Funeral at Fenway

The New Monsters of the Midway

The NBA’s Bigs Problem

How the evolving nature of the frontcourt has created confusion about the value of players like Greg Monroe, Tristan Thompson, and Kenneth Faried

As we fly toward the Halloween deadline for players entering their fourth season to sign contract extensions, two guys are especially intriguing: Kenneth Faried and Tristan Thompson.

The NBA market is always evolving, and sometimes it’s hard to separate real trends from random noise. Free agency is a business, but it’s a nontraditional one with weird anticompetitive restraints, and sometimes it appears more like 30 schizoid teams acting in unconnected ways. The restrictive collective bargaining agreement and uncertainty over how fast the cap will jump, and how high, have added layers of confusion.

Some trends have emerged over the last three summers. The price of shooting at all positions has gone up. And one player type has become less and less desired, to the point it may already be a market inefficiency: the power forward who can’t shoot 3s and can’t protect the rim or provide real fill-in minutes at center.

There are good reasons behind the price drop. Protecting the rim is a necessity for any team with championship ambitions. If one big man can’t manage, the other has to carry the load, and real rim protectors tend to be large humans who hang near the rim on offense. That means any big man who can’t protect the rim defensively had better be able to get the hell out of the way on offense, working as a long-distance threat around the pick-and-rolls that dominate the NBA.

Defenses have gotten smarter over the last half-decade, with Tom Thibodeau’s principles spreading throughout the league. Those defenses will choke out offenses that can’t space the floor, or at least create workable space. Teams featuring two big men who can’t shoot tend to have problems spacing the floor.

The Spurs have made the Tiago Splitter–Tim Duncan pairing work by stretching Duncan’s jumper and developing an unmatched system of motion, screens, cuts, and passes. But they separate Splitter and Duncan against top playoff defenses, and none of their rotation bigs fit the Tristan Thompson player type. Splitter and Duncan protect the rim, and Boris Diaw has become a good enough 3-point shooter to earn respect from defenses.1

There are exceptions, of course. Blake Griffin has improved his jumper, but he’s a post-up and pick-and-roll beast at heart. He can spot minutes at center, but he’s not a rim protector. Griffin shares most of his time with DeAndre Jordan — a shot-swatter whose shooting range extends no further than the length of his arm. The lane gets crowded.

The Clippers led the league in points per possession and gave the Thunder a good fight in the second round amid the Donald Sterling controversy. That’s in part because Griffin is the highest form of the player type in question here. He has emerged as an elite post-up threat who draws constant double-teams, he’s explosive enough to score through traffic on the pick-and-roll, and he’s a dynamite passer.

They also have the world’s best point guard. And even so: The Clippers signed Spencer Hawes to a four-year, $23 million contract because of the breathing space his 3-point shooting might provide.

The Pacers even at full health lack an off-the-bounce creator anywhere near Chris Paul’s level, and they have not been able to build a functional offense around one rim protector (Roy Hibbert) and a power forward who does his best work from 18 feet and in (David West).

In the wake of Paul George’s horrific injury, the Pacers will likely start Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles on the wing barring any upgrade to the roster. Miles can’t dribble in the half-court, and Stuckey can’t shoot. The Pacers were the league’s worst non-Philly offense last season after February 1, and it’s hard to see them sniffing league-average production on that end without both George and Lance Stephenson. No lineup without both of those guys logged more than 28 minutes last season, per NBA.com.

Stephenson and George made for a mighty, long-armed defensive pairing on the wing; Stuckey and Miles are both downgrades. Indy still has Hibbert in the middle and a sound scheme, but it could fall to something like eighth or 10th in points allowed per possession after ranking no. 1 with a bullet last season. Combine that sort of defense with a bottom-five offense,2 and you’ve got a team fighting for one of the last two playoff spots in the East.

Detroit Pistons vs Oklahoma City Thunder

Richard Rowe/NBAE/Getty Images

The evolving market for big men makes the free agency of Greg Monroe so interesting. Monroe doesn’t quite fit the archetype, since he has played significant minutes at center and managed well in that time. But he’s ground-bound on defense, and his midrange jumper has fallen well behind Griffin’s. He has a strong post game and smart passing vision, so he has two-thirds of the trifecta of skills Griffin uses to make up for his limitations; Monroe is missing only the pick-and-roll explosion, something Andre Drummond brings in spades.

But that missing element matters. Monroe is a tricky player around which to build. An ideal roster would surround him with at least one big man who can both shoot from range and protect the basket, and there are maybe a half-dozen guys who can do both of those things at an elite level. They are expensive and very hard to get.

