The Darwinism of NBA Bigs

When I was eight years old, Jahlil Okafor was a 100 million dollar player. A legit seven footer who score and pass from the post was every coaches dream. What happened to the dominant big man? Are they really an expired species?

“Can you score doe? Bigs becoming Dinosaurs”

That was a tweet from Draymond Green. The 6’7 “tweener” used to be one of the most discarded players in the league. No real position, not great at anything, and who can they actually defend? Today, Green is the 6’7 play-making four that guards 1-5, and is the most important player on a team that just finished 73-9. He was subtweeting 7’0 Heat Center Hassan Whiteside is everything that would make GM’s from the early 2000’s gush over. Lengthy and strong big men who can score in the post, and block anything within a 5 foot radius of the rim. Today he’s a journeyman big who’s best used off the bench.

The change has been a long time coming, but the conscious decision from coaches to choose talent and skill over-size put an end to “tweener”, and a birth to “Versatility”. It also turned the dominant post-scoring big, to the slow-footed defensive liability. The ability to shoot the ball became more valuable than posting up because the better you can shoot, the more space you can provide for your teammates, and the less time you need with the ball. Being able to bang in the post isn’t as important as being able to switch on the perimeter because if you can’t, someone is getting a wide open shot — every time.

“The way the (NBA) game is played (now), it’s all outside-in, it’s threes, it’s super-fast,” Howard told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s really like we’re dinosaurs, and they’re trying to extinct us. But the Ice Age will not come, and we will not be extinct.

-Dwight Howard

Unfortunately, for a few big men, the Ice Age has come. No longer will the back-to-the basket big with stone feet be an irreplaceable part of the core. However, the age of the big men is not going extinct, in fact, the role of the big men will be the new frontier in defeating the small-ball era.

The 2015-16 season produced two important things in regards to big men. One, Karl Anthony-Towns was introduced to the NBA. Towns fits the mold of the old-school big men in the sense that his a dominant presence on the inside that can score in the post and protect the rim. The Difference? He also can defend all five positions and has three-point range. The combination of skill and size creates a limitless force of nature. 

Take for example April 5th, 2016 when Towns and Timberwolves took on the Golden State Warriors who many consider the staple of the small-ball era. The Timberwolves won the game 124-117 in Overtime to provide the Warriors just their second home loss. The biggest takeaway that game? Mr. Towns. It wasn’t the fact that he scored 20 points to go along with 12 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 blocked shots, he played 44 minutes. The latter was the ultimate testimony to his versatility and was a glitch to the small ball era. Switch him on Steph Curry and he’s still able to bother the shot despite giving up a step. Defend him with bigs, then he finesses them, throw a smaller and quicker defender, and he bullies them with the postgame. The performance was a glimpse into the next era of dominant big men, but also the potential kryptonite of the small ball. The best small teams make the decision to give up size and strength for skill and versatility. But what if you could get that all in one person?

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In Toronto, Bismack Biyombo endeared himself to a fanbase who was two games away from a finals appearance. No he doesn’t have a back to the basket game and realistically, giving him the ball offensively on anything other than an alley-oop attempt is pretty dangerous. However, what he did have, was the ability to switch on the perimeter, and the length and leaping ability to rebound and block shots. Unlike Towns who was playing with a backcourt made up of Ricky Rubio and Zach Lavine, Biyombo was partnered with two all-star guards in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozen. The latter both require the ball in their hands a lot, (Lowry had a 26.1% usage rate, while DeRozen sported a 29.8% usage ). That meant that what Biyombo was asked to do was very limited, play defense, block shots, and grab rebounds. His versatility, though not as strong as Towns was good enough to allow the Raptors to reap the benefits of having size and strength on the court without suffering the gaping defensive holes. It netted him a 4 year 70 million dollar deal to play in Orlando. 

The play of the two bigs highlighted the Darwinism of the game. Out went the Al Jefferson’s and in come the Myles Turner’s. As every team transitions to 6’8 Centers, the next Golden State Warriors will be looking for the 7’1 guy that moves like the 6’8 forward. Though most new era bigs won’t be as skilled as Karl Anthony-Towns, they’ll all come in with the understanding that being able to defend on the perimeter and protect the paint, is the baseline for being a major impact player. The Milwaukke Bucks (Thon Maker), Boston Celtics (Al Horford),Utah Jazz (Rudy Gay), Minnesota Timberwolves (Karl Anthony-Towns), and Denver Nuggets (Nikola Jokic) all have the bigs that in theory fit the mold of the evolved bigs. Most are young teams looking to make their mark in a few years with the exception of the Jazz and Celtics who are poised to strike now. The blueprint to combating the small-ball era still isn’t complete, but teams are starting to get an understanding, and are making strides to build teams in that image. Enjoy the mini-lineups while you can, the bigs are coming back stronger than ever.

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