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Big Men Have Two Paths in Today’s NBA: Be Special or Be a Specialist

Anthony Davis proved in the Lakers’ Game 2 win that size still matters in the modern game. But the postseason as a whole has also shown that if you don’t have an elite big, you should only make small investments in the position.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA big man never died. It only evolved. Anthony Davis and Nikola Jokic made that clear Sunday night, scoring the final 22 points in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals. Davis hit a buzzer-beating 3 off the catch to give the Lakers a win and a 2-0 lead in the series over the Nuggets. “Shit, in the second half, I leaned on him,” LeBron James said after the game. “And he brought us home.”

Davis seemed destined for this moment. He was a top recruit out of high school who spent one year at Kentucky, where he dominated and won a national championship. Then he became a no-brainer no. 1 pick in 2012 for his guard-like skills in a big man’s body. What Davis is doing now in the postseason—averaging 28.7 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 3.9 assists while playing tremendous defense—is verification of his all-time-great potential. “It’s for sure the greatest shot of my career,” Davis said of his game-winner. Many more legacy-defining moments could come from Davis if the Lakers advance past Jokic and get to the NBA Finals.

To get to this point, Jokic has taken a much different path than Davis. Though Jokic’s clairvoyant passing ability was apparent when he was a teenage Serbian prospect, nobody saw him becoming a clutch go-to scorer, a lead ball handler, and the best player on his team. Jokic was picked 41st in the 2014 draft. Yes, 40 players were selected before the guy who’s helped lead consecutive 3-1 comebacks and has averaged 25.4 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 5.9 assists throughout the playoffs.

Davis and Jokic aren’t just two of the game’s best big men—they’re two of the best players. But Jokic’s career is the one that’s more like that of the NBA’s other top 10 big men. Look around the league. Draymond Green got picked 35th. Rudy Gobert went 27th. Giannis Antetokounmpo fell to no. 15. Bam Adebayo was drafted 14th. Domantas Sabonis went 11th. Other than Davis, only Karl-Anthony Towns (first), Joel Embiid (third), and Kristaps Porzingis (fourth) were drafted in the top five. Great bigs have been found throughout the draft.

Meanwhile, since Davis went first in 2012, the top of the draft has seen its share of top-five busts (Thomas Robinson, Jahlil Okafor, Dragan Bender), underwhelming talents (Alex Len, Marvin Bagley III), and a role player (Cody Zeller). The disappointments far exceed the promising bigs (Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr., Zion Williamson).

The top-tier bigs—particularly Davis and Giannis—have raised the bar for what is required to be elite at the position. They are highly versatile defenders who protect the paint and carry heavy offensive loads as shot creators and scorers. Players like Towns and Porzingis require bigs to step away from the rim and to the perimeter. Teams aren’t devaluing size. It’s just increasingly difficult for teams to find players with the requisite skills to succeed against the modern bigs. That’s why fewer of them are being drafted high, and most teams are choosing to invest later in the draft or bargain hunt.

The Celtics are a perfect example. Robert Williams and Grant Williams were drafted in the 20s; Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter are signed for only a combined $9.8 million guaranteed. None of them are stars, but they all offer complementary skills depending on what the Celtics need. Theis is a serviceable defender who can shoot 3s and give reliable offense as a screener and finisher; Time Lord brings athleticism and shot-blocking; Grant offers versatility and playmaking; Kanter is a bruising post presence and rebounder. Boston plays center by committee, and with so much of its salary cap invested in great guards and wings, the team has the choice to play without a center, too. The Celtics represent how some teams are thinking: Unless a big man is a clear superstar, they might be better off looking for discounts and investing resources elsewhere. That’s what the Celtics have done, the Heat did by shedding Hassan Whiteside after Adebayo showed promise (and to free salary cap space to help acquire Jimmy Butler), and the Lakers did to support Davis.

All season long, and in the playoffs against the Trail Blazers and Nuggets, Davis shared the frontcourt with JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard, two signings that were mocked not only by fans and media but by coaches and executives within the league. McGee and Howard have proved everyone wrong by showing how much situation matters in the NBA. Once again, McGee is performing well in a limited role, just like he did in his two championship seasons with the Warriors. He’s making only $4 million. Howard finally bought into a reserve role and is giving the Lakers energetic defense, active rebounding, and loud interior scoring. Howard has gone from one of the game’s best bigs to a role player auditioning to be late-career Dennis Rodman. He’s making only $2.6 million.

