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NBA Daily: Is Size Making A Comeback?

The rise of small-ball made it seem as though the era of extra height was done, but Matt John takes a look at several teams who will use their extra height in their frontcourt to their advantage.

Matt John

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“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.

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NBA Daily: The Young, Western Conference Bubble

The race for the West’s final playoff spot may seem crowded, but the last two months make it clear that two teams are already ahead of the pack.

Douglas Farmer

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We all jump to conclusions too quickly, this space and this scribe most certainly included. Three months ago, five weeks into the NBA season, the Western Conference playoff bubble looked like it would be a race between the Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves. That has assuredly not become the reality.

While the Kings and Suns can claim to still be in the playoff race, they would have to not only make up five-game deficits, but they would also each have to jump over four other teams to reach the postseason. The Timberwolves would delight at such challenges as they initiate a not-so-subtle tank with franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns sidelined for at least a few weeks with a fractured wrist.

Instead, the race to be swept by the Los Angeles Lakers has come down to a pair of up-and-comers, a perpetual deep threat and the NBA’s most consistent organization. Of all of them, it is the youngsters who are both currently playing the best and have the most control of their playoff hopes relative to their competition.

Between the current No. 8-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, the Portland Trail Blazers (3 games back), New Orleans Pelicans (3.5) and San Antonio Spurs (4), the next six weeks will feature eight key games. Five of those will include either the Grizzlies or the Pelicans or, in two instances, both.

That pair of matchups is still a month out, but they warrant circling already, nonetheless. Memphis and New Orleans have been playing at a high level for two-plus months now, and by the time they play two games within four nights in late March — when the basketball world is largely distracted by the NCAA Tournament — the two inexperienced teams may have completely separated from Portland and San Antonio.

After starting 1-5, 5-13 and then 10-19, the Grizzlies have gone 18-9 since Dec. 21. The Pelicans have matched that record exactly, down to the date, since starting even worse than Memphis did, bottoming out at 7-23 before finding an uptick long before Zion Williamson found the court. Winning two-thirds of your games for two months is a stretch with a sample size large enough to make it clear: Neither Memphis nor New Orleans should be dismissed in this playoff chase.

Their early-season profiles were examples of young teams sliding right back into the lottery — and there was absolutely no indication a surge was coming.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 106.4 – No. 23 106.8 – No. 21
Defensive Rating 111.7 – No. 23 113.5 – No. 27

Through Dec. 20; via nba.com.

Then, for whatever reason, things changed. They changed in every way and in ways so drastically that one cannot help but wonder what could come next for the teams led by the top-two picks from last summer’s draft.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 111.9 – No. 15 115.1 – No. 4
Defensive Rating 109.3 – No. 11 110.3 – No. 13

Since Dec. 21, through Feb. 23; via nba.com.

In a further coincidence of records and timing, the Blazers and Spurs have both gone 13-16 since Dec. 21.

If all four teams in the thick of things out west continue at these two-month winning rates for another month, then Portland and San Antonio will have drifted out of the playoff conversation before Williamson and Ja Morant meet for a second time. Of course, those rates would keep New Orleans a few games back of Memphis; the latter has 14 games, compared to 12, before March 21, so the gap in the standings would actually expand to an even four games.

If the Pelicans can just pick up a game or two before then, though, they have already beaten the Grizzlies twice this season. Doing so twice more that week would just about send New Orleans into the playoffs – at which point, perhaps Williamson could steal a game from LeBron James to put a finishing coda on his rookie season.

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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southwest Division

David Yapkowitz finishes Basketball Insiders’ Stretch Run series with an overview of the Southwest Division.

David Yapkowitz

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We’ve hit that point in the NBA season approaching the final stretch of games before the playoffs roll around in April. The trade deadline has come and gone, the buyout market is wearing thin and most teams have loaded up and made their final roster moves in anticipation of the postseason.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re taking a look at each team — division by division– at what they need to do to get ready for the playoffs, or lack thereof. Looking at the Southwest Division, this was a division that used to be one of the toughest in the league.

