The Knicks may have the key to the future of big men in Kristaps Porzingis and Mitchell Robinson. How has the league’s center evolved, and how does New York factor into the expansion?
It’s no secret that the landscape of the NBA is drastically changing right before our very eyes. In a Big Bang type shift, “small ball” has re-populated the land, and the classic post-up center is about as extinct as an actual Tyrannosaurus rex.
Gone are the days of go-to offenses being run through the low post, as the three-point shot in today’s analytical NBA has replaced the methodical, antiquated scoring of past eras. Kids today would probably mistake the “skyhook” for a limited-time Fortnite add, and the “dream shake” as a new viral Instagram dance but, in all honesty, that’s O.K. Like most modern sports, basketball has evolved, and it’s time we embraced the changes, wholeheartedly. Sure, watching guys mix it up down low was thrilling in it’s own way, but between the way the ball flows oh, so poetically, and the athletic, freakishly-talented players who now dominate the “position-less” NBA, the league is certainly heading in the right direction.
However, for the old bags like me that wish we can have it both ways—well, there’s good news. If this past draft class has shown us anything, it’s that big men still have a place in this league, albeit, in a much different way.
Big men can no longer the clunky, heavy dudes that get trapped in the pick-and-roll but made you pay on the other end by dominating down low. Today, big men have to do most of the things the other positions do, except, well, they’re seven feet tall. This past draft alone featured four “big men” in the first six picks— so much for a “guard-oriented league.” O.K., it still very much is, but bigs have a crucial role in modern-day offenses and defenses.
The Traditional ‘Big Man’
You may have noticed that I’ve refrained from calling these guys “centers,” but that’s by design. Positions are seemingly a thing of the past, but true seven-footers aren’t.
The funny thing is, there have always been inklings of position-less basketball, only not to the extent we see today. Don’t forget, Magic Johnson slid to the five in a Game 7 of the 1980 NBA Finals when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was injured. His stat line? 42 points, 15 rebounds, and seven assists. The 6’9″ Johnson was a player ahead of his time, but even more so, he was a sign of what was to come in the NBA.
Then, of course, we have LeBron James, a small forward/power forward by listing only. But based on his playing style, it’s pretty safe to say he’s a point guard since he’s entered the league.
There’s also guys today like Ben Simmons and Giannis—guys who can float from the 1-4 regularly.
So why the hell am I talking about all of these point guards when the point of this whole thing is big men? Because, as you’ll soon see, the difference between a point guard and a center will someday be minimal.
Back in day, like way back in the day, centers were used as primary scorers and paint defenders. Under old illegal defense rules, teams couldn’t play anything close to a zone, meaning if they were going to double team, they had to double team. There was no hedging, no half-help defense, just good ol’ fashioned two on ones. In order to counteract this, teams would typically put their tallest player on the low block. There, he’d either post up one on one, or kick the ball out if he was doubled. It was as easy as that. Most early teams played like this—albeit with a few variations.
One of the most successful teams in NBA history, the ’90s Bulls, didn’t have a dominant big, but they had some dude named Michael Jordan, who would do the same thing on the block to smaller guards, or simply beat bigger defenders off the dribble at the top of the key. In fact, one could argue that Phil Jackson’s Bulls were an earlier form of a position-less team, as his teams looked to make up for their lack of a dominant big man in creative ways throughout the *gasp* Triangle Offense. Scottie Pippen played the role of point forward, and the equal-opportunity offense forced all players on the court to become familiar with all the positions within the offense. Although it was far from a modern, spread offense, it did carry much of the principles position-less teams utilize—player movement, ball movement, and players playing multiple positions on the floor.
Then there was the 2000’s.
The three-pointer was seen as less of a gimmick and more of a legitimate way to outscore opponents. Especially with the new rule changes, which allowed for zone defenses, and in turn, forced teams to run more pick-and-rolls and shoot at a higher volume from the outside.
One of the first offenses that attempted to utilize the three-point shot was, obviously, the Mike D’Antoni Seven Seconds or Less Suns, which featured a much higher tempo and a big man with a skill set unlike most that came before him in Amar’e Stoudemire. STAT was more of a high-flying, rim-running pick-and-roll center, rather than a clunky, post-up big we had seen throughout the NBA. During those Suns’ years, the pick-and-roll was integral in getting defenses to collapse and get open three-pointers. Stoudemire was far from a distributor (he averaged 1.2 assists for his career, according to Basketball-Reference), but his skill set was integral in Phoenix getting open shots.
