It doesn’t take an NBA genius to know that we live in the era of efficiency and the three-pointer; with almost all of us watching the greatest shooters to ever live in Golden State, we know how effective the three ball is. However, one thing I’ve noticed while watching modern basketball is the taller, stronger guys on the floor. Around 2016, centers became seemingly extinct in the NBA. Players like Zach Randolph, Al Jefferson, and Roy Hibbert, who were all All-Stars, washed out of the NBA because their play style didn’t fit the modern game. Those that did survive had to focus on honing their shooting skills if they wanted playing time. However, recently we’ve seen that old school centers still bring valuable skills to today’s game, bringing a mix of post play and perimeter shooting that should leave basketball fans thinking:
When Darryl Morrey, the architect of the James Harden-led Houston Rockets, decided that the only shots his team would take were layups, dunks, three-pointers, or free throws, it led to a revolution. Everyone thought that this was the most efficient way to play the game, and guys that could shoot lights out like Harden, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Kyrie Irving only further proved that this could work. This was best summed up by Kirk Goldsberry, who wrote a book called, SprawlBall: A Visual Tour of the New Era of the NBA. This is a great book, and I highly recommend reading it if you get the chance. However, Goldsberry made an interesting point in this book; while players did indeed generate more points per possession while shooting the three more often, what was the cost of this? Yes, it was more efficient basketball, but people don’t always like efficiency. Watching guys run to the three-point line to spot up became boring, and games could take close to three hours with all the free throws interrupting the flow of the game. The real question became: how can the NBA make basketball less boring?
One solution Goldsberry made that I really liked was that each team gets to decide where their three-point line is on their court. At first, it sounds crazy, but when you think about it, every team could have an advantage in this regard. The Miami Heat, who in 2019 had yet to acquire Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry, and were on their last years with Dwayne Wade, had Hassan Whiteside anchoring their defense as an amazing shot blocker. For a team like them, maybe it would have made more sense to put no three-point line on their court, incentivizing teams to drive the paint so Whiteside could block shots. On the other hand, the Warriors could put their three-point line at a ridiculous distance (say 30 feet), because while the Splash Brothers can consistently shoot from that range, there aren’t too many other teams that can do that. However, in my opinion, one game and one performance changed what the NBA thought about the three-pointer.
The Golden State Warriors had proven in 2015 and 2017 that they could win championships shooting three-pointers, and so the Rockets gathered up as many three-point snipers as they could. It’s why 6’10” guys like Ryan Anderson and Davis Bertans were given four- and five-year contracts for $80 million (for the record, Bertans is averaging 5.1 points per game this season, and Anderson played two games in 2020 for the Rockets before completely washing out of the league at 31). With their three-point shooting, the Harden and Chris Paul-led Rockets finished 65-17, good for the number one seed in the Western Conference. Because of his incredible scoring and playmaking, Harden was awarded that year’s MVP award. Almost all of their games were high-scoring events, as the Rockets averaged 112.4 points per game that year, the second most in the NBA. Going into that year’s playoffs, they easily defeated the inexperienced Minnesota Timberwolves, led by Karl Anthony-Towns, Andrew Wiggins, and Jimmy Butler, in five games. Next, they took down rookie Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert along with the rest of the Utah Jazz in five games. Then, they met the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals.
This series was a good one, although it was decided by two major points. For one, Paul injured his hamstring during the end of Game Five, which had put the Rockets up 3-2 in the Best-of-Seven series. Without their All-Star point guard on the floor, it’d be difficult for any team to win. However, the Rockets still had a pretty good chance. That is, until they got onto the floor for Game 7. During the game, they would miss 27 THREES IN A ROW, coming up cold in the most important game of the season. Despite all the misses, the Rockets would only lose by 9 points, but their season was over, and even though we didn’t know it at the time, their championship window was just about closed. Forget that the chances of this phenomenon occurring were 1 in 72,000, I think it turned people off the three-pointer to an extent. Yes, it’s unlikely that this will ever happen again, but everyone in the NBA was trying to be the next set of Splash Brothers. Guess what: there’s never been a shooter as amazing as Curry and I don’t think there ever will be one again. You can try and practice as frequently as possible, but with his talent and effort, nobody can match him. That leads to another very important point in the transition of efficiency and big men.
Since not everyone can be the next Curry, Thompson, Ray Allen, or Reggie Miller, teams have finally realized they need to play to their strengths. This brings me back to the point Goldsberry made earlier in SprawlBall, about how different teams might have their three-point line in different places. If a player is an incredible mid-range shooter, it may be more efficient for them to shoot mid-range shots at a higher percentage then shoot lots of threes, but make less of them. This is even displayed on the cover of SprawlBall, as on the cover, it shows some of the best scorers in the NBA and how many points per possession they score. The leader among all these players from 2018 is King James, who averaged 1.95 points per possession. Is James a great three-point shooter? Well, he has gotten better over the years, but he’s so effective because of his muscle and how he can bully his way to the rim, not because of his shooting.
From 2018 until 2021, DeMar DeRozan has been one of the best players in the NBA when it comes to mid-range shooting. From the distance of 16 feet to the three-point line, DeRozan has shot 42.4%, while from three-point range during that time span, DeRozan has shot 28.7%. So, if you’re DeRozan’s coach, are you going to make him take the shot that’s more efficient and has a lower chance of going in, or the shot that’s considered less efficient but has a higher probability of going in? While some people would pick the first option, I would have DeRozan shoot less efficient shots on higher accuracy, because at the end of the day, a basketball game is won by how many points you scored, not how you got those points. Let players play to their strengths and weaknesses.
This last point is about the 2021 NBA Finals. While I watched just about every game and summarized all of them here, here, and here, one thing surprised me. The player that had the biggest impact on the game was Giannis Antetokounmpo, a 6’11” (technically) big man who can barely shoot a lick. While Chris Paul and Devin Booker led the Phoenix Suns, they were in no small part anchored in the paint by Deandre Ayton, who averaged 14.7 points and 12 rebounds on 37.5 minutes per game. I highly doubt the Suns could have won even two games without Ayton, and when you look at the gameplay, one thing remains the same. Playoff basketball is generally much slower then the regular season, as teams are much less reckless in how they play and defenses are much more locked in. People can joke all they want about how defense is pointless now in the modern NBA, but the saying still goes:
Just look at Antetokounmpo’s block in Game Six if you don’t believe me. These defenses are quick and don’t allow for much perimeter shooting. Add all the new rules regarding shooting and the all-time low levels of free throws, and there isn’t as much incentive to shoot from way outside, because as the Rockets proved, you could end up missing everything. Well, after the three and the free, what’s the best shot? The highest percentage shot is the one closest to the basket, so the team often dumps the ball down to the big man and lets him go to work. Thus, the big man is still involved in the game.
If a team is playing a five-out style (where all five guys are at the three-point line), that works even better, because the big man will barely have to exert himself while making an easy bucket over a smaller defender’s head. One of the only exception’s to this rule is Draymond Green, and that’s because he can guard every position and is a former Defensive Player of the Year.
So yes, it helps if big men can play in the paint and can be versatile on the wing and perimeter (such as Evan Mobley). However, the big man position is not dead; it was simply evolving, and it had to go into hibernation for a few years before it came back to the surface. While there are still more spacing problems with big men (just ask the Cleveland Cavaliers) than without, they are a vital part of a basketball team, and unless your entire starting five and bench can shoot like the greatest shot makers in NBA history, good luck winning a championship.