The Rebirth of Big Men: A Breakdown of Old-School Bulk and New-Era Skill

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The positional revolution1 is real — to a degree. Rule changes and smart coaching have made speed, playmaking, and 3-point shooting more important across all five positions. Players toggle more often than ever between positions on both sides of the floor.

A lot of people inside and outside the league concluded that the NBA was on a path toward small ball — an era in which wing players would shift up to power forward, everyone would shoot 3s, and some apex predator team would field a fever-dream lineup of five multiskilled 6-foot-8 guys. The center position was supposedly so dead that the NBA removed it from the All-Star ballot.

Things never went nearly so far. Certain teams — the LeBron-era Heat, the 2012-13 Knicks, this season’s Bucks2 — went all in on true small ball, but there was never evidence that it was sweeping the league. Almost every team starts two semitraditional big men, and studies have shown no change in average NBA player height by position. There were more players 6-foot-10 and taller with above-average Player Efficiency Ratings in 2012-13 than in most seasons during the early 1990s — the alleged heyday of centers.

The NBA was becoming more skilled, not smaller. More teams that lacked good big men decided not to play the 7-foot plodders they did have. So-called “stretch” power forwards became in vogue, but they weren’t smaller humans — they were mostly humans of power forward size who happened to be good shooters.

The best teams need everything — the ability to go super-big against Memphis, and to inject more shooting and playmaking into one big-man slot when the opponent requires it. The Spurs are a model of that kind of flexibility; capturing it requires spending every dollar wisely.3

Size will matter as long as basketball involves people trying to throw a ball up and into a basket propped 10 feet above the ground. A few years after it became popular to declare the center position dead, a new wave of young centers — especially from the 2013 draft class — is reclaiming the position with a blend of old-school bulk and new-era skill. Here’s a look at five such players who perhaps haven’t been given their due attention in this space:4

THE DIVE MEN

The Wall: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
There was never a question of whether Gobert could protect the basket. His wingspan, 7 feet and 8.5 inches, is among the longest on record at the NBA’s draft combine, and he has nimble feet for a giant. He’s an explosive leaper. His presence affects every second of every half-court defensive possession.

It was unclear whether Gobert could stay on the floor long enough to let his game-changing skill sing. He fouled a lot, mucked up Utah’s spacing, and coughed up heaps of turnovers. He showed zero back-to-the-basket game.

The low-post game isn’t dead, but it is harder today than it was 10 years ago to be an effective post scorer. If a team wanted to trap Charles Barkley or Patrick Ewing, it had to send a hard double from all the way across the floor. Rule changes have allowed defenses to get trickier.

A pesky guard can swipe down at DeMarcus Cousins on the block, scurry back up to his man, and dig down again when Cousins goes back to work. A third defender can flash into the middle of the paint and hang there for 2.9 seconds, blocking Cousins’s path to the middle and complicating the passing lanes.

Again, that doesn’t mean the back-to-the-basket bruiser is dead. It just means a player has to be damn good for the post-up to become a regular weapon.

Gobert was never going to get there, and teams in this era of spacing and speed have rushed to turn all such prospects into imitations of Tyson Chandler, having them screen like all hell, dive to the basket, and cram the ball down their throats. Get good at that, and a player with zippo post skills can morph into an offensive centerpiece who sucks multiple defenders into the paint — and away from shooters. Gobert is springy enough to catch the ball just inside the foul line, rise up, and dunk it, all in one motion:

Gobert 4

He’s also an eager screen-setter; Gobert has set about 27 ball screens per 36 minutes this season, 11th-highest among all rotation players, according to SportVU data provided to Grantland. Defenses hack Gobert a ton to prevent his dunks, and he has reworked his free throw stroke so he is merely below average from the stripe (62.5 percent) instead of terrible (49 percent last season).

