I’m going to start this off with a clarification: No, this is not a pro-Houston Rockets piece, however it was inspired by their recent success.
A few days before the trade deadline, the Rockets traded their starting center, Clint Capela, their backup center, Nene, and a first round pick for Robert Covington, Bruno Caboclo and a 2023 second round pick. Just looking at those names coming and going seems like the Rockets took a massive loss in this trade, but when you look deeper and see they don’t have any starting-caliber centers, it just looks worse.
Shortly after the trades, the Rockets announced they would not look into trading for another center, but instead make PJ Tucker their starting center. Tucker is 6’5″, while the average NBA center is about 6’11”. For those unaware, that is a huge difference, and was previously thought to be a huge disadvantage.
But PJ Tucker is a different breed of small-man big, as he’s proven throughout his career. Take the 2018 Warriors-Rockets Western Conference Finals, for instance. Due to Clint Capela’s lack of defensive ability against the Warriors bigs, Tucker was often the one guarding Kevin Durant or Draymond Green, and guarded them well. But that was just a few possessions in one series, not every position in every game.
But it’s working!
Ever since the deal that sent the Rockets’ centers packing, they are 6-2, with four wins against playoff teams. They are averaging 119.9 point per game in those eight games, and are only giving up 112 points per game, almost an 8 point difference. And all but two teams are poised for the playoffs right now.
That’s only a one point increases offensively, but now they’re giving up two less points on defense, so because of the trades, they have pretty much given themselves a three point boost per game.
This success led me to this question: Is this the final phaseout of the traditional big man in the NBA?
There have been two significant moments in NBA history in which the traditional, post-up big man’s role had been decreased. One was the invention of the three point line and the other was the addition of three point specialists.
The three point line was put in in 1979, and for the first four years after it was invented it was a traditional big man that won the MVP award, with Moses Malone winning the last two of those four. But in the 37 years since Malone won his last MVP award, only nine traditional big men have won it (I did not count Dirk Nowitzki, did count Kevin Garnett). The last one was Kevin Garnett in the 2003-04 season. And yes, teams did shoot 30%+ from three in the early years of the three pointer.
The second big phaseout is less of an event and more of gradual movement. Over the years, naturally, the three pointers attempted per game, and each team is currently averaging 32.8 three point attempts per game. From 207-2012, each team attempted 18 threes per game on average. Now, in 2020, teams are attempting 15 more three pointers. And that’s largely because of two guys: Stephen Curry and Mike D’Antoni.
From the 1994-95 season to the 2011-12 season, the three point attempts only increased by three, from 15 per game to 18 per game. In the 2012-13 season, it was up to 20 three a game, and that was the year Steph Curry started bombing from deep.
Mike D’Antoni coached the Lakers that year, and they shot the third most threes per game among NBA teams. Almost all of D’Antoni’s teams since have been top five in three point attempts, especially these last few years with the Rockets. And obviously, Steph (along with players like Damian Lillard and James Harden) has led the three point revolution the past 7 years or so.
The last point: Teams have been doing this already.
Look at the Golden State Warriors the last five years! None of their starting lineups had anyone taller than 6’10”, and the only traditional big they had was Kevon Looney, who they only had in the 2018-19 season.
This season, teams started the season without a traditional big, like the Celtics and Heat. The Celtics are largely playing small ball, with their only traditional big being Enes Kanter. The Heat start Bam Adebayo at the center position, with Bam standing at 6’9″. Other teams are succeeding really well without a post-up type center. The Clippers and the Nuggets are also great examples of small ball and a non-traditional big.
And, of course, the Rockets. The way they’re going, they will end up with a top three seed and not have to play the Lakers until the Western Conference Finals. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey showed once again that he is a step ahead of the game, since he figured out a way for Russell Westbrook and James Harden to coexist on a winning team.
This Capela trade really shows the genius of Morey. Westbrook had been playing poorly the first few months of the season, with terrible efficiency. And even though there were rumors of Westbrook being moved, Morey decided to go all in on the Rockets’ style of play. Trading Capela unlocked the full potential of Westbrook, and very explosive wing player.
And I predict that the future of the NBA will be like that. Teams getting rid of their traditional bigs so that the more explosive wing players have room to operate. While guys like Joel Embiid and Rudy Gobert will always have a place in the league, most of the future teams will most likely feature wing players with centers that can stretch the floor, and shooters in the corners or opposite wings.
Aka the Clippers’ and Rockets’ style of play will eventually transfer to all other 28 teams in the NBA. The future of the NBA is all about slashers and shooters, which usually make great combinations.
Photo: USA Today Sports