Are big men still the future?

The 2015 NBA draft is Thursday. And just as what looks to be one of the stronger drafts in recent years for big men and led by two big men, the center position has become extinct in the NBA.

Or so it seems with the latest commentary and analysis following the Golden State Warriors winning the championship over a Cleveland Cavaliers team that often benched its big men to match up with—or down to—the Warriors speed and skilled lineup.

"This is a copycat league," noted one general manager. "In the 80s when Houston had the twin towers (Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon) everyone needed two big guys; then with the Lakers winning with Magic everyone needed a big point guard. Then came the running (and shooting) power forward and everyone needed one of those. Now the trend is to play a lot more perimeter, space it out and have more playmakers out on the floor. Draymond Green is more a playmaking four. But, remember, he has the luxury of having the two best shooters in the league beside him."

And nobody else has them, which is one reason not to dismiss the NBA center too quickly.

Especially because this 2015 draft may have two of the best to come along in a long, long time.

"Potentially you have the two best big men at the top of this draft since Shaq and Mourning (in Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor)," said another general manager, who also asked not to be named in discussing other players. "Everything goes in cycles; coaches will figure out a way to use good players and in the long haul you have to have some size. If Cleveland doesn't get hurt, I think they win the title because they had the biggest team in the league. They were missing one shooter and if they had him I believe they would have won.

"Golden State played great," said the general manager. "Give them credit. But one championship doesn't mean there won't be a need for big men anymore. Basketball is a big man's game; now it's going to be a skilled big man's game."

And so Kentucky's 6-11 Towns and Duke's 6-11 Okafor are expected to be the first two picks in Thursday's draft, probably Towns to Minnesota and Okafor to the Lakers. Plus, in conversations with several general managers, there is growing belief that Latvian seven footer Kristaps Porzingis, who played in Spain, is being talked about among scouts as having perhaps a higher long term ceiling than either Towns or Okafor because of Porzingis' accurate long distance shooting and shot blocking ability, a potential two-way star.

I asked one general manager to predict the top 10 draft picks this weekend. Here's how he had it:

  1. Minnesota: Towns
  2. Lakers: Okafor
  3. 76ers: Porzingis
  4. Knicks: D'Angelo Russell
  5. Magic: Mario Hezonja
  6. Kings: Emmanuel Mudiay
  7. Nuggets: Justise Winslow
  8. Pistons: Stanley Johnson
  9. Hornets: Devin Booker
  10. Heat: Willie Cauley-Stein

It's what you'd call informed speculation since much can change in the days before the draft, including trades.

But the most interesting selection is at No. 3 with the 76ers. Could they afford another player not ready? Though taking Porzingis would fit with their philosophy of going for the slam dunk/home run and potential future star. Which is why they supposedly traded Michael Carter-Williams. Though scouts are high on Ohio State's Russell, he's not projected to star status. He's considered a good shooter and passer, but relatively unathletic and not strong or figured to be an impact defender. Given the 76ers' risk taking for potential stars, it's not inconceivable they'd pass on the guards even after the trade of Carter-Williams and go for another big man.

That would then have Russell fall to the Knicks, who do need a point guard, though many around the NBA say Mudiay has more star potential than Russell because of athletic ability. But Mudiay after a year in China following high school is considered less ready. And team president Phil Jackson said last week in a New York Times interview that the team's views on the draft changed once they didn't get one of the top picks and likely not a big man.

The Knicks with salary cap space have the ability to sign a big man in free agency. There also have been rumors of the Knicks trading down, which rarely works, to get a player and lower pick or multiple picks. The Knicks also will be one of the teams most watched on draft night. And Jackson is not one of those who believes you build a team without a big man.

Even inheriting Michael Jordan when Jackson became Bulls coach in 1989, Jackson had lobbied vigorously the year before for the trade of Charles Oakley for Bill Cartwright. And Jackson famously employed the "three headed monster" center group in the 1996-1998 titles and always was calling for adding big men, like Brian Bison (Brian Williams) Dele.

Jackson long has been an advocate of post penetration with a big man to fuel an offense and he still intends to bring that philosophy to the Knicks. Though it's been fashionable of late to succeed without a center, Jackson also hardly sees the end of the NBA big man.

