Over the past few years, it’s been no secret that the league has been transitioning away from the physical, post-centric game that benefits the behemoth big man. Once regarded as the cornerstone position within the team, the center spot has since decreased in value to the point where teams have given up starting big men for smaller, perimeter shooters. However, with big men Anthony Davis and Bam Adebayo leading their teams to the NBA Finals, could this be the turning point for an ever-shrinking league?
No team has exemplified the new ‘small ball’ approach more so than the Houston Rockets, who turned heads back in February when they traded starting center Clint Capela and acquired the smaller wing, Robert Covington. Remarkably, Houston managed to progress into one of the league’s toughest defences, holding the Oklahoma City Thunder to only 101.7 points per 100 possessions, making them the number one defence in the first round. However, when they were sent packing by the Los Angeles Lakers in the second round, their interior defense left much to be desired (as did Russell Westbrook’s shooting, in fairness).
Whilst Houston has been the most extreme case of ‘small ball’, many other teams around the league have fielded center-less lineups throughout the playoffs. Both Toronto and Boston played without traditional big men for major minutes during their seven game series, and similar-sized lineups have been played on the (pre-season favourites) Los Angeles Clippers (whose ‘center’ was Montrezll Harrel at 6”7). In each team’s case, whilst their exits can’t be solely blamed on their use of small ball, it can be argued that each team looked their best with a traditional big man on the floor. Ibaka gave Toronto rim protection (as well as some hot shooting), the ever-underrated Theis was a core piece in the Boston defense (despite being a foul magnet) and the presence of Ivica Zubac helped the Clippers play with more rhythm and flow.
Ironically, the term ‘small ball’ has been used to describe teams that load up on multi-positional, 3-and-D players that can switch on defense and share the offensive responsibilities. There’s nothing ‘small’ about these lineups, featuring a range of versatile players in the 6”7 range. Perhaps the term ‘medium ball’ would be more accurate.
Take the Clippers for example – their ‘death lineup’ included both Paul George and Marcus Morris at 6”8, and Kawhi Leonard and Motrezl Harrell at 6”7. After including their bulldog point guard, Patrick Beverley (6”1), their average height was less than one inch smaller (0.8, to be exact) than the more traditionally built Denver Nuggets starters, who played through their 7-foot center, Nikola Jokic. Ultimately, it was the Clippers ‘death lineup’ that got killed by the Nuggets, and the small ball movement was dealt another blow.
The theory of building a more ‘positionless’, versatile roster is founded upon having less weak points to be exposed in key playoff matchups. Despite his efforts, All-Star Kemba Walker (only 6-foot tall) was targeted and bullied on the defensive end during Boston’s exit to Miami. Lou Williams was subjected to the same torment on the Clippers. Consequently, all signs look towards wing-hoarding as the way forwards, but that might just be a mistake.
In a league supposedly moving away from the big man, there is a surprising imbalance at the top of the league in favour of the centre. Of the top 20 players ranked in the SI 100, 30% of them are centers. 25% of Bleacher Report’s top 20 players also centers, as well as a whopping 40% of the top 20 leaders in win shares this season also being centers – a position that takes up only 20% of the lineup on teams not playing small ball. Bearing in mind that those statistics are not including Giannis Antetonkoumpo at 6”11 and Kevin Durant at 6”10, it seems that the NBA does not have any problem with the big man. The problem, in fact, lies with how to stop them.
If this Playoffs has shown us anything, it’s that going either small or cheap at center is a mistake. Bam Adebayo, Nikola Jokic and Anthony Davis championed their way to the latter stages of the postseason with unguardable big man offense that could not be matched by their opponents (apart from the Nuggets, who were sent home late by the superior AD-led Lakers). Contrary to the hype leading into the Playoffs, it’s been the wings that have been over-valued and the skillful centers that have emerged triumphant in a year that could prove significant for the NBA’s tallest players.
It is worth noting that the likes of the Celtics, Raptors and many other playoff losers did not exit the Playoffs, struggling at center by choice. The saboteur of ‘small ball’ is the elite big man who can stretch the floor, of which the league is currently blessed with multiple. Beyond this crop of top centers in the league, the rest of the NBA has to do what it can to stay afloat.
Whether teams choose to eradicate the big man or fill the gap with a cheap fix, it looks unlikely that there is a path to a championship without top-calibre big man talent leading the team. With Bam Adebayo heading towards elite player status and Anthony Davis destroying anyone in his path, The Finals provides no greater testament to the value of the center and the need for size. May the best big man win.