But the path to the rim isn’t always so clear; teams adjust, and smart defenses put bodies in your way. Gobert would have to prove in Year 2 that he could adapt with deft finishes and smart passing. Bad news for the league: He is ahead of schedule. He has little one-dribble moves he can break out in traffic, and a nice lefty touch:

Gobert 3

And in an unexpected twist, he has become a clever passer. Gobert had seven assists — seven! —  in 434 minutes last season; he already has 56 in 1,134 minutes this season. Gobert isn’t Magic Johnson, but he has shown that he can read the floor on the pick-and-roll:

Gobert 1

Gobert 2

That slick drop-off pass has become a regular thing, and it is huge for Gobert’s potential long-armed partnership with Derrick Favors. Gobert has zero range, and Favors’s improved jumper tops out for now around 18 feet. That makes for cramped spacing, especially since Utah’s guards and wings outside Gordon Hayward aren’t exactly shooting specialists.

But skilled players can thrive within tight confines. The Jazz have scored 102.7 points per 100 possessions with the Favors/Gobert combination, right around league-average output, and Quin Snyder has used the pairing more — including last week in Portland, where Gobert started the second half and smothered LaMarcus Aldridge all over the floor.

Favors can gin up spacing with a budding midrange game, and he’s getting better at slicing through tiny crevices for layups when Gobert is around.

It’s not all rosy here. Gobert has so-so hands and remains turnover-prone. He too often whiffs on screens in his zeal for alley-oops. Utah’s offense declines with Gobert on the court by about the same amount as its defense improves — seven points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com.

But the numbers are much better when Hayward is on the floor with him, and Gobert has done just enough on offense to unleash his own personal reign of terror on the other end. He is the NBA’s Godzilla. Opponents are shooting just 37 percent on close shots when Gobert is near the rim — the stingiest number among all rotation big men, per NBA.com.5

He is so much of a force already that the Jazz have to consider dealing Enes Kanter at the trade deadline. It’s not a foregone conclusion; the cap will rise so dramatically in 2016 that Utah could re-sign all of its key young players and retain at least some breathing room. Kanter could also work as the jump-shooting third big Utah could start in (eventual) playoff matchups that call for more spacing — Utah’s Boris Diaw, basically.

But it’s all a matter of opportunity cost. If Utah trades Kanter, it’s not just about the immediate return package. It’s also about how it might use the salary Kanter would have eaten with the eight-figure deal he’ll surely get this summer.

Gobert has butted his way into the Kanter discussion faster than Utah ever could have expected.

The Spider: Alex Len, Phoenix Suns

This is our second international player. In fact, every guy featured here grew up outside the U.S. There are plenty of young U.S.-born bigs thriving in the league — Andre Drummond, Mason Plumlee, Hassan Whiteside — but team decision-makers are kicking around theories about why so many next-generation centers are coming from overseas.

The most popular theory is the usual anti-AAU trope — the idea that U.S. bigs grow up on fast-paced AAU teams where they live out the fantasy of playing point center. Their international counterparts, meanwhile, embrace the drudgery of big-man play early — and thus master it sooner.

It’s hard to know without being plugged into the scouting pipeline full-time, but this is worth investigating if the trend continues.

Len is like a skinnier Gobert with a softer touch, and the Suns took off when Jeff Hornacek promoted Len into the starting lineup over Miles Plumlee. “That is not coincidental,” says Ryan McDonough, the team’s GM.

Len sets about 23 screens on the ball per 36 minutes, right behind Gobert, and he’s an explosive finisher when he has some space:

Len 4

He has been perhaps too eager to take pick-and-pop midrange jumpers, but Len has a developing touch, and it must be hard for a young player to find the right balance in the pick-and-roll with unpredictable attack dogs like Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, and Isaiah Thomas. They like to go around a pick one way and veer back in the opposite direction, so that Len might worry about colliding with them if he rolls straight to the basket.

