From budding young stars like Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins to even younger stars like Karl-Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis, the future of NBA big men is as brilliant as it is bright.
Guys that used to be space eaters are now adept at playing in pace-and-space systems, giants capable of excelling as stretch-the-floor shooters, with many of them preferring to work facing the basket instead of trading elbows under and around the basket.
It’s called evolution, the next phase for a position that once was considered the most critical in the game. And perhaps no one personifies that evolution better than Towns, the reigning Kia Rookie of the Year and considered by most as good a young prospect as their is in the game, at any position.
But a side effect of that evolution, or revolution if you will, leaves many wondering have we seen the last of the dominant, traditional back-to-the-basket big man compete for the league’s top individual honor?
“I don’t think we’’ll see one because a lot of the good young big men now have the ability to play outside and that’s where the game is going,” said NBA TV analyst Brendan Haywood, a 7-footer who spent 14 years playing on the low block for the Washington Wizards, Dallas Mavericks, Charlotte Bobcats and Cleveland Cavaliers, winning a title with the Mavericks in 2011.
San Antonio’s Tim Duncan was the last traditional big man to capture a Kia MVP award, when he won back-to-back Maurice Podoloff Trophies after the 2001-02 and ’02-03 seasons.
For generations the MVP baton was passed from big man to big man, from the very first winner of the award, Bob Pettit (who won it twice) to Bill Russell (five) to Wilt Chamberlain (four) to Willis Reed to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six) to Dave Cowens, Wes Unseld, Bill Walton and, finally, Moses Malone (three), before Larry Bird and Magic Johnson ushered in a new era that saw perimeter players dominate the award.
Traditional big men won the award a ridiculous 25 times from 1955-56 until Malone won his third trophy after the 1983-84 season, including a mind-boggling 16 straight years until Julius Erving interrupted the party after the 1980-81 season.
Hakeem Olajuwon (’93-94) claimed MVP honors in the Michael Jordan-dominated era (he won five times from 1988-98) and Shaquille O’Neal snagged his one and only award after the ’99-00 season. Fellow big men David Robinson (’94-95) and Karl Malone (’96-97 and ’98-99) also took home the trophy, too.
All told, it has been 13 seasons since Duncan won the award. With the way the game is played now, another decade or more without a traditional big man winning the award wouldn’t be a shock.
“No, we’re not going to see another one in the next decade and maybe longer,” said TNT and NBA TV analyst Greg Anthony, who believes it’s much more of a function of the way the game is played today than it is a lack of resources at the position.
“I believe that you are what your shot chart says you are,” Anthony said. “If you have a shot chart where 40 to 50 percent of your shots are face-up, free throw line extended, it’s kind of hard to consider you a back-to-the-basket player. You think about Dream and Patrick [Ewing], not that they didn’t shoot jumpers. But what do you remember them as? They were more of the prototype. But David Robinson, I don’t consider a true back-to-the-basket big man.”
Fellow NBA TV analyst Brendan Haywood lived through the metamorphosis from one style, one era, to the next. Big men either adapt to the times or watch the game pass them by.
“The game has changed so much,” Haywood said. “It’s all about pace and space, so throwing the ball down low to one guy and letting him dribble and dribble, it’s just not the same as it was when Shaq was dominating the game and they had the illegal defense rules and the zone rules. And these guys nowadays are just different animals.
“Anthony Davis is 6-foot-11 or 7 feet tall and crossing over and shooting floaters, its just a totally different game. If you’re projecting and looking down the line, Joel Embiid probably has the best chance … and he has so much face-up game, I’m not sure he should be classified as a back-to-the-basket big.”
Of the current players in the mix, only Cousins and the Memphis Grizzlies’ Marc Gasol would be in the conversation, and they’re both expanding their games to beyond the 3-point line these days (see Gasol’s game-clinching heroics from Wednesday’s win over the LA Clippers).
You won’t find a traditional big man in the Top 10 of this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder. Only Cousins, who is moving away from that distinction, is the only one even remotely on our list (he’s in the Next Five).
“The only way you get a guy in the mix in the foreseeable future is if you bet on Embiid,” Haywood said. “Think about it, the window passed for Dwight [Howard]. DeMarcus, with his situation, he’s not going to have a chance to win it anytime soon. Andre Drummond, he’s more of a dynamic role player in today’s game. He’s not a regular role player, but he’s not a star. He’s like a super-up version of Tristan Thompson. Same goes for DeAndre Jordan.”
The fundamental shift in the way all players learn the game has also changed the dynamic. Haywood played with Dirk Nowitzki, the MVP of the ’06-07 season. The shift in philosophy since then has been to find big men capable of stretching the floor first and use a traditional big man as a utility man in the paint.
“It doesn’t matter what size you are now,” Haywood said, “you are learning guard skills. In the 80s and the early 90s if you were a certain height, they put you right on the block and you work on jump hooks and turnaround jumpers and things of that nature. Now, your bigs can space all the way out to the 3-point line.
