Unicorns have roamed the NBA for years, stretching our imaginations with their unique blend of size, skill, and athleticism. But after waiting and wondering what Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Kristaps Porzingis, and Karl-Anthony Towns could become, the blessing is now ready to take over the league. As part of our 2019-20 NBA season preview, we’re taking a long, hard look at the impact of the six generational bigs. This is the Year of the Unicorn.
The Milwaukee Bucks won 60 games last season for the first time since 1980-81, and the reason why is obvious: Giannis Antetokounmpo posted per-game numbers not seen outside an elite group of old-time Hall of Famers en route to winning the MVP award. The Greek forward asserted himself as the league’s most magical unicorn.
Brook Lopez isn’t a basketball unicorn or an MVP. The former All-Star center, playing his first season in Milwaukee on a one-year, $3.4 million contract, shot the least out of the five Bucks starters. But the spacing Lopez afforded new coach Mike Budenholzer’s system is part of what allowed Giannis to dominate in the paint, as the MVP recorded the most makes in the restricted section of any player since prime Shaquille O’Neal. Lopez allowed all of his teammates to thrive by filling a new role for the Bucks, and a relatively unusual one in the league: a stretch center and rim protector all in one.
In Milwaukee last season, Lopez mostly hovered around the 3-point line on offense; the one-time back-to-the-basket big took nearly twice as many 3s as 2s. On defense, Lopez helped Milwaukee allow both the fewest shot attempts at the rim and the lowest accuracy on those attempts, as the Bucks leapt from no. 18 in defensive rating to no. 1 overall. Individually, Lopez held opponents to 51.1 percent shooting within 6 feet of the basket, which ranked seventh among 286 players who defended at least 100 such shots. (For context, last season, the average rate for big men was 56.3 percent.)
Even in the more positionally flexible NBA, most good big men are directed toward either the inside or outside, not both. On the one hand, stretch bigs like Lauri Markkanen prosper on the perimeter on offense, but suffer when securing the defensive interior; on the other, rim protectors like Rudy Gobert subsist entirely on rim runs and putbacks for their points.
There’s a whole extra, exclusive category of so-called unicorns now, and they can do both. Lopez is certainly no Anthony Davis or Joel Embiid, but his role on both offense and defense can help unlock similar strategic capabilities.
Perhaps the best summation of the Bucks center’s impact comes via this stat: Lopez became the first player in NBA history to average two 3-pointers and two blocks per game. Always a capable defender, Lopez has radically changed his offensive profile in recent years to better fit in with the league’s 3-point evolution. In 2012-13, when he was named an All-Star, Lopez took a single 3-pointer (he missed), and more than 70 percent of his shots came from within 10 feet of the basket. Now he takes a higher percentage of his shots from beyond the arc than Steph Curry, Eric Gordon, and JJ Redick.
In this piece, we’re looking for the bigs who might follow Lopez’s lead in 2019-20. Here are five top possibilities, and how each player’s Lopezian turn might alter his team’s fortunes.
Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
2018-19 shooting: 76 for 196 on 3s (38.8 percent on 2.6 attempts per game)
2018-19 defense: 2.7 blocks per game, 54.4 percent FG% allowed within 6 feet
Turner is the best player on this list, with both the most sheer basketball talent and the most robust track record of NBA success. But he’s in a precarious position, as Indiana must figure out whether Turner and Domantas Sabonis—a restricted free agent after this season—can coexist in a winning lineup. (Complicating matters is the Pacers’ first-round pick this year: Goga Bitadze is a big man with stretch potential, too.)
The evidence to this point is mixed. When Turner and Sabonis shared the court in their first season together, the Pacers were the equivalent of one of the worst teams in the league, outscored by 8.7 points per 100 possessions. Last season, that figure rose to a modest plus-2.8 points per 100. But the offense still struggled when Turner and Sabonis played together, averaging 102.4 points per 100 possessions—a worse number than the Knicks’ league-worst offense posted over the course of the season.
The Pacers simply didn’t have the necessary spacing to run a modern offense last season—overall, only the Spurs attempted fewer 3-pointers than the Pacers, and only the Bulls made fewer. Turner’s shot selection didn’t help: A little more than a quarter of his shots last season were long midrange jumpers, according to Cleaning the Glass, putting him in the 97th percentile among big men. Even at last month’s FIBA World Cup, which had a shorter 3-point line than the NBA, only 10 of Turner’s 53 shots were 3s.
