You have probably heard the saying dozens of times, from even the highest-profile basketball analysts on television:
“The NBA is a guard-oriented league.”
To a large extent, the saying contains a lot of truth. Modernized spacing concepts lead to wider driving lanes, making it easier to be a guard than ever. Crunch time sets still revolve around isolations and ball screens where handlers that can make the reliable play are paramount. Teams are even beginning to downsize their rosters, playing more guards than ever before and making the term “power forward” extinct.
Recent draft nights have shown the struggles for centers and traditional big men. In 2019, only one player 6’10” or taller was taken in the lottery (Jaxson Hayes by the New Orleans Pelicans), and only three others were drafted in the first round. Five years ago that number was at seven. While wings are en vogue, the center position is seen as a very replaceable one where serviceable veterans are a dime a dozen. The trends are certainly changing towards skill and versatility over size and strength.
So, why are teams still investing in high-caliber frontcourt tandems?
In a five-part series here at TBW, we will dive into rosters that are banking a lot of money and/or valuable draft picks on a collection of young frontcourt talent (under the age of 25) as hopeful foundational pieces while bucking (and sometimes, re-writing) the trends.
This series can be viewed under a speculative lense as much as an analytical one. Do these forms of team-building lead to championship-caliber teams? Is there too much redundancy in today’s game by having two big men who may be best-suited to play the center position in crunch time? What makes a certain team’s frontcourt pairing unique enough to spite those trends?
In other words, fit is just as much a driver of this conversation as talent.
Small market teams swing on talent. That rings true particularly for struggling ones—and no one has struggled more over the last decade than the Sacramento Kings.
As such, it seems fitting that in back-to-back drafts they selected players who were both atop the ESPN Top 100 for recruiting in consecutive seasons. 2016 top prospect Harry Giles fell to them at 20th overall after a series of knee injuries hampered his explosiveness and his freshman campaign at Duke. The next year, the Kings took another Duke product in 2017’s top high school recruit Marvin Bagley III.
He, along with point guard De’Aaron Fox, were instantly the faces of the franchise.
Bagley and Giles were always a long-term project that intrigued. They possess the highlight-caliber athleticism that gives more versatility than expected for a frontcourt tandem. General Manager Vlade Divac, a former elite post player in his own right, has shown his desire to play two bigs together, and all signs point to Bagley and Giles being that roadmap to the future.
Both are over 6’10”. Both are elite athletes at their positions and super mobile. But at their heart, both are finishing and gravity-taking, not gravity-providing, players.
Rookie blues certainly struck Bagley during the 2018-19 season, something he readily and openly admits.
“I remember coming into last season and all of this was so confusing to me,” said Bagley. “I was just out there playing, trying to play hard, but now—being through a whole year and experiencing different things on the court, learning different things—everything now is slower and I understand.”
Despite that role, Bagley had a fairly productive first season. He averaged 14.9 points and 7.6 assists per game off the bench, shot above 31 percent from deep and earned First-Team All-Rookie accolades. For a guy that believes he was not fully acclimated and mentally in-tune with how to play, that level of production offers a scary amount of promise.
Even though Bagley only started four games, his post-All-Star Break impact was legitimately excellent: 18.5 points, 9.2 rebounds and 39.0 percent shooting from three. His pre-break struggles were apparent, and ones I wrote about very critically at the time. All props go to Bagley for turning his season around and proving many doubters, myself included, wrong.
Giles was also excellent after the break as well, putting up 9.6 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists. His plus-minus altered greatly, going from -12.3 before the deadline to +7.9 after.
While coming off the bench, Bagley and Giles were able to debut together and gain some chemistry, which they will undoubtedly need long-term. According to Cleaning The Glass, the two played 928 possessions together as rookies. The advanced analytics paint a murky picture as to how they fared, even in the context of the Kings.
Sacramento’s all-bench lineups were solid, particularly after the All-Star Break when they included Justin Jackson. But Bagley’s overall plus-minus impact did not vary when he was with Giles or without him.
Bagley is, very clearly, not a good passer at this point in his career. He goes out there to score, to play with energy and athleticism. All season long he struggled with post double-teams, an area where a star player must learn to operate. With a non-shooter like Giles flanking him (he made zero three-pointers as a rookie), opponents are even more likely to blitz Bagley on the block. He must learn to make accurate reads in whatever system or spacing new head coach Luke Walton provides him.
Some of his bugaboos were simply unacceptable last year:
To some extent, Bagley needs Giles, who is an incredibly polished passer and playmaker for a teenager, especially when you consider how little experience he has at high levels after barely playing at Duke. While Giles does not possess the scoring burst that could make him an elite player down the line, he’s proven an unselfish player that makes others around him better.
Under Dave Joerger, the Kings were fast-paced but very old-school in the half-court. They ran a ton of post-ups, triangle-esque actions and a billion Horns sets (more on that later).
When Giles was in the post instead of Bagley, two effects took place: One was alleviating the brutal double-teams that bogged down Bagley and caused turnovers. The other was flipping the shooting prowess to its logical formation. The 30 percent three-point shooter was stationed at the line, and Giles was moved to an area where he could be a scorer.
The result, when teams would dig down too far onto Giles, was open kick-out threes:
In the half-court, playing through Giles with his back to the basket may not be a brilliant strategy since he’s not an elite scorer. Those double-teams and extra attention is extremely rare, even against teams that only play one big.
