“Twin Towers” used to be a term of endearment in the NBA.
Back in the old days, if you had two dominant seven-footers in your frontcourt, that was considered to be an advantage on the court. Duos like Hakeem Olajuwon/Ralph Sampson and Tim Duncan/David Robinson put their teams on the map. It seems like forever ago now, but once upon a time, the more height you had in your frontcourt, the better.
Then came the invention of small-ball. a scheme that was originally named “Nellie ball” after Don Nelson, who pioneered the strategy in the 1980s when he coached the Milwaukee Bucks. This would be his calling card as a coach, as he used it for the “Run TMC” Warriors, the early Dirk days in Dallas with Steve Nash and Michael Finley and the one-hit-wonder “We Believe” Warriors.
For years, this was a strategy exclusive only to Nelson as the intention to be fatally flawed due to its lack of size would take away from his team’s defenses. As good as his efforts were, they never reached the NBA Finals.
But going smaller grew more prominent as time went on. Mike D’Antoni turned Nellie Ball into the “Seven Seconds or Less” offense that made Phoenix a perennial contender year-in and year-out. Championship teams like the Celtics in 2008 and the HEAT in 2012 found that their best lineups featured their power forwards – Kevin Garnett and Chris Bosh respectively – at the center and their backup wings – James Posey and Shane Battier – as their power forwards.
At the same time, bigs known for their lack of mobility and/or their lack of shooting like Kendrick Perkins and David Lee were getting phased out. Teams who tried to use size to their advantage wound up regretting it. The 2014 Detroit Pistons tried a frontcourt of Josh Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond – three bigs who could not space the floor – which blew up in their face.
To top it all off, Draymond Green’s coming out party changed the game. For years, fans had been wondering who would have been the perfect center for a small-ball lineup. Green was the answer. His defensive versatility, along with his passing and floor spacing (in the earlier days), allowed the Warriors to play their death lineup with Green manning the five. It unquestionably played an instrumental role in those three championships and in reaching five consecutive finals appearances.
Because of this newly-vaunted lineup, the Warriors had no trouble runnings bigs off the floor — which made it seem like the days of playing two seven-footers at the same time were a thing of the past. It didn’t help that after acquiring DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans did a merely passable job pairing him up with Anthony Davis, later taking off by replacing the injured Cousins with the smaller Nikola Mirotic.
Was the era of the small-ball lineup a permanent fixture moving forward? It would seem that if you wanted success, or more specifically, wanted to stop the Warriors, you had to play their game. But since last season, or as the final iteration of this version of Golden State, we’ve seen teams bring back lineups that feature two pure or close-to-seven-footers.
Let’s start with the one that’s proven to be a successful pairing: Nikola Jokic and Mason Plumlee. That isn’t the Nuggets’ most-featured duo. Denver usually starts Paul Millsap next to the Joker, and this season, we may not see Plumlee and Jokic share the court as much now that they have Jerami Grant.
Still, these two proved to be an effective pairing last season. Even though both are usually seen as pure centers, in the 549 minutes they shared on the court together, the Nuggets were plus-7.7 together. The success could point to Jokic just being an all-around terror when he’s on the court, but also that Plumlee can hold his own too.
More importantly, it may prove growth among NBA bigs. Jokic didn’t often show it off last year, but his three-pointer is something that teams see as a threat. The added spacing makes it easier to play those two together. It also helps that Plumlee’s mobility makes him one of the better all-around back-up centers, as he’s also an excellent rebounder and passer for his size
The irony here is that Plumlee was acquired for Jusuf Nurkic, who the Nuggets also tried to play next to Jokic. Even though Nurkic is a better talent than Plumlee, putting Nurkic and Jokic together was an all-out disaster.
Jokic and Plumlee isn’t a go-to pairing for Denver, but it is an effective one. Their success together could pave the way for teams to try it out. To be fair, some already have tried to put their bigs together that have led to mixed results. One such pairing is Indiana’s duo of Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis.
Turner and Sabonis bring unique skillsets to the Pacers. Turner is a rare hybrid of a three-point shooting shot-blocker while Sabonis is more of a post-presence offensively. Indiana has played them together which, at first, wasn’t exactly working in their favor.
