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The Warriors, small-ball and the evolution of the modern big man

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A study in the species known as basketballus humungousus.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Golden State Warriors Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Many moons ago, the landscape of the basketball world was covered in the shadow of the giants. Monstrous bullies stomped up and down the hardwood, spreading fear throughout the league. They acted as both the bludgeoning sledgehammer that led their franchises offenses, and the immovable anchor of their defenses. These larger-than-life forces of nature shattered statistical records and NBA backboards with violent displays of athleticism and brilliant fundamentals.

Hat-tip Daniel.

The NBA grew on the back of mighty giants. Bill Russell. Wilt Chamberlain. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s a parade of big-men featured prominently in NBA Finals battles that didn’t feature a certain Chicago Bulls guard - Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, and of course Tim Duncan.

But then it all changed.

True it had been some time in the making. Many Warrior fans will remember Don Nelson as the pioneer. Mike D’Antoni’s Seven Seconds or Less Phoenix Suns took full advantage of the NBA’s changing rules to revolutionise modern basketball offenses. But no-one ever actually won a title playing small.

It took our beloved Golden State Warriors to ‘ruin the NBA,’ sweeping all before them with a small ball unit built on shooting, speed, intelligence, and teamwork.

Still basketball luddites hark back to ye olde days. ‘Where have all the big men gone?’ they cry.

‘Why does no-one plant themselves in the paint any more?’

‘Oh woe is me, it must the fault of those dastardly villains in Golden State and their wimpy small ball!’

Well I’m here to tell you, fear not my technologically challenged friends. The species known as basketballus humongousus is reborn!

Joel Embiid

Where better to start than Joel Embiid. To be honest I can’t do much better than Daniel’s recent review of this monstrous beast terrorizing the villagers of Los Angeles.

But let’s take one more look at it.

Yeah. That’s some scary stuff right there.

How about 22.4 points, 11.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 1.8 blocks in just his second season?! The most impressive number for me though, is the 467 minutes played already this season. In just 16 games this year, that’s more than half the minutes he managed in his previous three years since being drafted. Let’s hope the early career injury trouble was about him growing into his gigantic frame.

But it’s not just Embiid terrorizing the villagers. Around the league there’s an explosion in multi-talented gigantic monsters.

Next up, a pair of Kentucky terrors.

Karl-Anthony Towns

Karl-Antony Towns, or KAT, as he is affectionately called by his growing legion of admirers, is one of the new kids on the block. He may have some ways to go defensively, but he is a legit seven foot terror on offense.

His sophomore year he averaged 25.1 points, 12.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists, and 1.3 steals on 54.2% from the field and 36.7% from three. I mean god damn, just look at this highlight reel!

A guaranteed 20 and 10 every night, who prowls the paint but can stretch you out the three point line, then dunk in your face? We have seen the future and it is indeed monstrous, like an Orwellian dystopian novel.

Anthony Davis

Anthony Davis gets a bit forgotten because he’s been in the league for a while now but make no mistake about it, he’s a legit big beast and is only one year older than Embiid at 24. Since the 14-15 season he’s put up at least 24 points, 10 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 blocks a game. Last year he put up a unworldly 28 points, 11.8 rebounds, 2.2 blocks, 2.1 assists, and 1.3 steals.

Early in his career he led the Pelicans to the playoffs but since then he’s lacked any real help. Still he played pretty damn hard against our Warriors.

Well now he’s got another behemoth in Demarcus Cousins to play alongside, and they’re back in the playoff picture. They form a beastly twin towers, together averaging 51.5 points, 23.6 rebounds, 8.2 assists, 3.4 blocks, and 2.9 steals this year. That’s some Wilt Chamberlain numbers right there.

Still though, the Pelicans have made some dodgy choices in recent years as they tried to build around Davis. For example they are still sinking money into Omer Asik, with more than $30m owed through the 19-20 season.

Asik’s decline from relevance is a sign of the changing big man, but in truth there were many who said at the time it was a bad trade that brought him to New Orleans, and a huge mistake to compound the original error with such a bloated contract.

The Pelicans’ mismanagement means that they’re they lack the cap flexibility to make many moves around Davis. With both him and Cousins coming up in free agency in the next few years, we could see ‘the Brow’ on a proper team before too long. Just not Boston please. That would be too scary.

Nikola Jokic

They don’t come much beastlier than Nikola Jokic. Well, maybe his former teammate’s father. Jokic is a solid 6’10, 250lb chunk of Serbian beef clogging up the paint. Or is he?

Just look at this guy’s unique game. Running the break, stretching the floor, down in the post, and of course, the passing. Oh, the passing.

