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With the Warriors’ Reign Over, Can NBA Teams Think Big Again?

The Death Lineup is DOA, which means big men across the league have a better shot to stay on the floor. But how much can size matter in an era dominated by shooters?  

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

If you’re looking for the moment when the NBA’s small ball era first dawned, Andre Iguodala’s slow-developing jump shot might be the closest thing to a streaking comet. Before shooting guards tried their hands at power forward or the Rockets hopped aboard the Tuckwagon, the Warriors swung the 2015 NBA Finals by starting Iggy and forcing the Cavaliers’ jumbo-package frontcourt to defend in space. The Death Lineup became a staple of Golden State’s offense from there, and the unit upgraded to the Hamptons Five when Kevin Durant joined the party. The rest of the league, meanwhile, has tried to keep pace by appropriating some of the elements of the style that spawned a dynasty the best it could.

Alas, this week’s hailstorm of transactions brought an end to the Warriors as we knew them, and with it, the dissolution of the lineups that have come to define modern gameplay. Durant’s departure for Brooklyn broke up the Hamptons Five, and Iguodala’s trade to Memphis rendered any version of the Death Lineup DOA. The Warriors’ subsequent moves—signing D’Angelo Russell, Willie Cauley-Stein, Kevon Looney, etc.—suggest the franchise that’s been light-years ahead won’t exactly devolve into caveman-ball anytime soon; they might play even smaller, especially with Klay Thompson, now the presumed starting small forward, on the mend. But the ability to raze any opponent almost at will? That went out the window when Iggy asked to be played off by his favorite meme.

The significance of that era’s ending extends beyond symbolism. It’s true that numerous teams have tried to replicate the traits that gave rise to the Warriors’ dynasty, but no one team has been able to put them all together like the originals. Shooting is everything now, and Golden State had three of the best shooters in the game’s history for three straight seasons, but an essential part of its dominance was its ability to keep all of them on the floor without sacrificing anything on defense. The Warriors were loaded with players of a similar body type—sturdy 6-foot-8 (or thereabouts) types with long arms and the savvy to adjust on the fly. That allowed them to seamlessly switch across all five positions on defense while maintaining an unparalleled level of skill and shooting on offense. Most teams struggle to find two or three of those kinds of players, let alone fill all five positions with them. The only one that’s come close is Houston, which is why its recent playoff matchups with Golden State have become master classes in modern basketball.

Playoff games between the Rockets and Warriors turned into some elite version of street ball: If you couldn’t create or make shots, you couldn’t stay on the court. This past postseason, Golden State didn’t even give one of its centers the ceremonial starting spot, going with the Hamptons Five straight from the tip. That was a problem for Houston. Clint Capela is an integral part of the Rockets’ regular-season success and, after signing a five-year, $90 million contract last summer, a huge chunk of their salary cap too. But it was tough to keep the 6-foot-10 center on the court at times against Golden State. Capela had a 5.4 net rating in the regular season and a 13.6 net in the first round against the Jazz; against the Warriors, he had a minus-14.7 net, second worst on the team. Without the same reserve stock of long, athletic wings to fill out the Tuckwagon lineup when Capela sat, the Rockets couldn’t even best the Warriors without Durant at home in the series-clinching Game 6.

But Durant and Iguodala have now scattered across the NBA map, and gone with them is the lineup that struck fear in the hearts of any XXXL-size player without a credible shot. Which brings an interesting question as we wrap up the transactions and begin to look ahead to the 2019-20 season: Does the Death Lineup’s demise create an opening for more teams to play big?

The Raptors, with two centers in their seven-man playoff rotation, certainly benefited from Golden State’s injury-ravaged roster in the NBA Finals. And this week, it seemed like some teams were starting to think bigger than you’d expect given what we know about the power of the 3-ball. Several draft analysts have suggested that Zion Williamson will be best used as a small-ball center—perhaps even as a point center; yet the Pelicans followed up the Zion pick by drafting Jaxson Hayes, a nonshooting big man, seven picks later, and trading for veteran center Derrick Favors a week and a half after that. The Pacers appear committed to making the frontcourt of Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis work, and even drafted a third center 18th overall, while the Bucks gave Brook Lopez a four-year deal to continue opening up a runway for Giannis Antetokounmpo. And the Sixers made one of the biggest commitments to Big Ball in recent memory by shelling out massive sums to Al Horford and Tobias Harris.

There’s a logic to those moves that goes beyond any possible opening created by the Warriors’ crumbling: Zion won’t be a full-time center, the Pacers need to make it work with whatever talent is willing to stay in Indiana, the Bucks just won 60 games with a Brook-Giannis frontcourt, and the Sixers … well, the Sixers have a lot going on, but atop their list of concerns is keeping Embiid fresh for the playoffs. Teams certainly assess the landscape of the league before making a substantial move, but they also have to make do with the hand they’ve been dealt.