Then there was the Dwight Howard–led Orlando Magic—a team that captured slightly more success than D’Antoni Suns, and made it to Finals. While Howard was—and still is—a traditional center by every measure of the word, the offense run around him was not. The four-out-one-in offense that centered around him gave some early inklings of where the league was headed—running the offense through the post so you can kick it out open shooters. This team also had some similar qualities of today’s teams, with a point-forward in Hedo Turkoglu, and a modern-day stretch-four in Rashard Lewis. Again, while Howard himself wasn’t, by any stretch, a modern-day big, the system they ran around him was.
And it was a sign of things to come.
An Evolving Position
You can make the argument that another Phil Jackson–led team showed flashes of today’s offenses when it came to the 2009–10 and 2010–11 Lakers. Again, by no stretch of the imagination were these teams shot selection “modern,” but they did boast a lot of tendencies associated with today’s position-less league. When the team would go small, they’d have a sharp-passing big man in Gasol, a point-forward in Lamar Odom, who could also stretch the floor, and three outside shooters in Kobe Bryant, Derek Fisher, and Trevor Ariza/Metta World Peace. While those teams weren’t great three-point shooting teams, they displayed how valuable versatile, playmaking big men were to a team, en route to back-to-back championships.
Until the Heat’s Big Three and another versatile big came along.
The LeBron-era Heat were another team to develop the big-man into a modern-day iteration, after converting Chris Bosh into a stretch-five.
Obviously, there was Dirk Nowitzki, who became the first true stretch-four, in terms of the three-point line, in the league, but when it came to true centers, Chris Bosh was one of the first to extend his range over 28 feet. If not the first (Mehmet Okur, I see you), he was certainly one of the most influential.
A midrange-centric power forward on the Toronto Raptors, current Knicks coach David Fizdale urged the big man to learn to shoot threes from the center position. There, he would draw defenders out of the paint, in order for slashers Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, two players who weren’t necessarily the best fit spacing wise, to get to the rack. They’d also be flanked by three-point shooters like stretch-four Shane Battier, point guard Mario Chalmers, and, of course, the future Hall of Famer Ray Allen. While those guys were integral floor-stretchers for the Heat, it was perhaps Bosh’s transformation into a stretch-five that was able to make the less-than-ideal combination of an aging D-Wade and LeBron James work to perfection.
But stretching the floor wasn’t the only way we saw the center position evolve in the 2010’s. Surprisingly enough one current Knick also helped modernize the center position—Joakim Noah.
Although head coach Tom Thibedeau hardly utilized the spacing of those Heat teams, Noah offered something that even Bosh couldn’t—being a team’s primary playmaker and distributor.
With Derrick Rose sidelined during the 2013 season, Noah became the primary distributor in the Bulls’ offense, in addition to his role as the heart and soul of the defense. For the year, Noah averaged 12.6 points, 11.2 rebounds, and 5.4 assists to go along with 1.2 steals and 1.5 blocks, en route to Defensive Player of the Year honors and a top-five finish in MVP voting. Sure, he was far from a sharpshooter, but Noah checked off all of the other boxes for a modern day big-man—playmaking, secondary ball handling, and the lateral ability to switch on defense. He was the Draymond Green before Draymond.
But speaking of Green.
The True Modern Big Man
It wasn’t until the Golden State Warriors took the NBA by storm that things truly began to change for big men, and the NBA.
When Steve Kerr took over the Warriors from Mark Jackson, he made a couple of drastic changes to the Warriors that instantly turned the Dubs into NBA Champions.
One thing he did was implement a ball-sharing offense—a blend between Tex Winter’s Triangle Offense, Greg Popovich’s free-flowing style, and Mike D’Antoni’s speedball attack. The other shrewd move he made, which was integral in making the whole operation work to perfection, was replacing David Lee in the starting lineup with the then-relatively unknown Draymond Green.
If not for Green, who knows where the Dubs would be right now (all texting Kevin Durant jokes aside)? On offense, Green soon became the team’s best playmaker. After averaging 3.7 assists his first season in the starting lineup, Green has led his team in assists in all of the following ( 7.4 in 2015–16, 7.0 in 2016–17, and 7.3 last season, per Basketball-Reference).
In fact, Green displayed some of the versatility we’ve seen in some former Phil Jackson teams, albeit, in an offense more suited for today’s NBA. In Golden State’s offense, Green acts as both a point forward and a playmaking center. At times, he’ll bring the ball up the floor, and others, he’ll play the role of a playmaking five in the halfcourt set.
In the first video, you’ll see Green in a simple Triangle action. Green is on the low block, and he feeds the ball to Steph Curry on an easy backdoor cut to the basket—a staple play of Winter’s offense.
