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  • Arjun Vinod

The Evolution of the NBA’S ‘Big Man’

By Arjun Vinod, UG’27

My first memory of watching basketball was watching a clip of Shaquille O’Neal tearing down the rim in an NBA game after viciously dunking the ball. I was absolutely astounded. By the time I was shown this clip of Shaq, he had already retired and was a broadcaster on TV. Out of interest, I began searching for NBA highlights on YouTube to find similar acts of absolute dominance and power, but what did I find instead? Steph Curry and Damian Lillard shooting 3s after just having crossed half-court. In none of the highlights did I see any rims being broken. So what happened? Are players like Shaq and Tim Duncan one-off wonders, or has the NBA evolved to favour the likes of Steph Curry, Damian Lillard and Luka Doncic? The NBA has evolved tremendously over the past 3 decades, nearly wiping out players who predominantly played close to the basket, to now giving emphasis to players who thrive beyond the 3-point line. 

In the 1980s and early 1990s, teams preferred drafting players who were big, dominant in the paint, and physical. Back then, 3-point shooting was not in huge demand, and this was reflected in the way teams who had the first overall pick in the draft made their choices. From 1977 to 2010, teams in the NBA preferred big men who could prove to be threats in and around the region surrounding the basket, both offensively and defensively. Teams were on the lookout for big, physical players who could dominate in the low-post area both offensively and defensively. Keep in mind that the 1980s and 1990s were being dominated by superstars like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Clyde Drexler. Since the league was extremely physical, teams wanted players who stood their ground underneath the rim, were powerful and could finish efficiently at the basket. The first overall picks during this period included centers such as Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, Shaquille O’Neal and David Robinson. Others included big forwards like Tim Duncan, James Worthy and Blake Griffin. In the period between 1977 and 2010, 30 centers or forwards were selected by teams using their first pick.

The ecosystem of the NBA at the time suited players who played close to the basket, making it easy for them to score points. Another important quality that teams searched for in players was their ability to get offensive rebounds. Naturally, this required tall, strong players who could stand their ground in and around the basket to grab any missed shots off the rim and put it back into the basket. The nature of the game also allowed players to play more physically. Hand-checking(the use of the hand or arm by a defensive player to control the offensive player’s movement) was allowed and the League was generally more physical. In such an ecosystem, there was absolutely no space for most of the guards we see playing today. To illustrate the difference in physicality in the 80s and 90s to the ‘physicality’ in the league today, we could look at the Detroit Pistons’  infamous defensive tactic against the Chicago Bulls in the 80s and 90s, specifically towards Michael Jordan. The Pistons devised the ‘ Jordan Rules’ which encouraged their players to effectively take Jodan out before he reached the basket. Seeing that driving to the rim was one of his strengths, the Pistons would effectively clothesline Jordan anytime he attempted to run into the lane towards the basket. The defensive player would at most receive a personal foul. In today’s NBA, players receive technical fouls or get ejected from games for objecting to a referee’s call or even trash talking. Players like Shaquille O’Neal and Patrick Ewing in the past were absolute beasts on both sides of the court. They had enough flair and quality to score as many points the team needed and were defensive giants. The NBA they played in allowed them to be so and this incentivized teams to continue choosing such players. 

