We are about a week into this year’s NBA season and all we have heard leading up to opening day was the birth of “positionless basketball”, how the big man is obsolete and small ball is the only way. If there is anything these first few weeks have made abundantly clear it’s that big men are far from out of style in today’s league and when you’ve got the right one there will always be a place on the roster for a big body.
Rockets vs Pelicans
Anthony Davis doesn’t get much airtime given the market that he is in but this week he made sure to take full advantage while he had the spotlight. This offseason Davis made it known that he plans to do what he has to so that he can make sure his name is in the conversation when talking about the top players in the league. Davis has always been a great player and a versatile one as well and it showed as they silenced the crowd very early in the Toyota Center. Houston is a prime example of a team that is leaning towards the positionless/small ball approach to the game. After not retaining players like Luc Mbah a Moute as well as Trevor Ariza Houston was clearly shifting to a style of play that more readily matches up with teams that will run lineups on the smaller side. For a player as well versed on the low block as Anthony Davis that aint gonna cut it. Being without a true post defender allowed for Davis to score 32 points and grab 16 rebounds to go along with his career high 8 assists. The Clint Capela and PJ Tuckers of the world didn’t prove enough to stop AD from getting his even though they are what Houston will rely on as their “post” defenders. Now after watching the game or even if you know just how much Davis works to have a truly all around game you might be asking of that 32 how many were outside shots which in turn would somewhat kill the argument. The answer to that question is less than you think. Davis didn’t take any threes against Houston and only 6 of his points came from the free throw line. And while anyone could be susceptible to giving up 30 to AD another red flag that post defense was an issue was the fact that Julius Randle scored 20+ points as well. Generally speaking Randle will probably average around 12 or 18 points on the year and for an undersized forward he does a great job playing bigger than he is; this does however go to show how a post player with solid feetwork and moves around the basket can cause problems for a team that isn’t equipped to defend against it.
Suns vs Mavs
For the Dallas/Phoenix opener we got our first look at the Suns top pick Deandre Ayton and he did anything but disappoint. Over the course of 36 minutes Ayton must have thought he was on an episode of Shark Tank because he was giving Dallas the business. 18 points 10 rebounds and 6 assists was the stat line for him as he recorded a double double in his first ever NBA game. Dallas has their own 7 footer of sorts in Deandre Jordan (no relation) but as a big man who has made a career on nothing more than blocking shots at the rim and catching alley oops, running into a big man with a mid range game nullified that defensive capability relatively quickly. Dallas had more height that on paper should have been able to stifle some of Ayton’s abilities but in just one game he has shown that he is going to be one of the top and dominant big men in the near future. Offensively he played a very efficient game shooting 72% as well as having the capacity to find open teammates on the floor. With the ease he was able to score when he had the ball in the post and around the elbow it won’t be long before he starts to see double teams regularly; having the ability to pass out of doubles to guys on the perimeter like Booker and Ariza will only add to just how integral he is going to become to this Phoenix team. Right now it still is heavily centered around Booker and while that will never change as he finds a rhythm it will allow for some of the workload to be taken off of Booker and give some of the shine to Ayton as well. The Phoenix offense could easily go through Ayton in the post as he scores and finds his shooters for a one-two punch that could be pretty scary.
Sixers vs Bulls
Now this game was more of an example of two teams who generally are going to have big men on the floor. Philly has Embiid while Chicago will have Markkanen when he is healthy both 7 footers and both major pieces to how these teams play. However Markkanen was out this game and Chicago was forced to run a slightly smaller lineup that what they normally would. Bobby Portis and Jabari Parker were the big men on the floor with Parker doing his best attempt at a Ben Simmons impersonation running point forward. Yes it was by design and yes it was as gross as that virgin couple that got married and kissed for the first time on TLC (I dare you not to google it). Embiid had a field day and did what he does to most teams with 30 points and 12 rebounds. The Celtics are one team that with the eye test seem to have his number but the box score says differently as he had 23 pts and 10 reb in the season opener but they are able to do even that because they have big men like Aron Baynes and undersized bigs who play taller than they are like Al Horford. Even with as great of a job as they do when push comes to shove its hard to stop the 7 footer from getting what he wants offensively.
Blazers vs Lakers
This matchup was a unique one, it is well known that the Lakers are slimmer than an iPhone when it comes to their depth at center. McGee is their only true big man and his asthma has put him on minute restrictions which limits the length of time he can be on the floor (especially with the fast pace that the Lakers are dead set on running at). The gimmick the Laker coaching staff has decided to go with is using Kuzma and LeBron as that low defender which was exposed against Portland on their opening night. Portland is a unique situation compared to the other teams and their big men that we have discussed. The reason being that the Blazers don’t have any true dominant post player, they were able to dominate in the paint through throwing average to above average post players at their opponent. Seeing Zach Collins come in and be able to record points, rebound and blocks against a team so much his senior was testament to the notion that big men are necessary on every roster. If I’m a Laker fan my hope is the Mo Wagner can come back and help lighten the load for James and Kuzma down low because at the moment the frontcourt defense is not going according to plan.
One thing that is going to come to light this year is that the teams that are lacking a solid post player or at a minimum true post defender are going suffer. While the Jokic and Davis’ of the world might bring down the overall speed of how a team plays they bring an invaluable asset to their team. Even Detroit who has Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond in their lineup is currently undefeated as they have been able to use their size (and their opponent’s lack of it) to their advantage. Small ball and the new craze with positionless basketball will have its place in the NBA from here on there is no questioning that, but it will not overtake how the entire game is played. Think of it as running a wishbone offense or the wildcat in football; there are a few teams that run it and you gameplan accordingly but it is not a style that every team is going to adopt. Right now we are seeing the emergence of the next wave of dominant big men which don’t come along as frequently as great guards do so there can be down years. So while every team may not have a 7 foot big man to protect the rim and score around the basket every team better account for their opponent having one. Any team with a Anthony Davis or a Deandre Ayton would be foolish to not take full advantage of what they can do with their back to the basket as well as everything else. The game may speed up as time goes on but it will always slow down to pay homage to those big men who are skilled in the post.