The Death of the Traditional Big Man in the Evolving NBA Landscape
Inside-out basketball is slowly but surely becoming a thing of the past in the NBA.
Traditional half-court offenses centered on back-to-the-basket big men are being dumped in favor of a more uptempo, explosive style of basketball.
We’re seeing offenses become more focused on all things fast-paced and highlight-oriented. Penetration from the perimeter, jumpers early in the shot clock and fast-break buckets are beginning to account for the majority of points for several teams around the league.
Mainstream offenses of the past would grind out opponents through a series of picks, cuts and post entries in hopes of getting easy, open looks. The Tim Duncan-led Spurs of the past decade and Shaquille O'Neal-led Lakers and Heat of the early 2000’s are the most recent examples of championship teams that fit that mold.
Fast-forward to the present.
Youthful, athletic teams are beginning to gain favor in the eyes of management, scouts and coaching staffs.
This is no doubt partially due to the diminishing number of traditional big men, but it is also related to the clear advantages that athleticism has over opposing post presences. An overwhelming amount of speed and explosiveness is beginning to trump dominance in the paint.
The Lakers-Thunder and Pacers-Heat playoff series of this year were prime examples of this.
The tandem of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum have the ability to wreak havoc on opposing defenses. They impose their will on defenders in the post and demand attention from every set of eyes on the court. But in the Lakers’ second-round bout with the Thunder, they were exposed.
The athleticism and length of Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka countered their size to perfection.
On the defensive end, the smaller Ibaka was able to alter the shots of Bynum, Gasol and all other intruding parties in the key with help defense. This enabled Westbrook, Harden and Durant to get out in the open court on missed shots and turnovers with little to no resistance from the Lakers’ interior defenders, who trailed the plays.
In the half-court game, OKC's Big Three were able to utilize pick-and-roll and isolation sets. In pick-and-roll scenarios, any one of them could knock down distance jumpers (if the on-ball defender went under the screen) or attack the rim (if the defender tried to fight over the screen). If the Thunder decided to isolate, they had three different options from which to target a mismatch.
For the Lakers, it became a game of "pick your poison."
On the opposite coast, the Chris Bosh-less Miami Heat were able to compensate for their lack of size against the Indiana Pacers, a team with two major frontcourt weapons in Roy Hibbert and David West.
By going small with Shane Battier or LeBron James at power forward, the Heat opened driving lanes, spread the floor and drew the Pacers frontcourt out of the paint. Though Battier was dominated by a bigger West one-on-one on the other end, Miami's smaller, quicker lineup was able to rotate and offer help.
Obviously, second- and third-tier teams don’t have quite the capabilities or success of the Thunder and Heat, but they are all striving to imitate those teams’ roster structures.
Pairing the agile and intelligent Chris Paul with two freakishly athletic big men in Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan this season, the Los Angeles Clippers were able compete on the defensive end and still get all five players out on the break in transition.
The Magic of the past five-plus years, the 2011 Dallas Mavericks and the current New York Knicks and Denver Nuggets are also examples of teams that have developed faster and more athletic rosters.
Even the San Antonio Spurs, whose identity has been associated with the traditional big-man style of basketball for well over a decade, have now transformed into a team that will run an uptempo offense.
The benefits from a business standpoint are apparent. Exciting basketball results in more fans, higher viewership and increased ticket sales.
But the on-court performance and production of the previously cited clubs hasn’t wavered either, as evidenced by the success of teams like the Thunder and Heat.
It’s hard to tell if teams like the Lakers, Celtics, Pacers and Jazz will follow suit by downsizing and infusing athleticism and youth to keep up with the rapidly evolving landscape in the NBA. After their struggles in this year’s playoffs, it certainly wouldn’t come as a surprise.
In the case of bigger, slower-pace teams, it's a matter of adapting or going extinct. For their sake, I think they will choose the former.
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