Teams can’t punt on the position, though. For any team to get through the Western Conference in the coming years, there’s a strong possibility they’ll need to get through Davis or Jokic. AD just overpowered the Rockets, while Jokic made the Clippers look foolish every single time they doubled him. Utilizing only one player as tall as 6-foot-8, like the Rockets did with Jeff Green this postseason, isn’t going to cut it in these matchups.

Could building with lower-cost centers be a formula other teams follow? We’ll see what happens, starting on draft night. Memphis center James Wiseman is widely considered a top prospect in the class, though he isn’t a “no-brainer no. 1 pick” like AD or Zion—or KAT, for that matter. In fact, some executives and scouts have him ranked outside of their top five rankings, and others have him out of their top 10. It’s not that he isn’t a good prospect. There’s actually little doubt that he’ll have a long career. Wiseman is 7-foot-1 with strength, speed, and superb athleticism. He could easily carve out a role as a rim runner who can be an imposing interior presence on defense. Teams just question his upside. Skeptics wonder: Can he become a shooting threat from the perimeter? Can he create for others? Will he show more awareness when defending the paint? How much will he improve his fundamentals defending on the perimeter? And if he doesn’t do any or all of that, then what path does that send the team down?

The NBA salary cap will determine rookie-scale contracts, and it’s currently unclear how the league’s recent financial losses will affect next year’s cap. But as of now, the no. 1 pick is projected to earn $12 million annually for the next four seasons. Every big on the final four teams in the playoffs is signed for less money next season except for Davis (player option for $28.8 million), Jokic ($28.5 million), and Kelly Olynyk (player option for $13.2 million). It’s a pricier investment than most teams are paying to get quality minutes out of the position. Does Wiseman eventually get paid over $20 million or even the max as a free agent, even if he winds up being good but not great? And in the meantime, does his rookie deal prevent a team from signing harder-to-find wings? The Timberwolves have the no. 1 pick and need someone who complements Towns and D’Angelo Russell. The Warriors draft second, and they’re in win-now mode.

Quality wings are scarce across the league, and shot creation remains the most important skill in the playoffs, so guards retain an important role. It’s no wonder teams are spending less on bigs, unless they are obvious superstars like Davis and Jokic.

Behind Wiseman, the draft is littered with big-man options outside of the lottery—like Maryland sophomore Jalen Smith, who can shoot 3s and handle; or Washington’s bruising center, Isaiah Stewart; or Gonzaga sharpshooter Killian Tillie, who would be a lottery pick if it weren’t for his injury history. The list goes on. Even if those players don’t work out, they’ll make about what Howard does: Next season, the 15th pick is projected to make $3.5 million and the 30th pick will make $2.1 million. The teams who hit on their late-first- and second-round picks will have contributors playing at bargain prices.

Free agency lacks top-end talent but has unrestricted veterans like Marc Gasol, Tristan Thompson, Hassan Whiteside, and Aron Baynes and a young restricted free agent in Jakob Poeltl. It’s not that none of them will get paid—bigs ranging from good players like Myles Turner and Clint Capela to reserves like Gorgui Dieng and Dewayne Dedmon all make between $13 million and $18 million. Teams are going to pay bigs because they still need to fill holes in their roster; it’s just a matter of whether it’s a good investment considering the state of the game.

The market is already showing signs of slowing down for big men who don’t reach the top tier. Turner and Capela are good players but didn’t get paid what they expected during their recent free agencies. This season, Andre Drummond is facing the same fate. Drummond signed a max contract with the Pistons but didn’t reach the heights of someone like Davis and ultimately restricted Detroit’s cap flexibility; in return for him at the trade deadline, the Pistons only received Brandon Knight, John Henson, and a 2023 second-round pick from the Cavaliers. Drummond said he intends to opt in to his $28.8 million deal next season. When he hits the open market in 2021, he’ll sign for much less. Drummond symbolizes the dying archetype: the big, plodding center who’s not a threat away from the rim.

There are two extremes developing in the NBA today. Big men are more dynamic than they’ve ever been before, with 7-footers hitting step-back 3s, running offense, and defending across positions. But the teams that can’t get their hands on one of these generational talents are getting what they need from the position on the cheap and/or by committee. Davis and Jokic showed on Sunday night that size still matters in the NBA. But how much you spend on size matters even more.