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2013 NBA Draft Proves Franchises Still Crave Dominant Big Men

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2013 NBA Draft Proves Franchises Still Crave Dominant Big Men
Mike Stobe/Getty Images
Alex Len was selected No. 5 overall despite only scoring 20 points twice in two years at Maryland.

The 2013 NBA draft was wild. We saw reaches, free-falls, steals, marquee-player trades—you name it, the draft had it. 

But most of all, we saw big men. A lot of them.

A combined nine centers and/or seven-footers were taken in the first round, starting with Cody Zeller at No. 4, followed by Alex Len (No. 5), Nerlens Noel (No. 6), Steven Adams (No. 12), Kelly Olynyk (No. 13), Lucas Nogueira (No. 16), Gorgui Dieng (No. 21), Mason Plumlee (No. 22) and Rudy Gobert (No. 27).

It was the most centers and/or seven-footers taken in the first round since 2001, when 10 went, including Kwame Brown, Tyson Chandler, Pau Gasol and Eddy Curry going No. 1 through No. 4, respectively.

After 11 years of no more than six seven-footers and/or centers taken in Round 1, was 2013 just a random year of the big man, or are we seeing an old trend pick up?

Take a look at the number of centers and/or seven-footers that have been taken in each first round since 1995. You'll notice a difference between spans from 1995-2001 and 2002-2012.

Online Graphing

From 1995-2001, an average of 7.4 centers and/or seven-footers were taken per first round, compared to 2002-2012, where only an average of 4.2 were drafted in the first round.

2013 marked a major uptick in those numbers, with those nine centers and/or seven-footers taken in the first round. The big man appears to be back on track as a coveted NBA prospect.

 

Rim Protection

NBA teams have put a stronger emphasis rim protection recently. Defending the basket was one of the major themes of the 2012-13 season.

The trend picked up steam in 2011, when the Dallas Mavericks signed Chandler to anchor their defense. Chandler played a major role as the team went on to win the NBA championship, defeating a younger, more talented, Miami Heat team in the finals.

Chandler went on to land a monster deal with New York, where he's helped the Knicks regain some credibility after years of humiliation. 

In the playoffs, we saw the type of impact that top rim-protectors can have on a game, or even a series. Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert was sensational against the Knicks in the Eastern Conference semifinals. His interior presence kept J.R. Smith on the perimeter and Carmelo Anthony in check, holding the Knicks to under 50 percent field goal shooting in every game of the series.

Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol has helped turn Memphis into one of the most feared teams in the league. Joakim Noah was a major key for an undermanned Chicago Bulls team that managed to knock off the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the playoffs. 

I decided to dig deeper into the stats to determine the true value of interior defense for NBA teams. An easy way to measure the impact of quality interior defense is look up made field goals allowed within five feet of the rim.

In fact, of the eight teams that give up the least amount of these buckets, seven made the playoffs, including all four conference finalists.

 2012-13 Less Than Five Feet
                  Opponent Field-Goals Made
1. Pacers 1096
2. Clippers 1215
3. Warriors 1223
4. Grizzlies 1236
5. Wizards 1247
6. Bulls 1282
7. Heat 1285
8. Spurs 1295

Courtesy of NBA.com/stats.

Last season, the teams that protected the rim most effectively were the teams that were most successful. 

An argument can be made that this year's draft class lacked talent, and therefore, teams might have been more willing to take a risk on a raw seven-footer than a guard or forward with question marks. 

In the 2013 draft, a number of higher-upside guards and forwards were passed on for raw, unrefined centers or seven-footers.

Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
Jamaal Franklin, Ricky Ledo, Tony Mitchell, Glen Rice Jr., Lorenzo Brown, Isaiah Canaan and Erick Green each fell to Round 2, while raw and offensively challenged bigs including Noel, Nogueira, Gobert, Dieng and Adams, all went in the first round.

It's becoming tougher and tougher to add stars in free agency. Not everyone can be a major player on the free-agent market. In terms of talent, nobody is going to be able to match up evenly against powerhouses like the Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Instead of trying to land high-priced free agents, we might be starting to see teams combat opposing talent with strength, size, physicality and rim protection.

But these type of big men don't just fall out of trees. So when you get a tree that grows as many big men as the 2013 NBA draft, teams are going to shake it for all its worth.

Reliable centers have been and remain one of the rarer and more difficult commodities to acquire, as ESPN's Jemele Hill pointed out in regards to NBA free agency. 

If this isn't a resurgence in the value of big men, it's at least some assurance their value hasn't diminished.

In this year's Eastern Conference Finals, Indiana didn't have the talent to match up with Miami, but its size down low helped neutralize the disadvantage. 

Kirk Goldsberry and Eric Weiss conducted a research report on interior defense that they presented at last year's MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. It discussed the significance and potential impact of interior defenders.

The presence of a truly dominant interior force can augment the spatial behavior of the offense in the same way that a dominant cornerback changes the behavior of a quarterback. While it is easy to tally up things like blocks, rebounds, and steals, it’s much harder to measure the kind of disruption or the strategic augmentations that dominant interior defenders.

A big man's ability to change a game defensively, regardless of how developed his skill set is, should give him an advantage entering the draft over guards and wings with uncertain NBA outlooks. Expect teams to continue beefing up their front lines through the draft and free agency in order to counter superior opposing talent. 

Though small ball in the NBA might have picked up, don't get it twisted—franchises still crave dominant big men.

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