All it takes is one flawlessly executed pace-and-space set for the NBA's most misguided rumor to spread.
With teams pushing further beyond the perimeter and coaches craving prime real estate for pick-and-roll plays, bigs have never looked more expendable. With the center position wiped off of All-Star ballots, paint protectors have become something of endangered species.
Everyone tries subscribing to the theory that size no longer matters in this league until some bruising behemoth forcibly debunks that myth. Like the super-sized Memphis Grizzlies perennially pushing the Western Conference elites in the postseason, or Dwight Howard making you wonder if he really has a Superman cape underneath his uniform.
Small ball might be here to stay, but size still matters in this league. It requires a little more maintenance, and although not every team has access to it, it can be a devastating weapon for the ones that do.
"It's easier to spread the floor and play that way -- until all of the sudden the game slows down," an assistant coach told ESPN Insider Chris Broussard (subscription required). "And then if there's one big man on the court who can play, he causes so many problems."
The face of frontcourts is changing, but life on the interior is still a vital piece of any championship puzzle. It's just rarely treated as such.
Fans will debate the league's best dynamic duo, talented trio or even its best backcourt, but rarely is the proper light shined upon these towering trees.
That changes now.
The league's best interior tandems are going under the microscope with a combination of statistics, star power and stature used to crown the kings of the frontcourt.
Not every team has an entry in this race. Given the trade winds brewing between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Minnesota Timberwolves, there is little value in including either club. Same goes for the Detroit Pistons, who still haven't figured out what to do with restricted free agent Greg Monroe.
It's also hard to project what type of impact rookies will have, so those teams expected to give major minutes to NBA freshmen (Los Angeles Lakers with Julius Randle, Charlotte Hornets with Noah Vonleh, Orlando Magic with Aaron Gordon, Philadelphia 76ers with Nerlens Noel) were excluded as well.
From there, the old, reliable eye test whittled the playing field down to 12 forward-center combos. More is required to weed through the last layer of competitors, but it doesn't take a computer to separate the good groups from the rest.
With all of that said, here's a look at the 12 interior finalists along with their combined per-game averages from the 2013-14 season.
|Paul Millsap-Al Horford||ATL||36.5||16.9||2.6|
|Pau Gasol-Joakim Noah||CHI||30.0||21.0||3.0|
|Dirk Nowitzki-Tyson Chandler||DAL||30.4||15.8||1.7|
|David Lee-Andrew Bogut||GSW||25.5||19.3||2.2|
|Terrence Jones-Dwight Howard||HOU||30.4||19.1||3.1|
|David West-Roy Hibbert||IND||24.8||13.4||3.1|
|Blake Griffin-DeAndre Jordan||LAC||34.5||23.1||3.1|
|Zach Randolph-Marc Gasol||MEM||32.0||17.3||1.6|
|Anthony Davis-Omer Asik||NOP||26.6||17.9||3.6|
|LaMarcus Aldridge-Robin Lopez||POR||34.3||19.6||2.7|
|Boris Diaw-Tim Duncan||SAS||24.2||13.8||2.3|
So, what do these numbers tell us?
Well, it helps to have a superstar in the mix. Of the seven tandems to eclipse a 30-point scoring average, six were represented at the 2014 NBA All-Star Game. The lone exception, the Memphis Grizzlies, might have had one as well had Marc Gasol not been sidelined nearly two months by an MCL sprain.
These figures also provide averages for the dozen, with the scoring column standing out above the rest. Interior players can impact the game a number of different ways, but the league's best should be able to put points on the board.
The combined scoring average of these duos was 29.7 points per game, which will be used to cut this field down further.
None of the combos who failed to make this cut are particularly surprising.
David Lee and Andrew Bogut specialize at opposite ends of the floor, so combined, they add up to a good but not great combo. As was the case late last season, the Indiana Pacers are doomed by Roy Hibbert's dramatic collapse. Omer Asik served in a reserve role last season, so the New Orleans Pelicans never really had a chance. That's OK anyway, since it's hard to tell whether Asik or Ryan Anderson is a better frontcourt mate for Anthony Davis.
The San Antonio Spurs keep too many hands in the pot for any single player to stand out. The Washington Wizards need Nene and Marcin Gortat to have success, but really, they are built to go as far as John Wall and Bradley Beal can take them.
Switching to the opposite end of the floor now, how do these pairings stack up defensively?
That depends on your metric of choice, but let's look at player efficiency rating allowed. Defensive rating is another option, but that can harm players on bad defensive teams and reward players for having other stoppers around them.
Shifting the focus on to individual matchups might paint a clearer picture of how these players actually performed. Courtesy of 82games.com, here's how each of the remaining seven tandems performed by PER against. (Since Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah cannot both play the center spot together, Gasol's numbers were used from his matchups against power forwards.)
|Team||PF PER Against||C PER Against||Total PER Against|
Remember this is production against, so treat these like golf scores—lower is better.
With only the three lowest surviving, this group loses some familiar faces, but again, none that are entirely shocking.
Pau Gasol is a turnstile defender at this point, so the mobility of today's athletic 4s can give him fits. The Atlanta Hawks have two good defenders with Paul Millsap and Al Horford, but perhaps not a great one. Dirk Nowitzki has the same struggles against quickness as Gasol, and Tyson Chandler is a year removed from his last All-Defensive selection.
The Los Angeles Clippers are growing defensively under Doc Rivers, but there is work left to be done. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan "aren't stoppers, separately or together," Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote.
Out of the three, Lopez and Aldridge posted the best net rating together, outscoring opponents by 8.8 points per 100 possessions during 1,741 minutes together, via NBA.com. Howard and Jones didn't finish too far behind with a plus-6.2 net rating, with Gasol and Randolph bringing up the rear with a plus-5.1.
Yet if you want to find the best interior tandem, you don't need to look outside the grit-and-grind capital of the basketball world.
Yes, they had the lowest net rating of the three, but remember—their floor time was cut short by injury. Plus, they were the Grizzlies' second-most efficient dyad, trailing only Randolph and Courtney Lee (plus-5.4).
Howard posted better net ratings with each of the Rockets' other three starters. Aldridge paired better with fellow All-Star Damian Lillard (plus-9.2) than he did with Lopez.
Both the Blazers and Rockets have superstars on the interior (Aldridge and Howard, respectively) and strong supporting pieces alongside them (Lopez and Jones). The Grizzlies have a true one-two punch with Gasol and Randolph, both of whom demand attention and adjustments from opposing teams.
Memphis imposes its size on other clubs, playing bigger and more physical than the finesse clubs filling the NBA ranks.
They aren't different for the sake of being different; they play that brand of basketball because it works. They have a .619 winning percentage over the last four seasons, a stretch that has included three Game 7 losses and a Western Conference Finals berth.
These two are everything a team could want in a frontcourt pair: strong, smart, skilled and all kinds of tough. Both are comfortable from mid-range, bullies on the low block and capable passers anywhere in between.
The chemistry they share is the type of thing that cannot be coached.
"Zach knows that when I get the ball in the post, my first read is him," Gasol told CBS Sports' Matt Moore. "And I know it's the same with him. We understand the game the same way."
That understanding, coupled with elite-level skills, is what powered Gasol and Randolph to the top of this list.
It also happens to be what makes the Grizzlies such a nightmare matchup come playoff time. For anyone foolish enough to think size no longer matters in this game, this talented twosome sends reminders like clockwork every spring.