It’s time to show some love to Goliath again.
There is a certain pull that we NBA fans feel in supporting the ‘little guy’, rooting for the smaller underdog instead of the uber-talented dominating giants. The giants have it too easy, we say. The smaller guys have to work harder. What fun is there in cheering for a 7 foot 1, 300 pound monster like Shaq when you could root for the 6 foot nothing 160 pound Allen Iverson? As one of the biggest ever – Wilt Chamberlain – once said, “Everybody pulls for David, nobody roots for Goliath”, big guys from Chamberlain to Abdul-Jabbar to Shaq have always been vilified for being unfairly big. They were physically unreachable and unstoppable on the court, so many of us rooted for someone smaller, someone we could relate to.
But in the last decade, a certain paradigm shift in NBA dominance took place. Centers that made their name in the 90s onwards – Olajuwon, Ewing, Robinson, Mourning, Mutombo, and of course, Shaq – moved on from the game one by one, leaving a big gaping hole in the middle at the Center position for nearly every NBA squad. Players with the height of Centers began to focus more on having a perimeter game following the examples of players like Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki. Once the hand-check rules changed to favour slashing guards, it was over. For 50-60 years prior, NBA history was full of teams hunting for big guys to command attention in the post and lead them to championships. But very quickly, the trend went from ‘finding a big guy to build a team around’ to ‘finding a big guy who isn’t awful’.
Shaq slowed down and then retired, Yao Ming got hampered by injuries and retired, Kwame Brown, Darko Milicic, and Greg Oden were all famous big busts for varied reasons. And just like that, the most talented players in every team became the wing players. Michael Jordan won six championships in the 90s without the help of a dominating offensive big man; since every player since has wanted to ‘Be Like Mike’, superstar talents began to focus on the perimeter instead and teams began to shape their systems around these superstars.
And what happened to the feared Goliaths? Their numbers dwindled, and so did their usefulness, as the remaining big guys who didn’t mind fighting down low in the post started being used primarily for defensive purposes. Last season’s champions Miami Heat had a startlingly awful Center rotation of Joel Anthony, Ronny Turiaf, Dexter Pittman, and Eddy Curry at the ‘5’. Their Finals challengers – the Thunder – could only respond with Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison. Both the Conference Finalists last season used veteran power forwards – Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan – in pseudo-Center roles, because they didn’t have any better options.
Perkins, who may have had a hard time finding a starting spot in the 90s has already been to three NBA Finals in the past five years. Dwight Howard, who still hasn’t mastered post-offence, has been the NBA’s best Center for years almost out of default, because he didn’t have a challenger. Bynum became the second-best after just one healthy season, again only because there was no one except Dwight to try and neutralise him.
Centers with average skills now played at a slightly-above-average level because there is little legitimate competition at their position. Think Joakim Noah (Bulls), Roy Hibbert (Pacers), Spencer Hawes (76ers), DeAndre Jordan (Clippers), JaVale McGee (Nuggets), Ian Mahinmi and newly-added Chris Kaman (Clippers). In many situations, forwards had to play above their size at the Center position just to make up the spot, like Al Horford for the Hawks or the Jazz duo of Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson.
Meanwhile, most of the league’s best players now played a smaller game – even the big ones. The best players became small forwards or point guards. Even power forwards like Bosh, Griffin, and Aldridge started to play with more finesse and less interior toughness to their game.
Nobody was rooting for Goliath anymore, because they were few Goliaths left to root for.
But for the first time in several years, it seems that the big guy is about to make a comeback. The offseason has already been peppered with two of the NBA’s best big Centers – Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum– dominating the headlines. With Howard now in the championship-contending Lakers and Bynum ready to rejuvenate himself as the face of the 76ers, Centers could become relevant again in 2013. Reigning Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler and Spanish Center Marc Gasol have bloomed a little late in their careers but are definitely forces to be reckoned with. The numbers are rising, and a new wave of young giants are about to rekindle the battle in the post again. They may not evoke any memories of the legendary giants of the 90s, but these new guys are at least shifting focus back to the middle again.
