As the NBA has evolved into “pace and space” offense, the utility of the traditional 7-foot center has taken a nosedive. Tall men still make an impact on the floor, but they’re as likely to be running and shooting from the perimeter as posting up near the rim.
This has given rise to a debate over the value of the NBA center. Are big pivots in hibernation, waiting for the next shift in trends, or have they gone the way of the dodo? And how does this relate to the Portland Trail Blazers and their revamped lineup? That’s the subject of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.
There seems to be some discussion about what a team needs in the front lines, length vs. athleticism. Last year the Blazers got killed under the rim, running 6’7” and 6’8” forwards against other teams. It was even cruel to watch. Yet neither of the conference champions, Boston and Golden State, ran large centers for long minutes. Their successful approach was to have speed, athleticism, and teamwork among smaller bigs. What is your perspective on this issue and do you think the Blazers currently can compete against taller front lines?
It’s a hot topic of debate for sure. Ultimately, the question can only be viewed through the lens of other questions.
Who Ya Got?
It’s fine and good to say the Warriors and Celtics excelled this year without bigs, but how and why they managed it matters. Saying that they succeeded without centers is different than saying they succeeded because they were without centers.
Golden State fielded at least three players in their rotation with big defensive chops. Draymond Green is a franchise-changing unicorn. Gary Payton II and Klay Thompson routinely receive praise for their defensive acumen. This allowed the Warriors to bridge the gap between should play defense for 48 minutes to can play defense for 48 minutes.
This is the key to getting along without a backstop. It’s not about your point-of-attack defense up front and blocked shots behind. It’s about reading the floor and making rotations quickly enough that every play is covered, adding enough intimidation factor on the tail end that you can actually disrupt the ball-holder when you get there. You don’t need five great defenders to make this work, but having three sure helps. Plus your non-defenders need be athletic enough to cover space (and buy into the system enough that they’re not de facto sieves).
Obviously it helps that Golden State also fields some of the best shooters the universe has ever known. Not being reliant on drives saves energy. Racking up three points with each shot keeps you in the game when your defense is slipping. Thompson and Steph Curry aren’t comparable to anybody else in the league in this respect. Having Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole as back-up plans doesn’t hurt.
Boston’s story is a little different, but note that they feature two transcendent forwards in Jason Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Brown, Al Horford, and Marcus Smart are known as apt defenders. They also follow that “three pillars, everybody else buys in, and make sure you can score big” approach.
Do the Trail Blazers have that kind of lineup? The answer is a definite maybe. They certainly have huge scoring potential in Damian Lillard and Anfernee Simons. Payton is now a part of their roster, along with Jerami Grant. Nassir Little has the potential to turn into a very good defender. I’m not sure if any of them are elite. They certainly need time to develop and gel. Portland’s lesser defenders also need to catch the spark. It’s going to be a work in progress.
In the meantime, the straw that will stir the drink for Portland’s defense at first will be Jusuf Nurkic. He is mobile and active enough to fill gaps left by the perimeter defenders. At times, he’s been Portland’s best defensive option. I expect him to resume that role as the season starts this year. But the premise of this question assumes that Nurkic isn’t there. If that’s the case, I expect the Blazers will have trouble filling his shoes, even if some other teams are playing relatively center-free.
Who Are You Facing?
A few NBA teams field elite centers: Denver, Philadelphia, probably Minnesota with their two-headed “Katbert” hydra now. One can certainly argue that nobody can defend those All-NBA-level players, even with other 7-footers. Just because you have a center doesn’t mean you can match up with Nikola Jokic or Joel Embiid.
The lack of post productivity in the modern era bolsters the argument for a non-traditional approach. Even the best centers don’t back opponents down anymore. A 6’7 defender can sometimes bother mid-range jumpers and three-pointers more effectively than a huge guy could, just because they can get out there quicker.
Even taking all that into account, centers aren’t useless yet. Rebounding becomes an issue when playing small against opposing pivots. Coaches are likely to alter the game plan if they know you have nobody over 6’8 in the lineup. It’s not like Jokic and Embiid are allergic to three-foot shots. Throw out a 6’7 forward against them from the tip and they’re going to adjust.
Stop and look at the other side of the coin, too. Playing a lumbering 7-footer never gave teams much of an advantage, but skilled centers have generally found a way to make an impact. With more teams going small, a reasonably good pivot has more opportunities to exploit. “Our guy may not be the league MVP, but you know what? Tonight he can probably score on you.”
The Blazers probably won’t make Nurkic the focus of their offense, but the idea of giving him away just to go smaller doesn’t make sense. He has the ability to pass over, if not score over, smaller defenders. Portland won’t need that for 48 minutes, but even 8 minutes of advantage ball could turn a game. Why would you not want that option in your arsenal when the rest of the league is starving for bigs?
When Are You Playing?
Unless an advantage is clear and consistent, it’s likely to pay more dividends during the regular season than in the playoffs. The game changes when the opponent has nothing to think about for two weeks except exploiting your weaknesses.
If the Blazers had Draymond Green, we’d be having a different conversation. Unless they replaced Nurkic with a player of that caliber, I’d be nervous about running up against the Nuggets or Timberwolves in the post-season, starting the series with a size disadvantage.
The idea would be to “best of both worlds” it. There’s nothing to say that Portland can’t acquire or develop players to fit the “6’7, play every position” mold. They could run different lineups, supplanting their traditional center at intervals while still keeping him actively involved for the matchup advantages he provides. At the point they found themselves going small for major swaths of the game—and in every critical situation—then a more permanent transition might be in order.
For now, though, I think your initial concern is warranted. Portland can probably get away with their current frontcourt as long as Nurkic is healthy and plays reasonably well. If he comes out flat—or worse, gets injured—the Blazers are going to have a hard time compensating with the players currently on the roster. There’s just not enough talent and size in the same packages to take them where they want to go.
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