Beyond the Arc
Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul- Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, Dikembe Mutumbo, Bill Lambier, Patrick Ewing, Ben Wallace. These are all names of iconic big men that used to be in the NBA. These are tough, down and dirty, gargantuan beasts of basketball. These players had many skills, but were ultimately known for their power. For their ability to control the post, and lock down everything and anything down low. They were the clean up crew. The guys grabbing 10+ rebounds a game, and putting it back up for a dangerous dunk. These were the type of guys that struck fear into most opposing players, and kept anyone from going low to probably get blocked by them. Or those same opponents would open up a lane because no one wanted to get in the way of these freight trains. Big men used to bring a certain swagger to the game. They produced a tough, no bullshit culture to the sport. The NBA used to be packed with these behemoths. My question is, where are those guys now?
I only mentioned a few names of legendary big men earlier, there used to be countless. The culture in the NBA has changed over the last 15 years or so. The league is gravitating away from the big and strong playstyle, to a more finesse focused style of play. In today’s game, guys like Steph Curry are the most successful by skill related play more than power. If we take a close look at even most of the “big men” in the league today. Check out Anthony Davis for instance. The guy is a star center, but a lot of his game comes from skill. His dribbling, passing and especially shooting is impeccable. It relates more to the game of a shooting guard than a center. There are other like him, such as Boogie Cousins and Nikola Jokic. Or Ben Simmons, and Joel Embiid who ironically play for the same team. They have the size of a big men but can both play like a forward or even guard. I think Embiid is one of the last big men left, but still isn’t 100% committed to that role. LeBron James is 6’8, Kevin Durant is 6’9, and Giannis Antetokounmpo is 6’11. They have relative size to that of some of the classic big men, but are forwards and sometimes even point guards on the court.
The NBA is a versatile league now. Big men play small, small guys play big. Russell Westbrook is a point guard and is arguably one of the toughest guys in the league. Even focus from fans today is mostly on scoring and big shots. Wide open, clearly visible crazy shots and lay ins. Fans appreciate fancy slams in dunk contests or open break aways. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I miss seeing Shaq grab a rebound, go straight up with sheer power, and rock the rim. I want to see Ben Wallace fly from the baseline and swat a lay-up. I want to see the grittiness and physicality of Bill Lambier. Big men were a dime a dozen, but started to die out in the Dwight Howard era. I want to say the new class of guys is revitalizing the category of big men, but really they are just few of the surviving members.
There are a few current athletes who keep the legacy alive. To a slight extent, Joel Embiid is one. He has the attitude and build of a big man, with the play of one, with more skill. Despite his size, (and my own personal hate for his Donkey from Shrek lookin ass), Draymond Green also has those same qualities. If you look at guys I mentioned like Shaq, Lambier, and Ewing, you can draw some key parallels between their own swagger and attitude to that of Embiid and Green. I feel that the attitude is half the battle of a big man. You have to look the part, play the part, but also act the part too. Those classic guys knew they were it. They understood that they were strong, fear inducing badasses. They played with a confidence that I see in Embiid and Green. Some call it dirty, some call it unnecessary, but some call it bonafide toughness. Someone that gets overlooked that I think is today’s truest definition of a big man is Steven Adams of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Adams is a charismatic, well respected 7 footer. He stays down low, protects and attacks the post with force. He sets screens, and moves so well off the ball for a guy his size. He is a defensive presence that is hard to ignore. On the court, he shows that swagger and charisma, but not to the point where it’s annoying. He’s just physical and great at his craft. I think if more guys like him enter the league, then the extinction of big men can be avoided. We need players who don’t care about bumping out to the 3pt line and attempting a shot. Dudes who box out and focus on the rebound or the putback. Guys who strongly finish that play before setting sights on the next. Centers and power forwards who don’t avoid a charge, but welcome it. That is what we need, it just seems to be lost today. There other guys who have some of those same traits, but just simply aren’t as skilled as the Russell’s and O’Neal’s of the world. Guys like Marcin Gortat and DeAndre Ayton who play like big men, but just don’t have the ability to excel the way elite players like Shaq did. Shaq won 4 finals and was a finals MVP, and we haven’t seen something like that since.
Another issue, is officiating. Referees do not let as much go as they used to. Maybe, that’s a good thing, but I see it as a heaping lump of “soft” culture. A vintage punch from Lambier wouldn’t be a personal foul anymore, it would be an ejection. Talking smack to each other on the court has become a reason for people to get split up on the court today, when guys used to body slam each other as a block back in the day. Part of that definitely is on the players for baiting calls and not allowing plays to continue themselves. Though referees are way to protective, and prevent big men from being able to truly flourish. Over the years, we see that in every sport, not just basketball. I think that is society as a whole, but I’ll keep politics out of this. If big men are going to make a comeback, they have to be allowed to.
I’m not saying the NBA has become soft, but it does seem to be adopting the same stigma as soccer for being “soft”. Seeing flops and over dramatic reactions like ones we see form James Harden, put a bad view on the game. I still love the game today, and find it to be very entertaining still, but for the manly man, I get not having much reason to watch anymore. There are guys like LeBron Giannis who can electrify a crowd with an inane dunk, but no sky scrapers today with as much attention. To this day, there are still no sky scrapers with the undeniable lethal combination of size, strength, power, skill, grit, attitude, and stardom that we’ve seen in the past. I truly hope to see that again some day, before the days of the big man don’t exist anymore.