Once upon a time, if you were the tallest kid in the team, you had to stay near the basket and guard that piece of territory with your life. Those were the hard-and-fast rules.
Centers made their living, and eventually made a name for themselves, by patrolling the shaded lane. From the very start, dominant giants had ruled the NBA world from the painted area. Centers would claim majority of the MVP awards in the early decades of the NBA – a total of 15, in fact, by the defense-minded Bill Russell, the bulldozing Wilt Chamberlain and the sky-hooking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Russell would win 11 championships in 13 years and pick up five MVPs along the way. Chamberlain would grab two championships, four MVPs, seven scoring titles and provide some of the greatest statistical monuments in basketball history. Scoring a near-impossible 100-point game; posting a 50.4-point average in 1961-62; and an incredible career average of 30.1 points and 22.9 rebounds. For his part, Kareem would take six championships, six MVPs and the record for most career points ever (which still stands till now).
The NBA would go on to reward MVPs to the rim-bending, backboard-smashing, bone-crushing centers and other bigs who patrolled the shaded lane. These would include – aside from the 3 earlier mentioned giants who collected 15 awards – such bullying behemoths as Bob Pettit (’56, ’59), Wes Unseld (’69), Willis Reed (’70), Dave Cowens (’73), Bob McAdoo (’75), Bill Walton (’78), Moses Malone (’79, ’82, ’83), Hakeem Olajuwon (’94), Dave Robinson (’95), Karl Malone (’97, ’99), Shaq O’Neil (’00), Tim Duncan (’02, ’03) and Kevin Garnett (’04). Deserving MVPs, all.
And then Dirk Nowitzki came along.
In 2007, Dirk became the last big man to annex the NBA’s coveted Maurice Podoloff trophy, given to the Most Valuable Player (MVP) of the regular season. But Dirk was a different type of big man.
At 7 ft 0 in, Dirk was a versatile scorer, making a living not only from inside the perimeter, but with his accurate outside sniping and his trademark fade-away running shot. It was his consistency at the 3-point area that would cause a significant change in the big man’s game today.
Thanks largely to Dirk Nowitzki, the modern 7-footer is no longer bound by old conventions. Freed from the tradition that constrained big men of yesteryears, empowered to explore the full range of their abilities, and living in a new world of ‘positionless’ ball, today’s big men are evolving before our eyes.
One of basketball’s oldest truism – that the best shots are those taken closest to the basket – is now seriously challenged by the shattering bomb that is the three-pointer, plus the growing influence of game analytics. And these have somehow influenced the emergence of the new bigs.
Today’s bigs have started arming themselves with diverse, new skill sets. They have developed a hybrid game that has evolved from the creative freedom they have been granted.
Sure. They still patrol the shaded lane defensively. Using their height and heft to deny the enemy access to the shaded lane. But offensively, today’s bigs have been spotted prancing around the perimeter launching 3-point artillery bombs, or leading the charge downcourt as only point guards should, and flicking that incredulous no-look assist to a wide-open teammate. Today’s biggies are endowed with the athleticism, the speed and the skill sets, aside from the size to make a more complete player.
Marc Gasol, having entered the NBA scene in the last decade, has been wowing us with his passing wizardry and his occasional outside pops. Ditto with Brook Lopez and his 3-point missile attacks. Blake Griffin has extended his range to the 3-point territory.
But today’s pace-and-space is bringing in more new versatile stars such as Nikola Jokic, Nikola Vucevic, Kristaps Porzingis, Joel Embiid and Karl Anthony Towns. College and high school bigs are now emulating these modern-day role models and refusing to be confined to the imaginary box near the baseline. Today, everyone wants to be skilled and ready for ‘positionless’ ball.
Indeed, it will be fascinating to watch the progression of our new bigs. For the bolder and more agile ones, learning point guard or wing-man skills will be the ultimate challenge. It’s a whole new world of basketball out there. There’s a new horizon, with small-ball, and pace-and-space, and positionless ball, injecting a new excitement with lots of innovation and fun in this dynamic game.