Much ink has been spilled in the latter stages of the three-point revolution on the topic of the march of the traditional big man toward extinction. The low-post scoring, rebounding, bruising, shot-blocking center of previous generations seems to recede further and further from view with every passing season. As teams emphasize floor spacing more and more on offense, the low-post operator vanishes from offensive game plans. Modern offenses often replace the traditional center with a rim runner who sets a high ball screen and rolls to the rim, then gets out of the way or sets another screen.
Defensively, the league continues to transition toward switching on screens, and prizes players who can switch across positions. The big man who can only defend his position is now a liability. The traditional center was typically slower and bulkier than his teammates, which was good for matching up with his opposite number in the low post. Now that the low post game is out of fashion, however, there is little benefit to the added bulk of a traditional big man. Furthermore, because of the evolution of offenses leaguewide, a big man’s lack of quickness is a greater disadvantage on defense than it has ever been.
Many traditionalists, or really most adult fans, see this as a negative effect of the pace and space era. Many of these fans speak wistfully of the days when the league featured clashes between low post titans. While this is all well and good from an aesthetic perspective (what is more fun to watch?), how does the issue look when we evaluate it analytically?
In common parlance, increased three-point shooting volume and the disappearance of the traditional big man are nearly synonymous with “analytics.” The way I use the word “analytics,” however, simply refers to the practice of using data to analyze the performance of players, the effectiveness of strategies, and the decisions involved in roster construction. I think this is the way most people who are involved in analytics use the term “analytics.” Since this is not what most people understand when they hear the word, however, I want to clarify what it is that I am asking here. What I am asking is this: How do we evaluate the disappearance of the traditional big man when we use data to inform our decisions? Analyzing the relevant data, does it appear that the disappearance of the big man is advantageous, or disadvantageous? Does it appear that the traditional big man is truly headed for extinction, or has his space in the NBA ecosystem simply been reduced?
The way that I think about this is to try to determine the point at which no team in the league would be likely to use a traditional big man. Offensive 5’s scored 1.31 points per shot in the restricted area last season. Expanding the scope to players more commonly identified as “centers,” we find a result of 1.34 points per shot in the restricted area (or a true shooting percentage of 67.2%, if you prefer). At present, the league average on three-point shot attempts is 1.07 points per shot. My hypothesis is that when the league’s average three-point shooting efficiency reaches a level equal to the average efficiency of big men in the area near the basket, there will be no more traditional big men. At that point, the advantage of size will have effectively been overcome by shooting range. There will be no need for offenses to have a big man attacking the rim, because a shot at the rim is no better than a league average three-pointer.
While three-point shooting accuracy has risen considerably in recent years, I find it hard to see the game reaching that point. The current TS% on three-pointers is 53.2%; the TS% of big men near the rim is 67.2%. There is a large gap to cross to get to the point at which having a big man would not help a team’s offense. The league average TS% on shots in the restricted area is 62.9%, so it is clear that big men are much more effective at this type of shot than their peers. In order to even reach the league average efficiency of shots in the restricted area, three-point accuracy would have to reach 41.7%, a fairly unimaginable increase from last season’s 35.5% rate.
On the other hand, the critic will argue that we don’t have to be able to replace all of the big man’s shots in the restricted area in order to replace the big man himself. Removing bigs from the floor will open up more space near the basket for other players to drive and shoot from the restricted area. As such, it might be that a more modest increase in leaguewide three-point accuracy would justify running the big man off the floor due to a concurrent and compensating rise in restricted area field goal attempts by other players.
I can’t quite go along with this line of reasoning, and here’s why: the increased availability of space in the restricted area in this theoretical league-without-centers would be a result of the absence of rim defenders. That is to say, the claim that removing big men will not affect a team’s offense because then there will be no big men at the rim to stop drives fails on its basic assumption that if one team employs a strategy, their opponents will do the same. In reality, each team pursues the strategy which it believes will optimize its own chances of winning. If one team decided to build a roster without a center under the premise that they would see an increase in shots in the restricted area by perimeter players, they cannot guarantee that their opponents will not employ a big man to defend the rim. In fact, this would be just the ticket to stop the ultimate driving team. A team of five dribble-drive penetrators operating without a center would be difficult to stop unless you had a last line of defense to challenge their drives.
What makes this line of thinking problematic is that it depends on the defensive value provided by big men in order to be an effective argument, yet the purpose of the argument is to deny the importance of big men. The reason teams would expect to have so many more shot attempts in the restricted area in a league-without-centers is that there would be no big men at the rim to deter them. Stated simply, I don’t see how it is honest or thoughtful to build an argument for the necessary extinction of the traditional big man that is based on the defensive value of the traditional big man.
It looks as though the there is not sufficient evidence that NBA teams will be able to totally replace the value of traditional big men on the offensive end. In the companion piece to this examination, we will analyze whether or not we may be headed toward a place where it no longer makes sense for teams to employ a center on the defensive end.