Big Men of Today Are Playing a Different Game Than Those of the NBA's Past

Big Men of Today Are Playing a Different Game Than Those of the NBA's Past
R Brent Smith/AP Images 

When did big men in the NBA turn into a legion of 7-foot softies? If DeMarcus Cousins isn't stomping to the bench as if he's been denied dessert, Roy Hibbert is standing under the basket like the world's tallest third-grader who just had his lunch money stolen. Or Dwight Howard is performing Shakespeare in the Park begging for a whistle. Or JaVale McGee is sprawling like a giant Bambi to star in yet another blooper reel.   
Where are the scowling successors to Alonzo Mourning? The knock-you-on-your-ass progeny of Bill Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn? The stoic descendants of Moses Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robert Parish?   
Has the personality of NBA centers really changed that much in the last decade or so?
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
The instinctive answer is yes. Everyone and everything seems to be softer and more sensitive than in years past, at least when it comes to sports. From youth teams, where everyone gets a trophy for merely showing up, to the pro level, where the rules discourage being too physical or demonstrative, how competitors are treated (and how they treat each other) seems to be dictated more by those administrating than those participating. The concept of those within the game maintaining the code by which they should play seems to have been hijacked by external rulesmakers, be they parents or commissioners or lawyers. But have NBA big men somehow been affected by this shift more than others?
Former big man Will Perdue says yes. And no. Yes, they have been affected by the shift. No, it's not because today's big men are somehow emotionally different from their predecessors.
Perdue played on four championship teams over 13 seasons, retiring in 2001, and since then has worked out a legion of today's NBA-bound big men—from Chris Kaman to Robin and Brook Lopez to Joel Embiidto give them a sense of what to expect when they turned pro. But he admits that the challenge they face is different than the one he met coming out of Vanderbilt in 1988.
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images
"Look, I'm not going to say I was a tough guy, but I knew what my job was," Perdue says. "You wanted guards to think twice about coming into the paint. There's still banging in the game today, but there's a lot harsher penalty for ordinary aggressive play. Before it was two free throws, now it could be two free throws and the ball and a suspension or fine. What's more, there's no fear about attacking the rim because the perimeter players know it. You have to think about what you're doing."
The game has changed for big men at the offensive end as well. Once upon a time, every team in the league was in search of a big man who could score, and playing through that big man in the post was a central precept to almost every offense. They were featured the way multifunctional small forwardsLeBron, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, Kawhi Leonardseem to be today. In any case, they were a prized commodity and treated as such. Now it's all about scoring before a defense is set and creating high-percentage three-point shots off drive-and-kick sets, at least during the regular season.
Chris O’Meara/Associated Press
"They're 'The Forgotten Guy,'" says John Lucas, the former point guard and head coach. Lucas has made it his mission to reintroduce big men scoring on the block through a grassroots movement in his hometown of Houston, where he runs clinics that teach post moves to 6'6" and taller teenagers, players who he finds are more commonly developed as small forwards in today's youth leagues.
"Offensively, they're the power forwards of the early '80s," he says. "They're defenders and rim protectors, and that's all we want from them. A part of that is the analytical mind of GMs these days. They don't believe in the two-point shot anymore. It means you've stopped developing centers in the post. So many of the offenses now are above the free-throw line. Before, you used to play inside-out, and if the big men weren't happy, you couldn't do anything."
Big men had various ways of expressing their displeasure, and all it took was a couple of trips down the floor without them touching the ball to have them exercise one. The more overt ways were to defend the rim, box out or set screens with a shade less enthusiasm, leaving a perimeter player unable to shake free for a shot or making them look bad when their defensive assignment flashed to the rim. A subtler one would be to snatch a rebound and, rather than immediately fire an outlet pass, hold the ball for a beat or two, just long enough to spoil the chance at a breakaway basket.
And if you think such distinguished big men as Hakeem Olajuwon, Kareem or Shaquille O'Neal never acted out when they were ignored, you weren't paying attention.