Monroe also needs the ball to maximize the things he does well. He is like a younger and lesser Al Jefferson — not as good a post player, and not quite as bulky and physical battling opposing centers down low. But Jefferson has been a part of some very good offensive teams, and he appears to have found a healthy environment on both sides of the floor in Charlotte.

The more interesting cases, at least in terms of bang for the buck, involve complementary players who fit this description. Glen Davis is a minimum-salary player now after earning about $6.5 million per season on his last contract, though his off-court antics, horrific shot selection, and poor conditioning have contributed to that drop-off.

Big Baby has the Chuck Hayes–style bulk to defend post-up centers, so he’s not the perfect representation of this category of players. But he can’t protect the rim, and any generalization of this type is messy. Players are different on the margins, and those differences can matter enormously in gauging their value to a particular team.

Ed Davis fits the bill, and he is somehow a minimum-salaried player now despite strong advanced metrics in limited minutes. Davis wasn’t able to win a consistent role on a very good Memphis team, but he shouldn’t be earning $4 million per season less than Trevor Booker and Chris Kaman.

Booker’s minutes fluctuated in Washington, and he’s the exact sort of player we’re talking about here; he’s listed at just 6-foot-7, and he’s made just one triple in four seasons. Consensus around the league is that the Jazz overpaid a bit, but this is a fine deal. Booker doesn’t do the sexy power forward things the league increasingly expects, but the Jazz are a bad team paying to see if he might be better than the league anticipates.

Booker is a bouncy dude who cuts hard to the rim and has shown flashes, both in college and Washington, of being an effective ball mover. He has a decent stroke, and a team with good player development might invest in teaching Booker the corner 3. In talking to coaches and GMs over the last month, it’s clear we’ll see more teams pushing the corner 3 on bigs — the Chris Bosh–Serge Ibaka route. There could be some surprising names experimenting with the corner 3 as early as this season.

The league might be fetishisizing the 3-point shot, especially among big men, at the expense of other skills. The Celtics have tried like hell, but they can’t get anything of value on the trade market for Brandon Bass and his $6.9 million expiring contract. The Wizards will pay Kris Humphries and DeJuan Blair about $6 million combined this season — about what teams pay on average for their third and fourth big men. Hump provides some shot-blocking, and Blair brings the lower-body girth to bump centers. But in the big picture, each fits the “out-of-style power forward” archetype.

Al-Farouq Aminu is more of a wing, but he played a decent chunk of small-ball power forward in New Orleans, and he might log even more time there (at least proportionally) on a crowded Dallas roster. Aminu can’t shoot, his handle is shaky, and he plays with a spacey low motor on too many nights. But he’s among the very best wing rebounders in the league, and he has slowly improved his passing and dribbling to the point that he can participate in a functional fast break.

He projects as a good defender, and he’s only 23 stinking years old. Dallas snagged him on a minimum deal, which in turn allowed the Mavs to offer Jameer Nelson the full $2.7 million room exception. It’s just unfathomable that some rebuilding team with an open roster spot or two (a caveat that spares Milwaukee) wouldn’t cough up $2 million to see if Aminu might grow into a better player.

The Jazz were terrorized on defense when Marvin Williams played power forward, but their offense functioned well enough, and Williams can now put “stretch 4” on his résumé. He’ll want to erase the hideous point differential Utah put up in those minutes, but his ability to masquerade in that role earned him a fat $7 million contract from the Hornets — more than Blair and Humphries will make combined.

Bass will take a pay cut, and probably a severe one, when he hits free agency next summer. The market for David Lee in two years will be fascinating. Amir Johnson will earn $7 million this season in the last year of his contract, and there’s a very good chance Toronto or some other team will get a steal on Johnson’s next deal.

Johnson spotted Toronto some valuable minutes at center last season as part of an undersized front line with Patrick Patterson, but he can do that only against specific matchups — mostly against opposing backups. He knocked down a career-best 20 3-pointers, but he has the slowest release this side of Thabo Sefolosha, and no one is guarding him out there.

Los Angeles Clippers v Denver Nuggets

Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images

There are methods beyond shooting to create enough space for a flowing offense. If a team can pair two non-shooting bigs with just enough of those skills, they might be able to forge powerful defense and rebounding combinations on the cheap, without sacrificing too much offense.