Len battles on the offensive glass, and he’s good at making himself available when a teammate penetrates; he already has a nice big-to-big chemistry with Markieff Morris:

Len 1 (1)

Len is mostly a mooch right now, but not every 7-footer is skilled enough to work as an NBA-level mooch.

On defense, Hornacek will leverage Len’s mobility by having him chase pick-and-rolls far from the hoop:

“It wasn’t a popular pick when we made it, but it was almost unanimous among our staff,” McDonough says. “It’s rare to see someone with that kind of mobility at that size.”

He’s not a dominant rim-protector yet, but the Suns have been stingier with Len on the floor. He’s good at ignoring misdirection to focus on the ball, and he’s a problem at the rim when he gets there on time:

Len 5

The Suns envision Len becoming a more well-rounded offensive player, but they’re happy with his progress. “One thing casual observers underrate is how strong you have to be to score in the post,” McDonough says. “Alex is only 21. He’ll get stronger, and he’ll start to gain ground in the post.”

The Old-School Bully: Jusuf Nurkic, Denver Nuggets

The Bosnian Bear, on the other hand, is already plenty strong. Nurkic is kind of a mess on the block right now, but it’s clear he has the heft and mean streak to dislodge opposing defenders:

Nurkic 1

The bar to being an efficient post-up player is higher than it used to be, but if you can bull-rush your way close to the basket, defenses have no choice but to send help defenders toward you — and open up deadly inside-out passes.

A lot of teams were wary of Nurkic during the draft process. They saw a head case who distrusted people, particularly Americans; doled out too many hard fouls; and lost his cool on the court. Nuggets GM Tim Connelly had done years of background on Nurkic and was confident he’d perform well for any NBA team that showed faith in him. Even the copious trash talk could be spun in a good direction: Nurkic loves to compete, and he enjoys getting under an opponent’s skin. “He’s like a wrestling heel,” Connelly says.

On a side note, my mastery of Balkan curse words has never come in handier than while watching film of Nurkic. If opponent players (and referees) only knew what he was saying …

Nurkic is a dreadful 25-of-67 on post-ups, but he’ll do better once he adjusts to the speed of the NBA. Nurkic can establish deep position, but once he catches the ball, he’s in a frantic rush to get rid of it. He flings up semi-blind hooks as if he’s under some kind of time constraint. And since he’s not a great leaper, he’s flicking a lot of those hooks from way behind his head as his momentum takes him away from the rim:

Nurkic 2

The same panic has infected his pick-and-roll game, a smaller part of Nurkic’s overall arsenal than of Gobert’s and Len’s:

Nurkic 3

Even at this infant stage, you can see Nurkic’s natural footwork and touch. Too many bigs roll straight to the hoop at full speed, assuming their point guards can find a clean passing angle right away. Nurkic has a little of that Tim Duncan–style tap dancing in his game. He’ll set a screen, roll hard for a couple of steps, and then slow down into tiptoeing baby steps if he sees that his point guard needs time to create a passing window.

And given his soft touch, you can almost see why Nurkic wants to just hot-potato the ball onto the rim. If it just gets up there, it has a shot to drop.

Nurkic doesn’t have sprinter speed, but he has nimble feet, and he can scramble across small distances faster than you’d expect from looking at his bulky frame. He has managed surprisingly well as a rim protector, and he has even stayed in front of some guards on switches. That includes Kobe Bryant, who in December missed a fading jumper over Nurkic in Denver. Bryant fell to the floor, and Nurkic loomed over him, glowering and yapping all sorts of trash. Bryant is Nurkic’s idol, Connelly says.

He is already a monster rebounder, on both ends.

Nurkic can get a little jumpy on defense, and he has the blips of bad positioning you’d see from any rookie. Hell, the Nuggets didn’t even expect him to play this season, and told him as much over Skype after they drafted him. “He forced our hand through hard work,” Connelly says.