Going forward, it’s more likely Giles begins operating like Toronto Raptors star Pascal Siakam, where he posts players early in the shot clock and tries to maneuver in those plays where half-court defenses are not yet fully set. If that doesn’t work, he moves outward to space the floor, with the threat of cuts and basket attacks always looming.
The result could be great for Bagley, as it opens the lane for cuts more than a congested half-court set would:
Giles looks fine in the low post, but his bread gets buttered when he’s at the elbows. The Kings do not have a passer outside of De’Aaron Fox that makes high-level reads unless Giles is on the floor.
Last season, Joerger figured this out and ran offense through Giles at the elbows. Horns sets, elbow flashes to give-and-gos, running cutters and screeners around him: He proved to be the modern 5-man that can facilitate and direct traffic from the top of the key.
If Giles gains three-point range, he will be pretty complete and unlock an additional amount of spacing that the elbows do not provide. For now, the Kings must place him there since that is where he’s guardable. He’s got a tremendous feel for backdoor cutters and timely reads:
My favorite move is this savvy veteran maneuver of reverse-pivoting as his teammate cuts over top of him. That, in effect, is a legal screen that can get his teammate open. Those tricks of the trade are uncommon for rookies, let alone bench guys. Giles is already a legitimately good player. And he doesn’t have a jump shot yet.
Unfortunately, no indicator is going to hurt Giles and Bagley’s long-term cohesion like Giles lack of shooting.
If that skill never develops, there is a clear ceiling on Sacramento’s dynamic duo. In crunch time, the Kings could either play Giles and risk the spacing cramps that it creates, or put Bagley at the 5 and sit one of their cornerstones. If the latter is their path, what happens if the Kings cap themselves out of affording Giles in two summers?
Those questions do not need to be answered yet, just know that they are on the horizon. In the meantime, Coach Walton is tasked with fitting the duo while Giles has no jumper. There is a roadmap in place for utilizing both side-by-side.
One such way, an obvious and classic movement for bigs, is the hi-lo where Giles at the elbows facilitates and hits Bagley down low. This could be a dangerous tool for the Kings based on the logical way other teams could guard them. Non-shooting Giles is likely to be guarded by other 5s, putting a smaller wing on the 6’11’ Bagley. Run some action to move Bagley down low, hit Giles at the elbow and quickly strike with a duck-in.
Lather, rinse, repeat:
Bagley was a solid scorer in isolation and does need his low-post clearouts to go one-on-one in matchups he’s expected to dominate. The Kings would be foolish to throw out that section of their playbook simply because Giles doesn’t yet provide enough spacing as a spot-up option.
Instead, they should use quick-hitting screening actions to get Bagley the ball quickly in scoring position. One such action occurred in a game with the Philadelphia 76ers, when Corey Brewer ran a post curl around Bagley. As Bagley’s defender, Mike Scott, jumped at Brewer on the curl, Bagley took one step back to the short corner.
That was all the space he needed to make a quick move and score:
The post curl set is an important wrinkle in playbooks that need to score on the blocks and manufacture quick spacing. A perimeter down screen that takes place between two non-shooters does nothing to distract help defenders from their attention on the ball: The screen doesn’t make either player a threat or take the defense out of its natural position. A post curl screen, even with two non-shooters, still has to be guarded in a particular way.
Teams run a great deal of Horns sets, and that’s where Giles and Bagley coexist so well. The lane is completely open for cutting, backdoors, screens and more. Both thrive around a lane that is unoccupied.
How about a back screen at the elbow for Bagley with the great-passing Giles finding him at the rim?
The key to this play is Buddy Hield, standing alone in the corner over by Bagley. An elite shooter that is hugged takes away help-side defense, making Hield the most vital piece to flank this duo.
If any frontcourt tandem is to work, short-term or long-term, they need elite shooters beside them that defenders are afraid to leave. The moment a truly elite shooter departs their offense is the moment the extra space they have to operate disappears.
We haven’t hit on defense yet with these two, who are both subpar rim protectors (at least at this stage of their careers). Despite that glaring weakness, the Kings possess two switchable, athletic frontcourt players. Giles has lost a bit of quickness and explosiveness with the knee injuries, but Bagley is a really interesting toy for coaches to play with on that end.
Last year, Joerger was willing to leave him on his own in isolations, even against great perimeter scorers. Bagley would routinely switch onto guards, use his length to challenge jumpers and deploy his cat-like quickness to keep guys in front or react to their change of direction. The ability to switch could allow him to be a full-time 4 in a way that would benefit the Kings greatly.
What’s Bagley’s most unique defensive skill? His length, and he utilizes that so well when facing a screen. Pin him behind it and he still pokes those claws over anyone setting a pick. He can reach over their shoulder without losing any of his wingspan, causing shooters to hesitate as they see this long tentacle coming towards them:
So is this a duo that will have the patience to grow together and the surrounding environment to thrive while doing so? An elite shooter like Hield and a dynamic transition player like Fox will be perfect teammates if this marriage is going to last.
Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles have started a combined four NBA games. They are already being touted as one of the most exciting future frontcourts the league has to offer. Don’t sleep on their potential, their ability to change our perceptions about whether two bigs can play side-by-side or their outside-the-box games.
The Kings are going all-in on them, and that in itself is outside the box.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference, NBA.com stats or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of July 22, 2019.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.