It has been over a month since the 2020-21 NBA season kicked off. Since then, we have seen some outstanding basketball across the board whether it be from long-time vets or new-coming rookies. Although the NBA culture has changed to a shooting league, one thing has stuck out so far this season, even more than usual. Big men have been overlooked for a couple of years now, given the league has adapted to more shooting and less bullying in the paint we’ve seen in years past. This raises the question, are big men coming back?
Before I begin, let me make something clear. I understand that big men still play in today’s league. The difference from big men in the past to big men now, is that today’s most dominant big men can space the floor (Jokic and Embiid for example), whereas big men of the past took their team to the Finals (2009 Dwight Howard, that’s you). We also see other non-center players like forwards with ridiculous length create plays on both sides of the floor (AD and Giannis). Putting all this behind us, though, there still seems to be an issue plaguing many teams right now; Lack of big men presence in the paint.
Today’s game is centered across spectacular shooting performances. Steph Curry, like it or not, changed the blueprint of what the NBA was to what it is now. It is much more acceptable to put up 30 plus three’s a night and it is becoming less and less common to see teams attack the paint. For example, Zion Williamson has the most points in the paint per 36 minutes (20.1 points) in the last 24 SEASONS. Giannis last year averaged 17 plus points in the paint on the season, the most since Shaq in the 2002-03 season. Teams on average are shooting 35 three pointers a game as opposed to just under 14 in the early 2000s. Although this shooting league isn’t changing anytime soon, overlooking big men as serious keys to success is. Perhaps, if we had seen this coming sooner, players like Jahlil Okafor could’ve lived up to expectations and not have fallen to the culture-shock of today’s game. This brings me back to my main point.
In the past month, we have seen teams like the Nets, Celtics, Raptors and much more suffer losses because of the lack of interior presence. The Nets had one of the best shot-blocking and rebounding centers in the league, only to trade him in a package to retrieve one of the best shooters in the game, James Harden. The Nets have blown leads and even lost games because they defensively CANNOT compete. While Brooklyn suffers in the paint, giving up points and rebounds, the Cavs with Jarrett Allen and Andre Drummond breathe easy knowing their old-school bigs can get the job done in that area. The Celtics last year lost in the ECF because they lacked interior presence and couldn’t guard Adebayo, who went off for over 21 points and 11 boards on 59% shooting. The Raptors lost Marc Gasol (who wasn’t the same anymore anyways) and are now suffering to keep a lead because of how relatively small they are across the board. Washington has been playing ok basketball, but losing Thomas Bryant has given them a hole in their line-up they are struggling to replace. So are big men actually due for a comeback, or are they just owed respect?
At the end of the day, I think big men are finally starting to pop off again. The current state of many of the top teams prove why it is so important to have length and dominance in the paint. Jarrett Allen going off in Cleveland while the Nets suffer without him is the latest example of why we may have forgotten just how important our center’s are in today’s game. Players like Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic have adapted to play in the current climate of the NBA, but also maintain a threat level in the paint if they desire. Should all big men adapt to the league or is the NBA finally understanding the big’s of the past still have prominence in the present?
I think that the league is not going to move on from shooting anytime soon. I do think they’ll adapt to more defense and pay more attention to their center position than before. If teams continue to suffer with these gaping holes on their squad, big men can definitely be back in the spotlight.