Celtics coach Doc Rivers would like to know where all the big men have gone.
“There just aren’t a lot of bigs floating around that can play,” Rivers said in one of his pregame chats to reporters earlier this season. “I just think we’re at a time in our lives where, it’s not the death, but there just aren’t a lot of them right now.”
Sure, taller players still exist in the league. The Celtics have four players 6 feet 10 inches or taller. But you can count the number of truly dominant big men in the NBA on one hand.
Toronto’s Andrea Bargnani, the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s NBA Draft, has found most of his success this season from beyond the three-point line. The seven-foot Bargnani shoots almost as well from beyond the arc (35 percent) as he does inside of it (41 percent). Sacramento’s Ron Artest (6 feet 7 inches, 260 pounds), a forward in every definition of the word, often takes the ball up the court for the Kings. And Minnesota’s Kevin Garnett (6 feet 11 inches) is the point man of his team’s full-court pressure.
“This league is definitely changing,” said Celtics point guard Delonte West. “Every night you’re starting to see all guards on the floor. Big men are stepping out and shooting jumpers. You see 6-foot-8 inch guys stepping out and taking threes. It’s definitely changed into a guard’s league.”
Part of the problem, according to San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, is that changes in the rules have made it easier to be a perimeter player.
“There are not a great number of good big guys,” said Popovich, who has one of the league’s best in Tim Duncan. “There are a multitude of small athletes in the league. The rules have helped most of those perimeter guys equalize basketball games.”
Popovich says rules limiting hand-checking have made life easier for perimeter players. Meanwhile, the post continues to be what is has always been: trench warfare.
“The perimeter used to be a lot tougher,” said Popovich. “You hand checked, you guided guys on the court. The defense really hasn’t done the job on the perimeter compared to the job the defense does inside. The much more physical rules don’t seem to be the same inside as they are outside as far as calling fouls and allowing things to happen. This isn’t even close to the way it used to be.”
Tougher rules inside have discouraged bigger players from developing their post games. Instead, even the tallest of NBA prospects are now learning how to dribble between their legs and pull up from three-pointers instead of perfecting their drop-steps.
“Blame Magic (Johnson),” said Rivers. “I’ve always blamed Magic for the fall of the bigs. I tell him that all the time. Because after Magic, every big man wanted to be a guard. They thought they could handle the ball. They’d start shooting jump shots.”
Rivers remembers playing in the McDonald’s game with seven-footer Earl Jones, a journeyman who eventually appeared in 14 NBA games. Rivers, a point guard, said he had to take the ball from Jones to bring it up the court.
“He’s seven feet tall he’s trying to take the ball from me and bring the ball up,” said Rivers. “I said, ‘get your (butt) down into the post’. But that’s what they wanted to do. They’d say, ‘Magic Johnson brings up the ball and he’s 6-9.’ I honestly believe that’s where it all started.”
Beyond the big men, Rivers said the three guard positions are becoming more and more ambiguous.
“I think the one, two, and three have definitely merged,” said Rivers. “There’s no doubt about that. As a coach I think that’s great.”
Rivers stopped short of saying there were no longer positions, but even on his own team, positions have merged. West, one of the team’s best shooters, has also become Boston’s most reliable point guard. Ryan Gomes has recently been switching between the three and the four spots. And Al Jefferson, 6-feet-10 inches and now much lighter than the 254 pounds he is listed at, has become the team’s de facto center.
Still, Rivers sees the current state of the NBA as a transition period rather than an ending point. And with Ohio State’s Greg Oden (7 feet, 280 pounds) waiting in the wings, a new era may be coming sooner rather than later.
“I do think we still have some traditional bigs coming,” said Rivers.