player.  Many times during his most recent championship run with the Miami Heat, he played the power forward position and dominated games from the paint to create opportunities for his teammates.  James would actually still be the best player in the NBA no matter what position he decides to play.  He was good enough to make his team a contender when he played from the perimeter; but when he decided to play from the post, he became a champion.

The modern NBA big-man is more versatile than ever; he comes in all shapes and sizes.  His skill set varies more than it ever has.  Some modern big men are just rebounding specialists like Reggie Evans of the Brooklyn Nets.  Others are there to spread the floor like Charlie Villanueva.  Each still impacts the game in unique ways, both tangible and intangible.  Despite rule changes that make it easier for guards to operate and navigate the court, there is no remedy for a dominant big-man except for a big-man of your own to match.  Guards may orchestrate the game with their pace-setting and ball-handling, but big-men are still the most efficient and trustworthy finishers in the game.  Guards may pressure the ball on the perimeter but the last line of defense will always be a big-man.  The remaining All-Stars of the early 2000's who are still playing at an All-Star level are almost exclusively big-men because even as their athleticism decreased, their God-given height advantage still remains.  The old stereotypes of the bruiser big-man of the 80's and 90's are outdated and should be disregarded when evaluating modern day big-men.  The NBA Big has invaded territory that had been reserved for guards and small forwards, and they have taken over the perimeter while maintaining dominance in the paint.  Once upon a time, a player taller than 6’7” would be relegated to doing the “dirty work” in the paint, but in today’s NBA, players who are capable are encouraged to expand their game as much as possible.

A problem with the criticisms of current NBA big-men is that they usually imply that there is a right way to play the position.  In reality, the big-men of the past did what they could do the best (and only) way they knew how.  Today’s big-men have built on the legacy of the big-men of old, and they are adding their own signatures to the history and legacy of the game.

The value of the big-man in the game of basketball hasn’t diminished despite all the dynamic guards and small forwards in the league today.  This is because “you can’t teach height.”  In 2011, Dirk Nowitzki literally shot over the entire league en route to an NBA Championship, defeating the center-less Miami Heat led by LeBron James before he acquired a post game.  Last season, the San Antonio Spurs won the Western Conference from the inside-out.  They, on the back of one of the greatest power forwards of all-time, Tim Duncan, dominated the paint in every series during the Western Conference Playoffs.  This season’s edition of the Indiana Pacers boast the Eastern Conference’s best record to date and the NBA’s best defense, anchored by the 7’2” Roy Hibbert.  Their lead perimeter player, Paul George has been listed as tall as 6’10”.  Their calming force and veteran leadership comes from the 6’9” David West. Last season’s All-NBA team featured 9 players taller than 6’7” out of a possible 15 players.  The top three freshmen in College Basketball, expected to be the first 3 players selected in the NBA draft next summer, are all 6’8” or taller.  No matter what the critics say, NBA basketball is still a big-man’s game.  The big-men have just evolved to make sure it stays that way.