Interestingly both Jokic and Davis were point guards in their youth before they drank Mr Hyde’s tonic and metamorphised into the gigantic creatures they are now. But that outside game has stuck with them to create some new terrifying hybrids.

Indeed there some new behemoths who go beyond that and simply defy categorisation. These big beasts have been dubbed Unicorns for their rarity.

Kristpas Porzingis

Ah, Kristaps Porzingis. What did you ever do to deserve the Knicks? Well, maybe he is the great saviour New York has been waiting for. A full 7-foot-3 out of Latvia, as comfortable sticking a three in your eye as dunking in your face or swatting your shot into next week, he is taking his game to the next level this year.

A lot of people predicted that in Carmelo Anthony’s absence, the Knicks would struggle. Instead ‘the Zinger’ has exploded. He’s averaging 27.3 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.29 blocks and is shooting over 40% from distance. All while leading New York to a 10-10 record.

Incidentally that’s better than the Thunder’s mark of 8-11. Who could have predicted trading Anthony for a bag of beans would lead to that?

Giannis Antetokounmpo

Yeah, I know it’s a stretch. A stretch like Dhalsim, baby!

This year he’s taking it to a whole new level, averaging 29.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.76 blocks and 1.47 steals per game this year. As soon as the Bucks start winning enough games Antetokounmpo is a future MVP, and is already the definition of a unicorn.

Interestingly, many of this new generation of big men have legit three point range, stretching the floor out to the perimeter. But ‘the Greek freak’ actually ends up doing a lot of his damage inside the paint, much like the beast of ye olde times.

Except he does it with a couple of long strides. Ten years ago a 6-foot-11 athletic wonder like him would have been told to scoff down some protein and get his butt in the paint. Thank god for evolution!

Evolution

So the Warriors may have driven forward the small ball revolution which charts from Nellieball to D’Antoni’s Suns, but I ask you what has been left in it’s place? Like all evolutionary theorists would tell you, successful species adapt to change.

And the NBA big man has adapted in humungously exciting ways. Gone are the plodders; enter the realm of multi-skilled, exciting, versatile all around giants.

I mean who do you want to watch? These guys or Roy Hibbert?

What does it mean for the Warriors?

I mean everyone knows ‘they too small Ernie’, right?

Well, the famed Chicago Bulls won in the golden age of the big man by playing guys like Bill Cartwright, Bill Wennington, Luc Longley in the middle. Obviously they got some help from scrubs like Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen along the way.

Their former teammate Steve Kerr has followed a similar path, using a ‘Strength in Numbers’ approach to match up with this new generation of big men.

You want brawn and veteran savvy? Here’s Zaza Pachulia and David West. You want incredible athleticism? Here’s Javale McGee and Damian Jones. You want length and switching ability? Kevon Looney’s got you covered.

You want both off-the-charts athleticism AND switching ability? How greedy can you get? Oh, ok. Here’s Jordan Bell. (Seriously Steve, play the man).

Clearly these guys can’t match up with these beasts patrolling the paint one-on-one for a whole 48 minutes. But by throwing different looks and defensive schemes the Warriors hope to contain them.

The big man kryptonite

But all heroes have their nemeses. Superman has his kryptonite. Batman had the Joker (no not Jokic, the other one… though that would a interesting match-up).

And these big bullies have one Draymond Green.

Standing at a listed height of just 6-foot-7, and in reality likely a few inches shorter than that, he is arguably one of the most effective, unique, and important big men in the game today.

He frequently uses his unique combination of strength, length, intelligence, and his ferocity and sheer iron will to outmatch them. Most recent case in point, just look at Apricot’s excellent summary of how he helped close out the Pelicans.

Ultimately it is Green who has unlocked the full potential of small ball. Nellie had to sacrifice size for speed. D’Antoni never had an anchor for the defense. The 2014 Spurs may have whipped the ball around beautifully but they still had Tim Duncan manning the middle.

But with Draymond Green you can have everything. Including all the rings. Sorry basketball luddites, here in Golden State we still have our own slayer of the basketballus humonguosus genus.

Poll

If you had a magic wand which big beast would you want on the Dubs?

This poll is closed

  • 11%
    Joel Embiid
    (36 votes)
  • 5%
    Karl-Anthony Towns
    (16 votes)
  • 19%
    Anthony Davis
    (60 votes)
  • 4%
    Nikola Jokic
    (14 votes)
  • 7%
    Kristaps Porzingis
    (24 votes)
  • 17%
    Giannis Antetokounmpo
    (52 votes)
  • 33%
    Who cares, we’ve got Draymond Green!
    (102 votes)
304 votes total Vote Now