The NBA has gone to a small ball look, while some teams refuse to adapt. As the NBA continues to evolve the game will always change, but it is clear if you look at the past 5-7 years that the era of 2 big men is over.
Let’s start by going back to when this first became a thing. Most people will point to the 2014-15 season and the Warriors and others to the start of true stretch 4’s, but really it was 2 years before that. During the 2013 Miami Heat run to the finals and the great shot by Ray Allen, there was actually a single shot/play that would change the game more than anyone realized. The Heat were playing the Pacers in an incredible battle. With 2.2 left in overtime, the Heat had the ball down 1. LeBron James got the ball, drove to the hoop and scored with ease, upsetting every Pacers’ fan.
After the play, one thing was noticed by everyone, Frank Vogel did not have Hibbert in the game as the rim protector like hed been all year. Vogel got killed for this decision, but the Heat had done something that would change the NBA. Chris Bosh in at center and LeBron in at PF made an impossible choice for Vogel. Bosh was a great mid-range shooter (.529 from 16 feet-3pt arc), with Hibbert in the game he would struggle to keep up with Bosh, and likely would’ve had to sit in the lane. It would have left Bosh open and that was something Indiana couldn’t do. On top of that, they couldn’t have David West at the 4, because LeBron would blow right by him (something he ended up doing to PG anyway). So Vogel did what if you think about it was logical, put your best defender on LeBron and force him to make a play with 2.2 left, rather than leave a wide-open Bosh. The Pacers were in a lose-lose. Either no rim protector or an open shooter that was shooting over 50% from 16 feet.
Fast forward a year, and MANY teams started to adopt this strategy, over 50% of the NBA had players playing the “4” that shot above 38% from 3 and were mobile. Teams that didn’t were forced into situations of there PF’s getting blown by. It had proven to be an issue on defense. Then teams started making it an issue on offense as well. Teams would sag in the lane, and we started seeing more zones (Brad Stevens) designed to clog up the center if teams did not have enough shooting on the perimeter. Stars now would have a tougher time creating with the lane clogged. This forced teams to switch to smaller shooting line-ups, that could allow spacing for the star to create.
Since then we have seen teams try to buck this trend. The Clippers had 2 of the best bigs in the game, along with an elite point guard, and could never get out of the 2nd round, and they even had great shooting guards like JJ Reddick. The Pelicans put the 2 best big men in the whole league on the same team, and still ended up being better when Cousins got hurt to create more spacing.
Last year we saw basically every elite team move to this strategy. We saw teams like the Bucks make a huge change, ditching centers like Monroe, and moving Giannis the 4/5 with all shooters around him. The Raptors shifted to playing Ibaka 97% of the time at the center instead of just 12% the previous year. Two of the most improved teams from a year ago, with 2 new coaches that got a lot of credit. Yes, Kawhi was the reason for Raptors, but the floor spacing helped him a lot in the playoffs. Giannis’ massive jump was at least in part because of the floor spacing making it so hard to defend him. The Celtics followed with Tatum and Hayward playing small ball. The 76ers traded for Tobias which was huge on defense but still struggled on offense with Simmons out there, often forcing Joel Embiid to be a less efficient version of himself on offense as a shooter. Those were the top 4 teams in the East. In the West, we had the Warriors and Rockets of course. The Trail Blazers had Aminu a mobile athletic stretch 4. The Nuggets played the most “traditional” of any team to have home-court and Milsap is still a 6’8″ and shot .365 from 3. The Jazz played Joe Ingles and Jae Crowder, the Pacers had Thad Young who is mobile and improved to .349 from 3.
Teams that went big like the Pistons got beat my a historic margin after just having no matchup with the Bucks. Timberwolves, Pelicans, Kings, Grizzlies, Bulls all missed the playoffs. The Lakers missed due to injuries, and while Kuzma was a small-ball “4” he shot 30% from 3, which was part of the reason for the Lakers struggles as well (and maybe still an issue in terms of his fit now.)
The NBA has changed, some teams still choose to live in the past, and maybe one team will buck the trend and prove the new philosophy wrong, but it hurts your guards from creating and is tough defensively. Teams like the 76ers choose to try it again this offseason, we will see what happens.