Basketball is the game of giants. No other sport on Earth requires its top level athletes to be so much taller than the average human. In the USA the average height for a male is roughly 5 foot 10 inches. The average height for an athlete in the NBA is 6 foot 7 inches.
That’s quite a difference.
Some of the greatest players to have ever laced up a pair of basketball shoes have been giants. Names like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal and Tim Duncan will forever be etched in basketball lore as some of the best.
At the start of this season many journalists were marveling at the huge influx of young, talented NBA Bigs that were making their mark in the league. DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Karl Anthony-Towns and Joel Embiid are the cream of the crop, and this season they have been putting on a show. All four of these players are 20 and 10 threats every night and we haven’t seen this level of talent Bigs since the 90s.
Don’t be fooled by this notion though. The center role has drastically changed over the past decade, and their diminished role for successful teams looks set to continue.
5. Small Ball Lineups
A common trend that has developed and evolved over the past few years is the use of the small ball lineups where commonly a team’s power forward will play at center, the small forward will shift to the power forward and another swingman is inserted.
This provides more shooting on the floor which then leads to more space to drive. The most effective NBA shot is a layup as it is usually the easiest. The next more efficient shot is the corner three which is the closest distance to the rim to score a three-pointer. The small ball lineup maximizes a team’s ability to score basketball’s most effective shots.
Last year was a fine example where Golden State really showcased the effectiveness of going small.
Out of the 6 lineups that played over 100 total minutes for the Warriors last season, the lineup of Curry, Thompson, Barnes, Iguodala and Green outscored their opponents by 44.4 points per 100 possessions. There was so much space created by the elite shooter of Golden State that this provided ample opportunities to drive to the rim.
With the rise of the three and the increase in pace, more and more teams are putting out small ball lineups and the fans love it. It’s more exciting, more relatable and more futuristic.
Small ball is a fun ball.
At the end of the day, the NBA is a business looking to make money. They do this by entertaining fans with what they wanna see: action-packed, fast-paced basketball. Fans want to see high-flying dunks and acrobatic layups, they want to see athletes performing at the pinnacle of human physical endeavor.
Unfortunately, this has come with a cost.
Many big men throughout the NBA’s history have suffered from similar problems, usually in either the knees or the feet. Legends such as Bill Walton and Ralph Sampson are sad examples of this. Greg Oden was seen as a transcendent talent which was why the Trail Blazers selected him first over Kevin Durant. Joel Embiid is one the most talented (and entertaining) players in the NBA, but he’s only played 31 games since he was drafted 3 years ago.
The man was not made to be this big. Guys who are nearing 7 feet tall, weighing 260+lbs and are running up and down NBA courts chasing the ball put tremendous amounts of stress on their bodies. Given that the general pace of the NBA (number of possessions per game) is the highest since 1992/93 (96.4) it’s no wonder bigs are so prone to injury.
When it comes to drafting players out of college, teams will seriously consider the history of the league and its dark secret of injury-prone big men before it uses its valuable draft pick on an NBA prospect.
3. Ball Handling
Now everyone’s talking about the number of talented centers in the NBA, but a few years ago everyone was marveling at how many top level point guards there were. This included the likes of Chris Paul, Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, John Wall and Kyrie Irving. They all can do incredible things with a basketball and lead their teams too much success of the past few years.
The main reason why point guards are so important in today’s NBA is because they are the primary ball handlers on their respective teams. They are the ones responsible for making the key decisions on the offensive end that decide if their team is going to win or lose.
Primary ballhandlers can decide if they are going to shoot, drive or pass. Big men such as centers can only score if the ball handler decides to get them involved. Bigs can’t always have a say in how they are used at the offensive end, they are at the mercy of their smaller teammates.
Of the 16 teams on track to be in this year’s playoffs, on 14 of them their best player is someone who they rely on to bring the ball up the court and make or initiate a play.
If your ball handlers can barely withstand other NBA guards then your offense is going to really struggle. This why Lonzo Ball and Markelle Fultz are such highly coveted prospects in this year’s NBA draft but teams need the talent to handle the rock.
Big men are always going to have worse handles and shooting than their smaller counterparts which is another reason they have seen diminished roles over the past two decades.
2. Role changes
Late last year when asked who the best center was in the NBA, Rudy Gobert responded: “Right now, I think it’s me.” If you compare his base stats to someone like DeMarcus Cousins then Gobert doesn’t stand a chance. Gobert is averaging roughly 14 point and 13 rebounds along with 2.6 blocks a night. Cousins is putting up on the season 27 points and 11 rebounds along with 1.3 blocks. Gobert’s numbers are good, but Cousins is fully besting him so far.
