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Is This the End of Big Men in the NBA?

While we are watching some quality Olympic basketball and waiting to see how Kevin Durant is adapting to his new team in Bay Area, Russell Westbrook taking all the shots he wants in Oklahoma and LeBron James finding himself as an underdog again (seriously, again?!?!), we suggest a little bit of a perspective…

The 2015/16 NBA season should be considered a historic one for several reasons.phoenix-spurs-bigs

The first is definitely the kind of marvelous record-setting, one-of-a-kind regular season of the Golden State Warriors.

The second is the manner in which the Cleveland Cavaliers shell-shocked those Warriors, coming back from a 1-3 deficit in the Finals.

Finally, the third reason is that this summer the League said good-bye to two of the arguably top-5 bigmen of the 21st century so far: Amare Stoudemire and Tim Duncan.

If nothing else, these two great power forwards hanging their sneakers up officially symbolizes the end of an era in the history of basketball, the era when the game was dominated by bigmen.

We tried to look back on how bigs used to be the focus of every team and answer the question: “do the bigmen have a role in today’s NBA?”

The Pioneer of Big Men

It is rooted in the nature of the game that taller and longer players have significant advantage over smaller ones. It is the case now and it was the case back in the 40s and 50s, when professional basketball was still at its infancy.

Back then the most dominant player in the world was George Mikan. “Mr. Basketball”, as he was known at that time, combined great size at 6’10 with even better skills (considering the overall level of players, but still).

Mikan’s dominance was borderline legendary: he averaged over 27 points per game during NBA’s inaugural season, won multiple titles and MVP awards and, what is most important, had rules changed because of how unstoppable he was, namely, the league decided to widen the painted area from 6 to 12 feet and introduced the goaltending rule.

The Showdown

There’s no doubting the greatness and legacy of Mikan, but he didn’t have a challenger, a nemesis, who was equal to him in terms of dominance and pushed him to even higher levels of play.

The 1960s brought the world one of the greatest rivalries sports have ever seen: Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, who had 13 NBA titles and 9 MVP awards between them.

The two were almost the exact opposites, both in terms of their playing styles and in terms of their personalities. Russell was an elite defensive specialist, an ultimate team player and a model citizen and activist off the court. Wilt “the Stilt”, on the contrary, was an offensive force and a player for whom stats, milestones and spotlight might have meant more than teammates.

But both of them shared one thing in common: they were the focal points of what their respective teams tried to do on the court, dominated through their size, strength and athletic ability and helped mold the game of basketball for generations to come.

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The “which league had better players” debate could be a topic of a separate book, so let’s just say that the NBA-ABA era and several years after the merger are rightfully considered the boom period for dominant bigmen.

The reason for such spike, we think, is the dominance showed by Mikan, Russell, Chamberlain, Nate Thurmond, Willis Reed, Walt Bellamy and other bigs of the 1960s, plus extra time and effort that coaches and players themselves dedicated to their development and desire to mold their games after the great bigmen of the past.

Just the list of the names alone can awe you: Kareem, Moses Malone, Maurice Lucas, Artis Gilmore, Connie Hawkins, Dave Cowens, Bob Lanier, Wes Unseld, Bill Walton, Bob McAdoo… The list can go on and on and it’s a tribute to the era and the fact, how important an all-around great bigman was for a success of a basketball team.

The Golden Era of Basketball

 

The Golden Era of basketball is often thought to be the 1980s and 1990s and tied to the names of Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and later – Michael Jordan.

The game was still very much dependent on the bigmen both offensively and defensively, but it was the time when the focus started to shift to other positions on the court. Some teams and coaches tried to look forward and find the next dominant point guard a-la Isiah Thomas or develop the next Jordan-esque explosive wing player.

Bigger players still prospered and played important roles for their respective franchises, like Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon and Later Shaq, David Robinson and Alonzo Mourning.

The Shift

In the late 1990s NBA basketball became too isolation heavy, slow and overly physical. That was definitely not the most viewer-friendly combination and the league’s office decided to make the game more free-flowing, high-scoring and spectacular.

A special committee was assembled to study basketball and come up with possible alterations, and that’s what the committee suggested: to introduce a defensive three-second violation, reduce allowable time to advance the ball past half court from 10 seconds to 8, and generally allow less physical contact by eliminating hand-checking and putting extra emphasis on protecting players when they are driving and shooting the ball.

All the rule changes were successfully accepted and implemented between 2001 and 2004, and that made a seismic shift in how the game is played.

New rules catered to faster offenses and faster players.

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The old time-consuming post-up by a bigman, which used to be a go-to play in the 80s now gave way to dribble penetration by a guard or a wing player. Extra emphasis on dribble drives also created more room for shooters and brought more passing, which made the game more exciting to watch for a common viewer.

This, together with influences from international basketball, gave birth to a whole generation of offensive systems, which valued speed, spacing and shooting, from Don Nelson’s “Nelly-ball” and Mike D’Antoni’s “7 seconds or less” to Gregg Popovich’s version of motion offense and now to what Terry Stotts, Brad Stevens and Steve Kerr are doing with Portland, Boston and Golden State respectively.
A change of focus in the NBA also caused the change in how young players are taught and coached. There still were successful old school power forwards and centers, like Tim Duncan, but also the new era bigmen, like Kevin Garnett and Amare Stoudemire.

The Present

What we are seeing now is basically erosion of borders between the old five positions. “Position-less basketball” is a trendy notion and it perfectly describes what coaches and players are trying to achieve.

Look at Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis: some 25-30 years ago a coach would lock them into the weight room and won’t let them out until they are 250-260 pounds heavy to be able to meet physical demands of the game, but now, considering their athletic ability, mobility and well-rounded skill set, they are mismatch nightmares and can dominate the game without dominating their opponents physically.

It is very true that a solid old-fashioned center can still come in handy for many teams, but he has to be extremely good at what he is doing, be it super-human athletic talents, pick’n’roll prowess or suffocating defense.

Just look at Dwight Howard, Joakim Noah, Andrew Bogut, DeAndre Jordan and Rudy Gobert: they are all good players and valuable pieces to their teams, but they can easily turn from positives to negatives, become lane-cloggers and space killers for their teammates.

The Future

So, getting back to the question whether the bigmen have a role in today’s NBA, we can definitely say yes, they do, but that role largely depends on player’s adaptability and willingness to step outside the frame of the term “bigman”.

There are still classic bigmen tasks teams need their players to perform, like protecting the basket, but offensively, bigger players are now asked to be a ball-movers, rim runners, screen setters and floor stretchers, if they want to get consistent playing time.
Today we have glimpses of what the ideal big of the future would look like in Demarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Draymond Green and Karl Towns: players who combine great physical stature (well, except for Green), phenomenal athleticism, ability to make a play for the team inside or from the perimeter, and be able to defend against both low-post bigs and perimeter-oriented players.

 

 

 

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