"One of the reasons that I've come back to basketball, as we know, is that I am convinced that there has been a new way to play, philosophically, and that is OK," said Jackson. "But it skips some of the principals of the game. One of the principals, the first, is penetration. Most coaches understand this point, but are using it only through dribble penetration. The big man provides that opportunity by using the force of a triangle to move the ball inside the defense. We see it in all sports that have a goal from lacrosse to soccer; they use the force of a triangle to advance the ball deep into the defense. The big man can do that and if used the right way will continue to do so. Tex (Winter) and I often talked about what the three-point line has done to the game. It has distorted the game via scoring opportunities that favor the long shot. This year we have had the greatest advance of the three-point shot (with Golden State).

"There has been the notion that making 33 percent of the three-point shots is equivalent to 50 percent from the field," agreed Jackson. "(This) holds some water just by the scoring number. (But the) idea that now there is 67 percent of your shots available to the opponent with your defense at it's most vulnerable has not been counted in this argument. Most coaches will admit the easiest way to score is from the open floor following a steal, a blocked shot, or a long rebound. At this point in the NBA the three-point percentage has risen to close to 35 percent and has impacted the game. We saw a Finals that virtually eliminated the centers in most of the minutes played and especially in the fourth quarters. Some of that was due to the fact the two centers in the L.A. Clippers and Rockets (series) were fouled and were deemed a liability due to their poor free throw shooting. I believe that there is still an opportunity to use the pass and post man to provide penetration. We saw the Cavs use this, although it was with LeBron James for the most part. Defenses still win games, series, and championships. The big men provide the intimidation."

Added another top team executive: "It's going more toward skill and perimeter shooting. The perfect analytics player now is like a James Harden type because analytics say you take three pointers, you take layups and you take foul shots. That's how you are most efficient. But I still think there is always a place for a good big man. Game 6 (of the Finals) turned when (Festus) Ezeli came in and did some good things inside.

I don't think the low post centers are ever going to be as effective because of the rules changes. If you remember back with Ewing, Olajwuon, David Robinson, Duncan, those guys you couldn't double team the post until the guy had the ball. Now you can prevent the centers from getting the ball down low. And now most big 6-11 guys like to play on the perimeter; it's become more of a skill game and not as much as a power game. But there is still room for a big man, especially on the defensive end. And especially a skilled big man."

In addition to Towns, Okafor and Porzingis, this draft also features 6-10 Trey Lyles, seven foot Willie Cauley-Stein, 6-11 Myles Turner, 6-11 Bobby Portis and seven-foot Frank Kaminsky. All could be lottery picks in one of the strongest big man drafts in years.

The center is back. That was a short hiatus.

Of course, there's a big difference between the mock draft, the actual draft and NBA success. Five years from now we'll look back on the 2015 draft and find players selected in the 20s and even 30s who should have been top 10 picks. It's moreso now with the draft skewing young with 10 or 11 of the top 14 picks expected to be freshman or young European players.

It generally takes about three years before you know what you have from the draft. It's also the most imperfect and inexact of sciences, based on so many other factors like the opportunity to play and maturity level, which cannot generally be calculated with teenagers coming into an adult world with salaries of millions of dollars annually. No one gets this right all the time or even most of the time. But a team just has to get it really right once or twice to begin to compete for a championship. Here's a look back at 10 drafts from three years ago and how the drafts likely would have gone if they knew then what we know now.

2012: Great No. 1 pick, but not a deep draft. One sure Hall of Famer and perhaps two.

  1. Anthony Davis (1)
  2. Damian Lillard (6)
  3. Andre Drummond (9)
  4. Draymond Green (35)
  5. Bradley Beal (3)
  6. Khris Middleton (39)
  7. Harrison Barnes (7)
  8. Terence Ross (8)
  9. Evan Fournier (20)
  10. Miles Plumlee (26)

2011: Strong draft with depth and even several potential All-Stars not currently in the top 10 like Nikola Mirotic, Reggie Jackson and Tobias Harris. Though Nikola Mirotic hasn't done enough yet to warrant top 10, he is highly valued.

  1. Kyrie Irving (1)
  2. Kawhi Leonard (15)
  3. Klay Thompson (11)
  4. Jimmy Butler (30)
  5. Kenneth Faried (22)
  6. Nikola Vucevic (16)
  7. Brandon Knight (8)
  8. Chandler Parsons (38)
  9. Kemba Walker (9)
  10. Enes Kanter (3)

2010: Not a deep draft with star top two picks and not much depth. The general rule is you want a starter from the top five to 10 and rotation player into the teens.

