NBA Roundup: The Bigs are back in town

At the halfway point of the last season, when Golden State’s ultra-small Lineup of Death was averaging 53.5% from 3-point range and outscoring opponents by 47.0 points per 100 possessions, a narrative emerged that Curry — Thompson — Iguadola — Barnes — Draymond Green represented the future of the NBA. With no member standing taller than 6ft8, the Death Lineup was the culmination of small-ball trends started by Mike D’antoni’s mid-2000s Phoenix Suns and extrapolated by the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs in the early 2010s. It rendered traditional big men— usually incapable of moving fast enough on the perimeter to match with guys like Curry and Klay — stranded and obsolete. It made quick-switching forwards, like Tristan Thompson and Paul Millsap, exponentially more valuable for their ability to defend the perimeter. It took advantage of the basic mathematics of 3 being greater than 2. And it gave rise to an argument among NBA pundits and fans that the traditional big-man of the NBA — your Kevin Loves, Marc Gasols, Tim Duncans — was on his way to obsolescence.

So it’s been a joy to watch in the opening week of the 2016–17 NBA season as a host of performances firmly rebuke that narrative.

Fear the Brow

In his first two games of the season, Anthony Davis averaged 47.5 points, 16.5 rebounds, 4 assists, 4.5 steals, and 3 blocks. Those numbers are not human. As Serge has extensively documented in his own posts, those numbers look more like the coordinates of buried treasure than an NBA statline. Having spent the last half of the 2015–16 season on the sidelines with a shoulder injury, it has been a relief to watch as AD massacres opposing teams all over the court. Of course, the Pelicans are 0–3, underscoring the extent to which the supporting cast around him is just utterly insufficient — Brow outscored the rest of his tea by 7 in their season opener against the Nuggets. We’re hopping on the #FreeBrow train hard, because a player this good should not be on a Pelicans team this bad. Unless their only viable trade option is Golden State, in which case he should stay right where he is.

Gasol Buckets

It’s so good to have Marc Gasol back in the NBA after fracturing his foot last February. When healthy, he’s unquestionably the most versatile Centre in the NBA — capable of dropping threes, brilliant passing out of the post, and bullying his opponents in the paint on both offense and defense. So it was great to watch the meaner Gasol bully the Washington Wizards all of Sunday night, going 4 of 6 from deep and pick up a nice 20/10 on 43% shooting. Memphis looked a shell of themselves last year when him and Conley were out, and Gasol’s versatility and grit are key to the Grizzlies’ chances in both the regular and postseasons. He may be taking threes now, but don’t expect that to mean that he’ll be any less mean in the paint.

KAT’s on the Prowl

Last year, Karl Anthony Towns put up one of the best rookie seasons in the history of big men, easily winning ROY honours and creating a sense of excitement around the Timberwolves that hasn’t existed since they drafted Kevin Garnett in 1995. In an incredible long-form for CBS last April, Zach Harper put into perspective just how good that season was:

Per 100 possessions, he’s scoring 28.6 points, grabbing 16.5 rebounds and blocking 2.7 shots. Three rookies have done that in NBA history: Towns, Shaq and Duncan. Throw in Towns’ 3.1 assists per 100 possessions and it’s just Duncan and Towns. Add in Towns’ 1.1 steals per 100 possessions, and it’s just him all alone since 1973–74, which is as far back as Basketball-Reference goes for this stuff. If straight per-game numbers are your thing, he’s the 26th rookie to average 18 points and 10 rebounds. Filter it with his 54 percent from the field and it’s back to just him, Shaq and Duncan. Swap out field goal percentage for true shooting percentage (59.1 percent) and it’s just him and David Robinson.

Over the summer, Sam Mitchell was replaced by Tom Thibideau, who’s added defensive intensity and a to-the-barricades attitude to a team that was already being spiritually molded in the image of the fanatically competitive Garnett. Towns seems to fit into that mold just fine: he’s sporting the traditional Thibs-like 36.5 minutes a game, and has put up 21/4/5 and 15/6/4 in the Wolves’ opening losses to Memphis and Sacramento. In both of those games, he was lined up against elite NBA centers in Marc Gasol and DeMarcus Cousins. In both games, there were moments where he made them look like they were defending blindfolded:

I don’t think that Minnesota will make the playoffs this year — they’ll be a lot better than last year, but not better than Houston or Memphis. But Towns will only continue to improve alongside Andrew Wiggins and (should he ever figure out how to shoot a basketball) new rookie Kris Dunn.

Trust The Process

I love Joel Embiid. I’m so happy that he’s playing basketball and that his ceiling appears to be as terrifying high as we’d hoped it would be. He’s still on a minutes restriction, but has scored 34 points in 37 minutes on the court against OKC and Atlanta, averaged 40% from the arc, and generally looked capable of defending and attacking from anywhere. He’s very clearly still learning, and his positional play still has tons of room for improvement, but Philly also appears to have their franchise player. He’s also so clearly a disciple of Sam Hinkie and a believer in #TheProcess, and also an extremely astute basketball mind. Mostly, though, he’s proven terrifyingly hard to guard, moves as quickly as a 6ft7 wing despite being a 7ft2 centre, and has the wingspan of a small commercial aircraft. Philly will still be bad this year, but it seems like there’s finally a light at the end of the Process’s tunnel that isn’t just an oncoming train.

Dwight Howard is large. Joel Embiid is larger.

I can’t wait for the Wolves-Sixers 7-game Finals series in 2022. And I can’t wait until a victorious Embiid rips his jersey off to reveal “Hinkie Died for Our Sins” tattooed across his chest.

Golden State’s Logjam

Golden State are 2–1 to start the season, but it doesn’t feel like a good 2–1. They got blown out by San Antonio in their season opener, beat New Orleans in a way that felt neither comfortable nor laboured, and spent much of their 106–100 victory against Phoenix on Sunday night on the strugglebus. For all the shots the terrifying combination of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant can hit, they’ve failed to seize any of their games by the throat in the way that this team so often did last year. The brilliance of their offensive potential has been matched only by how lacklustre they’ve looked on defense, and the frontcourt is a big part of the reason why.

To make the Durant deal work, the Dubs dumped salary in the offseason and let go of both Andrew Bogut (via trade to Dallas) and Festus Ezeli (via free agency to Portland), bringing in Zaza Pachula (from Dallas), David West (from San Antonio), and Javale McGee (from his day-job as plurality shareholder of Shaqtin A Fool Ltd.) on cheap deals. While Pachulia was great for Milwaukee (and for Dallas in stretches) and West remains a ferociously competitive centre, both represent a significant downgrade from the post-patrolling presence of Bogut and the versatility of Ezeli, and it shows in their defensive stats. In their first three games, Golden State’s rebounding differentials are -20, 0, and -7, with O-Reb differentials of -13, -3, and -4. More importantly, nobody seems to fear them in the paint, as evidenced by Pachulia and West posting the worst +/- of anyone on the team and Kawhi Leonard repeatedly driving to the rim last Wednesday. They’ll need to figure out how to mitigate the loss of Bogut’s intimidating defense, or else the Four Horsemen will fall well short of the apocalypse that we all expected when Durant moved to San Francisco.

The bottom line

Basketball is back, bigs are playing great, and there’s only eight days of this nightmarish election left. Praise be!

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