Toronto was witness to the latest evidence of the evolution of the big man in the NBA — not during Sunday’s All-Star Kobe Bryant love vest, but on Saturday during the Skills Competition and Three-Point Contest.
Four big men competed in the skills competition — previously the domain of quick little guards — and Karl-Anthony Towns won it, knocking down his three first to beat Boston’s diminutive Isaiah Thomas. Miami’s Chris Bosh was set to compete in the three-point competition until his health issues got in the way.
That evolution of the big man and his role in a modern NBA was a topic throughout All-Star weekend for those trying to adapt to changing roles.
“The whole game has evolved,” said New Orlean’s Anthony Davis, one of those big men in the Saturday Skills Competition. “I don’t think there’s too many traditional big men anymore. Guys grab a rebound and push it up the floor and starting plays, stretching out to the three now. There are no traditional big men, but that’s the way the game has evolved….
“Everybody’s gotta be versatile now, and that’s the way the game has evolved.”
But this evolution is not one size fits all. There are the all-around skills of someone like Davis or Towns, the length and shooting of Kristaps Porzingis, the polished midrange game of LaMarcus Aldridge (who follows in the footsteps of Dirk Nowitzki), or the freakish athleticism of someone such as DeAndre Jordan.
DeMarcus Cousins and Andre Drummond are the two best players close to a traditional big man in the Association, but they bring other skills to the table — Cousins can hit threes (as he did in the All-Star Game), and Drummond is so athletic he can defend the pick-and-roll out on the perimeter.
“(Drummond) is a freak of nature,” said Bosh, who himself is a good pick-and-roll defending big on the perimeter. “He’s mobile, he can guard, and he’s very athletic.
“That’s what you need to be. The slower big man is kind of easing out a little bit. If you’re slower, you need that outside touch, it’s very important. But a guy like him, his athleticism helps him survive.”
Bosh hits the nail on the head. The day of Mark Eaton clogging the paint are gone — and it’s because of changes to the rules and changes in players.
The rules changes in 2004 were the first dominoes in what has become a modern NBA — no more hand checking on the perimeter so that skill could show through, and zone defenses were allowed. That first rule means if you have a big who can create a little space and get a shot off on the perimeter, he’s going to be able to operate — think Nowitzki and his one-legged fadeaway.
The zone defense means you’re not just going to be able to throw the ball to a big in the post and let him go to work — if you’ve got a strong post player I can have a defender fronting him and another helping behind before there is even an attempt at an entry pass. It becomes very had to get the ball to a big just standing on the block if the defense makes stopping that a priority. That puts value on bigs who can come out and set the pick then pop out for a jumper — Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol — or can be a beast rolling to the rim (the Clippers’ Jordan).
Bottom line, you must have some versatility to your game.
Modern NBA bigs have that versatility because they grew up idolizing and modeling their game more after Kevin Garnett and Nowitzki than Shaq (because nobody gets the physical gifts of a Shaq but once every generation or three). Today’s bigs come into the league with a range of skills (or, at least, a foundation of them for teams to build on) that allows a coach to use them in different ways depending upon the matchup.
All this doesn’t mean that these bigs don’t want to see the center designation return to the All-Star Ballot. Don’t bet on that happening (although at Adam Silver’s address it was said it would remain on the All-NBA ballot).
And if you ask DeMarcus Cousins, the center position isn’t going anywhere.
“I think the center position is very much alive…. It’s a trendy league, that’s what’s trendy right now,” Cousins said of small ball. “I’m sure that changes again down the road…
“We got a lot of great bigs coming in — Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil (Okafor) — there’s a lot of great talent coming up, so we shouldn’t disrespect the position.”