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How Much Does Size Matter in Today’s NBA?

Frontcourts are shrinking across the league thanks to the Warriors, yet the upper tier of this year’s draft class is littered with center types. Should the league be thinking big again?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The timing of the NBA draft has always fascinated me. Depending on the results of games 3 and 4 in Cleveland, the 2018 NBA Finals could wrap as early as two weeks before this year’s draft, or as late as four days before the draft. (From 1968 to 1973, the draft was actually held during the playoffs.) If the Finals define the present and the draft defines the future, then placing them in sequential order suggests a level of symbiosis. A call-and-response, perhaps: first the blueprint, then the tangible solutions.

Of course, it doesn’t work like that. There’s a difference between looking like a prospect designed out of a lab and actually being one. Like in any discipline, it can be difficult to hit on a trend at the right time. Engage too early and you run the risk of squandering the entire endeavor by not having adequate resources to foster its development; engage too late and you run the risk of being left in the dust, or worse, hopping on a trend when another is already emerging. In a way, 2018 appears to be an inflection point in the future of the NBA. The Warriors are on the verge of their third championship in four seasons, and they’ve seemingly trivialized the importance of the center position along the way: JaVale McGee’s recent bump in usage aside, the Warriors have a stable of centers no taller than 6-foot-9, who in the past era would have been strictly considered 4s. The Rockets, in developing their plan to dethrone the Warriors, conceived of lineup combinations that had reformed small forwards like P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute at the 5, taking two tough, long-limbed defenders and forcing opposing centers into uncomfortable positions by spreading the floor out to its limits. It’s been nearly half a decade of incremental evolutions in small ball; the league has since become indoctrinated in its dogma.

But that line of thinking runs counter to the elite talent offered in the upcoming draft. If high-level interest in Real Madrid playmaker Luka Doncic at the top of the draft is, indeed, as scarce as the rumors suggest, the first four players selected in 2018 could all be centers. That hasn’t happened since 2001, when Kwame Brown, Tyson Chandler, Pau Gasol, and Eddy Curry were drafted in consecutive order. That was an era dominated by Shaquille O’Neal in his prime, a phenomenon unto himself. Who could forget the cottage industry he single-handedly created in the late ’90s and early 2000s that employed enormous, Paul Bunyan–sized stiffs like Todd MacCulloch, Jerome James, and Evan Eschmeyer for the sole purpose of hacking the living hell out of him?

Back in 2015, with big men stepping out on the perimeter, I figured it would bring about a new age of the power wing: Modern big men like Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis would allow swingmen like Justise Winslow, Stanley Johnson, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to operate more like bigs. I didn’t anticipate at the time that all three of those players would spend time as actual 4s (and even 5s) on their respective teams. In 2018, young goliaths like Deandre Ayton and Mo Bamba will have to figure out how to leverage themselves against potential centers like Draymond Green and Tucker, neither player topping 6-foot-7, neither playing in a manner reflective of how the center position has been played in more than 30 years.

Top-end height has never mattered less in the NBA, which is at odds with trends over the draft’s 72-year existence. Since 1947, the year of the first BAA draft, a big man with center designation has been selected with the first overall pick 37 times, comprising over half of the league’s all-time no. 1 overall selections. (This includes players like Chris Webber, Joe Smith, Elton Brand, and Kenyon Martin, all of whom largely played power forward during their primes, but would be considered centers in almost every other era of NBA history.) It’s always been a big man’s game, until now.

Recency bias can cloud a fan’s perspective on that matter. Most conversations I have with casual observers of the NBA involve the question “How does he survive in the league these days?” For as long as the Warriors remain the gold standard of the modern era, upsizing feels like a sunk strategy because freakishly tall players rarely have the fluency in lateral movement to confidently defend against any one of the Warriors’ perimeter players. Over the years, the Cavaliers have seen some success in the Finals rolling with undersized centers like Tristan Thompson, who has a classic center’s skill set but also the ability to lower himself to corral quicker perimeter players. Larry Nance Jr. saw similar success in Game 1 last week. Downsizing can make up for some of the difference, but neither player has the perimeter ability to go blow-for-blow with the Warriors. They set the terms of engagement. Against Golden State, it’s never about what you can do, it’s about how they exploit what you can’t.

But all dynasties crumble eventually; perhaps what’s more important for teams making their draft decisions at the very top in 2018 is what the landscape will look like after the Warriors as we know them are over. We’re in an age when unicorns are no longer once-in-a-lifetime phenomenons. Young big men who show the potential to create their own shot and defend from inside and out are scattered across the league, but their lack of representation at the very highest level of competition may suggest that they aren’t as valuable to a winning team as originally prophesied. As with all great things, though, building around a rare breed takes time. And, paradoxically, it takes a specific assortment of players to maximize a player who has the potential to do a little bit of everything.

The groundwork laid by players like Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Kristaps Porzingis could be built upon by a truly impressive center class this year. Ayton combines David Robinson’s physical profile with the agility of a wing in the open floor and a developing 3-point stroke. Bamba’s measurements are almost out of this world, giving him a near-limitless defensive ceiling; if his recent workout videos are to be believed, he’ll also be the first NBA player with at least a 7-foot-10 wingspan to confidently knock down 3s since Manute Bol. Jaren Jackson Jr., who stands 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan, has a near-unprecedented ability to mirror and shadow players on the perimeter (regardless of position) and has an elite block and 3-point-attempt rate that instantly gives him one of the most valuable skill sets in the league. Marvin Bagley III was one of the most productive players in the nation at Duke and combines a relentless motor and explosive finishing ability with a remarkably advanced offensive repertoire. This isn’t even counting Wendell Carter Jr., Bagley’s teammate, a do-it-all center in the Al Horford mold who wasn’t given much breathing room at Durham; or Michael Porter Jr., a 6-foot-11 wing who seems destined to serve as a mismatch at the 5 down the line.

As much of a laughing stock as the Eastern Conference has been in recent years, both the Celtics and Sixers appear to have found success with their forward-looking blueprints. Philly has its generational big man in Embiid, flanked by athletes and shooters at all positions. Boston is built more in an omnipositional template, with switchability across almost every position—rumor has it they could be in search of a big man at the top of the draft to succeed Horford as he begins his decline. Those two teams aren’t billed as the future of the league for nothing; they’ve successfully created an ecosystem where giants can grow into their potential.

The Celtics and Sixers could serve as an example for the league in the near future, and the progression of teams like the Pelicans, Bucks, Wolves, and Knicks could help signal a tipping of the scales away from the small-ball mandate that’s been internalized leaguewide. We’re really just waiting for a lot of these players to reach their prime. Ultimately, the league is beholden to the genetic lotteries that produce the world’s best athletes. The 2018 class will contribute more than a handful of bigs to the NBA’s talent pool, and the class of 2020 will contribute a handful more with recruits like James Wiseman, Vernon Carey Jr., Chol Marial, and Charles Bassey. Soon enough, there will be a significant chunk of the league that has invested in a unicorn-type big man. Eventually, teams will have to match size with size, just as they always have.