“These days, the key players around the league tend to be smaller, faster wings and forwards, with centers falling relatively low on the list of priorities when teams are building their rosters.” – Hunter Felt, The Guardian, 2020
NBA basketball is at the latter end of a five-year evolution. Beginning in 2014, NBA teams slowly shifted their offensive priorities onto the three-point shot, citing the now-famous strawman argument: “Three is worth more than two.”
Once this transition had begun, little could be done to stop it.
Five years later, teams are regularly attempting 40+ threes per game. In the 2013-14 season, the Houston Rockets led the league with a previously obscene 26.5 threes attempted per game. Fast forward to 2020-21, the Utah Jazz are first in attempts with 43.1 per game in a league where Houston’s 2014 squad would find itself comfortably in last place.
This new era of basketball has been covered extensively in books and media alike, potentially peaking in 2019 with Kirk Goldsberry’s magnum opus, Sprawlball, which takes readers on a visual adventure through the ever-changing world of basketball shot charts and the newfound analytical science behind the three-point shot.
Goldsberry touches on how the traditional center is being phased out of the league, highlighting former All-NBA big Al Jefferson’s abrupt absence. Jefferson’s bully ball game in the low post was highly sought after throughout the majority of his 14-year career. In 2017, those skills were all but meaningless to front offices. Jefferson being pushed out of the league is one of the many examples we can draw from to illustrate the tipping of the balance of power from big men to smaller guards.
Many feel that size is no longer necessary for team success, opting instead for a core backcourt and spatial shooting around them. Those individuals were largely validated from 2017-2019. In that period, the Golden State Warriors were about as dominant as a team could be, boasting the greatest offensive lineup in the history of basketball, and maybe even sports as a whole. Reporters recognized the drastic talent gap between that team and the rest of the league, especially in one particular five-man unit that coach Steve Kerr deployed.
The lineup in question, Steph Curry-Klay Thompson-Andre Iguodala-Kevin Durant-Draymond Green, has since achieved mythical status in the eyes of all who were blessed to witness it in action. Sports media has affectionately given this group many nicknames, the “Death Lineup” and “Hampton’s 5” being the most memorable. A Curry-Thompson backcourt alone would be enough to propel almost any roster to regular season success at bare minimum due to their historic shooting proclivity. Adding arguably the greatest pure scorer in league history turned the great lineup into something that had to be labeled as “death”.
The Death Lineup’s success was obvious and immediate, surrounding generational talent with generational talent seems like an unbeatable formula. However, it was the formula in question that made the Death Lineup a sensation. The Hampton’s 5 (for the sake of slowing down my repetition) didn’t have a center. The closest the unit ever got to a presence in the paint was 6’7″ Draymond Green banging his wide frame around against opposing centers. Outside of that, this was a purely long range offense.
The Warriors won back-to-back titles while heavily featuring small-ball lineups with Green guarding the other team’s big. It’s not hyperbolic to say that such a thing had never been tried before in NBA history. It’s also not hyperbolic to say that the concept went too far.
In early February 2020, the Houston Rockets went all-in on the smallball strategy by trading their starting center Clint Capela. Houston opted to have the Draymond-esque PJ Tucker play their center minutes. Tucker did a commendable job as Houston’s makeshift big man, but his 6’5″ stature could only take such a team so far.
The Rockets actually ended up winning a playoff series in the NBA’s Orlando bubble postseason, but fell victim to the eventual champions in the bruising Los Angeles Lakers. Headlined by LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Lakers easily imposed their physical will upon the undersized Rockets, winning the series in five games. LA was able to exploit every weakness that Houston presented in what ended up being a soft cultural reset in basketball schemes and team-building.
With the Lakers at the top of the newly established NBA food chain, teams must realize that playing small just isn’t going to work anymore. That being said, playing another prototypical traditional center still might not work either.
During this entire process, far too much focus was placed on phasing out the bigs who couldn’t space the floor. All along, the focus should’ve been placed on phasing in the bigs that can.
All it takes is a quick look at the current MVP race to see just that. Two skilled 7-footers sit atop the totem pole, with a 6’11″ Freak right behind. Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid seem to have full control of whatever game they’re playing in. Half of that comes from the inherent physicality that a player of their size must play with. The other half is in the skill and finesse they’ve developed that rivals their guard counterparts.
Those skills are no accident. The positional bar has been raised to a point where it may never come back down. Big men are asked to do more for a team than ever before. All that talk of the position dying overlooked the fact that we might just be seeing it evolve. This evolution has led us to what I’d venture to call the platinum age of big men, the golden age being the iconic 90s group led by Olajuwon, Ewing, and young Shaq. Obviously, the league’s current crop of bigs isn’t the most relevant we’ve ever seen. The most talented? Maybe.
Never before have bigs been seen as viable ball handlers for fastbreaks and crunch-time scenarios. We’re reaching a point where not having an athletic and multi-dimensional big is seen as a disadvantage. Having one while your opponent doesn’t is possibly the greatest trump card in all of sports.
Ten years ago Aron Baynes would’ve been good enough. In 2021, he’s a liability. The Embiids and KATs of the world are the future.
Big men aren’t going anywhere. The position isn’t dying or becoming irrelevant if anything it’s more important than ever before. The days of one-dimensional play from centers are long gone. Being a strong 7 footer just doesn’t cut it anymore. Get used to Embiid, Jokic, KAT, Giannis, and younger players like Jaren Jackson Jr. and Bam Adebayo; they’re not going anywhere and their influence is just getting started.
The new era has already begun, it’s just waiting for the rest of the world to catch on. How soon that happens will drastically affect the future of the game.