There were, however, certain exceptions like Allen Iverson and Derrick Rose who were drafted first overall, in a league that was dominated by big men. Iverson was a mere 6 foot tall when he was selected first overall in the 1996 draft. Being a point guard, he had a natural ability of dribbling and passing. Iverson was also the sort of player that could play both point guard and shooting guard, owing to his shooting prowess. However, this did not signify a change in playing style. Although Allen Iverson could shoot 3s, the Philadelphia 76ers primarily counted on him to use his incredible ball-handling and dribbling skills to penetrate the interior, score in the mid-range or provide assists to his power-forwards or center. Iverson remains one of the most influential players to ever play in the NBA. His legendary crossover on Michael Jordan in his rookie season was a sign of what the NBA could expect from Iverson. Although Iverson changed the perception of the NBA, he could not cement this change owing to the dominance of the Los Angeles Lakers in the early 2000s who won a three-peat(three championships in a row)along with a young Kobe Bryant and prime Shaquille O’Neal.  The Chicago Bulls selected Derrick Rose with their first overall pick in 2008. Standing at 6ft 3in, Rose was a highly rated player out of college but no one expected him to have the impact he did on the NBA. Rose possessed a unique and frightening amount of explosiveness in his offensive gameplay. Widely considered as one of the most athletic players to ever set foot on an NBA court, his speed, leaping ability and finesse allowed him to become one of the best finishers at the rim. In just his third season in the NBA, Rose was awarded the MVP award. To this day, he remains the youngest player to ever win the MVP trophy. Unfortunately, Rose suffered repeated injuries to the ACL and meniscus, which led to a loss in explosiveness and speed. Derrick Rose too, was no slump from the 3-point line. Although he only shot 30% from beyond the arc in the initial stages of his career, he did improve his 3-point shooting towards the latter stages due to the fact that he found it difficult to make it to the rim. It was just the fact that the Chicago Bulls initially never encouraged him to hone his 3-point shooting skill due to his ability to penetrate the paint and finish stylishly at the rim. It was evident that teams were focused on physicality and playing in the post. 

In the years since 2010, it seems that there has been a shift in the style that teams in the NBA have adapted to. This change in the NBA can be attributed to the rise of the Golden State Warriors who won their first championship in 2015. The Warriors popularised the pace-and-space style of play that is prevalent in today's NBA. Pace-and-space or small ball refers to a style of play that sacrifices physicality and low post offence/defence. It prioritises lineups with smaller players who are agile, fast and are better shooters. Pace-and-space literally means increasing the tempo or speed of the game and spacing out the opposition’s defence by placing better shooters on the court. Teams that play small ball often feature a non-traditional centre. Prior to the 2015 season, no player had ever made more than 300 3-point shots in a season. In 2015, Stephen Curry drained 402 3-pointers. In the 2015 NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Warriors swapped out their centre Andrew Bogut and replaced him with small forward Andre Iguodola. This is one of the characteristics of the pace-and-space style of play — positionless basketball. By making this replacement, the Warriors emphasized 3-point shooting with Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodola on the floor. Putting Iguodola on the floor was a move that would get the Warriors their first Championship, and give Iguodola his first and only Finals MVP Award. 

The effect of the Golden State Warriors of the 2010s is highly underestimated. Once people realised that the ‘pace-and-space’ style adopted by the Warriors was high-yielding, teams in the NBA immediately picked it up. In fact, it was not only the coaching staff that had to adapt, but players too. Let's take a look at Blake Griffin for example. In the late 2000s, Griffin played on the Los Angeles Clippers alongside Chris Paul and Deandre Jordan. Griffin was vicious in the paint and was notorious for his pick-and-rolls with Chris Paul, putting players on posters with his stunning dunks in the process. He averaged nearly 24 points with the Clippers in 2013. However, Griffin was plagued with injuries in subsequent seasons and never played more than 30 games in the regular season till 2018. By now, the Warriors had won 3 NBA championships. Griffin returned in 2018 to a completely different NBA that no longer suited his traditional game. He was forced to improve his shooting abilities, 3-point shooting in particular. He was successful in doing so, averaging a career high 24.5 points with the Detroit Pistons in the 2019 season. Griffin developed an effective jump shot and improved his perimeter shooting. Injuries cut Griffin’s subsequent seasons short but it was clear to see that his 3-point shooting percentage was much higher post the Warriors first championship that it was before. The ‘pace-and-space’ playstyle meant that teams no longer needed big-men who knew their way in the interior, under the basket. The emergence of the ‘catch and shoot’ player was now prominent. This basically refers to players who received the ball on the 3-point line and shot it extremely quickly, restricting defenders from blocking their shot. One of the greatest ‘catch and shoot’ players of all time also played for the Warriors- Klay Thompson. In 2015, Thompson scored an incredible 37 points in a single quarter. Of the 37 points, 27 came from beyond the 3-point line. Thompson attempted 9 3-point shots that game and made all 9. Such is the impact of ‘pace-and-space’ on the NBA.

