It seems incredible
now, but just 20 months ago the Indiana Pacers entered the NBA Playoffs
as the Eastern Conference’s top seed. They limped down the stretch
somewhat, but they still made it to the final four before being
eliminated by LeBron James’ Miami team.
Within a few weeks Lance Stephenson left in free agency and Paul George
snapped his leg, but center Roy Hibbert’s rapid descent from defensive
force to near irrelevance remains confounding.
Hibbert was in the running for Defensive Player of the Year just two
seasons ago, but now averages eight points and seven rebounds per game
for the team that’s bottom of the Western Conference standings, and out
of title contention, the LA Lakers.
Big is best
Dominant big men have almost always been a factor in the NBA’s history.
From Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain through to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
and Bill Walton, the early talented big men were nearly unstoppable.
Magic Johnson and Larry Bird helped the NBA to change gears a little
during the 1980’s and Michael Jordan grabbed the baton with gusto, but
he still had to contend with the likes of Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille
Size was far from a guarantee, of course. Physical ailments or a pure
lack of finesse put paid to the dreams of general managers who thought
that players such as Yao Ming, Andrea Bargnani, Shawn Bradley or
Michael Olowokandi might deliver success.
One of the tallest players in NBA history, Romania’s Gheorghe Muresan,
was in the news again this week with the announcement that Eurobasket
2017 will be held in his home country along with Finland, Israel and
Turkey. Muresan was part of the team behind his country’s bid, but it’s fair to say that he would struggle
to find a niche in the modern NBA.
Another Eastern European, Latvia’s Kristaps Porzingis, has taken the
Big Apple by storm in his first 20 NBA games. Porzingis stands at 7’3”
but is not your typical post player, instead possessing a nice stroke
on a jump-shot that earns sufficient respect.
The modern NBA has evolved through a series of tweaks to the rules in
the last 10-15 years, with the hand-check and the illegal defense calls
regularly cited as two of the most influential.
Defenses can’t sag to pack the paint and can’t guard their men too
physically, which has led to an emphasis on either driving hard or
drive-and-kicks to find an open three-point shooter.
If you can’t drive and you can’t knock down an open shot from outside
10 feet, it’s hard for NBA coaches to find you justifiable time on the
floor. Charlotte’s early success is seen as another damning indictment
in this regard - it lost brilliant defensive wing Michael
Kidd-Gilchrist to injury early on, but the Hornets have thrived in his
absence, finding more space on offense without him.
Leading the way
The league has a glut of fantastic playmakers at the moment, led by the
Curry. Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and Tony Parker round out the
point-guard spots on the rest of the West’s current top four teams,
although Westbrook and Parker receive plentiful help from their star
wings Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard.
LeBron and George, thankfully fully recovered from his gruesome injury,
are the torch-bearers for the wing positions out East, with Kyle Lowry
and Isaiah Thomas among the best point guards.
By comparison, the power forward and center slots lack the same depth.
Detroit’s Andre Drummond leads the league in rebounding so far from LA
Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan and Houston’s Dwight Howard, but the three are
borderline unusable during crunchtime, shooting an abysmal 41% between
them from the charity stripe.
All are surrounded too by strong support, with Paul and Blake Griffin
feeding Jordan, and James Harden and Reggie Jackson playmaking for
Howard and Drummond respectively.
Big men with finesse can still be valuable assets, with DeMarcus
Cousins and Anthony Davis among two of the league’s brightest young
But you have to scroll down to find their teams at the bottom of the
standings with the likes of Philadelphia, whose recent draft track
record of taking young big men with bags of potential such as Joel
Embiid, Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor looks like it might backfire
Size will always be an important part of the game - but in the modern
era, raw size alone isn’t enough, and finding elite ball-handlers and
shooters is proving to be more valuable.