DeMarcus Cousins: One of the biggest juggernauts in the NBA. Cousins is on the road to greatness, but only if he figured out how to stop blocking his own road there. The Kings’ Center had a breakout year in his sophomore season and showed why Sacramento took a risk with him despite his ‘questionable’ attitude. Don’t forget that this 6’11” giant just turned 22 and most big guys don’t truly blossom till later. If there is anyone with the pure talent to immediately challenge Howard and Bynum’s supremacy at the Center position, it’s him.
Greg Monroe: Still just 22, Monroe has been quietly improving his game – game by game – and is perhaps just a season away from becoming very, very famous. The Pistons Center hasn’t been receiving the hype that his game deserves because of a losing situation in Detroit, but he has a throwback skill-set that will be trouble for opposing defenders going forward.
Roy Hibbert: In a conference void of healthy big guys, Hibbert, with his relatively humble stats, became an All Star last season. Some may have questioned his place amongst the NBA’s 24 finest players, but no one was questioning him when he made life a little harder for eventual champs Miami in the playoffs. Now riding high on his playoffs performance, Hibbert is sure to return more confident and polished and will aim to lead the Pacers deeper into the postseason.
JaVale McGee: Less than a year ago, he was considered the laughing-stock of the NBA. Then a move from Washington to Denver completely rejuvenated him, and JaVale McGee started playing with the force of a 7-footed super-athlete that he is. He gave the Lakers trouble in the playoffs and the Nuggets rewarded him with a massive contract a few months later. Now, he has spent the off-season working out with the great Hakeem Olajuwon, who has said that “McGee should dominate the NBA”. This season, we’ll find out if this 24-year-old can live up the expectations of Hakeem and of his own contract.
Enes Kanter: Big things were expected of the Turkish Kanter when he was drafted third by the Jazz last season, but playing behind other talented bigs like Jefferson, Millsap, and Derrick Favors probably did him no favours. Kanter only averaged 13 minutes per game and failed to show the world his full arsenal of skills on a consistent basis. As he improves, expect Kanter to finally start getting more minutes and develop into a solid player.
Jonas Valanciunas: Questions aplenty surround this 20-year-old Lithuanian talent who was drafted by the Raptors a year ago but will only suit up for them starting this season. His size (7 foot) and talent is no question, but NBA scouts question his effort. He has been inconsistent in Europe, completely dominating certain championships before quieting down over the past year and being relatively anonymous at the Olympics. There is a big ‘if’ with him – ‘if’ he can handle playing in the NBA – but if he can, he has the talent to be a force in the middle.
Andre Drummond: Another Piston on this list – Drummond, a rookie out of UConn, saw his draft value fall from top three to ninth place, where the Pistons were there to happily snag him. At 19, there are a lot of rough edges to his game, but Detroit will be hoping that they can polish those edges and see him improve alongside Greg Monroe.
Anthony Davis: The number one pick of the draft, and the most-hyped big player to come out in many, many, many years. At 6-foot-10, his position may not be full defined, and he may end up playing most of his career at the power-forward position. But there was no way that I wasn’t going to include him in this list. Davis has the brightest potential of them all, and is one of those rare players who can dominate a game without dominating the stat-sheet. In an especially glittering summer of 2012, Davis won the NCAA’s Most Outstanding Player Award, the Defensive Player of the Year, the Freshman of the Year, the Player of the Year, the NCAA Championship, was the first pick in the NBA Draft, and won a gold medal with the US Olympic team. How can this kid top all that? By making the Hornets relevant again.
And perhaps, making teams that are built around big men relevant again.
Still, it’s a small man’s league, and the Goliaths have been the underdogs for several years now. It’s up to the new wave of youngsters to start crushing the David once more.