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NBA finals: the return of the giants

2020-09-30T17:53:40.483Z

For decades, great players dominated basketball. Then they threatened to fall victim to the evolution of the sport. But the "Big Men" adapted and will now be decisive in the NBA Finals.



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Anthony Davis (center) is in the NBA Finals with the LA Lakers.

He embodies the latest development of the "Big Man"

Photo: Mark J. Terrill / AP

Those who have grown tall have an advantage in basketball.

This is obvious in this sport, in which a ball has to land in a basket that is three feet high in the air.

Red Auerbach, who won nine NBA titles as a coach and seven more as a manager with the Boston Celtics, put this principle in a nutshell: "You can't train size," is a quote from the coaching legend. 

Auerbach alluded to his protégé Bill Russell and his long-time rival Wilt Chamberlain.

The two centers produced statistics in the 1960s that seem grotesquely good by today's standards, and won one title after another.

Due to their success in this early basketball era, the competition quickly realized: The most important thing is a big, strong player in the middle who should protect the basket and overcome the opponents. 

Over the years this stereotype fell victim to the evolution of the sport.

Instead of strength and sheer size, speed and accuracy from a distance were increasingly preferred.

For a while, classic "big men" even seemed threatened with extinction.

But they survived by adapting to their changed surroundings.  

Today it's all about the big players in basketball, as was the case recently in the semi-finals of the NBA playoffs.

There Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets dueled with Anthony Davis of the Los Angeles Lakers, they were formative players on their teams.

Davis should also be this when his Lakers start the final series against Miami Heat tonight (3 p.m. / Stream: Dazn).

With his versatility, Davis is the perfect symbol for the evolution of the great players, whose supremacy was almost unchallenged in the first four decades of the NBA.

With smaller players such as the guards Jerry West or Oscar Robertson, there were also prominent professionals in other positions in the sixties and seventies, but these were always overshadowed by the "big men".

That only changed at the turn of the millennium. 

In the first 44 years since the MVP award was introduced, a power forward or center was voted NBA's Most Valuable Player 30 times - until the 1999/2000 season when Shaquille O'Neal received the award.

Then it went the other way around: in the following 20 seasons, the trophy went to a "Big Man" only six times.

The reasons can be read from the history of the rules. 

Icon: enlarge

Breakers like Shaquille O'Neal (center) are no longer needed in basketball

Photo: 

CHRIS CARLSON / AP

Several rules have been introduced over the years to favor basket-facing building play for smaller players.

For example, the zone has been expanded several times, i.e. the area under the basket in which you are only allowed to stay for a limited time.

In addition, the handchecking rule was introduced in 2004, which banned it from touching the player with the ball - once a popular method of defensive specialists such as Scottie Pippen from the Chicago Bulls.

It became more and more difficult to prevent dribbling with the ball or the pull to the basket. 

Three is more than two 

The most important change took place in the 1979/1980 season, when the three-point line was played for the first time.

In retrospect, it took a surprisingly long time for the NBA strategists to realize that threesomes are more lucrative from a certain success rate than most regular attempts to throw closer to the basket, which only bring two points.

But in the end, the realization prevailed, also accelerated by successful pioneers such as Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash.

(Read here a data analysis on the change in basketball due to the three-point rule)

In the new millennium, however, the old school did not find any new students.

"Shaq" was the last, after that there was no center of its kind for a long time. It was also more difficult to imitate than the two Power Forwards Nowitzki and Kevin Garnett, who showed the new generation of modern basketball. The German became a model with his Distance throws, which other "Big Men" have recently added to their repertoires. Garnett reached new dimensions defensively: he had the strength and size for the game under the basket, but was also nimble enough to work on the line of three.

During the noughties, "Big Men" tried more and more from a distance, but it was only in the past decade that the influence of players like Nowitzki on the next generation of great players became really noticeable: The proportion of three-pointers in all attempts from the field increased dramatically :

Nowitzki's offensive and Garnett's defense resulted in a vision that was realized between 2011 and 2014 in Miami, when LeBron James (2.06 meters) and Chris Bosh (2.11 meters) joined the then heat star Dwyane Wade.

Coach Erik Spoelstra, who also oversees Miami in the finals this season, experimented with lineups in which James, as a tall small forward, was the biggest player in the team - or the second biggest behind Bosh.   

One "smallball" update chases the next 

In such a constellation, all five players on the three-line had to be covered, which resulted in a lot of space towards the basket.

Miami was fast, athletic and accurate from a distance and was still able to defend the basket thanks to James and Bosh.

"Smallball" was invented - this is how the line-up was called when there was no real center on the field. 

Just two years after the last Miami title with James, Wade and Bosh, the evolution of the "Big Men" took the next big step.

In the 2014/2015 season, the Golden State Warriors suddenly shot to the top of the NBA.

The starting point for the Warriors style of play were Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, two exceptionally talented three-shooters.

The third key player was the "Big Man" Draymond Green, at 1.98 meters just about as tall as Michael Jordan. Nevertheless, he was valuable because of his game intelligence: as a passer, in space play and occasionally with threesomes. 

Defensively, Green was the main player in Golden States three championships.

He positioned himself wisely, avoided fouls and was able to react to every change of cover.

There was no opponent who was too big at the same time, but who could keep up with Green's pace.

The NBA responded with a three-point revolution.

Suddenly everyone wanted to play like Golden State: fast and with a lot of threesomes. 

Davis is the sign of a new era 

The figurehead for this approach is Mike D'Antoni, who trained the Houston Rockets until a few weeks ago.

During the season Houston had gone "all in", at the start of the knockout round there was not a single center in the squad. That turned out to be a mistake, because in the second round the Rockets faced an impossible task: The latest development stage of the " Big Man, ”played by Anthony Davis of the Lakers. 

Davis is proof that Red Auerbach was right with his quote.

He is about four inches taller than Draymond Green or any Rockets player who was opposed to him in Houston's 4-1 defeat.

At the same time, the 27-year-old is a reliable distance shooter, especially in the playoffs.

He finished second in the Defender of the Year election and has almost no weak points.

Davis can throw like Nowitzki and defend like Garnett.

What comes after the insight that versatility, distance throws and speed are the most important attributes for NBA professionals in modern basketball?

True, it is even better if these players are bigger than the rest on top of that.

Because this advantage cannot be trained. 

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Source: spiegel

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