Dwight Howard and Blake Griffin are two of the league's brightest young big men, but is either one part of the best big man combo in the NBA?
Over the past decade, the NBA has turned into a guard-driven league. Point guards, in particular, rule the day.
Think about a random NBA point guard. Let's take Andre Miller for example. If you asked someone what they thought about Andre Miller, the response would go something like this:
"Andre Miller? Hmmm...he's a solid veteran floor general. Knows how to run the team, very good passer. Wait, didn't he lead the league in assists one year? And he's a sneaky good scorer too. There was that one time he dropped like 50-something on the Mavs. Good player. One of the better starting point guards in the league."
Is he really?
There are a lot of positives to Andre Miller, but would he make any rational NBA analyst's top ten point guards list? Would he make the top 15? Is there a significant difference between him and, say, D.J. Augustin?
Point guards have almost become a dime a dozen. Just look at all the ones that have come up in the last few seasons. Three of the past four No. 1 overall picks have been point guards, after only one was taken first overall in the previous 28 drafts (If you can even call Allen Iverson a point guard).
The point guard boom has coincided with a dearth of true big men. Gone are the days of the lumbering trees in the middle, rooting themselves to one block or another. Today's typical big man is a long, hyper-athletic pogo stick that can run the floor and win slam dunk contests, but has no low post game to speak of.
That's why it's become so important to have a size advantage in the NBA these days. Look at recent champions like the Lakers, Spurs, Pistons, and Celtics. All had either one supremely dominant big man (Duncan, KG) or multiple All-Star caliber bigs (Wallace Bros., Gasol/Odom/Bynum). Shaq gave the Heat the interior presence it needed to capture their first ever NBA title, and even the Mavericks this past season won after adding 7-foot Tyson Chandler to their resident 7-footer, Dirk Nowitzki.
With strong guard play everywhere, teams can only separate themselves with superior size. With an eye to potential future (or perhaps even present) contenders, here are the top five big man tandems under the age of 25.
Cousins and Hickson haven't even had a single practice together, but after a trade sent Hickson from Cleveland to Sacramento this summer, these two are now officially teammates.
And they are teeming with upside, especially Cousins, the 21-year-old who was the No. 5 selection in the 2010 draft. Cousins had an up-and-down rookie campaign. He displayed numerous flashes of brilliance, but lacked consistency and efficiency. He's got excellent size at 6-11, 270 pounds, and couples it with a smooth skill set and much grace for a kid (I can call him a kid because he is, in fact, younger than I am. Sigh.) as big as he is.
Cousins needs to improve his efficiency on both ends, after posting exorbitant turnover and foul rates. He was also an inefficient shooter, who was way too in love with his jump shot. There were also rumblings of attitude problems out of the young big man, with several reports of run-ins he had with the coaching staff leading to him being kicked out of practice. If he can harness his immense talents while reigning his temper in as well, Cousins can be a force inside for the Kings.
Meanwhile, Hickson improved his numbers across the board in his third season in the league. He's got a good motor, and does enough of the dirty work to be a good complement to the more dynamic Cousins going forward.
McGee is your prototypical NBA center these days. Tall, lanky, thin, relatively unskilled, but can jump out of the gym. Blatche is built along those same lines, with a more polished skill set and less athleticism.
McGee showed off his athletic prowess at last year's slam dunk contest. He's a force to be reckoned with defensively, after finishing second in the NBA in blocked shots last year. On offense, he can't do much at this point other than dunk the ball (He was fourth in the NBA in dunks a season ago). It led him to the seventh best field goal percentage in the league in 2011, but fans in the first few rows might be wise to duck when McGee lets that running hook shot fly.
Blatche, on the other hand, has the offensive firepower to light up the scoreboard on any given night. However, when it comes to shooting the ball, "location, location, location" isn't the mantra this mercurial talent goes by. Blatche has a reputation for taking some of the worst shots a player can take. Despite the quickness and agility he possesses in a 6-11 frame, Blatche insisted on taking nearly five shots per game from 16 feet or further last season. He only connected on about 32 percent of those attempts.