It still is for the most part. The Texas triangle of the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs was no joke and hell for opposing teams on a road trip. Those are still a couple of formidable teams, but with the exception of the Rockets, it’s not quite near the level of yesteryear.

The Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans are a pair of young, up-and-coming teams that will give you 100 percent every night. While Memphis sits firmly in the eighth spot in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on the outside looking in. Here’s a look at how each team might fare in the stretch run.

The Houston Rockets have been the best team in the Southwest all season long, and all that remains for them is playoff positioning. They currently sit in fourth place in the West, giving them home-court advantage in the first round, but they could just as easily slip a bit with the Utah Jazz essentially tied with them record-wise in the standings and the Oklahoma City Thunder a mere two games back.

The Dallas Mavericks have taken a huge leap this season behind Luka Doncic, who is rapidly becoming one of the best players in the league. They currently sit in seventh place in the West and a return to the postseason is in the cards for the Mavericks.

The rest of the teams in the Southwest is where things get a little interesting. The Grizzlies have been one of the surprises of the season, as they’ve defied expectations and are firmly entrenched in the playoff race out West. They have a three-game lead on the Portland Trail Blazers and a four-game lead on the San Antonio Spurs.

Out of the Grizzlies’ final 26 games, 15 of them come against teams over .500, more than either the Blazers or the Spurs. 14 of those final 26 are also on the road, again, more than the Blazers or the Spurs. They also play both the Spurs and Blazers one more time this season. If the Grizzlies end up making the playoffs, it will be very well earned.

The Spurs are knocking on the door, and they have one more game against the Grizzlies which could prove to be very meaningful. This is a team that has been one of the standard-bearers in the league for success over the past decade. Their streak of playoff appearances is in serious jeopardy.

They’ve won two of their last three games, however, and out of their final 26 games, 15 of those are at home, where they are 14-12. Based on how the Grizzlies are playing though, a close to .500 record at home probably isn’t going to cut it. They’re going to need to pick it up a bit over the next month if they want to keep their playoff streak intact. A lot can happen between now and then, and the Grizzlies do have a tough remaining schedule, but it looks as if San Antonio will miss the playoffs for the first time in 22 years.

The final team in the Southwest is the Pelicans, boosted by the return of prized rookie and No.1 draft pick Zion Williamson. Prior to the start of the season, the Pelicans were looked at as a team that could possibly contend for the eighth seed in the West. Then Williamson got hurt and things changed.

But the team managed to stay afloat in his absence, and as it stands, they’re only three-and-a-half games back of the Grizzlies with 26 games left to play. Out of the bottom three teams in the division, it’s the Pelicans who have the easiest schedule.

Out of those 25 games, only seven of them come against teams over .500. They are, however, just about split with home and away games. New Orleans is 8-2 over their past 10 games, better than the Grizzlies and Spurs. If Memphis falters down the stretch due to its tough schedule, and the Pelicans start gaining a little bit of steam, things could get interesting in the final few weeks.

In all likelihood, the Pelicans probably won’t make the playoffs as not only do they have to catch up to the Grizzlies, but the Spurs and Blazers as well. But it certainly will be fun to watch them try.

There are some big storylines in the Southwest Division worth following as we begin the final run to the postseason. Can the young Grizzlies defy expectations and make a surprise return to the playoffs? Will the Spurs get their playoff streak snapped and finally look to hit the reset button after nearly two decades of excellence? Can the Pelicans, buoyed by Williamson’s return, make a strong final push?

Tune in to what should be fun final stretch in the Southwest.

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southeast Division

With the All-Star Break behind us, the final stretch of NBA games has commenced. Quinn Davis takes a look at a few teams in the Southeast Division that have a chance at making the dance.

Quinn Davis

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Well, that was fast.

With the NBA All-Star break in the rearview, there are now fewer than 30 games to play for all 30 NBA teams. In other words, time is running out for certain teams to improve their seeding in the conference.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we will be looking at a certain subset of teams that are right on the border of making or missing the playoffs. In this edition, the focus will be on the Southeast Division.

The Southeast features three teams — the Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards — operating in the lower-middle-class of the NBA. These three will be slugging it out over the next month-and-a-half for the right to meet the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.