The Smooth Agitator: Steven Adams, Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder have always been a bit of a conundrum: a scoring juggernaut that starts only one above-average 3-point shooter and two borderline offensive zeroes. They’ve tried to change that this season by turning Serge Ibaka into a 3-point shooter, a move that has drawn predictable scorn even as Ibaka flirts with the 40 percent mark from deep.

Drifting outside has brought down Ibaka’s offensive rebounding and free throws, but the latter were never a big part of his game; Ibaka has always been mostly a pick-and-pop shooter with limited skill off the bounce or in the post.

Ibaka hasn’t transformed his game in isolation, either. As he has moved outside, Adams has emerged as a pick-and-roll threat capable of slicing through the lane Ibaka has cleared up for him:

Adams 1

Adams has attempted 71 shots out of the pick-and-roll already this season, per Synergy Sports; he was 12-of-25 on such shots last season. He’s not the quickest cat, but he can catch the ball in traffic, put it on the floor, and make a play:

Adams 2

He’s also gotten more comfortable passing on the move. He understands the layout of the floor and where to find the open man:

Adams 3

Adams’s post game is improving, but it’s not good enough yet to draw extra defensive attention or siphon possessions away from the Thunder stars. But he’s a sneaky athlete and was making steady progress until breaking his hand over the weekend. The Thunder at full health don’t need much from the crowd beyond Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to reclaim their status as an elite team. Incremental improvement will do, and Adams is on the way.

He has a chance to be the rare defender rugged enough to deal with Cousins in the post, and mobile enough to switch onto some power forwards if the Thunder prefer to keep Ibaka around the basket. Adams chases pick-and-rolls out to the 3-point arc — a chase that doesn’t always end well for him — and has spent time recently defending Anthony Davis and Aldridge along the perimeter. Blake Griffin had zero clue what to do with Adams in the post during last season’s playoffs, and Adams seems to irritate opponents just by standing in their general vicinity. He has to control his fouling and turnovers, but Adams should develop into at least an average starting NBA center. He’d better, since it looks like he’ll end up the centerpiece of the James Harden deal. (Sorry.)

The Speedster: Gorgui Dieng, Minnesota Timberwolves

Poor Dieng knows the harsh realities of the NBA already. As a rookie, Dieng was a pick-and-roll pogo stick gobbling up passes from Ricky Rubio while Kevin Love spaced the floor. Without Rubio to feed Dieng this season, the Wolves turned him into a high-volume post-up guy who can also run the offense as a sharp passer from the elbow.

It hasn’t been easy, especially since Dieng has been the de facto center with Nikola Pekovic out most of the season. “He’s absolutely worn out, both mentally and physically,” coach Flip Saunders says.

Dieng’s post-up game is based on speed, not power. He likes to face up for Duncan-style bank shots and blow by bulkier defenders who press him:

Gorgui 1

It’s a handy skill, but Dieng’s post game is not good enough to be a foundational element of a good NBA offense, something Saunders concedes. “In order to have a good post-up game, you have to have strong legs. You look at guys like Pek and Tim Duncan, and they get what they want in the post because of the strength in their legs. Gorgui doesn’t have that.”

Pekovic is healthy again, and he trumps Dieng in the post-up hierarchy. Andrew Wiggins and Shabazz Muhammad are post-oriented wing players, and there just isn’t enough space around the paint for everyone.

It’s easy to suggest that Dieng revert to being a pick-and-roll diver with a bit of range now that Rubio is back, but if Dieng is a reserve again, the two won’t overlap as much. Dieng’s NBA upbringing has been so chaotic, the Wolves don’t really know what he is yet — what position he plays, whether he should start, and whether Dieng and Pekovic can play together. Dieng is already 25, older than most second-year guys, so it’s unclear how much better he is going to get.

For now Dieng is good at lots of stuff, but great at nothing. He has a chance to be the sort of malleable big who can blend into any lineup, but he has to extend his range beyond 15 feet — a top priority this summer, Saunders says. Dieng has worked with Holger Geschwindner, Dirk Nowitzki’s longtime shooting guru, and Saunders says that partnership should continue.

