NBA Evolution: The Rise of Versatile Big Men

Like many elder millennials, I grew up watching NBA basketball in the prime years of the Jordan era. It was an era where the rules allowed for aggressive hand-checking by defenders. One which banned zone defenses and featured a much slower pace of play than the modern game. 

How did we get from there to here?

How did the game go from one dominated by centers in the paint to one where centers function as oversized guards?

Let’s start with where we were.

This is The Pyramid.

The premier offense of the day, the Pyramid focused on guard play. It utilized its big men as pivots around which the offense moved. This allowed them to focus on offensive rebounds and anchoring the defensive paint.

This is the offensive system that coach Phil Jackson employed with the 90s Bulls and with the Lakers of the early Aughts.

It worked with Jordan’s Bulls because, as the guard, MJ could receive the ball anywhere in the mid-range from a big man passing out of the post. Given Jordan’s ability to then either pull up from mid-range or attack the basket, it was an ideal position to put him in and made the offense run effectively.

With the Kobe/Shaq Lakers, it worked because Kobe was able to effectively approximate Jordan’s mid-range game. Shaq’s pure power gave him the ability to command double and triple teams in the post. This created even more shooting room for Kobe than Jordan enjoyed.

The NBA has experienced a significant shift in playing style in the decades which connect Jordan to Kobe to present day. Increased emphasis on three-point shooting and spacing the floor has led to a transformation in the roles of big men. Traditional post and mid-range play have diminished, making way for differently-skilled breed of big men who excel at passing and shooting from range.

To illustrate the difference, compare the top 100 shot locations from 1999 through 2020 and you will see a gradual but nearly complete disappearance of the mid-range game. Advanced analytics have convinced both front offices and all but a few players (looking at you, Demar Derozan) to restrict the bulk of their shot attempts to be taken either at the rim or from beyond the three-point line.

Looking at a comparison between samples of Michael Jordan and Steph Curry’s work, one can see the trend in microcosm. In 1997, the best player in the world took the bulk of his shorts from the mid-range. In 2015, the best player in the world took the bulk of his shots from beyond the arc.

Pioneers of the NBA’s New Era: Versatile Big Men in the Spotlight

As the Age of the Perimeter has worn on over the last decade, centers have been forced to radically evolve their style of play. Gone are the days of Kareem backing a defender down for ten seconds before taking a contested hook shot. While more traditional big men focus on interior defense, rebounding, and low-post scoring, modern big men prioritize spacing, ball movement, and perimeter shooting. We now live in the age of the three-level big man.

CREDIT: AAron Ontiveroz/MediaNews Group/Denver Post/Getty Images

The prototypes of this new big were found in players like Pau Gasol and Dirk Nowitzki. Both played with styles considered radical departures from the back-to-the-basket, low-post play that their peers and predecessors had favored. Both Gasol and Nowitzki featured excellent jump shots for big men. Each also relied more on skill and length to create their own offensive opportunities, particularly compared with their era’s most dominant big man, Shaquille O’Neal. Shaq was what DragonBall Z fans would call the “Final form” of a classic big man. He dominated the league for almost a decade through pure power. The decades after him would belong to big men who looked more like Dirk and Pau than the Big Diesel.

The emergence of the generation inspired by Gasol and Nowitzki, which features the likes of Nikola Jokic, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Joel Embid has reshaped the NBA landscape. Jokic’s MVP season is a prime example of how a big man can impact the game with his passing, shooting, and ball-handling skills. Towns’ style, while similar, is notably different. Compared to Jokic, Kat’s play is much more focused on long-range shooting and creating mismatches.

Will we see even more versatile big men entering the league, or could there be a counter-shift in strategy?

The Future of NBA Big Men

As the NBA continues to emphasize hyper-skilled big men, there may be potential drawbacks or challenges. For example, are teams sacrificing interior defense or rebounding in favor of spacing and shooting? 

Since the advent of advanced analytics, teams have increasingly devalued rebounding on both ends of the floor. In 2013, the Houston Rockets commissioned a report. They found very little correlation between rebounding and overall team success. From 2016 through 2020 Andre Drummond was a rebound machine. At his peak with Detroit, he averaged 10 rebounds per game. Unfortunately, there was very little winning associated. More recent analysis by Nate Duncan shows that the league is beginning a course correction. The improved passing of NBA bigs is resulting in improved results from offensive rebounds.

The influx of international talent has also played a significant role in reshaping the modern NBA, and will likely continue to do so. Of the three players mentioned above, only Karl Anthony Towns is American-born. The consensus first-overall pick in the 2024 NBA Draft is Victor Wembanyama. The 7′-3″ phenom is likely to be the league’s next superstar foreign-born big man. He represents still another evolutionary leap.

The NBA’s evolution has created a new generation of hyper-skilled big men capable of impacting the game in ways that were once unimaginable for players of their size. As the league continues to prioritize spacing and shooting, we’ll probably see even more versatile big men in the years to come. The impact of this shift on the overall game, player development, and the future of basketball remains to be seen.  

However, one thing is certain: the game of basketball is ever-evolving. The rise of hyper-skilled big men is a testament to the ongoing innovation and adaptation within the sport. Where we go next is anyone’s guess. But it probably looks like Victor Wembanyama.

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