The two remaining teams are the Miami HEAT and Atlanta Hawks. As this is being written, the former is comfortably in the playoffs at 35-20, while the latter is comfortably gathering more ping pong balls at 16-41.

In this space, the focus will be on the three bubble teams. The Magic are currently frontrunners for the eighth seed, but the Wizards and Hornets are within striking distance if things were to go awry.

Led by head coach Steve Clifford, the Magic have ground their way to the eighth seed behind an eighth-ranked defense. Lanky wing Aaron Gordon is the standout, helping the Magic execute their scheme of walling off the paint. The Magic only allow 31.3 percent of opponent shots to come at the rim, putting them in 89th percentile in the league, per Cleaning The Glass.

Following a post-break loss to Dallas Mavericks, the Magic sit at 24-32 and three games up on the ninth-seeded Wizards. While a three-game margin doesn’t sound like much, that is a sizable cushion with only 26 games to play. Basketball-Reference gives the Magic a 97.4 percent chance to make the playoffs.

The Magic have the third-easiest remaining schedule out of Eastern Conference teams. They have very winnable games coming against the Bulls, Hornets, Cavaliers, Knicks and Pistons. They also have multiple games coming against the Brooklyn Nets, the team they trail by only 1.5 games for the seventh seed.

The Magic are prone, however, to dropping games against the league’s bottom-feeders. It can be difficult to string together wins with an offense this sluggish. The Markelle Fultz experiment has added some spark in that department, but his lack of an outside shot still leaves the floor cramped.

After a quick analysis of the schedule, the most likely scenario appears to be a 12-14 record over the last 26 games, putting the Magic at 36-46 come season’s end. A record like that should not be allowed anywhere near playoff basketball, but it would probably be enough to meet the Bucks in round one.

If the Magic go 12-14, that would leave the Wizards, fresh off a loss to J.B. Bickerstaff and the Cleveland Cavaliers, needing to go 17-11 over their last 28 games. They will need to finish one game ahead as the Magic hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.

The Wizards finishing that strong becomes even more farfetched when you consider their remaining schedule. They have the second-toughest slate from here on out, per Basketball-Reference.

The Wizards do have a trump card in Bradley Beal, who is the best player among the bubble teams in the East. He has now scored 25 points or more in 13 straight games and has been the driving force behind the Wizards staying in the race.

He has also picked up his defense a bit following his All-Star snub in an effort to silence his critics. The increased focus on that end is nice, but it would’ve been a little nicer if it had been a part of his game earlier in this season when the Wizards were by far the worst defense in the league.

Even if Beal goes bonkers, it is hard to see a path for this Wizards team to sneak in outside of a monumental collapse in Orlando. Looking at their schedule, it would take some big upsets to even get to 10 wins over their last 28. Their most likely record to finish the season is 8-20 if all games go to the likely favorites.

The Wizards’ offense has been impressive all season, but injuries and a porous defense have been too much to overcome.

The Hornets, meanwhile, trail the Wizards by 1.5 games and the Magic by 4.5 games. They have won their last three in a row to put themselves back in this race, but they still have an uphill climb.

The Hornets also may have raised the proverbial white flag by waiving two veterans in Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The goal coming into this season was never to make the playoffs, so they are likely more interested in developing young talent over these last 27 games.

If the Magic do play up to their usual levels and go 12-14, it would require the Hornets to go 18-9 to finish the season against the sixth-toughest remaining schedule in the East.

Devonte’ Graham and his three-point shooting have been a bright spot for the Hornets, but it would take some otherworldly performances from him and Terry Rozier down the stretch to put together a record like that. Basketball-Reference gives this a 0.02 percent chance of happening (cue the Jim Carrey GIF).

Barring a miracle, the eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference are locked in place. The only questions remaining are how seeds 2-6 will play out, and whether the Magic can catch the Nets for the seventh spot.

The Wizards will fight to the end, but it is unlikely they make up any ground given the level of opponents they will see over the next six weeks. The Hornets, meanwhile, are more likely to fight for lottery odds.

At least the playoffs should be exciting.

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