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NBA Daily: Death Of The Big Man Was Overstated

Think the big man in dead in today’s NBA? Lang Greene says to guess again.

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For most of its storied history, the NBA has been dominated by big men roaming the paint and causing havoc. However, today’s game is dominated by point guard play which was aided in part by an adjustment to the league rules forbidding hand checking and new offensive philosophies designed to create space for outside shooting.

But when it comes to winning championships, the verdict is still out on whether building around a point guard is the surefire method to hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy at the end of the season.

Think about this for a moment, dating back to 1990, only two franchises have won championships with a point guard as the unquestioned best player on the roster – the early 90s Detroit “Bad Boy” Pistons led by Isiah Thomas and the 2015 Golden State Warriors led by Stephen Curry. Also note, for as good as Curry has been in his two title campaigns he’s yet to win a NBA Finals MVP.

Sure, we could be a little more liberal in this space and include the 2004 Detroit Pistons if you want to include Chauncey Billups as the lead guy on this title team. Out of all the players on that Pistons squad, Billups stands out as the most likely Hall of Famer, if anyone were to get the call. However, most would agree that Pistons unit was driven by the sum of the parts and not an individual component.

San Antonio guard Tony Parker was awarded NBA Finals MVP in 2007, but make no mistake the Spurs were led by Tim Duncan.

So here’s the situation.

The 90s were a golden age for NBA centers with Hall of Fame talents such as Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning and David Robinson operating in their primes. This doesn’t even include guys such as Rik Smits, Brad Daugherty or Rony Seikaly who were 20-point and 10-rebound threats on most nights.

Expecting this same trend to continue once those greats retired was completely unrealistic in hindsight. O’Neal constantly proclaimed he was the last dominant big man left and this was true as his adversaries aged out and retired. The 2000s had potential with Dwight Howard, Yao Ming and Andrew Bynum showing promise. But injuries cut short the careers of Ming and Bynum and a back injury sapped Howard of a good bit of his athleticism as he was entering his prime.

As a result, undersized centers such as Ben Wallace and Jermaine O’Neal rose in prominence while power forwards Dirk Nowitzki, Duncan, Amar’e Stoudemire, Kevin Garnett, Elton Brand, Rashard Lewis, etc. started replacing centers on All-Star rosters and All-NBA teams. The league would ultimately remove “centers” from the All-Star ballot in 2012.

It made sense at the time, but the move was a bit knee jerk.

A solid group of big men are producing in the 2010s. DeAndre Jordan, Marc Gasol, Andre Drummond, Hassan Whiteside, Brook Lopez and Steven Adams immediately come to mind. Some of these guys are limited to one side of the ball and no one is comparing them to the golden era of the 90s, but we also shouldn’t mistake them for the crop in the 2000s either.

But the future is extremely bright for those that love big man play which might make the “big man is dead” argument null and void eventually. There are numerous young guys that should carry the big man deep into the 2020s as they hit their respective primes and it will come as some of the league’s elite point guards of today start to age out. We could be in for a seismic shift in how the game is played again.

Joel Embiid has only played 94 career games in four seasons. But he’s just 24 years old and has already established himself as a 20/10 and potential perennial All-Star. The presence of Embiid is the reason the Philadelphia 76ers are set to break a six season playoff drought this year.

Karl-Anthony Towns is an absolute beast. He’s averaged double-digit rebounds every year of his career and over 20 points per night the past two campaigns for Minnesota. He’s just 22 years old and not anywhere close to his potential.

The Denver Nuggets have a gem in Nikola Jokic. He can score, rebound, pass and step outside to the three if needed. Keep in mind Jokic is only 23 and his average points, rebounds and assists have increased every season since entering the league.

DeMarcus Cousins is a four-time All-Star, consistent rebounder and truly dominant scorer. At 27, he’s the old man of this group with plenty of runway left in his career. Cousins is in many ways still searching for respect, but his game is an asset for any fan of big man play.

How you view big men also determines where you slot guys such as Anthony Davis and Kristaps Porzingis.  In years past, Davis would be considered a center in the Marcus Camby or Tyson Chandler body type mode. Porzingis doesn’t have a natural “big man” game but he is undoubtedly part of this cast of elite big bodies set to run the league in the four to five years.

These men will be joined by 7’1 DeAndre Ayton, a big man from the University of Arizona with star potential, next season.

Yes the NBA is a point guard driven league but as the leaders of the backcourt today begin to fade, there is a dominant group of elite men ready to reclaim big man dominance.

 

Lang Greene is a senior NBA writer for Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA for the last 10 seasons

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