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Playmaking With the Big Boys

A center with a 3-point shot can take any offense to a higher level. But the key to winning big in the postseason may be bigs who can beat you with the pass.

Cody Pearson

During his lone season at Kentucky, Bam Adebayo was stuffed into the mold of a no-frills, low-maintenance center. He produced hours of film in which his most notable contributions to the offense were cleanup dunks following De’Aaron Fox’s more adventurous shot attempts. Even against the likes of Northern Kentucky and Wichita State, Adebayo looked somewhat ordinary—like a productive, workaday big punching a clock with hard rolls and hustle plays. The Heat selected him with the 14th pick in the 2017 draft on the premise that he could be something more.

At times, he was too much more. Adebayo brought the Heat a tantalizing new energy in his first two seasons, charged to the point of overextending, over-helping, and over-fouling. Some players are a slow burn; Adebayo, once empowered, was a ball of fire. Erik Spoelstra couldn’t keep him off the floor. Adebayo’s defense energized the Heat in a way that Hassan Whiteside’s did not. Adebayo’s forays in transition and clever playmaking brought added dimension to the offense. Miami fed his improvisational instincts, nurturing them to the point that their entire system could revolve around Bam.

“He’s always going to have the offense run through him,” Spoelstra says, “whether that means he’s going to get high assists, or high scoring, or just set up other guys. You don’t know until you see how they’re defending.” The Heat put an incredible amount of trust in a player who, just three years ago, registered twice as many turnovers as assists while in a far simpler role against amateur competition. Adebayo validated the organization’s belief in him by becoming one of the best facilitators in the sport—a player incisive enough to pick apart Milwaukee’s top-rated defense in a playoff series.

“I’m one of those guys where you can ask to do almost everything on the court,” Adebayo says. “Defend 1 through 5. Put me primarily on a starting guard for the first five minutes of the game. Just crazy stuff like that. Being able to put me in the game in late situations and give me the ball and tell me to make decisions. I feel like I do a lot for my team. For me, I feel like I’m one of one.”

While that may be true, Adebayo also serves as a clarifying example. The spatial creep of NBA offenses has changed the value structure of the entire league, and most of all, our understanding of what makes an effective big. Whether a center can space the floor—and defend in space—is now their defining feature. It has become a shorthand for whether a big will be able to survive in the unforgiving climate of postseason basketball, in which defenses will exploit any player who doesn’t present an immediate threat to score. Shooting at the 4 and 5 offers the simplest form of relief. Passing from those positions, however, unlocks the greatest possible advantage.

Miami Heat v Milwaukee Bucks - Game Two Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

The last NBA title was decided months in advance, its verdict rendered in plain sight. At first glance, the crucial development seemed to be a lateral move: an exchange of center for centre, rounded out with enough minor draft considerations and contract filler to satisfy both league rules and the teams involved. Marc Gasol became a Raptor, replacing Jonas Valanciunas, but the deal was upstaged by a busy trade deadline and a buzzier deal in Toronto’s own division. History has since issued a correction.

“To me, that was the key move for them,” says Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who would know better than most. When Toronto beat Golden State in the NBA Finals, vital plays came from every corner of its roster. Kawhi Leonard spun isos into gold. Kyle Lowry scrambled his way through possessions until he uncovered the slightest edge. Pascal Siakam stretched further than his defenders could reach, and Fred VanVleet hit an unthinkable percentage on momentum-shifting jumpers. Gasol was often the connection between them—the mechanism that allowed the Raptors to fire on all cylinders at once.

The energy of Toronto’s offense shifted as soon as Gasol became involved. “Man, he’s just a pleasure to play with as a point guard,” VanVleet told CBS Sports, just days after Gasol’s arrival. When the offense would stall on one side of the floor, the Raptors found they could quickly reset just by passing out to Gasol. If any action garnered some advantage, it could be amplified by swinging the ball through Toronto’s new way-station center, who would rocket a pass to the teammate in the best position. This impact was not subtle. An underwhelming 3-point shooting team became the most accurate in the entire league after Gasol’s arrival last season. An uneven offense that ranked 22nd in assist percentage made the jump up to fourth. As Toronto worked through the playoff gauntlet, the tactics of every series at some point moved through Gasol: through his bulwark post defense, his long-range shooting, and above all, his ability to make plays for others.