Even if those teams preferred to stay on trend and load up on the wing, though, they would’ve been hard-pressed to find a viable option. Shooting comes at a premium now. And if you want that shooter to stop anyone on the other end? You better dig deep into your owner’s pockets. Only 24 players last season had a defensive real plus-minus above one and shot above league average from 3 (minimum 41 games played and two 3s attempted per game), and only five of the ones not bound to the rookie scale or unsigned by an NBA team will make under eight figures next season. It took the Pacers $85 million, a first-round pick, and two second-round picks just to land Malcolm Brogdon, a 50-40-90 Club member. The Kings, meanwhile, shelled out $25 million over the next two years just to double-check if Trevor Ariza (33.4 percent from 3 last season) is washed. The 3-and-D wing market is tapped.

But just because those teams didn’t sign wings doesn’t mean they aren’t after 3-and-D skill sets. Look at the frontcourt pairings for those four teams again—every one of them has a big man who can already shoot (Lopez, Horford) or is counting on one to develop a shot (Turner/Sabonis, Zion). It’s almost impossible to create efficient offense anymore with more than one nonshooter on the floor; the math advantage of shooting 3s over 2s is simply unavoidable. So even if you’re playing big in the frontcourt, at least one of your bigs has to be able to play more like a wing on offense. That’s probably one of the reasons why there’s such a wage gap between a shooting big like Lopez ($13 million a year) and a nonshooting big like Looney ($15 million total over the next three years).

Still, even a shooter like Horford could struggle depending on how he’s used. I posed my original hypothesis of a big (heh) opportunity next season to a former front-office member, and though they were dubious of the premise, they pointed to the Bucks last season as a possible template for a two-big lineup. Milwaukee created the league’s best defense through the unconventional approach of being selective about which 3-point attempts it allowed and focusing on rim protection; with two excellent rim protectors in Embiid and Horford, the guess here is the Sixers will try something similar. The bigger question will be on offense. Lopez usually launched his moonshot 3s from above the break, which allowed him to get back on defense quicker and play sentinel around the rim. In Philly, that’s where Embiid likes to fire away. Maybe Horford will often be relegated to a corner? But will defenses respect Horford, a 36 percent catch-and-shoot 3-point shooter last season, enough to provide Ben Simmons cover in the dunker’s spot? (How useful the dunker’s spot is these days is another subject.) Are there enough other shooters on the roster for Horford to ever go in the paint without the defense engulfing him like a pack of baby opossums riding their mama? And how does a team of galoots intend to keep up with teams playing at some of the fastest paces in modern history? Brett Brown will likely (hopefully?) stagger Embiid and Horford, but even then, it will take a lot of creativity to make this experiment work.

Maybe the advantage lies not with teams with more big men, but a team with one elite traditional big man. Rudy Gobert has been dominant the past two regular seasons. He won back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards while leading the Jazz to back-to-back top-two finishes in defensive rating; Utah, as a result, has been every blog boy and girl’s favorite sleeper over that span. The Jazz’s problem has been the playoffs; they’ve been eliminated in each of coach Quin Snyder’s three postseason appearances by either the Warriors or Rockets, raising legitimate questions about the viability of a 7-1 behemoth if he can’t step out of the primordial paint.

But the Jazz have been spurred into action this offseason. Whether it was the playoff flameouts or the Warriors’ bleeding their own blood, Utah has gone to great lengths to diversify its offense. The trade for Mike Conley should provide a much-needed steady hand in the backcourt after relying too heavily on Donovan Mitchell to pace the team, while the signing of Bojan Bogdanovic should create an open concept’s worth of space down low after years of bashing their heads against the wall with Gobert-Favors frontcourts. Perhaps most importantly, there’s only one team left in the West that’s proved it can force Gobert out away from the basket, and it is currently waging a very public civil war while its GM threatens to trade players needed to make the Tuckwagon run.

Some of the biggest players on the court are still caught in the transition from one era to the next. Several bigs from the past two draft classes have come packing a shooting stroke, or at least an understanding that they’ll need to develop one eventually, yet the vast majority of veterans are still scrambling to remain relevant. A title race more open than in recent memory—as long as Kawhi Leonard doesn’t jump-start a brand-new superteam in California—could lead to a wider variety in approaches, including a pivot to more heft on the court than we’ve grown accustomed to. But the 3-point boom is here, and there’s no turning back; the requirements of successful basketball will be the same no matter the size of the players carrying them out. The next best team doesn’t have to spark another revolution, but it will have to hit some damn shots.