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Big Men Control the Balance of Power in the NBA Again

The heyday of low-post scorers may be long gone, but Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo have evolved what it means to be a center and become the ultimate trump card in the title race

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Anthony Davis cut to the middle of the lane with Jae Crowder on him in Game 3 of the Lakers’ first-round series with the Suns. Crowder is one of the better 3-and-D wings in the NBA, but there’s not much he can do against someone so much bigger and faster than him. Davis caught the ball, took one dribble, and finished over Crowder at the rim like he wasn’t even there.

Davis hurt his groin in the next game, effectively knocking the Lakers out of the playoffs. But before that, Davis’s performance looked a lot like one he turned in for the 2020 NBA Finals, when he shredded Crowder and the Heat. Davis had an all-time-great postseason to win his first title, averaging 27.7 points on 57.1 percent shooting, 9.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.2 steals, and 1.4 blocks per game. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the only other player to ever average those numbers in the playoffs.

Davis didn’t get the chance to build on that. No one was hurt by the short turnaround from the bubble and the compressed 2020-21 schedule more than Davis. He came to training camp out of shape, never got in a rhythm, and battled injuries, leading to one of the worst seasons of his career.

But being knocked out of the first round could end up being a blessing in disguise for AD. He was done in early June instead of late July, giving him more time to prepare for this season and putting him back on a more normal schedule. It almost doesn’t matter how LeBron James and Russell Westbrook coexist. A healthy Davis makes the Lakers a contender.

Davis has been in the NBA for so long that it’s easy to forget that he’s only 28, just entering his prime. A Hall of Fame big man should dominate the league at that age. That’s when Shaquille O’Neal won his second title and Tim Duncan won his third.

Davis rarely gets compared to Shaq and Duncan because he’s a much different kind of big man. He doesn’t have overwhelming size and he’s not a great post-up player. But Davis is what a great big man looks like in 2021. He’s more mobile than his predecessors, he can shoot off the dribble, and he’s used more aggressively on defense. AD doesn’t just stand in front of the basket and let perimeter scorers come to him. He extends all the way out to the 3-point line and picks them up himself. He’s not a big man in the traditional sense. He’s a guard who happens to be a big man.

And it’s not just Davis. The formula the Lakers used with Davis in 2020 looks a lot like the one the Bucks used with Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2021. Both dominated from the high post, catching the ball in the middle of the floor and facing up for a drive or a short jumper. They didn’t do it like Shaq, carving out space in the lane and waiting for an entry pass, but the effect was the same. Davis shot 82.4 percent from within 3 feet of the rim in the 2020 playoffs. Giannis shot 80.7 percent in the 2021 playoffs. Shaq never shot higher than 76 percent in any of his three title runs with the Lakers.

The difference between the two styles of play is that Davis and Giannis are less affected by what the defense does. Rule changes have allowed modern defenses to slow down offenses that run through the low post. Opponents can park extra defenders in the lane and make it more difficult to get the ball inside. The modern 7-footer can draw defenders closer to the 3-point line and take it into the paint themselves. There’s no way to double the post when the player is posting up 20 feet from the basket.

Small ball doesn’t work in that scenario. A smaller defender can’t do anything against Davis. He’s just as fast as them and he’s skilled enough to take them off the dribble. All he has to do is go out to the perimeter, put the ball on the floor once or twice, and shoot over them on his way to the basket. He’s taking candy from babies.

The end result is what happened to the Rockets in the 2020 playoffs. Houston famously traded Clint Capela and started P.J. Tucker at center. The plan worked to perfection in Game 1 of their second-round series with the Lakers, as JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard couldn’t punish the mismatch inside or defend the Houston stars on the perimeter. But the series was over as soon as L.A. benched them and moved Davis to center. The Lakers won the next four games and beat the Rockets so badly that both Westbrook and James Harden demanded out in the offseason.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni quipped after the series that small ball worked because the Lakers beat them with it. Which is exactly the point: A team that goes small against Davis is drawing dead.

Davis plays defense like a guard, too. It’s no longer enough for a player his size to be just a great rim protector. The best perimeter players can score at will from the midrange and the 3-point line, so the best defenders have to be able to guard them out there. AD doesn’t just switch on to smaller players on screens; he takes the assignment himself. The Lakers turn to AD whenever they need to solve a problem on defense, whether it’s Westbrook in the second round or Jimmy Butler in the Finals.

The biggest change for the Bucks in 2021 is that they started using Giannis the same way. It was the one thing they never tried in 2019 and 2020, when Kawhi Leonard and Butler lit them up in consecutive postseasons. Giannis won the Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2020 because of how great he was as a help-side defender in the regular season. But quarterbacking the defense is less important in the playoffs than guarding the best player on the other team.