“Any time we can get him the ball, good things happen,” says Raptors coach Nick Nurse. “Not necessarily buckets from him, but good things happen.” It’s hard to imagine a player averaging nine points a game in the playoffs making a more significant imprint on a championship run. Gasol was the exact kind of player Toronto needed. More than that, he was standing proof that even the perfect addition can seem marginal if judged from the wrong perspective. If you were to pin your understanding of Gasol’s value to his scoring output, you would find him painfully wanting. There is an ongoing, career-long effort from Gasol’s coaches and teammates to coax him into even taking shots. If you were to consider him as a stretch 5, you might be similarly underwhelmed; the fact that Gasol can make 3s is essential, but by percentage he tends to hover just around the league average.

Those limitations are an unavoidable part of the Marc Gasol experience. The numbers also fail to capture his greatest contribution to an offense: the ability to diagnose problems on the fly, and troubleshoot a solution with smart passing. “It’s read and react, and figuring out what the other team is trying to do to take the offense away,” Gasol says. “I’m trying to be the connector between one side of the floor and the other.” This kind of effect may be even more pronounced in its absence. Superstars like James Harden and Damian Lillard have seen their teams stall out in previous seasons entirely because their bigs didn’t understand how to redirect the offense out of a double-team.

Gasol will not only guide the Raptors through the chaos of a playoff game, but help to navigate the distinctions between series. There is never a guarantee that what works in one game will hold up in the next. Or, as the Raptors are finding now against the Celtics: that what works in one playoff series will translate to another. Postseason success will always require expert shot creators, first and foremost, and the capacity to evolve along with the coverage. A facilitator like Gasol—or like Adebayo—helps to minimize interference as the team sorts through its options.

In the past half-decade, this kind of playmaking big has proved to be a core mechanism of playoff survival. Depending on how you classify a positional anomaly like LeBron James, at least four of the past five championship teams oriented their offenses around frontcourt passing. (James, for what it’s worth, is the same listed height as Adebayo. Perhaps he is best understood as a center-sized point guard masquerading as a forward.) Golden State—winner of three of those titles—set the standard.

Despite their revolutionary bent, the Warriors have always worn their influences plainly. Kerr came of age as a basketball player by working the angles of the triangle offense. When he became a coach more than a decade later, he borrowed from its elements to draw up his own system. It was a modern take on a classic. There is a familiar geometry at work in what the Warriors run, and it is exaggerated to the point of distortion only by two of the best shooters in human history.

The idea of working Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson off the ball came as an outgrowth of the triangle. Kerr had long been partial to play designs that leveraged a center as a passer, in large part for the way they compromised the integrity of opposing defenses. If Golden State’s bigs could run the offense from the perimeter, rather than the post like in the triangle, their defenders would have to follow them—even if that meant leaving the basket vulnerable. “It’s like exposing the king in chess,” Kerr says. “You take the queen out of there and all of a sudden, the king doesn’t have as much protection.”

Once those ideas were put into action with those particular stars, most of the established rules of help-and-recover defense no longer applied. It took opposing teams years to adjust to the logistical nightmare of a passer on the level of Draymond Green surveying the action from the perimeter while Curry and Thompson flew around screens. “I love to pass the ball and they fucking love to shoot the ball,” Green told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2019. Sometimes, it’s as simple as that. Even after the NBA’s collective brain trust established its best practices for dealing with Golden State’s pace-and-space menace, there was only so much that could be done to prevent Green from bouncing a perfect backdoor feed just as some anxious defender turned their head.