“You look at a guy like Porzingis, a guy 7-foot-3 playing like that back in the day was unheard of. That’s why you look at Dirk and he was so amazing because here was a 7-footer with legitimate perimeter skills. And now, everybody has guys like that. Like I said, the game has totally changed.”
Now, to this week’s rankings …
1. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
(last week: No. 1)
Get used to the late-game heroics we saw from Westbrook in the win over Houston. The Thunder won’t stay in the playoff hunt this season without a yeoman’s effort from the face of the franchise (33.8 points, 11.0 rebounds, 9.8 assists in last five games).
2. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
(last week: No. 3)
If the Cavaliers needed a reminder what life is like without LeBron in uniform (4-16 since his return to Cleveland), they got it Wednesday against Indiana. But Tyronn Lue will not budge on his maintenance plan for the season (24.3 points, 9.0 rebounds, 8.0 assists in last five games).
3. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
(last week: No. 5)
The (justified) focus on Durant’s consistently brilliant offensive work overshadows the fact that he’s become an absolutely rock solid defender, both around the rim and beyond (25.4 points, 8.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.2 blocks in his last five games). And he “doesn’t give a dang about no dang Drake night.”
4. Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
(last week: No. 4)
Griffin heads into tonight’s game at Sacramento (10:30 ET, ESPN) on a run of five straight games scoring 20 or more points. But leading the best team (10-2) in the league in scoring is just a piece of what he’s doing this season (22.4 points, 8.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.4 steals in his last five games).
5. James Harden, Houston Rockets
(last week: No. 2)
Harden’s shot (4-for-16) escaped him in that duel with Russell Westbrook. But his abilities as a creator (13 assists) appear to be immune to similar struggles. He bounced back with another triple-double (26 points, 14 assist, 12 rebounds) in a blowout win over Portland. Harden has put on a show all season long (26 points, 14 assist, 12 rebounds in his last five games).
6. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
(last week: No. 7)
Steph has made a staggering 57.1 percent of his 3-pointers since his streak of 157 games with at least one 3-pointer was snapped on Nov. 4 (0-for-10 on 3-pointers that night) against the Los Angeles Lakers. Go ahead, call it a comeback (33.6 points, 6.2 assists, 4.4 rebounds in his last five games).
7. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
(last week: No. 6)
Draymond Green says he wants Leonard’s Defensive Player of the Year crown. Good luck with that, because Leonard is as sharp as ever on that end while also rounding into a consistent offensive and all-around force (23.0, 6.2 rebounds, 2.4 steals, 1.4 assists in his last five games) for the Spurs.
8. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors
(last week: No. 8)
DeRozan is putting in monster work offensively, having scored scored 30 or more points already this season after reaching that mark a total of 14 times last season. He’s riding an early season wave (32.8 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.2 steals in his last five games) that could lead to a scoring title.
9. Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets
(last week: No. 9)
No other point guard in the Eastern Conference has been better than Walker, thus far. He’s scoring (25.8) and shooting it from deep (48 percent) better than ever while continuing to develop as ta do-it-all (27.2 points, 6.4 assists, 4.8 rebounds, 2.4 steals in his last five games) leader for the Hornets.
T-10. Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks
(last week: Not ranked)
Millsap might be the most underrated two-way star in the entire league. He’s the backbone for a Hawks team that sits atop the Eastern Conference standings (they own the tiebreaker with Cleveland) and checks all the boxes (15.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.4 assists in his last five games) on both ends of the floor for coach Mike Budenholzer’s team.
T-10. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
(last week: Not ranked)
Paul’s has the Clippers playing at the highest level (No. 1 defensive rating, No. 4 offensive rating) to start this season. He’s playing with a sense of urgency that is undeniable and is fueling the Clippers right now (17.0 points, 8.0 assists, 4.0 rebounds, 2.8 steals in his last five games).
Next five (listed alphabetically): Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls; DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings; Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans; Paul George, Indiana Pacers; Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
An inside look from an Eastern Conference scout at … Kristaps Porzingis:
“Did you see what he did to the Pistons? That’s the way you have to use him right now. You need to give him options on how he wants to attack. I’ll say this, he’s a matchup nightmare at the five. An absolute nightmare. He’s going to outrun any other center in the league and he has that length advantage at 7-3 that’s just impossible to deal with in certain situations. And yes, he’s going to take his lumps trying to guard some fives on the other end. So what. He’s not strong enough to dominate on a consistent basis right now anyway. He’s still just too light for that. But with him at the five and Carmelo [Anthony] at the four, you’re looking at the Knicks at their best. Because Carmelo is better against others four than his is threes at this stage of his career. Porzingis is their future. And the sooner you cater what you’re doing to his skill set, the better. KD [Kevin Durant] was right. He is a unicorn. Even better, he’s … what did James Harden say about Russell Westrbrook? He’s ‘un-normal.’ Well, Porzingis is un-normal.”
Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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