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A look at the "end" and evolution of NBA big men

Brian Fleurantin looks at the rise and fall ... and rise again? ... of the NBA big man, and what it means for the league and the Nets.

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William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

For the past season and a half, the Golden State Warriors have been one of the best teams the league has ever seen. Their defense been incredible, the continuity among the roster's top players made the coaching transition seamless, and the ball movement on offense makes them almost impossible to defend. Their rise to the top has led many to believe that the big man is being phased out of the NBA. But as it turns out, it's a concern that's been echoed throughout league history.

From the Vault

The belief that big men are being phased out of the game isn't a  new phenomenon. In February of 1988, Sports Illustrated ran a feature story about the decline of big men in the NBA. SI writer Jack McCallum interviewed various people in and around the league that were worried about the Center position once Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone and Robert Parish retired. Then Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Fratello cautioned against the worrying, telling McCallum:

"I think people might be pushing alarm buttons saying that the end of an era is at hand. What era? We had three or four really great big men, and the whole rest of the so-called big-men era might be a myth.''

Even with Fratello saying that, there was still skepticism about the quality of big men in the league and the crop of bigs that were in the NCAA. Here's Don Nelson from the same article:

"For whatever reason, the multipurpose, multitalented center doesn't exist anymore in the college ranks. I think it's just a demise in the talent of big players."

One young player that got mentioned in the piece was Navy's David Robinson. He got critiqued for not being in the mold of former great big men by Vinnie Johnson and Jack McCloskey of Detroit, but earned praise just about everywhere else for his game, character, and commitment to his goals on and off the court. When he completed his Naval Academy requirements and joined San Antonio in 1989, he took the league by storm. Robinson was the unanimous choice for Rookie of the Year (Only the second time that had ever happened in league history. Houston big man Ralph Sampson was the first unanimous winner back in 1984.), finished sixth overall in the MVP voting, fifteenth in field goal percentage, tenth in scoring with 24.3 points per game, second in rebounding (total and per game) and led the Spurs to Game Seven of the Conference Semifinals against the Portland Trailblazers.

Glory days

The 1990s saw an influx of great centers. Top 1980s draft picks Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, and Patrick Ewing continued to excel while young big men like Rik Smits, Vlade Divac, and Dikembe Mutombo were solid contributors on their respective teams. The big breakthrough came in 1992 when Shaquille O'Neal and Alonzo Mourning were taken first and second overall in the Draft. Both of them dominated the NCAA and came in to expansion teams looking to establish themselves. O'Neal and Mourning quickly guided their teams into playoff contention and were All Star players by their second seasons. What made this period so great was that each player was distinct from the other. Olajuwon was one of the best defensive players the league had/has ever seen. O'Neal's combination of size, strength, agility, and footwork were something the league hadn't seen since Wilt Chamberlain's prime. Ewing was one of the best college players of all time and was the anchor of a Knicks team that fought to regain their standing as one of the banner franchises in the NBA. Robinson was a tremendous scorer and defender that helped San Antonio to one of the largest single season turnarounds in NBA history. And Mourning was a physical scorer in the low post that could step out to 20 feet and knock down jumpers. The league had five potential superstars at the position, and each player would go on deep playoff runs in the decade.

The increased athleticism of the game and the excellence at Center led to two major developments at the power forward position. Forwards like Portland's Cliff Robinson and Seattle's Sam Perkins could step out to the perimeter and hit three pointers at a decent rate. New Jersey's Derrick Coleman took a decent amount of threes, but he was a poor shooter from downtown but managed to contribute in other ways. Power forwards were also doing more than what was expected of them in the past. Players like Charles Barkley and Shawn Kemp could lead fastbreaks, dominate on the inside, knock down long two pointers, and fly all over the court. Lakers assistant general manager Mitch Kupchak took note of the changes around him, and in October of 1991 told John Harris of the St. Petersburg Times:

"Basically, what we have in the league today is some outstanding basketball players and some great athletes. What teams are trying to do the new trend is put those great athletes on the court with those pretty good basketball players.

