Stop it Five: The Erosion of the Traditional Big Man
Updated: Apr 4
By: Jeffrey Esperance
I remember the first time I fell in love with basketball. It was sometime in 1996 and I saw Shaquille O’Neal dunk over at least three men. It was dominating, embarrassing and amazing at the same time. I was immediately hooked. There was something magical about being a NBA center. As a kid I thought it was phenomenal to watch these big men effect the game with their scoring, rebounding and blocking. You could just pass the ball to them in the post and be fairly certain that something good was coming. I knew at the age of six that without a solid big man your chances of winning it all was impossible.
Fast forward twenty years to February 14, 2016. I’m watching the 65th annual NBA All Star Game with my older brother. We are both excited and a little depressed because it’s Kobe’s last all star game. When the game began it was Kobe representing the West and Lebron representing the East for the tip-off. At first, I thought this was dope two of the best ever going at it to see who gets the ball but then it occurred to me why aren’t centers doing this? Better yet where are the centers?! When did this happen? I began to go on my rant on how the post game is a lost art in the NBA and this actually isn’t surprising and it was bound to happen. My brother counters with his usual spiel about how I’m just overreacting and the quality of centers are just as good as they’ve been in any era.
Not only do I believe the quality of centers have decreased astronomically I beg the question is it even necessary to have a dominant center to win it all in the NBA?
If I could pinpoint a specific moment where everything changed would be the rise of Mike D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns offense. The philosophy of the Phoenix offense was pretty simple it was to get a shot up within seven seconds or less. The job of the point guard was to penetrate as quickly as possible to either get a layup or kick the ball out to a shooter for a three. The shooting guard and the small forward would race to opposing corners outside of the three point line. The power forward would be sprinting on the opposite side of the ball going towards the lane. Your center would become the post trailer. The other key part of the Phoenix Offense was the spacing. When attempting the score within seven seconds or less and creating such dynamic spacing makes it painfully difficult for defenses to recover in time.
The Suns were mesmerizing and so much much fun to watch whether you were a avid or casual fan. They were also virtually impossible to stop in NBA 2K. They ran so many different types of offensive schemes that made most defenses look foolish. By having Shawn Marion as their stretch four with the ability to knockdown the outside shot, penetrate when needed and having the ability to guard the opposing team’s four was the beginning of a NBA revolution. When playing the Suns you had to respect their ability to hit the outside shot so efficiently so traditional fours and fives would be placed out of their natural defensive elements which was being inside the paint. That would cause Amar’e Stoudemire to feast in the paint. Despite having several fifty plus win seasons and Steve Nash winning the MVP for back to back seasons(2004-2005, 2005-2006) the Suns never won a NBA title because their overall team defense was pretty much non existent. If somehow a team could play like the Suns and actually play defense they would be virtually unstoppable. The Suns began a trend whether intentional or not. More teams started implementing that seven seconds or less philosophy and started looking for more fours who can be that perimeter threat. Something else happened it as well. Teams stopped focusing on throwing the ball into the paint and letting that five go to work. The five was no longer needed to be a scorer. The five position now became limited to rebounding, defense and the occasional alley or put back dunk.
Here comes the rise of Tyson Chandler type centers. Don’t get me wrong Tyson Chandler is a solid player and champion. He’s a great rebounder, solid rim protector, and very good off of pick and rolls. The problem is if I were to give Tyson Chandler the basketball twelve feet away from the hoop he would probably look like a deer in headlights. But with the NBA trending towards small ball and a greater focused on three point shooting, more big men have become focused on shooting rather than playing in the post. Tyson Chandler has become the new prototype of what it is to be a center in the league now. Just as long as you can solidly rebound and play defense. Players have thrived in this new definition of what it is to be a center. Roy Hibbert was a two times all star.
It’s quite obvious that the necessity for a dominant big man has decreased significantly over the past decade due to takeover of small ball. The rise of the small ball style of basketball minimizes the need for for your traditional post up big. Nothing encapsulates that more to me than the rise of Draymond Green. You would think at the beginning of the 2014-2015 season with the injury of David Lee the Warriors would be deeply in trouble without their 20 and 10 guy, but no. Draymond Green as the stretch four was indeed a mismatch, but a mismatch that impeded their opponents and enhanced the Warriors last season. Not only did they win the title that year they would go on to have the greatest NBA season in history by winning seventy three games.
Don’t get me wrong I truly enjoy watching high octane offenses, threes flying in left and right, and impeccable ball movement. This isn’t an article attacking small ball or making fun of what the center position has become. Nostalgia kicked in when I saw the nominees for this year’s hall of fame inductees including the likes of Allen Iverson, Yao Ming and Shaquille O’Neal. I asked myself what’s the likelihood of seeing players like this in our the league again? We might see another Allen Iverson but we might not see another Shaquille O’Neal again.