Mind you, this style of play existed in the era of big men. Renowned NBA coach Mike D’Antoni is considered the Godfather of ‘pace-and-space’ in the NBA. His teams in the late 90s and early 2000s relied on 3-point shooting. However, he never had any real success with this style of play during that period due to a lack of players who could fit this offensive play style. However, D’Antoni did find success when he began coaching the Phoenix Suns and  drafted legendary point guard Steve Nash. It was nearly a match made in heaven, as D’Antoni had finally found a point guard who could shoot the lights out of the arena from the 3-point line and penetrate the paint when he needed to. Nash found a perfect teammate in Amare Stoudemire who was a perfect pick-and-roller. D’Antoni provided enough and more proof that his revolutionary playing style could work as the Suns made it to the Western Conference Finals in the 2005 and 2006 seasons. Nash also won back-to-back MVP awards in 05 and 06. However, D’Antoni failed to reach the NBA Finals. There could be several explanations for this. First, the Western Conference was loaded with a ton of raw talent — be it Kobe and the Lakers, Tim Duncan and the Spurs, or Nowitzki and the Mavericks. The Suns also faced several injury issues with Stoudemire and Nash picking up injuries in subsequent seasons. Last, the NBA was not the offensive playground that it is today. Physicality was valued and referees hardly called fouls the way they do today. 

What does this mean for the big-men in today’s NBA? For one, physicality and dominance in the post are no longer required. The evolution of the game and the increased reliance on 3-pointers means that the big-men of today need to be able to dribble the ball, play offensively on the perimeter and be able to shoot 3s. These big-men are today called ‘stretch’ big men. This refers to their ability to stretch the court, creating more space on the offensive side of the basketball. Exhibit A is Joel Embiid. Embiid, who plays for the Philadelphia 76ers, is a mighty 7 feet tall and is a monster both offensively and defensively. Last season, Embiid attempted 351 shots in the mid-range and made 171 of them. Embiid can be used to examine the change in playing style that big-men have adopted in the post. Instead of keeping his back to the basket, Embiid plays with his face up to the defender and uses his brilliant footwork and versatility to get to the basket. He attempted 188 3-pointers of which he made 64. To put this into context, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, one of the greatest NBA centers ever and former leader in all-time points scored in the NBA made one 3 pointer in his entire career. Jabbar got most of his points in the paint with his signature move that was deemed unguardable- the Skyhook. The Skyhook is a modified version of the hookshot, where the player throws the ball towards the basket in a sweeping motion of the arm, creating an upward arc. Abdul-Jabbar is most commonly associated with the Skyhook as he threw the ball from a farther distance, which resulted in a much higher arc. The arc was so high that it seemed to be coming from the sky. The Skyhook was and remains one of the most unguardable offensive weapons in the NBA.     

Compare this to Victor Wembanyama, the NBA’s next prodigy. In his first season in the NBA, he has already taken over 260 3-point shots and made a little over 80 of them. Wembanyama is a 7’4” center and has made over 160 shots in the mid-range in just 52 games. In the 2000 NBA season, Shaquille O’Neal attempted only 200 shots in the mid range but nearly 800 in the paint. Wembanyama is also his team’s primary ball-handler. Despite being a center, Wembanyama is seen with the ball for the majority of the game, making use of his crafty ball-handling skills and versatility on the perimeter. The value of the traditional post player has deteriorated and there’s one simple explanation for it. Analytics. 

