The concept of an NBA big man is a fluid one.
While there are a number of shallow talent pools at various positions in sports -- shortstop in baseball and tight end in football immediately come to mind -- one could argue the NBA center holds the least depth. Names like Howard, Gasol, Lopez and Hibbert are all commonly put at the top of the list, with only one (Brook Lopez) cracking the top 15 in league PER.
Will that change?
There were two pieces from SB Nation this week about the ‘big man' in the league, both of which indirectly addressing that key question.
The first came from Peachtree Hoops, an SB Nation affiliate covering the Atlanta Hawks. Author Kris Willis wrote a piece referencing NBA.com's Sekou Smith on center Al Horford's disappointment in the team not landing a ‘classic' center over the summer.
The team did pursue Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum - both of whom battled injuries last season - but weren't able to sign either to contracts. Instead they settled on Elton Brand and Gustavo Ayon to play some backup minutes in the frontcourt.
Horford, while taking issue with how much of a physical toll it is to be the team's only true center, did speak directly to a changing league trend.
"[T]he way that they have portrayed it to me is we're trying to play faster, get up and down the floor and get the pick and roll movement going," Horford said of his role. "It's not the ideal scenario for me, but I have to work with what I have and make the most of it."
The second article, this time from Laker-focused Silver Screen and Roll, looks also at the idea of a new era of big men (or lack thereof), this time in Los Angeles. Ben R, the author of the piece, notes that last year the team tried to "buck the trend" of smaller, more athletic frontcourt players by pairing Howard and Pau Gasol together. Whether it was for coaching reasons or simply personnel fit, the two never meshed well.
The piece continues by looking at other potential players that will likely play roles at the power forward or even center positions in LA, including obvious names like Jordan Hill and less obvious ones like Wesley Johnson.
Ben R's story is a reflection on how, in his words, "traditional roster labels are increasingly obsolete." In short, frontcourt players are becoming classified as "bigs," and their personnel group is a representation of that transition.
The Portland Trail Blazers may be the perfect reflection of this shift. Namely, their best player and All Star LaMarcus Aldridge is at the core of this argument: A center-sized player that plays an outside-in game rather than the other way around.
Like the Hawks, Portland pursued a classic center to alleviate a lot of the defensive and physical pressure put on Aldridge last season. That search landed Robin Lopez, who has been highly regarded in helping Aldridge. Lopez, a true seven-footer, certainly aligns to the stereotypical center with his defensive-oriented approach.
This offseason, though, also landed Thomas Robinson, a similar player to Aldridge physically but much more athletic than Lopez. Albeit still a raw player, Robinson is a closer match to the new-school, athletic big man Silver Screen and Roll and Peachtree Hoops speak to. Even last year's draft pick Meyers Leonard could be grouped into this category with Robinson.
Obviously, Aldridge will get a ton of playing time this season. Where there could be some intrigue, though, is how much pairing of Aldridge and Robinson or Leonard there will be.
With Lopez slated as the starter, Robinson and/or Leonard may not spend a ton of time with LaMarcus. However, those shorts stints of the more athletic frontcourt could provide insight into the future of big men. If the team has success playing with this ‘new school' lineup, you have to think they won't go away from it too easily.
So, to address the aforementioned question, it's not so much that the quality of the position will change. Rather, the league trend seems to show it's the position itself that's changing.
This season in Portland, with the flexibility and depth the roster gives them, will be a great case study into the future of the league's roster makeup.