Athletes make plays that aren't there. Athletes make up for mistakes. Athletes just get the job done. Basketball players do a job; they go from Point A to Point B. An athlete jumps from Point A to Point C."

With that came the entry of Kevin Garnett into the NBA in 1995. Garnett came in to the league straight out of high school and reopened the door for high schoolers to join the league. Garnett wasn't the prototypical power forward as he was a great ball handler, could score on the inside and outside, and was able to successfully guard all five positions on the court. Garnett's success led to fans, writers, and team executives reevaluating just what players could do regardless of the position they played. More on that later.

New rules and new people

In 2001, the league put an end to the illegal defense rule and allowed teams to implement zone defenses. The move was designed to promote more scoring + movement and cut down on isolation plays. The move was designed to slow big men like Shaquille O'Neal down, but Shaq was still able to dominate before injuries slowed him down. The rule change led to big men facing up more often than playing with their backs to the basket. Bruce Arthur of the National Post was concerned with the changing nature of the center position and wrote in 2002:

Though NBA players have gotten bigger in the past few decades, the big men haven't gotten better. As the North American game revolves more and more around the highlight reel plays -- slashing drives to the basket, long-bomb three-pointers, and of course, the dunk -- the classic elements of the centre's traditional game have faded. The quick drop-step, the consistent jump hook, the dancer's chart of correct post footwork -- none of those tend to make the evening news. As a result, many players who have the height eschew the might. Seven-footers now come in more versatile forms. Dallas's Dirk Nowitzki is a deadeye three-point shooter who can put the ball on the floor, while Minnesota 7-foot small forward Kevin Garnett is as adept facing the basket as any guard. Inside, it is all grinding and elbows. For children growing up big, the question has become why brawl when you can box?

Another major change that took place in the 2000s was the influx of international big men that earned starting spots on teams. It led to a small backlash in NBA and high school circles, but not much came of it. Leading the new generation of international big men was Yao Ming. Yao had been on the league's radar since 1998, but didn't get to come over until the Fall of 2001. Foot injuries derailed his career, but when he was on the court, Yao was consistently excellent. He had a great jump hook on the low block, could step out and hit 15 foot jumpers, and was one of the few players that made life difficult for Shaq in the paint.

In 2005, the NBA implemented an age limit. The rule was enacted after the league saw top picks such as Eddy Curry and Kwame Brown flame out. Thanks to injuries, poor play, and toxic environments, Brown and Curry didn't have as great of an opportunity to develop as some of their peers. The league wanted younger players to have more time to develop in the amateur ranks so they would be more prepared for the rigors of the NBA. While Shaquille O'Neal never took a public stance on the age limit, he did speak about the importance of developing his skills in college. He told the Washington Post's Mike Wise:

"When you got three little dudes hanging on you and you're still dunking on their mugs, it makes you feel like a superior being. You think that's happening, bro, if I went straight from high school?"

The first two drafts following the implementation of the age limit saw Andrea Bargnani and Greg Oden taking first, and while their careers were major disappointments, but there were quality big men taken in the lottery that were and have been able to play well for their teams. As the league kept growing, we saw big players bring new skills to the table and cause teams and organizations to adjust how they assembled rosters and made use of their assets.

Present day

I mentioned the Warriors at the beginning of this article, and their amazing run has everyone in the league looking to emulate them. Teams have sought to de-emphasize the mid range jump shot and have traded them in for more three point attempts and drives to the rim. It's led to big men like Kevin Love drifting further away from the basket and taking more three pointers than ever before. Naturally, this led to concerns about big men vanishing again:

There's something to be said for young players focusing more on their perimeter skills vs playing in the low post, but there's more to it than that. Let Adi Joseph explain:

That's where the modern basketball theory comes in. The pick-and-roll, dribble hand-off and corner three-pointer are keys to efficient offenses, particularly because the NBA has reduced one-on-one play by allowing zone defense. So pounding the ball into the post no longer works in the same way it did. Even dominant offensive big men, such as Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins and Charlotte Hornets center Al Jefferson, must find new ways to score.