Turner has proved to be a capable long-range shooter, though, when he’s tried. His accuracy from 3 has ticked up a few points every season, too: 35 percent, then 36, then 39 last season. And he has the broader shooting profile of a player who would succeed from deep. Free throw percentage is a strong indicator of pure shooting skill, as it removes some of the contextual noise that informs 3-point performance, and Turner has always been sturdy from the line (77 percent in his career); that was one early indication, incidentally, of Lopez’s latent talent, because Lopez is a career 79 percent shooter from the line.
If Turner is able to shift more of his midrange looks back a few feet, he and Sabonis might develop the inside-outside chemistry Indiana’s offense needs. Turner can sometimes struggle to score near the rim, but Sabonis is an elite inside finisher. Last season, Giannis converted 73.7 percent of his attempts in the restricted area, which ranked third out of 132 players with at least 200 attempts there. Sabonis wasn’t too far behind, at 71.2 percent and in 13th place (for context, 12th place was Anthony Davis and 14th place was LeBron James).
Add in Turner’s guaranteed contributions on the defensive end—he was the NBA’s block champion last season—and he’s the easiest choice on this list to join Lopez in the newly formed “two blocks plus two 3-pointers per game” club. Given Turner’s importance to the Pacers and their upcoming decision with Sabonis’s contract, Indiana’s short- and long-term fortunes might depend on his ability to do so.
Dewayne Dedmon, Sacramento Kings
2018-19 shooting: 83 for 217 on 3s (38.2 percent on 3.4 attempts per game)
2018-19 defense: 1.1 blocks per game, 56.7 percent FG% allowed within 6 feet
Sacramento is fighting an uphill battle in the Western Conference. The Kings won 39 games last season to finish ninth in the West, their best performance since 2005-06, but they’ll struggle to take that one last step into the playoffs given the conference’s loaded field.
One obvious area of improvement for the young Kings is offensive efficiency. Per CtG, the Kings ranked fourth last season in points per transition play, which was crucial because they led the league in transition opportunities. But when forced to try to score in the half court, the Kings ranked just 22nd in points per play, behind every team that reached the playoffs.
Continued development from the likes of De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield can help; so, too, can the arrival of Dedmon, signed away from Atlanta in free agency. Dedmon has seemingly traced every possible path through the NBA since going undrafted out of college: He tried out in the D-League, he signed 10-day contracts, he became a starter, and now he will play on an eight-figure contract.
In a crowded frontcourt rotation in Sacramento, Dedmon brings a unique set of versatile skills. He averaged better than a block and steal per game last season—one of just three 7-footers to do so—and the trajectory on Dedmon’s shot distribution graph looks a whole lot like the trajectory on Lopez’s:
By Lopez’s third season shooting 3s at volume, the two lines crossed, as he took many more 3s than 2s; Dedmon may well follow that route this season.
Dedmon isn’t just taking 3s; he’s making them, too—especially when given plenty of room. On “wide-open” 3s over the last two seasons—defined by NBA.com/Stats as shots when the nearest defender is at least 6 feet away—Dedmon has converted 42 percent. At the same time, Dedmon’s free throw percentage has jumped from 67 percent in his first four seasons to 80 percent over the last two.
Dedmon’s insertion in the Kings’ starting lineup could goose the numbers for Fox and Hield, too, by giving those kinetic guards more room to operate in the half court. The Kings lacked this element last season, when they devoted basically all of their center minutes to a half-dozen players, according to Basketball-Reference’s positional estimates. Marvin Bagley (who split his time about evenly between power forward and center) made 30 3-pointers over the full season. The other five Sacramento centers—Willie Cauley-Stein, Kosta Koufos, Skal Labissière, Caleb Swanigan, and Harry Giles—combined to make just five 3-pointers on 21 attempts.
Now, Dedmon will allow Bagley to play inside, or he’ll give coach Luke Walton a five-shooter lineup of, say, Fox, Hield, Harrison Barnes, Nemanja Bjelica, and Dedmon—all five of whom shot better than the league average on 3-pointers last season. One way to score against set defenders is to just shoot over top of them.
Luke Kornet, Chicago Bulls
2018-19 shooting: 70 for 193 on 3s (36.3 percent on 4.2 attempts per game)
2018-19 defense: 0.9 blocks per game, 51.2 percent FG% allowed within 6 feet
Kornet won’t start this season, like Turner or Dedmon. He might not even play that many minutes; the Bulls, who handed Kornet a two-year deal this summer, suddenly have a surprising number of competent NBA players. Nor is it clear whether Kornet deserves too much playing time, at least not yet; he’s played just 1,110 minutes in his NBA career—the equivalent of about half a season for a real rotation player.