Dieng needs more range to play alongside the other Minnesota starters, but he has the passing chops to make it work. He hits open cutters on time, and he’s smart at reading the defense to anticipate which teammate will come open next. He could be a great entry passer for all of Minny’s post-up weapons.

Dieng does everything with vigor. That’s an underrated NBA skill. He cuts hard, screens hard, and gets off the floor at turbo speed. That helps him grab offensive rebounds and challenge shots at the basket even when he’s a tad late rotating from the weak side. Dieng’s rim-protection numbers are ugly, but he’s an eager defender, and he has played this season amid a poisonous defensive environment. A man can plug only so many leaks.

Post brutes can shove Dieng under the rim, and he’ll take the occasional lazy angle containing a dribble-drive — banking on his length to bail him out. “You can do that against average players,” Saunders says, “but not good ones.”

Dieng’s a good player, but it’s unclear whether he should be a starter or a killer third big on a playoff team. The Wolves don’t have to know the answer quite yet.

10 Things I Like and Don’t Like

1. The LeBron/Mozgov Chemistry

The Cavs have been rolling ever since David Griffin, the team’s GM, balanced their roster with what was really one four-team megadeal. The on-court product works even if the off-court version is producing childish Twitter drama. LeBron and Timofey Mozgov have already developed a joyful pick-and-roll chemistry.

One favorite:

This is a typical setup for LeBron to grab the ball from Love and jet around a second screen from Mozgov. Surprise! Mozgov goes against the grain by slipping his screen before LeBron even approaches, and LeBron reads the play in an instant. That’s either a wonderful bit of improv or something the two have rehearsed.

2. The Return of James Johnson

Dwane Casey’s decision to bench Johnson never really made sense, but Johnson got hurt before we could gather up the proper rage about it. Johnson can get out of whack on both ends of the floor, but he has played better than Toronto could have expected. He’s shooting 61 percent (!), his turnovers are under control, and he’s a shot-blocking menace who can guard physical wing players.

Hell, Casey even started calling isolations for Johnson earlier in the season:

Johnson burst back onto the scene over the weekend spitting fire. He shot 15-of-17 over two games, flipped between both forward positions, and generally did James Johnson “no-no-no-HELL YES!” things every second he was on the court. Keep playing this guy, please.

3. Nick Young’s One-Man Shot Admiration Society

Young is shooting 36 percent on 2-point shots. Do you know how hard that is to do? Here is the total list of rotation players who have managed to shoot so poorly inside the arc over an entire season. It’s a short list, and a lot of those players could at least claim to be defensive specialists.

Young is, um, not a defensive specialist. He also doesn’t appear to respect basic math, because he pauses to admire damn near every wayward jumper as if it were a sure bet to splash through the net. The guys guarding him know better, and they are leaking out ahead of Young for fast-break chances.

Players in shooting slumps should work to contribute in other ways. Young isn’t doing that, and he’s losing minutes on a Lakers team starting an absolutely pathetic five-man group. Is Swaggy P immune to wake-up calls?

4. Boris Diaw’s Trailing Drive

When we think of big men trailing the break, we tend to picture shooters — guys like Nowitzki ambling into the play, catching a pitch-back, and taking a deep knee bend into an open triple.

Diaw is a capable bomber, but he prefers a different tactic: the trailing drive.

Boris Drive

Diaw understands basic laws of momentum. He is a (large) mass running full speed at a defender who has settled into a standstill position. If Diaw continues at full speed, he can get a head start on that defender and gain just enough separation to loft a layup near the rim. Good stuff from the wily Frenchman.

5. Houston’s Perimeter Scrambling

Houston holding strong on defense without Dwight Howard has been one of this season’s major story lines. Sometimes there is no magic formula to explain this kind of thing. Houston is just working smarter and harder, especially on the perimeter, where the starting trio of Patrick Beverley, Trevor Ariza, and a James Harden Who Actually Tries is leagues better than last year’s version of Beverley, Chandler Parsons, and Drooling Statue James Harden.