Faried creates space by sprinting down the floor, sucking in defenders, and opening up trailing 3s. Booker is a smart cutter, and he can take defenders with him by slicing down the gut or sneaking along the baseline. Watch him help open a corner 3 for Trevor Ariza simply by moving from one side of the paint to the other in sync with Marcin Gortat’s roll down the other side:

Johnson has long been a plus/minus darling and defensive whiz, but he has also gotten good enough at tricky little things on offense to function well alongside another non-shooting big. Johnson developed a nice high-low chemistry with Ed Davis before the Raps dealt Davis in the Rudy Gay trade, he’s a key dribble handoff cog in set plays for DeMar DeRozan, and he can both pass and shoot after catching the ball in the paint on the pick-and-roll:

Blair has a nice floater touch on the pick-and-roll and is a skilled passer:

That stuff is not easy. The Raptors scored at a top-10 rate when Johnson shared the floor with Jonas Valanciunas, per NBA.com. Valanciunas’s effective post-up game helped, and finding a big with even decent back-to-the-basket skills is another way to bend the defense without killer shooting at either big-man spot. The Grizz squeeze out enough offense when Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol share the floor; neither can shoot the 3, but both have enough passing, handoff, and post-up skills to make the offense work — even in a season when Memphis had zero wing shooting around them.

Randolph is the high end of the Tristan Thompson archetype, and he also has the almost unfair advantage of playing alongside Gasol — perhaps the most well-rounded big man in basketball.

Where Faried and Thompson fit in is unclear, but starters at their career stage tend to make a lot of money. Teams correctly bet on improvement. Faried conceives of himself as a max-level player, but he can’t shoot and he has struggled defensively. He can’t protect the rim in the half-court (his chase-down blocks in transition kick major ass, though), and he’s never been an intuitive pick-and-roll defender. He kills the glass and cuts like a madman, and he bullied dudes with an improved post-up game in the final 30 games or so last season. Thompson plateaued, and he has never had a sustained stretch of doing any one thing really well — on either end of the floor. He’s lucky to have the same agent as LeBron, but overpaying Thompson will have cap flexibility consequences down the line.

Faried’s energy is a skill; Nuggets GM Tim Connelly has called Faried the heart of the team. And even so, Denver surely understands Faried’s limitations and would prefer to bring him back at a contract around the Taj Gibson range — about $8.5 million per season. Gibson is a ferocious defender with a long wingspan, and he offers plus rim protection for a 6-9 power forward. He’s also developed a post-up game good enough to exploit second-unit defenders.

The Bulls struggled offensively last season without any off-the-dribble threats, but given even average perimeter talent, Chicago should be able to sniff the top 10 in points per possession — even if both Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott need a year of seasoning, which seems pessimistic. Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol stand as the best passing big-man teammates in the league.

Ball movement is the active way to create spacing for teams that don’t have 3-point shooting at the big-man spots, and it can be just as effective a tool as Ersan Ilyasova chilling behind the arc. The passing doesn’t have to be flashy, either. Find two bigs who can navigate the elbows, hit cutters along the baseline, work ass-first handoff screens, and swing the ball to the right shooters, and you can carve out a powerful offense.

And given the exploding market for shooting, you might be able to do that at cost — allowing for some splurging elsewhere on the roster.

One caveat emerges when you have this discussion with coaches and GMs: Playoff basketball is a different animal, and smart defenses with length might be able to strangle offenses that can’t max out shooting. The Spurs’ annual breakup of the Splitter-Duncan combination, often against the Thunder, amounts to a recognition that Oklahoma City has the length and speed to fluster the Spurs’ normal starting lineup. Griffin’s post game was not quite the weapon against Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins that it was in eviscerating Lee one round earlier.

It’s obviously ideal to have one core big man who can shoot 3s in high volume and deter shots near the basket, but there are only a few guys who can do both. Some have slow releases. Some are such defensive liabilities as to be borderline unplayable against good teams. Some are wings contorting themselves into a role they can’t really play.

Money is a finite resource in any salary-cap league. Smart teams may be able to spot some inefficiencies in the big-man market. Doing that requires a precise understanding of a free agent’s skill set and a team’s roster context. Somewhere in the unwatched netherworld of League Pass, a big man might start flashing some interesting passing skills in particular lineup combinations. Not everyone will notice at the same time.

A team that does note that kind of improvement might be able to make a value play if it has the kind of structure already in place for that player to thrive — the right high-low partner, an improving post-up beast, a point guard skilled at a particular sort of pass, or above-average shooting in the right places.

Free agency is a seller’s market, but there are good deals to be had if you read it right. 

Filed Under: NBA, greg monroe, Tristan Thompson, Kenneth Faried

zach_lowe_headshot

Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 381,863 other followers