Unfortunately, Blatche also has a reputation for not giving it his all every night. If he ever gets his head screwed on straight, he can combine with the developing McGee to create a fearsome frontcourt tandem.
Words fail to describe the upside of Blake Griffin. He has an ever-refining skill set with more raw athleticism than you could shake a stick at. He was an All Star as a rookie, and I see at least one MVP in his future.
Jordan is the perfect complement to Griffin. He doesn't need to touch the ball much. He's happy just throwing down the occasional lob (He was third in the NBA in dunks last season behind only Griffin and Dwight Howard). Plus, he works hard on the defensive end to clean the glass and erase shots. Technically, he's not a starter when Chris Kaman is in the lineup, but that's a rare sight these days, as Jordan found himself in the starting five 66 times last season. Even in limited minutes, he finished in the top 10 in blocked shots and offensive rebound percentage in 2011.
The best thing these two have going for them though, is that their chemistry is off the charts. The Clippers looked much better as a unit with Griffin and Jordan up front rather than Griffin and Kaman, actually outscoring their opponents when the two youngsters were in together. There is a special bond between these two big men that extends to life off the court. That should give hope to Clippers fans as Griffin and Jordan continue to blossom in the same frontcourt together.
It's scary to think that Dwight is still just 25 years old. He's already been playing at an MVP level for several years now. Howard is good enough by himself to make this list, even if the man he was paired with was me (Thankfully for him, and unfortunately for me, that is not the case.). However, let's not discount his teammate here, Ryan Anderson.
Magic GM Otis Smith took a lot of heat last season for the way he set up his roster, but one of the better decisions he made was trading away Rashard Lewis to open up more playing time to the just-as-good and a heck of a lot more cost-effective Anderson.
Anderson played just a shade over 22 minutes per game last season, but what a 22 minutes they were! He was the perfect complement to Howard, a stretch-4 who spread the floor and knocked down open jumpers, giving Howard ample room to work inside. Anderson posted a shockingly high PER of 19.0, while connecting on nearly 40 percent of his three-point attempts. Projecting his numbers over 36 minutes, he would have averaged 17 points, nine rebounds, and a block per contest. Those are borderline All-Star numbers from a guy you wouldn't expect that kind of production from.
If Anderson can be as productive in a larger share of minutes than he received last season, the Magic will remain contenders in the East as long as Dwight decides to stick around.
Smith and Horford benefit here from their experience and old age (old for this group anyways), but there is no doubt that they comprise the best young frontcourt tandem in the NBA.
Smith has been a sterling prospect since he was drafted out of high school back in 2004. His athleticism has always made him a must-watch player, and year after year he is considered among the top defensive stalwarts in the league, as he as averaged at least 1.3 steals and 1.6 blocks per game in six consecutive seasons.
Smith has made strides on offense as well, becoming a consistent threat to eclipse 20 points on any given night, and being among the leaders in assists per game for power forwards. The knock on Smith has always been his poor shot selection, but after eliminating most of his jump shots two seasons ago, Smith was back to chucking from long distance in 2011. Except he was way better at it. Smith attempted a career high 4.3 long two-point jumpers a game (16-23 feet), but hit a respectable 39 percent of them, up from 29 percent from that distance in 2010.
Horford, meanwhile, came into the league as a solid player with limited upside, but he has surpassed the expectations of most everyone so far. He has increased his PER, scoring, assists, field goal percentage and free throw percentage in each of his four seasons in the NBA, while reducing his turnovers and fouls as well. Despite being undersized for a center, Horford averaged just 2.5 fouls per game, while averaging better than nine rebounds and a block per contest last year.
Horford has vastly improved on the offensive end since coming into the NBA. He is a pick-and-pop machine, with one of the most reliable jumpers of any center in the league. Last season, Horford attempted nearly five long two-pointers (16-23 feet) per game and connected at an astonishing 53 percent clip. He also led all centers in the league in assists at 3.5 helpers a game. Horford was recognized for his outstanding play in 2011 by being selected as an All-Star and All-NBA third team.
With two all-around studs like Smith and Horford in the frontcourt, the Hawks have the foundation to build a championship contender. If only they weren't handing out $120 million contracts to the likes of Joe Johnson...