NBA: Is The League Really Trending Back Big?

Rumors of the big man’s demise in the NBA have been greatly exaggerated as the “generational big man” has made his unofficial comeback. But even with the reemergence of top-tier talent bigs, are teams still better off going small?

It is said that elite positional talent arrives in cycles.  During the 1980s, nearly every starting wing in the league averaged north of 20 points a contest — from Larry Bird to Kiki Vandeweghe; from Alex English and Bernard King to Orlando Woolridge and Purvis Short.

Presently, many would consider this lapse in time as the golden era of point guards. Old heads would denigrate the sentiment by pointing to the rule changes, but nonetheless, the talent, production and responsibility of today’s point guard landscape is simply ridiculous and unprecedented.

There was also a point in the 1990s when centers ruled the NBA universe.

With generational talents like Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning and Brad Daugherty all roaming the league — either at the peak of their respective powers or in the beginning of their storied primes — the men in the middle were the featured force, and not only defensively like in today’s game, but offensively as well.

Over the years, in particular this decade, the dearth of elite two-way bigs have forced the league to organically phase out the center position. Centers are no longer on All-Star ballots, and defensive specialists, like DeAndre Jordan, are crowned as your First Team All-NBA big.

This year, though, we’ve experienced a renaissance of sorts for the seven-foot giants; however, they are far from your grandfather’s ideal of the back-to-the-basket plodding big. The new crop of generational centers are inside-outside pterodactyls, capable of hitting threes like a guard, handling the ball like a wing, and finishing in the paint like a big.

At the forefront of said movement are Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns and Joel Embiid — three dynamic pillars who have the skills, talent and assertiveness needed to evolve into the next era’s Olajuwon, Ewing and Robinson.

And when you add in the other young “unicorns” around the association like Kristaps Porzingis, Myles Turner and DeMarcus Cousins, the big man position all of a sudden looks replenished with plenty of upper-echelon depth.

But with the emergence of such bigs, are they actually halting the small-ball epidemic? We’ve seen a lot of teams, especially those who house the above, lean towards “tall-ball” lineups — at least to start the game — but how effective are said lineups in comparison to when they go small?

Let’s take a look.

Utah Jazz

According to, the combination of Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert this season yields a net rating of +9.4, spearheaded surprisingly by an impressive offensive rating of 111.4.  Similarly, the duo posted a net rating of +4.2 last season.

However, the team has performed at their most optimal level when only one of Gobert or Favors is on the court. More specifically, when pairing Gobert with Boris Diaw or Favors with Trey Lyles, the Jazz have generally performed a tad bit better thus far this season.

New York Knicks

The Knicks, for the most part this year, have exclusively played Porzingis at the 4. When paired with veteran Joakim Noah, the duo have actually produced a positive net rating of +6.4.  Any other combination has had too small of a sample size to really consider it of any significance.

Philadelphia 76ers

Embiid has been a house of highlights everytime he’s stepped on the court this season. Head coach Brett Brown, however, has strategically limited the amount of time he, and fellow former No. 3 overall pick, Jahlil Okafor has shared time on the floor together, playing only a total two minutes alongside one another thus far this season.

Orlando Magic

The tall-ball experiment in Orlando is not exactly going according to plan, as the team have stumbled out of the gates at 3-5, and at times, have looked like the worst team in the league. Not surprisingly, the twin tower combo of Serge Ibaka and Nik Vucevic have yielded a negative Net Rating of -2.9, while the Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo duo is currently at (gasp) -43.4.

Alternatively, the team has predictably performed at their best in a four-out, one-in alignment with either Aaron Gordon or Jeff Green serving as the small-ball 4.

Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets have attempted to halt the small-ball movement this season by implementing the Eastern Bloc — a.k.a. the bruising frontcourt of Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic.  The results, however, have not been pretty, as the combo have produced a negative Net Rating of -15.4.

When the Nuggets go small, however, the team has generally flourished, especially when the team shifts Danilo Gallinari to the 4 and insert veteran Wilson Chandler as the hybrid.

Minnesota Timberwolves

We know from head coach Tom Thibodeau’s track record that he loves playing traditionally with two bigs. And, even though the Timberpups have not exactly met their lofty expectations thus far this season, the KAT-Gorgui Dieng frontcourt pairing has not been the problem (their anemic third quarter play and lack of bench depth has, though), as they’ve produced a Net Rating of +8.7.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Life without Kevin Durant has been going better than most would have anticipated, thanks in large to somewhat of a soft schedule to start the season. The team, however, have been excellent defensively this year, and when deploying their version of the twin towers in Steven Adams and Enes Kanter, OKC have kept pace by yielding a Net Rating of +10.9 in the 48 minutes “the ‘Stache Bros” have shared together.

New Orleans Pelicans

New season, same story. The Pellies, for a second consecutive year, have gotten off to a disastrous start, winning just one out of their first nine contests.

While the Omer Asik-Anthony Davis pairing has somewhat played their opponents to a draw, with a Net Rating of +0.4, the team has generally performed much better when AD is the lone big, with either Dante Cunningham or Terrence Jones serving as the 4.

San Antonio Spurs

Life without Tim Duncan has been a roller coaster thus far — winning admirably on opening night in Golden State at the Oracle, but losing three times already on the home court (after going 40-1 at the comfy confines of AT&T Center last season).

Unsurprisingly, the new era twin tower combination of Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge has yet to find its groove, posting a negative Net Rating of just -5.6.  There’s plenty of noise surrounding that number however, as the pairing has been generally quite productive when Patty Mills (as opposed to the aging Tony Parker) is running the show, or when sparkplug swingman, Jonathon Simmons, complements Kawhi Leonard on the wings.

Sacramento Kings

Will the real Sacramento Kings please stand up?  Thus far, the team has taken to the polarizing personality of their star Boogie Cousins in performing with extreme variance from quarter-to-quarter, nevermind game-to-game.

Head coach Dave Joerger, for the most part, has tried to bring the Grit-N-Grind mentality to SacTown, going big to start the game with Cousins at the 4 and Kosta Koufos at the 5.  The combination have thus far played their opponents even; but, the team has been at their best when Matt Barnes and Rudy Gay roam the wings while DMC serves as the lone big.

Looking Forward

As we potentially approach another golden age for “the hybrid big man/unicorn” position, playing traditionally with two bigs or in tall-ball alignments are still generally much less potent than when compared to playing with only one big.

The truth is, with all the praise and hype heaped upon Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis, Anthony Davis, and Joel Embiid, the Timberwolves, Knicks, Pelicans, and Sixers are all presently losing teams, with the latter two being the worst teams (record-wise) in the NBA.

We’ve also seen, with the game on the line in fourth quarters, simply dumping it down low, as Philly has, is a turnover or bad shot under the duress of a short shot clock waiting to happen.  When letting the guards create, as Minny and New Orleans have done, the ADs and KATs go through elongated stretches without touching the ball down the stretch.

The days of an Anthony Mason, Charles Oakley and Patrick Ewing frontcourts are over, and to combat the small-ball epidemic is not to go the other extreme, but rather find a happy medium between putting your franchise big in the most advantageous position, while still conforming to contemporary spacing ideologies.

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