When you see a big guy win the skills challenge, that’s when you know some serious change is in the horizon.
As a follower of the league of about five years or so, it’s not difficult to see that the NBA had developed into a brand new game. That old-school strategy of dumping it into the big behemoths in the paint, then watching them work for the easy layup is just not how it’s done these days.
What is the way to go, now, is small-ball. For proof, just look at the two players leading the charge for change in all-stars Draymond Green and Lebron James. Both, in their own slightly different way, have put into serious question that classic 1 through 5 mentality and as a result of what they’ve been able to pull-off on the court, leading their individual team’s stat lines in nearly all aspects of the game, have brought to attention a whole new position–the power guard.
The power guard posts-up like a big-man; defends guards like a small-forward; swishes the three like a shooting guard; and passes behind the back like a point guard. They do pretty much everything.
It’s become the hot new commodity in the NBA, especially as organizations watch on a nightly-basis teams like the Warriors and Cavaliers rip apart competition on both ends of the court. You see it all through-out the league, one-by-one teams have begun to push small forwards into a power role and power forwards into the center role, all in hopes of uncovering their own, one-of-a-kind, power guard.
This, I guess, is a natural part of progression in any professional sport; finding new and innovative strategies to get that ball in the hoop. Yet, with these changes, a question pops-up: with all these forwards shifting up a position in a line-up, what happens to the big guy? What happens to the 7-foot nothing behemoth known as the center?
In the past, what these guys are typically asked to do is to rebound the ball on defense then dunk it on offense. Don’t worry about passing, shooting, hitting free-throws, or really, anything else. Just be a beast in the paint. That’s all you got to do.
Though, what we’ve seen, not only from the development of the power guard or the hype around small ball basketball, but also from the out-of-control ‘hack-a-whoever’ strategy or from the fact zero traditional big-men were voted in as a starting all-star, is that the traditional role of the big-man is quickly starting to make its way into extinction.
That isn’t to say that the place for the big-man is long gone. That’s obvious with players like DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis and Andre Drummond rising-up as superstars in the league. It’s the role itself.
Just look at the progression of Cousins’ game over the past couple years as an example. This guy has gone from that complete beast in the post, to now a guy who knows how to pass, shoot the three, as well as drive the ball coast-to-coast. Davis, as well, has showed his progression into versatility (although Davis is a special-case when it comes to basketball players).
This is just how the game has gone, and with LeBron, Green and a handful of other smaller guys (in comparison to the traditional big men) moving into the power role and reinventing the game of basketball, in order to stay relevant, big guys need to find a to respond–forcefully develop their game one that fills a type of supply-and-demand that’s been going on.
What it means for the future of the NBA
It’s the era of skill over having the natural physique of being 7 foot nothing, 250+ pound powerhouse. What this means, especially as old-school players continue retire and new-draft picks turn into stars in the NBA, is that there’s going to be a complete shift in how the average fan imagines the prototypical basketball player.
Myself, growing up, I always saw the obstruction of pure height, size and power as the true obstacle for any guy below 6’2 to even be close to consideration as a real basketball player. “You have to be at least 6’5,” is what a kid dreaming to play ball typically hears. And I never doubted it, especially as Yao Ming, Shaq or Dwight Howard were the sort of players that came to my mind as what I thought it meant to be a basketball player.
Yet, now when you see the sort of changes happening, which is spurred by the development of the power-guard, where 6’6″ or 6’7″ guys are actually the biggest guys on the court, then this whole concept of the “basketball prototype” is flipped on its head.
In addition, when you see even smaller guys dominating other positions–think Steph Curry, CJ McCollum or Isiah Thomas–it becomes obvious to understand that the concept of having pure natural physique is not what defines a typical NBA player, its instead the skills and versatility that they can bring. 5’11” and up, it really doesn’t matter, just as long as you can do whatever is needed on the court.
When big guys, who (no offense to these players) go through their lives with a ticket into the NBA in large due to the fact their giants, are forced to step behind the arc and nail a couple threes, or to pass a no-look give-and-go, or to sink free-throws at least 75% of the time, its a fresh change to see as a fan.
Although, a piece of me will miss watching guys dominating in the paint, a larger, more curious side of me wants to see what will happen to the game moving forward. What will happen as kids start to craft their game from seeing Steph Curry sink 3’s from close to half-court, or watching Draymond Green completely shut down guys 5 inches taller and 50 pounds heavier, or sit in awe as you watch Lebron James play point-guard, then only to fly down to defense to block a power forward on the opposing end.
What will happen to the game of basketball when these kids get drafted?