These guys are flying around in sync, hitting their marks, closing out like madmen, and nailing every rotation. Houston was doubling Aldridge in the post Sunday, and Portland couldn’t get anything out of it, even when Aldridge made the exact right pass. The Rockets got to every potential shooter in time. It has been great to watch.

6. Marreese Speights, Putting It on the Floor

Speights has long been a midrange gunner, but part of his breakout success in Golden State — aside from Steve Kerr apparently having brainwashed him — is Speights’s growing comfort putting the ball on the deck for one-dribble attacks:

Can enough jumpers, and defenses will eventually overplay them. A countermove like this is essential.

7. Chris Kaman, Holding the Ball

Kaman has fallen off after a blistering start, and his cough-ups in the post have officially become a problem. Kaman has turned it over on 18 percent of his post-ups that have finished a Portland possession, one of the highest figures in the league, and his habit of holding the ball below his waist is killing him.

Kaman loves to gather the ball, hold it, pump-fake, gather it again, maybe stroke his beard, and bend way over before finally rising to shoot — even when he has a clear initial window to just go up with the damn thing. The Blazers need Kaman to rediscover his early-season form, and part of that is acting decisively on the block.

8. JaKarr Sampson’s Zeal for Help Defense

Poor Sampson has been something of a punch line — the anonymous guy with weird hair and nonexistent stats who became emblematic of the Sixers’ tanking project. “Who the hell is this Sampson guy?”

But Sampson’s game has perked up over the last month, and he works his tail off at the nonglamorous parts of defense. Help defense for a wing player on the weak side is a thankless task. You have to rush into the paint and bump into a much larger man rumbling toward you at full speed. That hurts, but Sampson is game for it every time, and he’s happy to meet the big fella hard at the rim if that’s what it takes:

The Sixers are 12-24 since their 0-17 start. That’s not good, but it’s the winning percentage of a perfectly normal bad team. They’re 12th in points allowed per possession, and Michael Carter-Williams is playing a more balanced game of late. There has been progress here if you care to see it.

9. Luis Scola’s Flicks

Man, am I going to miss this guy when he retires. He is such a trickster. He gets this spinning righty flick shot up before his defender, Shawne Williams, even knows what is happening:

This is like an NBA spitball. It is the kind of junk you have to master when you can’t jump or dribble by anyone. He even gets away with shooting righty on the left side of the floor, where he’s bringing the ball back toward the defender!

Scola is a defensive liability, but he has worked hard on that end this season, and he’s had a quiet bounce-back campaign as part of a lively Indy bench that has kept the Pacers in games. About 26 percent of Scola post-ups that have finished an Indy possession have resulted in free throws, per Synergy Sports. That is the highest figure in the league! Everyone is just a mark for this con artist.

Indy needs all it can get from Scola to keep its playoff hopes alive with both Ian Mahinmi and Lavoy Allen nursing injuries.

10. The “Phone Booth”

I’m torn on this nickname for the Wizards’ Verizon Center. The metaphor works in theory. A phone booth is a tight, inhospitable environment — exactly what a juiced-up NBA arena should feel like for enemy visitors. It is also where Clark Kent becomes Superman, so that’s cool.

The corporate tie-in grates — the idea deriving the arena nickname from the identity of the naming rights sponsor. It feels a bit less organic. And “phone booth” just doesn’t convey danger or rowdiness in the way the best arena and stadium nicknames do.

Am I missing the awesomeness here? Or can we do better?

Filed Under: Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves, NBA, Oklahoma City Thunder, Utah Jazz, Phoenix Suns, Steven Adams, Jusuf Nurkic, Rudy Gobert, Gorgui Dieng, Alex Len

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ ZachLowe_NBA