  1. Paul George (10)
  2. John Wall (1)
  3. DeMarcus Cousins (5)
  4. Eric Bledsoe (18)
  5. Greg Monroe (7)
  6. Gordon Hayward (9)
  7. Derrick Favors (3)
  8. Hassan Whiteside (33)
  9. Avery Bradley (19)
  10. Evan Turner (2)

2009: Terrific draft with several future Hall of Famers and rotation players well into the second round.

  1. Stephen Curry (7)
  2. James Harden (3)
  3. Blake Griffin (1)
  4. Jeff Teague (19)
  5. DeMar DeRozan (9)
  6. Ty Lawson (18)
  7. Jrue Holiday (17)
  8. Tyreke Evans (4)
  9. Gerald Henderson (12)
  10. Taj Gibson (26)

2008: Deep draft with stars, high level second round picks and numerous rotation players.

  1. Russell Westbrook (4)
  2. Derrick Rose (1)
  3. Kevin Love (5)
  4. Goran Dragic (45)
  5. Serge Ibaka (22)
  6. DeAndre Jordan (35)
  7. Nicolas Batum (25)
  8. Brook Lopez (10)
  9. Ryan Anderson (21)
  10. Roy Hibbert (17)

2007: The most anticipated draft with Greg Oden and disappointing. Fairly sharp drop off after top 10.

  1. Kevin Durant (2)
  2. Marc Gasol (48)
  3. Joakim Noah (9)
  4. Al Horford (3)
  5. Mike Conley (4)
  6. Arron Afflalo (27)
  7. Wilson Chandler (23)
  8. Jeff Green (5)
  9. Tiago Splitter (28)
  10. Aaron Brooks (26)

2006: One of the poorer drafts of the decade with bust after bust in the lottery and little depth.

  1. LaMarcus Aldridge (2)
  2. Paul Millsap (47)
  3. Rudy Gay (8)
  4. Kyle Lowry (24)
  5. Rajon Rondo (21)
  6. J.J. Redick (11)
  7. Brandon Roy (6)
  8. P.J. Tucker (35)
  9. Randy Foye (7)
  10. Andrea Bargnani (1)

2005: The draft perhaps similar to this year with the guards having a chance to eventually be better than the bigs. Though basically unprecedented with as deep a second round as first with some out of the top 10 like Ersan Ilyasova, Ryan Gomes, Andray Blatche, C.J. Miles and Brandon Bass.

  1. Chris Paul (4)
  2. Deron Williams (3)
  3. Monta Ellis (40)
  4. David Lee (30)
  5. Danny Granger (17)
  6. Andrew Bynum (10)
  7. Marcin Gortat (57)
  8. Andrew Bogut (1)
  9. Jarrett Jack (22).
  10. Lou Williams (45)

2004: One of my personal favorite drafts as Mark Cuban ripped me nationally for writing Pavel Podkolzin at No. 21 never would make it. Not a particularly strong draft, though some solid second rounders out of the top 10 like Anderson Varejao and Chris Duhon .

  1. Dwight Howard (1)
  2. Al Jefferson (15)
  3. Andre Iguodala (9)
  4. Luol Deng (7)
  5. Josh Smith (17)
  6. Tony Allen (25)
  7. Trevor Ariza (43)
  8. Kevin Martin (26)
  9. Ben Gordon (3)
  10. Emeka Okafor (2)

2003: Great draft because of top 10 all-time player LeBron and all-time top 5. Another draft with an exceptionally deep second round of rotation players, showing how little the mock drafts mean as well. And again notable second rounders like Luke Walton, Steve Blake, Willie Green, Keith Bogans, Matt Bonner, James Jones and Zaza Pachulia.

  1. LeBron James (1)
  2. Dwyane Wade (5)
  3. Carmelo Anthony (3)
  4. Chris Bosh (4)
  5. David West (18)
  6. Kyle Korver (51)
  7. Josh Howard (29)
  8. Kirk Hinrich (7)
  9. Leandro Barbosa (28)
  10. Mo Williams (47)