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Finding a New Future for the NBA’s Low-Post Big Men

Back-to-the-basket bruisers are the latest specialists. Make room, defensive stoppers and 3-point marksmen.

AP Images/Ringer illustration
AP Images/Ringer illustration

After a long summer of topless championship parades, free-agency meetings in the Hamptons, Snapchat mishaps, and gold medals, the NBA is finally, truly, really, almost back. The start of training camp marks the beginning of our NBA Preview.

This is How Basketball Works Week. We’ll be looking at the scouts, stats, coaches, and tactical developments that are shaping the game.

This is what offense looked like when dominant big men ruled the NBA:

One unstoppable behemoth would go to work on the low block while the surrounding players watched in awe, effectively becoming fans on the court. When was the last time you can recall a team vacating a side of the court to let its big man grind his defender into oblivion? With more and more bigs shooting from behind the arc, some bigs today don’t even venture inside the paint. Modern teams have taken a page from the international basketball playbook by featuring 3-pointers and constant motion.

This is what offense looks like today, when small ball rules and bully ball drools:

Sure, that play was much prettier, and sure, the game has clearly changed, but Duncan, Russell, Chamberlain, Olajuwon, Shaq, Kareem — the historic big men we refer to in mononyms — would dominate today as much as they did in their respective eras. Their talent, not their usage rates, made them exceptional. Now, changes in spacing and positioning have created a new mind-set for young power forwards and centers; they don’t make bigs like they used to. “I think kids are developing differently, but everything goes around in circles,” Hornets associate head coach and NBA Hall of Famer Patrick Ewing told me Saturday as he watched his team’s bigs shoot 3s during warm-ups before a preseason game against the Celtics in Connecticut. “If you get a few bigs in the league who can do the things that we did, it’s going right back to what it was.” Ewing cites Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Davis, and Joel Embiid as three “hybrids” who could someday join the class of mononymous giants.

Dominant bigs will always have a place in the NBA, but things might not ever go back to their low-post heyday, even if Towns, Davis, and Embiid all fulfill their potential as Hall of Fame–caliber talents. Elton Brand, a basketball dinosaur drafted no. 1 in 1999, doesn’t think so. “I think it’s gonna continue the way the trend is,” Brand said. “Especially with analytics and open 3-point shots, spacing, and things like that.” The NBA is perimeter oriented. The league is filled with more talented guards than ever and it’s about to receive another influx in the 2017 draft. Teams are comfortable shifting forwards up a position, and wings who can shoot 3s and defend multiple positions often have more value than the second big on the floor. The eradication of hand-checking and the old illegal defense rule have only made it easier on perimeter scorers.

But the league isn’t The Leftovers. Low-post-scoring bigs aren’t vanishing. They’re still around, hidden in plain sight, doing what they’ve always done. They just aren’t being featured as much as they once were. The hurdle now is figuring out how teams can best maximize the strengths of their bigs without exposing their weaknesses to the venom of small-ball lineups.

Maybe they can look to football’s evolving landscape for inspiration. Running backs once ruled the NFL; use the run to set up the pass, went the old adage. But it’s a passing league now; leaguewide pass attempts have steadily risen since 2008. Running backs are frequently used in specialist roles: Teams have their smaller, shiftier passing-down backs and their bigger, stronger short-yardage/goal-line backs. Feature running backs still exist, but even their rushing workloads have receded.

The NBA is going down that path with the small-ball revolution. A greater emphasis is being placed on constant ball and player movement, and less on perimeter isolations and post touches. A big man who is skilled with his back to the basket is now a specialist. The Grizzlies could be on the right track by bringing Zach Randolph off the bench this season. “We’re not going to beat teams and compete with those teams at a high level if we play slow basketball,” coach David Fizdale admitted to the Associated Press. “And I just think that Marc [Gasol] and Zach together is not a formula for pace.”

Fizdale is right. Randolph is a ground-bound big whose mobility is declining, making it increasingly problematic for him to defend stretch forwards 25 feet from the rim. But that weakness is minimized when he comes into the game with two minutes left in the first and third quarters. That’s when there are, on average, only one to two starters on the court, according to 2014–15 season data compiled by Seth Partnow. The less talented the scorers on the floor, the less likely Randolph can be exposed defensively. Fizdale pitched the idea to Randolph as an “audition” for what he can be for the rest of his career: a sixth man. “That’s not a knock on him,” Fizdale told the AP. “Father Time catches up to everyone a little bit. I said: ‘Let’s show people that you’re willing and able to come off the bench and be very effective.’’’ The ends of quarters are also opportune windows for Randolph to dominate the paint and boards against lesser players, and possibly force double-teams to create an even greater advantage for the teammates around him. Randolph is a bully on the block, and it’ll be easier for him to make an impact when he’s going against players like David West or Enes Kanter instead of Draymond Green or Steven Adams.

