Gone are the days of NBA teams desperately seeking and needing a dominant 7-foot big man in order to compete for a championship. The dominance of big men was glorified with the exploits of Wilt Chamberlain, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, and Bill Walton. These giants are now more of a commodity than a necessity in today’s game.
Don’t confuse the sentiment, if a possibly dominant big man is available to any team in the league they will trip over their rapidly accelerating feet trying to snatch him up. Often, the teams look foolish and attain more of a bust than a bruiser in the paint (see: Michael Olowokandi). The lure of a big man is irresistible, because the potential greatness far outweighs the possible ordinariness that is just as likely. A dominant center in the low post offers far more possibilities than a great shooter or slasher.
Just looking at the championship winners of the past couple of decades, the teams with dominant or near-dominant bigs have escaped with more than a couple of victories (Lakers, Spurs, Heat, Celtics). There are notable exceptions: the Jordan led Bulls, Kobe’s Lakers, and Isaiah’s Pistons were all guard vital teams.
The position of center has undergone many changes in the tide, from purely a defensive specialist, to an offensive oriented dominator, back to a defensive authority who alters shots. With Shaquille O’Neal having his career winding down, Tim Duncan on the other side of 30, and Yao Ming’s future in more doubt than Phillip Seymour Hoffman, the titans of the past decade are crumbling into exquisitely adequate versions of their former selves.
Now, young guns and wannabes have lined up at the starting gate and are attempting to inherit the gigantic position left by these leviathans of the game. These players, not always the classically trained types, these raw physical specimens are not always teetering on 7-feet or are lacking in offensive skill now graze on inferior opponents around the league. Instead they are hyper-athletic behemoths whose raw athleticism and power allows them to dominate their more standard opponents.
Gargantuan colossuses like Dwight Howard and Amar’e Stoudemire simply impose their will onto the game on both ends of the court (more so for Amar’e than Dwight). They head the list of future big men who shift the outcome of the game or already have in their own unique way (Al Horford, Andrew Bynum, Greg Oden, Kendrick Perkins, Nene, Chris Kaman, and on a good day, Tyson Chandler).
In the development of a big man, the defensive part comes most naturally and appears first in their repertoire. It is a skill harnessed through the depths of high school auditoriums and gymnasiums, battling the opposing lineups averaging 6’3” across the board with little to no game. Of course they dominate offensively, but who wouldn’t when you can touch the rim flat-footed facing boys half your size. The list of big men is comprised mostly of early entries into the draft from high school, following the precedent set by KG and Moses.
That speaks more to the unexpectedness and potential latent nature of high school prospects and big men in a broader sense. It is like choosing from an assorted chocolate mix: sometimes it’s going to be a delicious and wonderful choice, others it’s going to be vomit inducing. That is because a big man’s game isn’t necessarily transferrable from one stage of basketball to another, like a point or shooting guard. A player can always hustle and drive to the bucket with reckless abandon and be an excellent passer. However, a big man will not always be 6” taller than his nearest competitor and he is then forced to rely on moves he hasn’t necessarily perfected at the lower levels (Tim Duncan did).
In recent years, teams have been hesitant to draft the biggest big man in the draft purely based on his height. This is a reverse of the 90’s mentality that turned some teams into more of a freak show than a basketball franchise. Teams selected guys like Manute Bol, Gheorghe Muresan, and Shawn Bradley because they all towered above 7’6”. Their freakish height attracted teams like moths to a light, ultimately ending in the death of their championship chances.
But perhaps slightly undersized big men are inheriting the throne soon to be vacant by the giants of the past decade. Dwight Howard is often the first name to appear in any discussion of big men of the future. He is already adept at defensive dominance and possesses a shot altering capability that causes second-guessing frequently in the head of the opponents. His thunderous slams have earned him slam-dunk competition awards and incite the Orlando fanatics into frenzy. He is still lacking the mastery of the offensive side of the ball, usually inept at anything more than an alley-oop or put back dunk.
Amar’e Stoudemire is another sheer specimen of physical dexterity and unadulterated power that scares as much as it excites. Even though he is a natural power forward, in every sense of the position, he is forced at times to play center because of the lack of an adequate big man in Phoenix. There is no player that is capable of stopping Amar’e in the league, including Howard (who is not a great one-on-one defender). His deafening dunks are things of legend and have earned him spots in dunk contests. His combination of quickness and muscle has allowed him to dominate, only being thwarted by his unfortunate injury plagued body.
Neither of these men tower above 7’ but their style of play and athleticism enables them to be the dominant big men of their generation. They signal a shift from the typical need of a seven-foot monster to a contemporary fetish of having physical power forwards stepping up to fill the center void. Their nimbleness pooled with their strength permits them to battle with the big boys, and more often than not, come out on the winning end of the mêlée.