However, if you go into more detail, you could seriously argue that Gobert is better than Cousins. How do you define how good a player is? Is it his skillset, or is it his effectiveness on the court?
Nobody can argue that Gobert is more skilled than Cousins. DeMarcus is probably the most skilled big man we’ve ever seen. He can score from any point on the floor, he’s athletic and incredibly strong. There’s nothing he can’t do on the court.
But his production hasn’t lead to NBA success. Cousins career offensive rating is 103 and his defensive rating is 104, meaning over his career he has had a net negative effect whilst on the floor. He has also failed to make the playoffs in his seven-year career.
Although he is extremely talented, the skillset of DeMarcus Cousins hasn’t lead to success in today’s NBA.
Now let’s look at Mr. Gobert.
As stated, his face-up numbers are pretty good. 14 points, 13 rebounds and 2.6 blocks a night are all pretty tasty. But his advanced numbers blow Cousins not just out the water, but off the planet.
Gobert is second in the NBA in offensive rating at 129 and also second in defensive rating at 99. This means that if Gobert played 100 possessions every game his team would win by 30 points… EVERY GAME.
His ‘lesser’ skillset than Cousins is leading Utah to wins; Cousins is stuck in mediocrity. You could make the case that Gobert has All-Star Gordon Hayward on his team which would help Gobert - and it has. Cousins now has Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday on his team and had the likes of Rudy Gay, Isaiah Thomas and Darren Collison in the past as well. But it didn’t lead to success.
Gobert is so effective offensively because he can find ways to score, even though the Jazz don’t run any plays for him except the occasional lob. He scores in very efficient ways such as putbacks, lobs, pick and rolls, and dropdowns. All these ways of scoring are carried out whilst the Jazz’s offense is designed for Gordon Hayward and George Hill.
Defensively Gobert is phenomenal. Not only does he lead the league in blocks per game at 2.6, he also allows the lowest field-goal percentage of anyone in the NBA at 41% (via Nylon Calculus.) His 7-foot 2 inch frame, along with the largest wingspan ever recorded in NBA history at 7 foot 9, means he can cover so much ground on the defensive end making it a nightmare for teams to score easy points at the rim.
Rudy has become the prototype for the new NBA center, where they play hard defense and look to score easy points on offense to allow their team to shoot more threes and set good screens to get his team easy points. Gobert is also 2nd in the league in screen assists per game (via NBA hustle stats) which is when a player sets a screen for a teammate which directly leads to a made field goal. His presence on the floor just leads to success at both ends for his team.
Gobert is the poster boy for this new age of how centers can be effective. The league has many players similar to Gobert. DeAndre Jordan is another great example, along with Clint Capela and Tristan Thompson. All these players don’t require plays to be run for them to be extremely effective.
Don’t believe me? DeAndre Jordan has lead the league in field-goal percentage for the past 5 seasons, all the while averaging an offensive rating of 122. All the players I have mentioned above score in the exact same way as Gobert and are all in the top 15 in offensive rating this year.
Long gone are the days of Jabbar, Olajuwon and O’Neal. The new style of NBA center looks set to stay.
1. Three-point shooting
The biggest reason why centers, for the foreseeable future, will not be the building blocks of championship teams is the huge increase in three point shooting we’ve seen since the turn of the century.
Every season since 2011/12, we’ve seen the record for the average number of three point shots attempted and made per game increase - from 6.4 made threes a game in 2011/12, to a sharpshooting 9.6 made threes a game in 2016/17.
Centers just don’t shoot many threes in comparison to their smaller contemporaries. Modern NBA Bigs like Davis, Towns and Embiid are now starting to take (and make) a lot more threes than their predecessors. But they haven’t shown the ability to knock them down at the elite rate that the likes of Kyle Korver and Klay Thompson can.
As I’ve said, the NBA is a business and businesses want to make money. To build the business, the league wants to make the sport more entertaining to watch. Someone taking a three is a lot more entertaining than a mid-range jumper due to the value that the three has. There’s more suspense and therefore more elation - or disappointment, depending on the end result.
To make the sport more entertaining, they want more points scored and more entertaining shots for spectators to watch. This season has seen the highest average team offensive rating (108.8) since records began and the highest average team effective field-goal percentage (51.3%) ever recorded. More threes, more points scored, more entertainment and therefore more money.