Instead of watching helplessly as Butler carved them up like he did in the bubble, Giannis was the primary defender on Butler in the first-round rematch with the Heat. That adjustment effectively ended the series before it ever began. Butler went from averaging 23.4 points on 53.2 percent shooting against Milwaukee in 2020 to 14.5 points on 29.7 percent shooting in 2021.

There’s no great answer for AD and Giannis. Going small may not work but staying big doesn’t work much better. That’s what the Suns found out in last year’s playoffs. Deandre Ayton had a breakout postseason and more than held his own both against a smaller team in the Clippers as well as MVP center Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets. But he had nothing for Giannis, who averaged 35.2 points per game on 61.8 percent shooting in the Finals. It’s hard to believe much would have been different had Davis stayed healthy in the Lakers’ first-round series against the Suns. He scored 34 points against Ayton in games 2 and 3 before going down.

Ayton has improved on defense since entering the NBA, but asking him to shut down players like Giannis and Davis isn’t realistic. The only way to win a matchup against them is to outscore them. And that might be even harder. They are two of the best defensive players in the league on top of being able to score 30-plus points at will. There have been very few players in NBA history with that combination of skills, and those players have won a lot of titles.

All the Lakers have to do is open up the floor for Davis by playing him at center. The only big man in the West with even a prayer of stopping him at the rim is Draymond Green. He has a huge mismatch against every other contender, and Jokic is the only one who can force the Lakers to keep a center on the floor next to Davis. That’s what happened in the 2020 WCF, but the Nuggets still couldn’t guard Davis. He averaged 31.2 points in the series compared to only 21.8 for Jokic.

An edge that dramatic can decide a series. The Lakers have a lot of issues this season, from the fit between Westbrook and LeBron to the lack of quality wings and the overall age of their roster. But they had plenty of flaws in 2019-20, too. A big man like Davis can fix most of them.

Giannis has more challengers in the East. A potential playoff matchup with Joel Embiid would be fascinating. Would Embiid be able to build a wall against Giannis in the lane? Could he punish Brook Lopez enough to force Giannis to guard him? And how would it look if he did? But for as much as Ben Simmons has come up short in the playoffs, Embiid still has plenty to prove himself. He’s a career 46 percent shooter from the field in the postseason compared to 53.8 percent for Davis and 53.5 percent for Giannis. He has improved as a perimeter scorer, but he still depends on bludgeoning defenses inside. It’s just almost impossible to be efficient doing that in the playoffs.

The main event in the East would be a rematch between Giannis and Kevin Durant. The first round was one for the ages. The Nets probably would have won had either Harden or Kyrie Irving stayed healthy, which is amazing considering that Giannis demolished them to the tune of 31.9 points per game on 57.4 percent shooting. But Durant scored even more (35.4 on 49.7 percent shooting) while having a slightly higher true shooting percentage (which factors in the added value of 3-pointers). Not using Giannis more aggressively on defense meant the Bucks almost lost the series despite having a massive advantage in talent.

It’s unclear whether Giannis can actually guard KD. The Bucks don’t have any better options. Tucker made Durant “work,” in the sense that he made him break a sweat, but he didn’t actually slow him down. Now he’s in Miami and the only other two options for Milwaukee—Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton—are giving up almost at least half a foot to KD.

The most important question in the NBA is who will win these matchups of über-versatile big men. The Nets will be in a lot of trouble against the Bucks if Giannis can guard KD, because KD can’t guard Giannis. The winner of that series would be the favorite in the East, just like last season. The difference this time is that a healthy Davis could be waiting in the Finals. The Lakers would have the same question as the Bucks in terms of who will guard Durant. LeBron James can’t do it at this stage of his career. It would have to be Davis. A matchup between Davis and Giannis, meanwhile, would be the best playoff matchup of big men since Duncan vs. Shaq.

It feels like the 2020s are a return to early-2000s basketball—not in terms of the style of play but in the types of players who control the balance of power. The 2010s were the decade of the big wing. The few times LeBron didn’t win Finals MVP, it usually went to the player guarding him. The rules changed so that it became much harder for interior-oriented players to dominate. Big men could no longer win by bullying players around the rim. They had to score and defend on the perimeter just like the wings. The game had to evolve.

Durant is the transitional figure with a foot in both worlds. He’s even less of a traditional big man than Davis and Giannis. He always had an edge in playoff matchups against LeBron and Kawhi Leonard because he’s taller than them. There was no one like KD when he entered the league in 2007. He was the first near-7-foot guard. Now there are three.

That’s the direction the game is headed. A whole generation of big men have grown up wanting to play like Durant. The top two prospects in the 2022 draft are Chet Holmgren (Gonzaga) and Paolo Banchero (Duke). Holmgren is 7-foot-1. Banchero is 6-foot-11. Both can shoot 3s and put the ball on the floor. There’s no way to know how good each will be at this point, but players like them will dominate the league in the future. The rules changed to prevent traditional big men from dominating, so the next generation of great big men adapted their games to the new rules. A team without one will have a hard time winning a title anytime soon.