Other teams are moving their more one-dimensional, interior-scoring bigs to the bench as well. Kanter posted a career-high 58.3 effective field goal percentage for the Thunder last season. Al Jefferson came off the bench for the Hornets and will again for the Pacers. Jahlil Okafor could come off the bench for the Sixers. Bucks head coach Jason Kidd has hinted that Greg Monroe will as well. Starting to feel like a trend, isn’t it?

The low post can be used for more than a scoring punch. The best interior big men can force double-teams, which opens up passing lanes to cutters and spot-up shooters, generally two of the most efficient scoring-play types. Monroe, for example, is an effective post scorer (0.86 points per possession last season, per Synergy), but he’s even better when he uses the post as a passing point.

Monroe is a skillful passer, posting a 1.4 assist-to-turnover ratio last season, and does a good job of spotting open teammates. The Bucks attacked with cutters more than any team in the league last season, per Synergy, with a sizable chunk of the cuts coming during post actions. “Playing with him the last few weeks,” Bucks guard Matthew Dellavedova told, “I’ve seen aspects of his game that you don’t really see as an opponent. He can really pass the ball. So the more we can move and cut off the ball when he’s got it in the post, either we’ll get layups because he’ll see us or it will allow him more room to go to work.”

NFL teams have one week to prepare for games, so they have time to construct an offensive game plan that can best exploit opponents’ deficiencies. That means there will be weeks the Bengals force-feed Jeremy Hill, their “rushing down” back, and other weeks when they’ll spread the field with Giovani Bernard. NBA teams don’t have the same luxury with just one or two days between games. “With just a coaching staff of five or six guys, you have 10 to 15 games you’re going to scout and prepare for individually. You’re the expert coach for those games,” explained an NBA assistant coach who wished to remain anonymous. “We may not play a team for three months, but coaches are still preparing throughout the year by watching how that team is evolving.” The distributed workload eases coaches’ preparation during a long 82-game season; for players, though, the assistant coach says “simplicity is always the answer.”

More experienced teams are able to vary and intensify their game plans, though. The Spurs brought Tim Duncan off the bench for only the third game in his career in an 87–79 win last season over the Warriors. Duncan played only eight minutes to counter Golden State’s smaller lineup (Andrew Bogut was out), which allowed their defense to switch nearly all on-ball and off-ball screens. Gregg Popovich needed an edge; he needed to be unpredictable against the best team in the NBA. So he took his typical rotation and shook it like a snow globe.

It’d be interesting to see coaches try this more often, especially with teams that have chemistry and continuity. Tinkering on the fly with a lineup in an oddball matchup one night, then reverting to the norm the next, could add to the gamesmanship of the 82-game season. There are variables to consider, though. Coaches and players are creatures of habit. Players enjoy knowing when they’re coming off the bench. Managing minutes and substitutions isn’t easy for coaches, and having structure eases the process. “It shows the greatness of Duncan and the Spurs coaching staff to make that change in stride,” said the assistant coach. “It speaks volumes about Tim as a person more than anything else to understand the greater good of the team.”

Positional versatility gets a lot of press in today’s positionless league, but role versatility is every bit as important. If a reserve shooter can come off the bench cold, heat up immediately, and drain 3s, he has more value than a bench player who requires minutes to develop any rhythm. If an emergency point guard can run a sharp offense despite not playing for two weeks, he has an edge. The same goes for bigs. If a specialist big can accept that his workload will be matchup dependent, and he’s able to thrive regardless of the circumstances, he has value over those who demand a regimented routine.

But there aren’t that many low-post-scoring bigs entering the league anymore, so teams are running out of options even if they want to try. While those big men will never go extinct, they’re at least an endangered species. Diamond Stone was drafted 40th and likely would’ve gone higher if he’d had a better birthday and had been draft eligible before the NBA barred high school players from the draft in 2006. He probably would’ve been a lottery pick with his mix of size, length, and brute force on the post. But he doesn’t offer a lot else, and teams today prefer the sleek, skilled bigs (like Thon Maker); the bouncy, high-energy bigs (like Pascal Siakam); and the sweet-shooting bigs (like Henry Ellenson). Stone’s scoring might’ve been enough in previous years, but it’s simply not as valuable now. It will be the same story in 2017, with few true bigs showcasing an advanced low-post-scoring skill set. It’s not as if this is anything new, though. Bigs have always wanted to play on the perimeter. “Every big man wants to step out and shoot that 3, handle the ball,” said Amir Johnson, who was the last player to be drafted straight out of high school. “Guys are now working on it and now they’re able to do it.” In 1988, high school coach Morgan Wootten told Sports Illustrated: “Kids growing up today love to play facing the basket. A kid gets big, gets some skill, and he doesn’t want to become Kareem. He wants to become a small forward or a Magic Johnson. … Kids aren’t working hard to become skilled inside players, and, second, it’s not very glamorous.”

The players haven’t changed, but the league has. Only now are bigs finally enabled to be what they’ve always wanted to be. For the throwbacks, accepting a lesser role — just like running backs have in the NFL — could allow them to maximize and enhance their diminishing value. Big men who incorporate guard skills into their games will rule the NBA for years to come, but the relics can still have a place, too.