Two Big Men Model in Today’s NBA

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

The big man tandem of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph is a potential model for the Sixers.

In today’s pace-and-space NBA, most teams find it critical to have 4, if not 5, capable outside shooters on the floor at all times. Any less and defenders can clog up the lane, stifling the pick-and-roll attacks that have become the core offensive component of the modern game.

Therefore, it’s somewhat surprising that the Sixers, an organization forward-thinking in many facets of franchise-building, appear to be moving forward with the more traditional 2 big man alignment at the core of the roster. As much fun as it was to watch clips of Joel Embiid draining threes in pre-game workouts this season, both he and Nerlens Noel are going to be spending a lot of their time in and around the paint. The question is: will that work? Let’s look today around the NBA to current playoff teams to possibly find an answer.

The following teams had at least one of their two starting big men take 100 threes or more during the 2014-15 season, and thus, aren’t analogous to the current Sixers’ situation:

Atlanta (Paul Millsap); Cleveland (Kevin Love); Milwaukee (Ersan Ilyasova); Brooklyn (Thad Young); Golden State (Draymond Green); Portland (LaMarcus Aldridge); Dallas (Dirk Nowitzki)

Here are the rest:

Toronto – Like a lot of these Eastern Conference “playoff” teams, I’m not sure the Raptors are a group I would particularly want the Sixers to emulate (especially in light of their sweep at the hands of the Wizards). Although they had the 3rd-best offense over the course of the season, Toronto had a bottom-10 defense and went just 13-16 after the All-Star break. The Raptors were also a special case in terms of the criteria above, because all three of Jonas Valanciunas, Amir Johnson, and Patrick Patterson played 26 minutes per game, but Patterson (the stretch 4 of the group) just happened to be the one initially coming off the bench.

Washington – Although the Wizards go with the Marcin Gortat-Nene pairing, they’ve really taken off lately when putting Paul Pierce at the power forward position alongside one of those two, and slotting in Otto Porter at the 3. So far, we’ve seen that if you’re starting two big men, your secondary lineup better shooting available.

Boston – I didn’t know what to do with the Celtics, because they’ve started Tyler Zeller and Brandon Bass of late, but have gone with both Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger just as often, both of whom meet the 100-three criteria. Unless you can replicate Brad Stevens’ wizardry, I’m not sure how much there is to take away from the Celtics’ current lineup.

Chicago – The Bulls got a lot of mileage out of their Joakim Noah-Pau Gasol big man tandem because both players are arguably among the top-5 passer among big men in the league. Coach Thibs also got a lot of mileage out of rookie Nikola Mirotic as a stretch four, especially while the Bulls were beset by numerous injuries during the season. Nevertheless, Chicago has rarely had an effective offense over the years, as their lockdown defense has been what’s won them games and made life miserable for the opposition in the Thibodeau era.

Houston – Terrence Jones is back in the lineup after missing a huge chunk of the season due to injury; he met the 100-three threshold last season. Josh Smith also stretches the floor as the team’s 6th-man, even while not being completely atrocious at it in a Rockets uniform (33% on threes since joining Houston).

Los Angeles Clippers – The Clippers had the best offense in the NBA this season thanks to no small part to having 2 of the best 12 or so players in the league. Chris Paul is an expert at navigating the teeth of what becomes a somewhat crowded lane with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan on the court. A lot of credit has to go to Griffin though, who has worked very hard over the years to become an above average jump shooter, and possessing excellent passing and ball handling abilities for a guy his size. If either Embiid (feasible) or Noel (less likely) was to reach Blake’s offensive potential, the pairing could surely work.

Memphis – Always the go-to option for a big man pairing, the Grizzlies can get by just well enough on offense thanks to both Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph having solid mid-range jumpers, and Gasol being one of the best passing big men in the world. Still, the Griz have always topped out as a middling offense over the years; it’s been their stifling defense (4th in the NBA this season) that’s allowed them to have perennial success. Given the promise the Sixers showed on that end during their stretch coming out of the All-Star break, this is a potential blueprint for them.

San Antonio – I doubt anyone can do what the Spurs do, since their constant whir of passes along the perimeter have seemingly created a time vortex allowing Tim Duncan and company to thrive into their late thirties. Timmy is playing on one leg, and the team gets around the lack of spacing with the Duncan-Splitter pairing by featuring exquisite ball movement and great off-the-ball cutting. Boris Diaw functions off the bench as somewhat as a stretch four, but it’s really the Spurs’ system that allows the team to shine. You can try to duplicate whatever goes on in San Antonio (as the Hawks have to a certain extent), but good luck.

New Orleans – The Pelicans are an interesting case because they possess one of the ultimate stretch fours in Ryan Anderson, but still opt to start Omer Asik alongside galactic superstar Anthony Davis. New Orleans’ defense dropped from a 101 rating to 108 with Anderson on the court, while only seeing a bump in offense from 104 to 106. Conversely, the team saw it’s offensive numbers rise and defensive numbers fall when Asik hit the pine. The pair provided a true pick-your-poison situation for Coach Monty Williams, whichever way he went one side of the ball would take a huge hit. The Pelicans show how rare it is to have a big man capable of stretching the floor while not being a defensive liability.

As these examples show, a dual big man lineup can work, but you need some combination of an elite defense, elite passing skills from your big guys, and/or an excellent stretch four coming off the bench as a de-facto third starter. Noel has shown great promise as a passer and the Sixers were a top-10 defense in the league with him at the center position this season. Adding Embiid to the mix should further assist the defense. All in all, there are enough signs out there that what the Sixers are trying to build just might have a chance.


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