The way that basketball is played in the NBA is constantly evolving. Since the league was founded in 1946, various rule changes and types of players that have come into the NBA have altered how the game is played. Big men in the 1960s dominated the league, but the introduction of the 3-point line created much more spacing on the floor. Big men were prevalent in the 90s and early 2000s, however, there has been a surge of small ball lineups over the past ten years in the NBA. With the rise of Steve Kerr’s Golden State Warriors and their 3-point heavy offense in the past decade, teams have begun altering how they play basketball to catch up. In an evolving NBA, the center position’s primary function has changed, thus changing the way basketball is played. In this article, I’m going to be explaining why the traditional “big man” in the NBA has begun to go out of style. However, just because the traditional big man is no longer does not mean that the center position is dead.
In order to understand why this shift in the role a big man plays in the NBA has changed, we need to look back to understand why the trend has begun. Although teams had been flirting with smaller lineups for several years, I believe that this trend in the NBA began when teams noticed the success of the Golden State Warriors. When Steve Kerr became the head coach of the Warriors in 2014, they were coming off of a season in which they were eliminated in the 1st round of the playoffs by the Clippers, leading to the subsequent firing of coach Mark Jackson. There were not a ton of expectations for this team heading into 2015, as they were the 6th seed in the West the previous season. Despite this, Steve Kerr took this underwhelming Golden State team and turned them into a 67-win NBA Champion in just one year. How did he do it?
Kerr took over a team with two of the best shooters in the NBA in Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. To fully utilize the “Splash Brothers” talents, Kerr knew that there would need to be more spacing and ball movement within his offense. Although the Warriors did have Andrew Bogut, who played roughly 23 minutes per game, the Warriors often played Draymond Green at the five instead. Green, a 6’6 forward with great playmaking and defensive skills, acted as the primary facilitator. Green was capable of defending most big men and made defenses play him honest thanks to his moderate shooting ability. With the ball in Green’s hands most of the time offense, Curry and Thompson were able to play off the ball, allowing for more open shots and shots from off-ball screens. The big three of Curry, Thompson, and Green was paired with skilled wing players like Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes. This made for an explosive offense that was also the best defensive team in the NBA that year.
While the Warriors weren’t the first team to experiment with smaller lineups, their sudden jump to the top of the NBA landscape made other teams around the league take notice. The Warriors formula was not full proof, however. As evidenced by the 2016 NBA Finals, when the Warriors lost to the Cavaliers, Golden State struggled to box out Tristan Thompson, resulting in Cleveland being able to control the boards. There are pros and cons of running an offense like the Warriors, but Steve Kerr’s style of basketball would change the way the game is played today regardless.
Small Ball in 2020
Since the explosion of the Splash Brothers and the Warriors small ball in 2015, no team has been able to replicate the same kind of offense. However, teams have begun experimenting with new types of lineups and offenses that are smaller than usual. The Wizards have experimented with “smaller” lineups this year, often playing big men that could stretch the floor. The Wizards were one of the best offenses in the NBA this past season, but what they had on offense they lacked on defense. As a result, Washington was one of the worst defenses in the NBA and sat at 24-40 before the season was postponed. Another team that tried out some smaller lineups this year was the Boston Celtics. Brad Stevens’ group often started Daniel Theis at center, who is only 6’8 and can stretch the floor. This allowed Boston to play all three of their talented forwards in Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Gordon Hayward. That lineup had a +12.5 plus/minus for Boston this year, and they’ve positioned themselves as the third seed in the Eastern Conference heading into the league restart.
However, there is one team who’s small ball ideology captivated fans and the league, unlike any other. In February, the Houston Rockets traded their starting center, Clint Capela, in a massive four-team deal that landed them Robert Covington. Rather than finding a replacement for Capela, head coach Mike D’Antoni decided that his team would run perhaps the smallest lineup the NBA has ever seen. The Rockets named PJ Tucker as their starting center, who stands at only 6’5. The idea was that Houston would be willing to give up rebounds if it meant that Capela on offense would not clog the paint. Russell Westbrook and James Harden both thrive driving to the paint, and Capela’s lack of an offense outside the restricted area limited both of their capabilities. The new offense allows Westbrook to play to his full capabilities and pair him with four reliable shooters on the court. This “mirco-ball” style does have its setbacks as well. The lineup worked well initially, but the Rockets have also been blown out by teams with solid big men. It will be very interesting to see if Houston continues to roll out this lineup come the beginning of the NBA restart at the end of the month.
However, there are also examples in the modern NBA of teams going big and that working to their advantage. The Lakers are a perfect example of this, as they start LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Javale McGee/Dwight Howard. While James and Davis get a lot of their buckets in the post, McGee and Howard are used primarily as threats in the pick and roll game. Having your center be solely there for rebounds and pick and rolls allows James and Davis to play in their natural positions of SF and PF to the best of their abilities. The 76ers also play a big lineup, with Ben Simmons running the point and Al Horford and Joel Embiid at the four and five. This lineup has also worked well for Philadelphia, as they have themselves in the playoffs for the restart of the season.
Future of the Big Man in the NBA
|Player||2016-17 PPG From Post||2017-18 PPG From Post||2018-19 PPG From Post||2019-20 PPG From Post|
|Karl Anthony Towns||6.0||4.2||7.0||4.5|
Above is a table that looks at the top five post-scorers from the 2016-17 season (excluding DeMarcus Cousins) and how their production from the post has changed over the past four seasons. With the exception of Joel Embiid, each player’s overall production from the post has dropped when comparing their 2016-17 and 2019-20 seasons, signaling that this style of play is dying. Joel Embiid is the only player out of these five that still utilizes the post as one of his main ways of scoring. Towns and Aldridge still posted up this season, but not at the rate they were in other years on the table. Gasol and Lopez, however, have both seen significant drops in their post play. This can be attributed not to the fact that they aren’t performing well, but rather to the way that their teams are choosing to use them in their offenses.
Despite the successes that some teams have had running smaller lineups, there will always be a place in the NBA for centers. While offenses might not be focused around a big man posting up every possession, it is clear that they are needed, at least for rebounding purposes on every team. However, I think that young centers entering the NBA will try to develop a diverse offensive skill set from now. It is important in today’s game to stretch the floor and hit 3-pointers, and many centers have altered their games to adapt to the changes in today’s game. A good example of this is Marc Gasol, who had only hit 12 threes in his career before the 2016-17 season. That year, he 104 threes and has been a threat from deep ever since. I predict that we will see more big men stepping outside the 3-point line heading forward, and we may even see the average height of an NBA center slightly decrease as well. Overall, small-ball lineups are here to stay in the NBA, but that does not mean that centers will be going away anytime soon.