GREGORY SMITH/Associated Press
"I remember even Bill Cartwright getting upset," says Perdue, referring to the former Bulls center and his ex-teammate. "He didn't jump up and down, but he let it be known: 'Get me the ball.'"
If no one ever criticized a center back in the day for disrupting a team to serve his own interests, it's because keeping a big man involved and engaged simply was considered practical. A perimeter player at that time couldn't just run to the three-point line and fire away or drive into a defender and flail his arms to get to the free-throw line—the first was frowned upon as a low-percentage tactic, and the latter wouldn't draw a whistle. Keeping the big man involved increased everyone's scoring chances, especially with rules that prohibited zone defenses.
"The NBA game has changed," says Warriors scouting director Larry Riley. "You don't need a center to win an NBA title, or at least Miami proved that it's possible. The game is more perimeter-oriented, and, as a league, we drop it into the post a lot less."
The game also wasn't scrutinized the way it is today. Players only had to be on their best behavior when they were on a national broadcast, because that was the only way a significant audience saw them. Now, every second of every play is available, and anything the least bit awry lives on forever via YouTube.
"We know the players so much better because they're brought into our living rooms every day," says Mitch Kupchak, an NBA power forward and center for nine seasons before spending most of the last three decades as GM of the Los Angeles Lakers. "Truth is, big men have always been a bit off-kilter. They've also developed a bit slower."
That second part makes them more vulnerable today than ever before as well. Thanks to scouting websites that critique players before they've reached middle school, a young prospect's aptitude is being measured on a game-by-game basis. Thanks to social media, everyone and anyone who wishes to say something mean or critical can—and have it reach the eyes or ears of the subject.
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
"They've always been treated different," New Orleans Pelicans GM Dell Demps says. "But now when you have social media, they're exposed to it more. They are criticized by bloggers at all levels. You take a young kid who already feels awkward because he's so much taller than everybody else and add that to it and it can't help."
They're also spending less time at the college level, which means less time maturing and going through socialization. Perhaps it should be no surprise that the bigs who have had the hardest time curbing their emotionsCousins and Howardspent a combined one year in college.
"Guys go to college with a totally different mindset," Perdue says. "It's not about winning a championship or going to a certain school or even playing in a certain league. It's a quick stop, and it's all about the coach and his staff."
The use of zone defenses in college has long made it hard for big men to show their post skills, but now many college programs don't even attempt to develop them. Hence, there are fewer players who unequivocally are two-way centers. Cousins, Howard, Andre Drummond, Marc Gasol, Brook Lopez and Hibbert are about the only big men who are counted on to defend and score with their back to the basket on a regular basis. Joakim NoahAl Jefferson, DeAndre Jordan, Tim Duncan, Andrew Bogut and Tyson Chandler either alternate between power forward and center or specialize at one end of the floor.
"There's a much lower number of true centers in the league now," Warriors associate head coach Alvin Gentry says. "You can count them on one hand. So everything they do stands out."
Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press
The silver lining is that they have a chance to do that when it matters most: the postseason. That's when the game slows down, the rules on physicality historically loosen and the value of a big man rises. Just check shot attempts by Howard and Gasol in the regular season versus the playoffs. The general number of shots per game invariably goes down thanks to a slower pace and more careful selection, yet their personal allotments never have failed to go up.
None of this is to condone Cousins slingshotting his headband or McGee futilely trying to dunktwicefrom the free-throw line. Being young isn't an excuse for acting out. Every player is expected to adjust, in one way or another, when he turns pro.
The point is, in comparing big men of today to those of previous eras, a case can be made that they have not changed; rather, how they are prepared, what is asked of them and when they are asked to do it has. Today's centers would no doubt welcome the chance to play under the rules of 20 years agoand if Perdue's view is any indication, the centers of yesteryear would want no part of playing in the league today