All those caveats dispensed, Kornet has all the statistical indicators of a two-way stretch big. Among centers who defended at least 100 shots within 6 feet of the rim last season, the then-Knick ranked seventh in the field goal percentage he allowed there, sandwiched between Lopez and Gobert. Among centers who took at least 100 3s last season, Kornet ranked eighth in accuracy. Lopez is the only other player in the top 10 in each group.
Moreover, Kornet is already up in Lopezian territory in his frequency of 3-point attempts. A robust 68 percent of his shots last season were 3s, compared to 65 percent for Lopez. And even in a minuscule sample, his career 81 percent free throw accuracy—along with the 86 percent he shot over a larger volume in his senior season at Vanderbilt—points to his raw shooting strength.
In Chicago, Kornet could in theory flourish next to any other player in the frontcourt. If he partners with Markkanen, Kornet could compensate for his teammate’s defensive deficiencies while giving the Bulls a spread lineup with five shooters. If he partners with Wendell Carter Jr., Kornet could space the floor around his teammate in the paint while forming a ferocious frontline defense. He almost certainly won’t be a star in any scenario—but wouldn’t it be ironic if the Knicks spent the whole summer signing big men, only to lose one who best reflects the direction of the league?
Dwight Powell, Dallas Mavericks
2018-19 shooting: 39 for 127 on 3s (30.7 percent on 1.6 attempts per game)
2018-19 defense: 0.6 blocks per game, 60.7 percent FG% allowed within 6 feet
Maxi Kleber, Dallas Mavericks
2018-19 shooting: 77 for 218 on 3s (35.3 percent on 3.1 attempts per game)
2018-19 defense: 1.1 blocks per game, 53.1 percent FG% allowed within 6 feet
Let’s lump these two Mavericks together. Kristaps Porzingis hasn’t played an NBA game since tearing his ACL in February 2018, but if he returns to peak form, Dallas already has a 7-footer who can shoot and protect the rim. If anything, though, his presence makes Powell and Kleber all the more intriguing for the strategic possibilities they could inspire for coach Rick Carlisle.
The 28-year-old Powell delights as a bouncy athlete with plenty of raw ability. He also improved mightily as a shooter as last season progressed. Through the end of December, he was making a ghastly 16.7 percent of his 3-point attempts; from January on, he was at 39.2 percent—including 44.4 percent on two attempts per game after he entered the starting lineup for the final quarter of the season.
Overall, Powell hasn’t been a particularly notable long-distance shooter in his NBA career, making 29.8 percent of his 312 attempts with a shooting motion that resembles Blake Griffin’s: a rigidly bent elbow jutting out in front of his face. But Powell’s late-season surge from range, combined with a career 75 percent free throw rate, are reasons for optimism.
Powell is already valuable as a screener and rim-runner, but he must take two steps to transform into a more multidimensional center. First, he has to prove that those shooting gains aren’t illusory; second, his defense needs refining. He allowed a high conversion rate at the rim last season, and ESPN’s real plus-minus stat ranked him a perfectly average defender compared with the whole league—which is an issue given the greater defensive demands of big men. In this chart, DRPM is expressed in terms of points allowed per 100 possessions, where positive numbers mean points saved compared with an average player. Powell lags well behind the other members of this list.
Next Lopezes on Defense
|Player||DRPM||Percentile vs. All Players||Percentile vs. Big Men|
|Player||DRPM||Percentile vs. All Players||Percentile vs. Big Men|
His teammate, Kleber, played the majority of his minutes at power forward last season, but his versatility on both ends gives him breakout potential this season. Now the Mavericks’ only German forward after Dirk Nowitzki retired, Kleber can shoot and play stingy defense; he can essentially contribute wherever and however needed, all while employing his 6-foot-11 frame to manipulate space as needed.
Kleber’s main problem is one of workload; he has a spotty injury history and has never played more than 35 minutes in an NBA game (with an average of 18.9). But when he’s in the game, all the pieces seem to fit together. And thus the theme of the piece continues: Imagine a lineup with Porzingis and Kleber in the frontcourt, simultaneously forming a five-shooter lineup that doesn’t sacrifice anything on the defensive end. That’s the dream for any modern NBA team.