This paradigm shift has left Dwight Howard in an interesting position when considering his place among the great centers in NBA history. Howard has never had what we would consider a great post game, but he was arguably the best center in the league from 2008 until his exit from Orlando in the summer of 2012. Orlando got the most out of Dwight by surrounding him with good three point shooters and wound up finishing in the top two in total three point attempts each year starting in 2007 and ending in 2012. Howard rewarded Orlando by finishing in the top five in rebounding each year since 2005, becoming the first player to ever win Defensive Player of the Year in three consecutive seasons, averaging around 20 points a night, and led them to a Finals appearance in 2009. He's hated nowadays, but that doesn't take away what he was able to accomplish.

The future

The 2015 Draft saw teams look to rebuild with big men near the top of the draft. The Knicks took Kristaps Porzingis fourth, the Sixers took Jahlil Okafor, and the Wolves took Karl Anthony Towns first overall. All three big men have played well for their teams and are the building blocks Okafor is in the mold of the "traditional" big man while Porzingis and Towns are more in the mold of modern big men that can run the floor well and draw opposing bigs to the perimeter with their jump shooting. I mentioned Garnett earlier and in an article over the summer, Key Dae of Canis Hoopus connected KG, Towns, and the way the NBA has been evolving and wrote:

The full utility of true big men who can hit the outside shot is still an unsolved Rubix Cube. The combination of that player type and the importance of the three point line is a very recent phenomenon; teams are basically still discovering and inventing the ideal uses for this right now.

If Towns can indeed make those shots at the NBA level, he won't just be a dominant force, he'll likely be a revolution. He'll be the holy grail teams have been searching for for at least the past 3 years, if not longer, and the first guy who could let an ambitious coach pull off a 100% genuine flex offense. Think about how unstoppable Golden State would be - even considering how great they already are - if Andrew Bogut could shoot threes as well.

Kevin Garnett set a unique standard for big men with his combination of rebounds and assists. Dirk set another with rebounds and threes. Towns could possibly be the one to invent the standard of threes and blocked shots. That would be a monumental deal in the NBA.

This is where the new NBA landscape comes into play. Positional versatility is so important and if you have a big that is a good ball handler and smart decision maker, you can counteract teams that look to trap on defense. Developing these skills in your players is essential and with the NBA pushing to make full use of the D-League, younger guys will have more opportunities to add to their repertoires before they become full time rotation players.

Should we be worried?

I don't think so. The league always goes through periods where one position stands out above the rest. In the 1990s, it was the Center position. In the early 2000s, it was power forward. And in this decade, point guard has been the best position in the NBA. As Mike Fratello said in 1988 and Steve Kerr said in the embedded video above, there's never really been a point in league history (with the exception of the mid 1990s) where every team had an above average, All Star caliber Center in their rotation. It's usually been a few stand out centers, some solid second tier players, and the rest of the bunch.

The Center position currently is the healthiest it's been in some time. You have a wide range of big men that contribute in different ways. Tim Duncan is the second oldest player in the league, but has been fantastic for San Antonio and will be key to them winning their sixth championship. Although they can't shoot free throws, DeAndre Jordan and Andre Drummond are excellent in the pick and roll and anchor their teams' defenses. DeMarcus Cousins is hard to handle in the low post and has successfully integrated the three pointer into his arsenal. Anthony Davis is in the mold of Kevin Garnett and can do everything on the court.

With the league becoming more P&R heavy, it's important to have big men like Brook Lopez that can hit mid range jumpers as well score in the post. I think we let ourselves fall into a trap if we look at the position through the lens of the 1990s. The rules changes and greater emphasis on three pointers have made it almost impossible for today's players to play in a similar fashion to those 90's centers. As a result, coaches have been forced to get more creative in order to maximize the talents of their big players. The league is constantly evolving, and as the NBA continues to experiment and adjust, the big men will remain integral to their team's success.