Big men aren’t dead in the NBA, they are evolving

Maybe everyone can blame LeBron James and the Miami Heat for this shift. Maybe the blame can go back to Rashard Lewis, Stan Van Gundy and the Orlando Magic. Or perhaps it goes all the way back to Mike D’Antoni and the Seven Seconds or Less Phoenix Suns.

The Golden State Warriors, though, were the ones to perfect the stretch-4, the death lineup and “going small” as a championship strategy. Aside from the Heat going small with wunderkind James at power forward (or Shane Battier, depending on how you write down the lineups), the Warriors were really the first championship team in the modern era to win without two traditional bigs.

The NBA is a copycat league, though. No approach stays unique for long. With the Warriors taking the NBA by storm, winning the title in 2015, going 73-9 last year and making a return trip to the Finals, it seemed the league was heading in a much smaller, more versatile direction. The days of two big men patrolling the paint felt long over.

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If you paid attention this summer it must have felt like the obsession around the league was getting smaller, more versatile. Many teams adjusted their rosters towards flexibility, looking to swap traditional power forwards and bruising big man with mobile and stretchy 4s. But playing the way the Warriors do is not as easy as a shift in philosophy and focus.

“Golden State is an anomaly with the group of players that they have,” San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said during the preseason. “They are a monster. Definitely the toughest team in the league to guard. The rest of us poor fools are kind of hybrid. Everyone tries to be flexible. No team is going to be all big or all small. In every game, teams are going to play big for a while or small for a while. That is the truth.”

Every team will have to deal with the Warriors at some point. They provide a unique set of challenges. But they are the Warriors for that reason. There is no other team like them. As Popovich said, everyone else has to matchup to them. But they can largely use fairly traditional lineups.

“In every game, teams are going to play big for a while or small for a while.” — Gregg Popovich

Yes, big men are supposed to have expanded range, even out to the 3-point line. But not every team is going with the flow. Stretch-4s are still only slowly proliferating through the league. There are plenty of holdout teams still who use the traditional two-big lineups. And coaches, again and again, noted the league is not, in fact, getting smaller. Just the way bigs are playing has changed.

“This is like a misconception,” Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “If you look at the league, particularly in the West, the Clippers are not small, San Antonio is not small, Memphis is not small. It’s interesting. I think Portland is. If you look at teams that have dominant guards, it makes sense to go small. I think the important thing for us is during stretches we are able to play small. Because if you can’t play small at certain times, it can be challenging especially if a team gets it going playing small.”

The Jazz are one of those teams that is definitely not small — Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert anchor the third best defense in the league so far. The Spurs (Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge) and Clippers (Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan) are also decidedly big. The Chicago Bulls play big with Taj Gibson next to Robin Lopez. The Boston Celtics have Amir Johnson and Al Horford — an example of a team that used this summer’s free agency to get bigger.

Snyder said it is more difficult to play big in the league these days. The rules favor guards. Ultimately on offense, a post player needs a guard to feed them in the post. But they still have an important role to play. The game is still incredibly simple — create a mismatch and exploit it. That is perhaps what the Warriors have done more than anything.

Pure size is not the important factor in this current wide-open league. Versatility matters. With teams able to go small and super versatile hybrid bigs like Draymond Green and Paul Millsap roaming around — or stretch bigs who are only in to space the floor and pull the traditional 4s away from the paint — mismatches can be found everywhere.

And that is seen in the way some of the newer bigs are playing. These are not just rim-running rim protectors. These are skilled big men who can draw players to the outside, but also do all the dirty work.