In another, Green perfectly executes a split-action blind pick play, and hits Curry for a wide open three. This play is being used by more and more teams in the NBA, and is now commonly referred to as “the Elevator Screen”:
Here, you can see Green in his other position in the offense—the point forward. He’s the primary ball handler from the minute he gets the defensive rebound. Green shows the rare ability to handle and score the ball in the full court, at the center position, nonetheless:
Of course, Green could also stretch the floor in the Dubs’ offense. While he’s by no means a prolific shooter, his shot his enough of a threat (32.7 percent downtown for his career) to space the floor for the Warriors’ true offensive threats.
On defense, Green also provides the Warriors with the ability to switch on a whim, making it hard for teams to run the pick-and-roll. He’s easily able to switch on to point guards and stay with them long enough to disrupt the flow of the offense.
Another modern-day big with a similar skill set is Al Horford of the Boston Celtics, a glue player in every sense of the word. Like Green, Horford has proven to be an exceptional passer in the half court, and became the primary playmakers for the Celtics after Kyrie Irving went out with season-ending surgery. On defense, he was also able to guard any position 1-5 and helped make Boston a top-five defensive team the last two seasons.
Here’s some footage of Horford doing a little bit of everything:
How The Knicks Factor In
O.K., so I talked about the evolution of big men at nauseam, but where does this leave the Knicks?
In a good place, actually.
Today, the modern big man has to be the culmination of all the aforementioned centers. They need to run the pick-and-roll like Stoudemire; block shots, defend, and rebound like Howard; shoot like Dirk and Bosh; have the handles of a Lamar Odom; the passing touch in post like Gasol; the ability to run an offense like Noah; and the capability to switch like Horford/Green. Oh, and ideally be at least seven feet.
In other words—they have to do it all. And be super tall.
Well, it looks like the Knicks already have a player with most of those modern skill set, and who is just 22 years of age.
It’s Kristaps Porzingis. You might have heard of him.
While Porzingis doesn’t check off every single box on that list—he’s not strong at boxing out and getting defensive rebounds, he’s not a very good passer from the post (he averages just 1.3 assists for his career), and KP’s not the best perimeter defender—the big fella is still young enough to be molded into the ideal modern-day big man. He can put the ball on the floor, and his handles are above average for a 7-foot-3 Latvian. He’s a natural shooter, an athletic specimen, and has incredible shot-blocking prowess. KP has a high I.Q., a still-developing post game, and the ability to create a height mismatch on almost any play.
The versatility of Porzingis is apparent, so much so, that Fizdale gave us a little insight into how he plans to use Porzingis. But fans clamoring for KP to play center next year might be a little unhappy.
Here’s what Fiz had to say about Porzingis’ versatile role on the Knicks next season (via Mike Vorkunov of The Athletic):
“I might play [Porzingis] at what you call a small forward and go him, Luke [Kornet], Mitch [Robinson] and put a whole bunch of wingspan with Kevin [Knox] at two. And see how teams deal with that at the rim and with our length. I can’t lock [Porzingis] into nothing. I see a lot of places I can use him to be dynamic for us.”
I, for one, did not see that coming.
We thought Fizdale’s work with Chris Bosh would serve as a bit of an indication of how the new Knicks coach plans to use his star player, but it could be the contrary. While most of the teams are tinkering with three-guard lineups, Fizdale is considering a three-big lineup with KP, Kornet, and Robinson. Sure, perimeter defense would be a weakness, but what you’re giving up in terms of lateral movement, you’re gaining in length. The Knicks’ wings might be prone to getting beat, but the length of the four other defenders on the court could disrupt the opposing teams second and third actions off of the drive. Imagine the nightmares a lineup of Frank Ntilinka, Kevin Knox, KP, Kornet, and Mitchell Robinson?
How could one even make an entry pass?
And on offense, we get back to the whole “position-less” thing, and how each player, should be doing the same thing on offense. KP coming off screens, rather than setting them, could be more suited for his skill set. Either way, the blurring of lines from the 1-5 is intriguing in itself. KP and Kornet have shown their ability to shoot the ball and play defense on the other end. It’s Mitchell that remains a dark horse, but if his impressive videos are any indication, he can be molded into what Fizdale is presumably looking for. He’s long, athletic, nimble, and he’s even shown a little ability to put the ball on the floor and shoot the three.
But at the end of the day, it’s the modernization of the big man that can allow for such an experiment. In the past, having three traditional bigs in your lineup at once would cause spacing nightmares. But in today’s NBA, there’s less and less of a divide between the skill set of a point guard and a center.
So in short, the evolution of the “big man” doesn’t necessarily mean the extinction of it. Seven-footers will always have a place in the league. It’s just their skill sets that have become antiquated.
At this point, every team in the league is waiting out the Warriors. The Knicks could be on to the next “big” thing in terms of play style. Think: the Warriors position-less offense, but everyone is seven-feet tall.
Don’t knock it ’til you try it.