After years of ascending small-ball, the Association’s best are winning with size.
The last 20 years of NBA basketball can be seen broadly as a process of reorienting the focus of play from the low post to the perimeter – specifically to the three-point line. The NBA in the 1990s was a brutal place, where “freedom of movement” did not really exist and intimidating defensive bigs took sadistic glee in physically punishing anyone who dared attack their baskets.
The most common strategy NBA teams employed to deal with those bigs was isolation offense. The two general options featured either a countering big large and skilled enough to take the punishment and score anyway (Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson), or a smaller player who could operate in space while the bigs manipulated the illegal defense rules to clear the paint (Michael Jordan, Reggie Miller).
Beginning in the early 2000s the league decided to actively discourage isolation ball, particularly from the post. Anxious to prop up viewership after Jordan’s second retirement and faced with a seemingly unstoppable post player in O’Neal, the league reasoned that loosening up the ball and refocusing play toward the perimeter would make the game more exciting for fans.
First to go was the illegal defense, changes to which permitted partial help positions that fell short of a double team, effectively legalizing zone defense for the first time in the NBA. The variety of additional defensive coverages this rule change allowed made scoring in isolation from the post significantly harder. Then came the outlawing of hand checks and the freedom of movement rules, both designed to give perimeter players the room to run freewheeling motion offenses.
The collection of new defensive rules made post-ups with bulky centers a less attractive and less efficient option on offense, even in the presence of a mismatch. The consequence was that when elite teams – eg the LeBron James-era Miami Heat and the Golden State Warriors – chose to go small and space the floor with a bevy of strong wings rather than play traditional bigs, teams who did play those bigs were exposed on defense and unable to compensate offensively.
The center position became smaller, quicker, and emphasized switchability over rim protection on the defensive end. On offense, former back-to-the-basket bigs found themselves required to stand in the corner or the “dunker spot” as floor spacers while their ball-handlers attacked the rim. Those who were unable to space effectively found they had little left to contribute.
Collectively, these changes paved the way for the brand of maximally spaced, three-point gunning, wing-dominant basketball we have seen in the association for most of the last decade. In the process, they banished the kind of slow, bruising defensive big so popular in the 90s and 00s. Guys like Roy Hibbert and Timofey Mozgov, once important pieces on contending teams, found the market for their services wither and die in the space of two years.
As mentioned above, the necessary thing for a modern big to provide on offense is spacing. Spacing in the new NBA generally comes with the connotation of three-point shooting, but that need not be the case. Non-shooting lob threats such as Javale McGee and Jarrett Allen have leveraged their length and athleticism to space the floor in the third, vertical dimension rather than laterally toward the three-point line.
There is a simple reason why a pure lob threat can be impactful in the NBA today in a way that a more skilled back-to-the-basket scorer who lacks athleticism cannot; offenses no longer begin in the post. Initiating the offense from the post position allows 20 years’ worth of rule changes to work against it.
It is much more efficient to penetrate from the perimeter, where the rules are friendlier to the offensive player, and then allow the big to read the defensive help and act as a finisher. Regardless, a plausible big on a successful NBA team must be able to either step out to the three-point line or be a lob threat and elite finisher from the screen and roll.
The Lakers have gone all-in on the latter approach, sacrificing more shooting from the 5 positions in exchange for athletically gifted finishers. They are able to do so because both McGee and Dwight Howard are significant lob threats and skilled finishers around the basket from the bounce pass. The offense rarely runs through them, but they make themselves essential by expanding the variety as well as the location of passes a ball-handler can make.
Anthony Davis provides yet another degree of complexity as he is a finishing threat from the pocket pass, lob, or three-point line. LeBron James, with the potential to shoot or drive from all three levels, finds that he regularly has several shooters and a lob threat/finisher from which to select his preferred assist. Regardless of who provides the help, he is always one pass from a good shot.
The Bucks, alternatively, have focused on the shooting big approach with players like Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova. Uniquely in their case, Giannis Antetokounmpo is properly classified (for now) as a non-shooting big but is also their primary ball-handler. As a result, the Bucks have found it convenient to play a 5-out offense. They trust Antetokounmpo’s superior physical gifts to break down the defense and give him an array of three-point shooters to choose from based on the source of the help defense.
The defensive end of the floor is the most important for bigs. As analytics gurus since Dean Oliver have pointed out, even in the days of the illegal defense, it was never necessary for a successful offensive team to have a dominant big. Elite perimeter players can score just as well.
On the contrary, almost every great historical defense has been anchored by an intimidating big. The reason is obvious; the two most efficient shots in the game are layups/dunks and foul shots, and a skilled defensive big significantly reduces the number of such shots an offense can produce.
The problem, as illustrated, is that with the increased efficiency of the three-point shot in the last ten years such a player must be able to reasonably contest the three-point line as well as rim protect. If the big cannot do both, the defense has to find some way to compensate on the perimeter in order to keep him from being played off the floor.
The Bucks are able to play a slower-footed big like Lopez on defense in a way most teams would not be. They can do so because of the absurd length and athleticism across the remainder of their lineup. Their array of wings can cover the necessary space on the perimeter to allow Lopez to use his talents and timing as a rim protector without being taken advantage of by perimeter players with too much regularity. The fact that they can make their rotations more quickly means they either don’t have to switch quite so frequently or are able to recover faster.
The Lakers, by contrast, have been blessed with three proper bigs who have the combination of quickness and length needed to contain ball-handlers in Davis, Howard, and McGee. In important game situations throughout the season, the Lakers have trusted those three in 1v1 situations against smaller players and found that the switch is not systematically exploitable.
The scarcity of the true big in recent years is largely due to the rapidly changing nature of the position. It is hard enough to last 5 or 10 years in the grueling climate of the NBA, but to be asked to do so from a position the demands of which are shifting in ways many players are unable to accommodate seem downright cruel. Teams have found it easier to play small and diversify skill-sets than to have to pick their poison with players who are more physically gifted but less versatile.
The Lakers and Bucks have taken two distinct but related approaches to solving these problems which deliver a solid collective blueprint for how to play with real size in the modern NBA.
The Bucks use their shooting bigs to provide maximum space for Antetokounmpo on offense while covering for their perimeter defensive deficiencies with the combination of elite size and athleticism at the other positions. The Lakers, meanwhile, have chosen to employ multiple switchable rim-protectors for maximum defensive versatility, while compensating for their lack of shooting bigs with several elite lob threats who provide vertical spacing.
Both choices have benefits and drawbacks. The Bucks are far and away from the best in the NBA at defending the rim, in part because they always have their primary rim protector somewhere in the vicinity. The Lakers conversely allow fewer three-pointers than the Bucks because their switchable bigs are able to deter otherwise-good shots.
For all their stylistic differences, the essential commonality is that these two teams have found a way to play big without being overextended by jump-shooting, wing-heavy lineups of the sort that have been the most successful in recent years. The fact that the two teams doing this most effectively are the two best teams in the league by every commonly used metric is suggestive.
There are a number of cogent arguments to be made that the NBA ought to consider rule changes to revive some of the skilled big play lost in the last 20 years. Even in the absence of those changes, though, it seems that perhaps – like many dinosaurs – the NBA center is not dying out so much as simply evolving. As more bigs are brought into the league to specifically fill the strategic niches exposed by teams like the Lakers and Bucks, playing larger may well find itself in vogue once again.
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