For NBA big men, best and worst of times
A TrueHoop Coachspeak investigation, part 1
BY DAVID THORPE
Pelicans big man Jaxson Hayes knows what I’m talking about. Last Friday night, in a must-win play-in game against the Clippers, he played so skillfully on pick-and-roll actions on offense that the Clippers pulled their center, Ivica Zubac, who had been defending him, out of the game entirely. Zubac finished having played only 13 minutes, because big men are a little bit expendable these days. The Pelicans won and made the playoffs.
But here’s the bad news for Hayes: once Zubac sat, he sat too, because … big men are a little bit expendable these days. Would Hayes even see the court in the playoffs? If his minutes fell mightily he’d be joined by plenty of other huge men—Steven Adams, Kevon Looney, Rudy Gobert, Dwight Powell, and even Bam Adebayo have seen their opportunities reduced. Maybe big men are just obsolete?
And yet, these very same playoffs are also the heyday of the big man. Some of these playoffs’ biggest contributions have come from Joel Embiid, Al Horford, Karl-Anthony Towns, Deandre Ayton, Brook Lopez, Andre Drummond, Jonas Valanciunas, and Draymond Green. Nikola Jokic has been unbelievable in two of the Nuggets’ three games.
The playoffs started slowly for Jaxson Hayes. He played 12 minutes and took two shots in a Game 1 loss to the mighty Suns. But in Game 2, Hayes played 20 incredible minutes, even guarding Chris Paul more than a few times, and made hell for the Suns in one of the biggest wins in Pelicans playoff history. The Pelicans’ third-quarter, against the NBA’s best teams, should be bottled it was so fantastic. And Hayes was all over it.
Hayes has been on TrueHoop a few times. Going into the 2019 draft, we argued the Pelicans should trade Anthony Davis to the Lakers and get, among other assets, their fourth overall pick. And then I recommended that they trade down in the draft to take Jaxson Hayes. And do you know what the Pelicans did? All of the above.
Then Hayes was a topic on BRING IT IN last summer when police tasered him in a confrontation that resulted in an arrest and charges of domestic violence, resisting arrest, and battery against a police officer. It has been a frantic roller coaster of a season for the 21-year-old from the University of Texas.
And he was slated to play behind not just bona fide veteran starter in Jonas Valanciunas, but also Zion Williamson. It seemed like he might not get to see the court. But now he’s starting next to Valanciunas for one of the hottest teams in the NBA in the postseason!
If he’s wondering what tomorrow might bring, he’s not alone.
Elite guards seem to get playing time no matter what happens. Kyrie Irving might have made two glaring errors in the final two possessions of Game 1. Trae Young had ten costly turnovers in nip-and-tuck Game 2 against the Heat. Yet there was zero chance either would sit even an extra minute because of their underperformance. But for some big men, the hook has been quick:
STEVEN ADAMS After averaging 26 minutes a game as the Grizzlies’ rebounding enforcer, the Adams has played a total of 27 minutes over three games against the Timberwolves, almost all in Game 1. He got no shots, no points, no blocks, and no steals in their opening loss over the weekend, picked up two fouls in three minutes at the start of Game 2 and has not been seen again. The T-Wolves play one true center, Karl-Anthony Towns, against whom Adams has struggled all season. So Jaren Jackson Jr. was enough for them. What’s curious is that Adams didn’t back up JJJ when he rested, instead the minutes went to 6-8 Xavier Tillman—who averaged barely half of Adams’ minutes this season.
KEVON LOONEY Golden State’s Kevin Looney, once called by coach Steve Kerr a core piece of their team, averages 21 minutes a game as the starting center, yet is playing just 11.3 minutes a game in the playoffs so far, and has made two shots in the series.
BAM ADEBAYO In the regular season, the Heat’s Bam Adebayo averaged 18 points a game. In the first two games of the playoffs he has scored four buckets total, with a scoring average of 7.5 points per game—even though the Hawks are missing their starting center Clint Capela.
ANDRE DRUMMOND The Nets’ big man Andre Drummond hasn’t played fewer than 18 minutes since March 6, but played just 17 minutes in the 76ers’ Game 1 loss in Boston, and not much more in another loss in Game 2.
LAMARCUS ALDRIDGE The sweet-shooting seven-time All-Star spent much of the season as the Nets’ third star, and has been back from injury for weeks. But he hasn’t played a minute in the playoffs, even as the Nets search for a winning formula.
Here at TrueHoop, we know deeply how the role of NBA big men has been changing. But they are not becoming obsolete. These playoffs have also taught us that teams can win, and win big, with quality centers on the court. (The Celtics are plus-19, over the playoffs’ first two games, with Al Horford in the game.) We also know that some of the NBA’s best defenses—the Celtics and Grizzlies for much of the season, the Pelicans in the playoffs—work so well by pairing two big men together. And we know that teams who know how to get productive minutes out of big men have interesting options in the draft and free agency, if they can keep them on the floor and playing at a high level, which only some teams are able to pull off.
What’s the secret?
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