2019 NBA Finals - Toronto Raptors v Golden State Warriors Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

When the Warriors cracked the code of modern basketball by playing Green at center, their dominance was initially celebrated as the triumph of the stretch 5. In reality, Golden State’s most dangerous lineup was far more complex than its five-out silhouette would suggest. Any pressure on Curry or Thompson (or later Kevin Durant) could be punished by getting the ball to Green on the move. Even the slightest miscommunication by the defense could result in disaster; a brief opening could be stretched further with crisp passing around the floor, from Curry to Andre Iguodala to Green, who might then set up Thompson with a skip pass to the corner. Green wasn’t a floor spacer in the Death Lineup. He was the mechanical heart of its entire operation. “Having a big guy who can pass and then run a dribble handoff, and step back and catch and create another play on secondary action—all of that is really so difficult to guard,” Kerr says.

Within his particular role, Green is no less exceptional than his high-scoring teammates. He is the Stephen Curry of playmaking bigs—a brilliant, intuitive player with a lock on the pulse of the game. No Warrior was more crucial in navigating the erratic turns of playoff basketball. Yet Golden State was also able to maintain a somewhat simplified version of its offense through Andrew Bogut and Zaza Pachulia. Both were fine passers in their own right, but—with the help of ace shooting and consistent movement—came to initiate some of the NBA’s most terrifying offenses.

“You put pressure on the defense, basically, where they need to be perfect to stop you,” Pachulia says. “That’s why you need a big man where he’s able to see everything. See the open man. See the weakside help, where it’s coming. It sounds very complex, but it’s so much fun.”

There is an entire generation of young guards who want nothing more than to play like Curry. They pull up from unconscionable distances, dance with the ball like Steph, and wield the arc itself as a weapon against their defender. Perhaps then, there’s a shadow generation of bigs who have been raised to be their own version of Green, Bogut, or Pachulia—driven by the economy of touches into years of handoffs and carefully angled screens. Maybe the golden age of the playmaking big is still yet to come.

When Jamal Murray turned Utah’s collective perimeter defense into a smoldering crater, a chorus of fans and pundits—Charles Barkley among them—implored Jazz coach Quin Snyder to counter the hot hand with a dedicated double-team. Screening for Murray, of course, was Snyder’s 7-foot reservation: Nikola Jokic, who at 25 years old is already the most impressive passing center the NBA has ever seen. Forcing the ball out of Murray’s hands would mean giving it to Jokic to do as he willed against an unbalanced defense. One could see how that outcome would feel even more alarming than a heat-checking guard on the tear of his life. Murray, in his first-round series, would go on to make 55 percent of his shots from the field and 53 percent of his attempts beyond the arc. Jokic, if allowed to stroll downhill into a four-on-three scenario, might be able to generate an open layup or an open 3-pointer on 90 percent of Denver’s possessions. Vision can be its own form of deterrence.

Jokic seems like an evolutionary case study in big-man playmaking—a heightened example of what Gasol could have been, if he were willing to carry the weight of an offense and average 25 points a game in the playoffs. Adebayo, similarly, seems like he could eventually become an even more athletic version of Green. The bulk of Miami’s offense now runs through Adebayo in some fashion, and more precisely, through his best judgment.

Miami derives its power from its options. It’s not the threat of someone like Jimmy Butler alone that breaks down defenses, but the frantic possibilities allowed when he could either brush by Adebayo for a handoff or make a break for the back door, followed by teammate after teammate making that same read in their own way. Before long, an opponent’s scheme is too jumbled to function correctly.

No team scored more points off of cuts this season than the Heat, and as a result, Adebayo logged at least 20 assists to eight different teammates. “He’s the heart and soul of this team,” Butler says of his running mate. “He’s what makes us go.” That could be said of Adebayo’s defense, or his persistence on the glass, or his end-to-end propulsion in the open court. It applies most literally to the mechanics of one of the NBA’s best half-court offenses. It was because of Adebayo that the Heat were able to start a rookie scorer at the point, a shooter who barely dribbles on the wing, and a limited stretch big for the vast majority of the regular season. “He gives us another ball handler, another passer, another point guard when we play through him,” Spoelstra says. He gives the Heat the freedom to explore their roster to its elastic potential.

