The always smart and clever Dan Devine of Yahoo’s Ball Don’t Lie made his comment above right around the close of the 1st half of Sunday’s game 5 Warriors’ win over the Cavs. Mozgov would only end up playing an additional four and a half minutes all night (and did not start the 2nd half), Ezeli got a shade over three minutes all game, and Bogut did not play at all. No country for big men, indeed.
After the game, both head coaches were asked about the decision to play their big men as few minutes as they did. I’m paraphrasing, but Steve Kerr cited the desire to speed the game up to a tempo more his team’s liking while Blatt dodged the question entirely, simply noting that what his team was doing was working (noting “the game was close the entire time”).
This shift away from big men, especially sine it has occurred on the league’s biggest stage, combined with the excellent play of LeBron and Curry while each team trots out lineups filled with other versatile wing players has reinvigorated the discussion about the direction of the league and how it has become, essentially, a “guard’s league”.
In a way, I really don’t blame people for making these conclusions. After all, if you watch the myriad of perimeter difference makers the Warriors deploy or watch LeBron almost single handedly keep his team in games by making plays all over the floor as a scorer and facilitator, it’s easy to become intoxicated with the style of play we are watching.
However, I would caution against tilting too far away from any perspective which does not properly value big men. The NBA hasn’t so much become a game dominated by wings as much as it has become a game dominated by the most skilled players. And those players, for the most part, are wings.
But this does not mean skilled big men do not have immense value in this league. Sure, either the Warriors ore the Cavs will win the championship this season, but if you look back at the championship teams through the past decade and a half, you see names like Duncan, Bosh, Gasol, Bynum, Odom, KG, Nowtizki, Rasheed, and Shaq. Not all of these players were “Centers”, but all operated as foundational pieces within their teams offensive and defensive schemes.
When looking at the draft, both Karl Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor can only hope to reach the heights some of the names mentioned above did, but when hoping so, it is important to note both have a high enough skill level to do so. Towns, as we have discussed, has an inside power game combined with an ability to stretch his game to the perimeter which is not often seen. Of course, there are fewer questions about Towns than there are, it seems than about Jahlil Okafor.
As for Okafor, we love to pick him apart, but his deft low-post scoring and ability to pass and make reads against schemes meant to slow him are key traits needed for any big man working 15 feet and in. When making the leap to the NBA, he has the tools to be able to operate in the hub of most any offensive scheme as a scorer and a playmaker for others. Defensively we have our question marks — valid ones, I’d add — but only time will reveal if he’ll be able to use his physical tools (length, strength, quick feet) to be in the right position and challenge shots often enough to be a key contributor on that end.
Of course, neither will be guards facilitating offense via pick and roll initiations or wing isolations on a cleared side from the three point line. But both have the skill needed to be able to operate from the middle of the floor as scorers or passers, making correct decisions to help their teams excel.
So, while it’s reasonable to glorify the excellent guard and wing play being displayed in the Finals, it is not reasonable to look at Bogut or Mozgov and equate that to the value of all big men moving forward. For one thing, the Finals are about winning one series against a specific opponent who has certain strengths and weaknesses to counter and exploit. But second, and even more important, some big men can also play the skill game and bring enough diversity of game and polish to thrive no matter what direction the league is evolving. After all, the name of the game will almost always be to get the ball as close to the hoop as possible to create the most makable shots. Big men who can do it consistently will never go out of style.