Positionless basketball. That’s one of the trendy new catchphrases used in the NBA metaverse (myself included) to describe a league that has been shrinking in size as shot selection has extended. While there have been many reasons for these changes, the biggest change has been in the lack of a second big man on the floor for teams in favor of stretching the floor. Until now.
As teams have adapted to the amount of three-point attempts by doing an increasingly better job of taking them away. or at least contesting them, some forward-thinking teams have pivoted to a different approach. Whether it’s a wise veteran who has an excellent feel for the game or a five-star athlete being a force of nature, playing a second big man that can focus on creating havoc on defense instead of protecting the rim is back in the fold.
The Boston Celtics have been a disappointment this season. One thing that has been successful is the pairing of Al Horford and Robert Williams as a front-court duo, especially on the defensive end. Cleaning The Glass has them as one of the best defenses in the entire league when both are on the court together and given how poorly their offense has performed it’s safe to say that defensive effort is what has saved their season from disaster.
That defensive effort has led them to the 4th best defense in the league over halfway through the regular season. They also get the 4th most rebounds per game as a team, so they utilize their size to dominate on the boards as well, finding ways to help make up for the lack of easy buckets thanks to assists. That size is keeping a team that had homecourt aspirations in the first round from falling completely out of the play-in picture.
Instead of the Celtics competing for home-court advantage in the first round in the East this year, it’s another team that has embraced size even more than Boston. With Jarrett Allen defending the rim and Evan Mobley defending the rest of the court, no team plays bigger than the Cavaliers this year.
With the 3rd best defense in the league, Cleveland has been the most creative in the league, utilizing zones to maximize their size. Starting three 7 footers will maximize their ability to shut down passing lanes. Coach JB Bickerstaff has even run some 3-2 zone with Mobley wreaking havoc at the top of the key with his height and length.
The Cavaliers defense has been dominant because they have been good to excellent in all aspects of defending what teams try and do to score. Synergy sorts these play types into 11 different categories and Cleveland ranks as excellent in over half of them (as seen in the graphic below). This team has just been able to shut teams down regardless of what the offenses try and do.
That defensive adaptability is made possible because of embracing size, instead of spacing with shooting. Using that size to suffocate teams on the boards and being the most effective offensive rebounding team in the league to pair alongside soon-to-be all-star Darius Garland has been more than enough offensively for this team.
Their Western Conference counterparts, a surprise contender rising up the ranks, resides only 730 miles down the road in Memphis. The Grizzlies have found a way to take the Grit-N-Grind identity of the lovable Griz teams of old and adapt it for today’s NBA. A big part of that has been playing the twin towers of Steven Adams and Jaren Jackson Jr together and unlocking JJJ’s potential with that tandem.
That, along with the rising stars Ja Morant and Desmond Bane, have catapulted the Grizzlies into 3rd place in the Western Conference (as well as the entire NBA) and with a record significantly better than many teams expected to finish far ahead of them. The Grizzlies have maximized their talent this year thanks to a willingness to lean into Jackson, not as a small-ball five, but as a dominant four. Having that dominant four is not just the recipe for success here, but also in the two title contenders back East.
Giannis is a great example of the value a secondary big man has had this year. With Brook Lopez playing only a single game this year, Bobby Portis has stepped into the center role for the defending champions beside the reigning MVP. While Giannis without Portis in the lineup still has the Bucks playing at a very good level, it’s when the two share the court together that the team is able to become one of the absolute best in the entire league.
The difference between the two is a team that is a conference finals contender and a team that is looking to repeat as NBA champions. A double-digit point differential shows that you are a serious threat to holding the trophy when it’s all said and done. The Bucks aren’t the only team in the East to have a unit with a huge point differential though.
The story has been about how little the Brooklyn Nets big three have played together. It’s true, the trio has played less than 20 games with all three of them available. But when they have been on the floor together they have dominated teams and those minutes have a big man next to Kevin Durant to allow him to roam on the defensive end and help cover the defensive mistakes that happen in front of him.
In a league that has evolved into that positionless basketball, it’s only natural for the ebbs and flows to change as teams adjust and adapt. And those adjustments have paved the way for the rebirth of the true power forward.