Their first season, the two of them were minus-8.7 together on the court, as it seemed as if one took away from the other on both sides of the floor. Last season, there was progress and they were plus-2.8 on the floor together — but the fit still wasn’t exactly great. At times in 2018-19, there were debates on whether they should trade one or the other.
Now, with Thaddeus Young gone, Indiana has decided to put their full trust in these two as their starters. Odds are, the Pacers probably won’t play their finishing lineup with both of them. But they’ll still give this pair more time to work out their kinks together. Basketball Insiders’ Jack Winter already dove into how these two could work, so take a look at his article to educate yourselves further.
Indiana finds themselves utilizing these two because, even if the fit isn’t perfect, they are the two most talented players in their frontcourt. Teams like the Trail Blazers are in a similar position — however, the one difference between them and Indiana is that they are drastically changing up their formula.
For the last few years, Portland has relied on Mo Harkless and Al Farouq-Aminu to play the small and power forward positions. With Harkless in Los Angeles and Aminu in Orlando, Portland had a hole to fill. Instead of trying to find replacements to do what those two did, they decided to switch things up. New acquisition Kent Bazemore, who hasn’t played much power forward in his career, is slated to start at small forward, and third-year seven-footer Zach Collins is should begin at power forward next to Hassan Whiteside.
Playing Collins with their other centers is something they’ve tried before. When he shared the floor with Meyers Leonard last season, they were plus-0.7 together. With Enes Kanter, they were a plus-9.8. With Jusuf Nurkic, they were plus-3.4. Of note, the only pairing of the three listed that saw substantial minutes was him and Leonard.
Now, all three are gone or recovering, and in comes Hassan Whiteside, who is a little different from the others, to say the least. At the top of his game, Whiteside is an elite rim protector/alley-oop finisher, but we haven’t seen that from the center since 2017. Pairing him up with Collins, who is quite mobile for his size and has even shown a so-so three-ball, will definitely factor into how Portland follows up from their most successful playoff campaign since 2000.
The oversized frontcourt pairings that have been mentioned all have one thing in common: They’ll be used on the floor, but they likely won’t be counted on in crunch time. Could there be a team that may count on a two-center pairing when the going gets tough? There just might be with the Chicago Bulls.
There’s a lot of excitement surrounding the next generation of Baby Bulls. Drew Mays already covered all the hype surrounding the Windy City, so let’s cut to the chase: A looming part of their promising future hinges on their frontcourt of Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr.
Markkanen is already one of the most promising bigs in the league — highlighted by a phenomenal February where he averaged 26 points on 48/35/92 splits at 21 years old — so his career trajectory should only get higher from here. Carter is a different story as his rookie season was marred by injuries.
Most tragic of all was that by the time the team had acquired Otto Porter Jr., which changed their fortunes for the better, Carter was already out for the season because of a thumb injury. Now he’s coming back to a team that believes they have a clearer identity.
But his fit with Markkanen has been a prickly one. In the 436 minutes they were together on the court, the Bulls were minus-13.7. The upshot is that those minutes were played over a small 21-game sample, most of them came back when the Bulls were the NBA’s doormat too — so why does that feel so long ago when it hasn’t even been a year?
With Chicago on the upswing, they are banking on that these two fitting in together will help the team get back to the playoffs. Markkanen’s already established himself as a deep threat, while Carter came into the league with many believing he could be as well. If they both can space the floor, this could work out as well as they hope, and might just be what encourages teams to put more size in their respective frontcourts again.
Now it’s very possible that we may never see a team finish a game with two centers in the league again. That part of the game may be gone for good — but having more height on your team may not be as much of a disadvantage as we may have thought.
If this trend continues in an upward direction, then maybe size was never really dead to begin with. Perhaps, in the end, frontcourt players just needed the time to evolve — now they’re doing just exactly that.
NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong
Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.
It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.
Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.
Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.
1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.
A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.
Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part. Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.
Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.
Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.
Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.
Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.
Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.
The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.
The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.
To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.
For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.
To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.
Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.
On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.
Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?
Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.
Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.
In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.
For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.
Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards
Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.
We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.
The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.
With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.
The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.
Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old
Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.
He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.
Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.
Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old
Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.
He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.
Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.
Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old
Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.
He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.
One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old
Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards
Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.
It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.
Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.
The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.
But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.
Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old
Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.
But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.
Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.
Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old
Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.
And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.
While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.
If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.
Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old
Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).
Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.
Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.
Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old
Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.
Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.
But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.
Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.
Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old
Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old
Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old
With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.