By orchestrating the action from the top of the floor, Adebayo demands that an opponent rewire its entire defense. Most teams try to guard a handoff with the same rules they would use to contain a pick-and-roll. But can Milwaukee really afford to keep its own center dropped back in the lane when Duncan Robinson—who shot 44.6 percent beyond the arc this season—is curling into daylight? That scenario played out miserably for the Bucks in the first two games of their second-round series against the Heat. Yet if Milwaukee were to adjust, what’s to stop Adebayo from keeping the ball and turning the corner himself, gutting a defense that isn’t accustomed to this level of exposure? Contending with Adebayo’s playmaking requires a coaching staff to introduce new, conditional terms of engagement, all at the risk of confusing the rest of the coverage.

“He’s essentially the definition of a point center,” Robinson says. “To have him out there and be able do handoffs, throwbacks, and the go-and-get game—it’s really unlocking him and his unique ability.”

When Butler heads to the free throw line for his 12th attempt of the night, this will be part of the reason why. There is almost no way to defend a playmaking big of this caliber without asking defenders to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do. Even the best teams in the league are lifted out from behind the security of their habits, which leads to a level of disruption that can upend a playoff series.

Denver pushes the same idea even further, in that the facilitator of the offense doubles as the franchise player. The Nuggets’ roster is assembled and maintained with Jokic in mind, and brought to balance based on all that he’s able to offer.

“He allows us to be very specific in how we put guys around him to complement him, and also guys to protect him,” says Nuggets president Tim Connelly. As a sort of rubric, Connelly identified three qualities that make a player fit next to the NBA’s premier playmaking big. The first was an understanding of how to find open spots and move without the ball; the second was length and athleticism (“You know, Nikola’s not the most athletic of guys,” he jokes); and the third, predictably, was perimeter shooting. “Everybody needs shooting,” Connelly says. A player who sees the floor as clearly as Jokic makes that need only more urgent.

If you view the Nuggets’ current roster through those lenses, one player snaps into focus. Michael Porter Jr. has the makings of a perfect Jokic complement, and a proof of concept is in their on-court connection to date. Denver’s offense is never so simple as when Jokic carefully lofts the ball to a place around the basket that only the 6-foot-10 Porter can reach. When you’ve threaded passes through traffic and bent others around encroaching defenders, it must feel like an incredible luxury to find a teammate with a catch radius roughly the size of downtown Denver. It should be a mutualistic relationship; playing alongside Jokic can be enough to nudge a player like Porter toward healthier basketball habits. For now, Porter has eyes for only the rim. In time, he might see that if he gives the ball up to Jokic, his own offense might come more easily.

“Nikola has that innate ability to make everyone around him better—to understand how he can make them better players,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone says. Murray is a more dynamic threat when he bounces around Jokic in the two-man game, tempting a defense to lean one way or the other. That may be the best chance the Nuggets have of freeing their ascendant lead guard from the clutches of the Clippers’ top perimeter defenders. Supporting players like Monte Morris, Torrey Craig, and PJ Dozier are markedly more efficient when Jokic is involved, as his ability to read the floor keeps them tucked comfortably within their roles. It’s the difference in Gary Harris attacking with momentum rather than from a standstill; in hitting Jerami Grant in stride rather than forcing him to reach backwards to catch a pass; and, frankly, in extending Paul Millsap’s career as a viable starter.

The reason that Jokic can accomplish all of this is because his skill set doesn’t lock the Nuggets into playing any one way. If the pick-and-roll game isn’t working for him, Jokic can trot down to the post. If his passing from the top of the floor isn’t giving Denver the flow it needs, Murray can hit him on the short roll for a different vantage point. All options are on the table. “I think the advantage, really, is that the more unpredictable you are, the better,” Connelly says.

A playmaking center can give his team tactical agility. During a seven-game series, each team’s playbook is essentially public knowledge. The solvency of a possession comes from the capacity to surprise—to work around the obstructions of a defense that knows exactly what its opponent hopes to accomplish. Basketball becomes a game of detours. In that context, no other skill seems quite so powerful for a big man as the ability to direct traffic.

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