With the growth of technology and analytics, General Managers and Coaches of NBA teams have realized one simple thing. They are better off choosing and encouraging players who can efficiently shoot a 3-pointer(with a less chance of getting blocked) rather than a 4-foot shot in the paint worth 2 points(with a higher chance of getting blocked). Another tactical reason behind this decision is to keep the opponent’s defense spaced out. If a player plays predominantly in the post, it limits the team’s options offensively. On the other hand, when there are multiple ball-handlers on one team, this spaces out the offense, giving the team a better chance of driving to the basket or shooting a 3-point shot. This has led to another shift from the traditional way basketball has been played. Initially, point guards were meant to bring the ball up to the opponent’s half and create chances for his team to score by making passes. The shooting guard’s role was to make shots while the forwards and the center played in and around the post. Today, there is no such division of roles. NBA teams no longer heed to these roles and have become extremely versatile. Teams emphasize athleticism and want players to contribute effectively on both sides of the court. As a result, teams have started using ‘small-ball’ lineups, with no trace of the traditional center. Teams no longer want big-men who can’t make their way up and down the court in a smooth transition. For example, the Warriors began using Draymond Green, a power forward, as their center in the 2016 and 2017 seasons. This allowed them to have efficient offensive options in every position. 

The offensive boom in the NBA has led to the creation of a new position- the point forward. This refers to a 5-in-1 player who can do it all- create shots, score points, rebound, block shots and guard the perimeter. Although Scottie Pippen did fit the bracket to be called a point forward during his tenure with the Chicago Bulls in the 90s, the term ‘point forward’ was popularized by none other than LeBron James. As soon as LeBron entered the NBA in 2003, it was evident that he could do it all on the court. 20 years later, he’s still doing it. Other players that could fit under the point-forward bracket include Kevin Durant, Gianni Antetokounmpo and Draymond Green. 

There’s no doubt that there has been an offensive boom in the NBA. Teams are scoring at higher rates than ever before. We see box scores such as 131-128 extremely often in the league today. Twenty years ago, a game ending 98-94 was considered high scoring. A huge part of this is due to the importance of the 3-point shot. Teams realize that rather than playing in the post and slowing the game down, it’s much more efficient to attempt scoring from a longer range, with a higher chance of making it. To bring this into context, in 1987 Larry Bird made 98 3-point shots in a single season(his highest ever). In 2017, James Harden drew 116 3-point shooting fouls by himself. Experts claim that the introduction of the 3-point line in basketball may be the most influential rule change ever made in sport. However, this was realized by teams in the NBA only in the recent past. Offensive tempos that teams play with have also increased substantially, even over the past 5 years. Teams are scoring much more at extremely fast rates. 

Gone are the days when big-men dominated the league. Of course, players like Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic and Gianni Antetokounmpo are huge players in the NBA today but they are not big-men in the traditional sense of the term. With teams playing such good defense, it becomes difficult to run to the post and score 1-on-1. Offensively, playing in the post is no longer a viable option. Even the NBA realized this and removed the ‘Center’ position from the All-Star Game 7 years ago. Modern big-men just need to be able to reach the basket either by driving to it or by setting pick and rolls. Big-men today need to have playmaking ability. Imagine asking Shaq 20 years ago to create passes instead of viciously attacking the defender and pounding the ball into the basket. The big-men that play today have evolved to suit the game’s needs- playing face-up in the post instead of their backs towards the defenders, and using their versatility and ball-handling skills to get to the basket. The art of posting up has evolved into a face-up game. 

The NBA today is poles apart from where it was about 30 years ago. Pace-and-space has taken over the league and teams have started building their rosters to suit this type of playing style. Teams hire coaches who promote pace-and-space and players who had previously thrived playing in the interior have been forced to remodel their game so that they are able to play on the perimeter. The NBA of old is dying, or perhaps it is already dead. Hardly will we ever see a Michael Jordan-esque turnaround jumper in the post or a Kobe Bryant alley-oop to Shaquille O’Neal who absolutely destroys the rim while scoring the basket, humiliating defenders while he’s at it. There was something about that game that made it special. Don’t get me wrong. Pulling up 30 feet from the basket to score a game-winner is stunning, but it is happening too often and far too easily. 

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