Revenge of the Old-School Big Man

The ‘90s are fashionable again, and it isn’t just overalls, matte lipstick and 25-year anniversaries of classic hip-hop albums.

Old-school centers might just be nudging their way back into the NBA game, reclaiming their spot from the clutches of the stretch-4. Some teams are having early success with the throwback style this season, but how far can they really take it?

Nearly all teams in playoff position right now have a man dominating at the 5. True, the tippy-top of the leaderboards have centers with 3-balls in their holsters: The young Philadelphia 76ers and Denver Nuggets inch up the ranks as Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic respectively develop, while the Toronto Raptors and Memphis Grizzlies rise up with resurgences of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol.

Nevertheless, nine teams are currently outperforming their 2017-18 seasons, either mildly or wildly, with dominant centers who only chuck up threes in moments of desperation or whimsy.

The stunning Los Angeles Clippers are leading the way. After closing last season in 10th place, with a 51.2 win percentage (and without Blake Griffin), the Clippers boast a 12-6 (66.7) record. They rank third in points per game overall, but only 28th in 3-point attempts.

Nov 20, 2018; Washington, DC, USA; LA Clippers center Marcin Gortat (13) drives to the basket as Washington Wizards guard John Wall (2) defends during the first quarter at Capital One Arena. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Traditional Sequoia big man Marcin Gortat is new to the roster, joining similarly built Boban Marjanovic. However, the more significant change might be that Montrezl Harrell’s playing time has increased by 8.9 minutes per game this season. At 6’9”, Harrell is small for a center and brings a new-school athleticism, but he has an old-school ferocity and no interest in the long ball.  (He hasn’t attempted a single one.)

The Clippers’ are making 5.1 more free throws this season than last, and much of that is due to Harrell: he’s increased from making 1.8 free throws on 2.9 attempts to netting 4.3 on 6.4 tries. He’s logging 15.8 points, 7.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game.

Gortat’s influence shows up in the hustle stats. The points generated off screen assists provided by the Clippers’ centers increased from 13.2 points per game last season to 15.9. Contested shots went up from 17.2 to 22.5. Defensive box-outs are way up (offensive box-outs are way down.)

The Sacramento Kings are scrambling their way back into relevance, too. Ending last season with a 32.9 winning percentage and 12th-place conference finish, they sit 8th place in the West with a .500 record that includes wins against strong teams like the Grizzlies and Oklahoma City Thunder.

One key to that new success is the bonding of sophomore guard De’Aaron Fox and seven-foot center Willie Cauley-Stein, now in his fourth year. Cauley-Stein’s performance is at its career-best across the board: he’s averaging 8.1 rebounds and 14.5 points per game, while only attempting one three. (He made it.)

Nov 25, 2018; Sacramento, CA, USA; Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) defends the shot by Sacramento Kings center Willie Cauley-Stein (00) during the third quarter at Golden 1 Center. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Cauley-Stein held Marc Gasol to only 10 points in the Kings’ victory over the Grizzlies; he helped his team defeat the Thunder by holding his own against Steven Adams twice. He scored 24 on the Toronto Raptors by beating Serge Ibaka off the dribble, flipping up a reverse lay-up over Jonas Valanciunas, and slamming down alley-oops from Buddy Hield right on Danny Green’s head.

If the improvement continues, head coach Dave Joerger keeps his job and Cauley-Stein remains in Sacramento when his rookie contract expires this summer (a LOT of “if’s”), Sacramento might just be building something genuine.

Back to Los Angeles. Basketball observers were happily anticipating the novelty of either Lakers’ success or LeBron James’ failure. Obviously, the Lakers’ slow start must be attributed to the major roster shakeup and the recent boost to the greatness of LeBron.

Nevertheless, the Lakers’ fortunes really turned around when they brought on 7’1″, 36-year-old Tyson Chandler Nov. 6.

Since then, the Lakers are 7-3, which ties first in the league, as well as 4th in blocks, rebounds and defensive boards. Backing up another veteran big, JaVale McGee, Chandler is averaging over 20 minutes per game and has the best defensive rating on the team of any rotation player (94.6), according to Since the team-up, McGee is averaging 5.3 boards, a punishing 2.1 blocks and 11.9 points of alley-oops, slam, and lay-ups per game in his 23.8 minutes.

This 7-2 run the Lakers are enjoying is shared by the Clippers and the Dallas Mavericks: new home of DeAndre Jordan. The Mavs are still only 9-9, scraping themselves out of a rough start to the year, but this latest streak includes a win over the Golden State Warriors and a 50-point disemboweling of the Utah Jazz.

Harrison Barnes and JJ Barea deserve most of the credit for this streak. But some certainly goes to Jordan, who’s healthy (for now), logging over 30 minutes per game and teamed up with perhaps the league’s most promising rookie point guard, Luka Doncic. (Not to mention, Dennis Smith Jr. is still a promising point guard from last season’s crop of rooks).

Nov 24, 2018; Dallas, TX, USA; Dallas Mavericks center DeAndre Jordan (6) walks to the bench during a game against the Boston Celtics in the first half at American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Shane Roper-USA TODAY Sports

Yet, Jordan is not just an alley-oop finisher in Dallas. He is also a willing passer, generating a career-high 2.4 assists per game.

Sure, a month ago, Jordan nudged (pushed?) Doncic aside to grab a rebound, but during this streak, the pair is both giving and receiving more assists to and from each other than any other teammate. They clearly looked for one another during the victory over the Brooklyn Nets on Nov. 21, and Jordan was the first to come to Doncic’s help when he fell hard after a Jaylen Brown foul in Boston.

Other teams’ early performances aren’t quite headline fodder, but still worth watching.

The Detroit Pistons’ starting frontcourt might burn out by Christmas, what with center Andre Drummond clocking in 33.7 minutes and power forward Blake Griffin 36.3 per game. It’s working for now, however.

The Pistons are sitting fifth in the East after ending 2017-18 in ninth. Drummond’s points per game have jumped from 15.0 to 19.5, aided in part by Griffin, who not only draws defenders off his center but also hands Drummond 1.2 of his overall 5.1 assists per night. The Big Penguin’s soul-demolishing rebounding also continues, at a league-high 16.1 boards per game.

Before Caris Levert went down with a crushing ankle injury that will keep him out most of the season, the Brooklyn Nets were one of the most compelling teams to watch (despite being under .500), and a big part of that was young center, Jarrett Allen.

Just 20, the sophomore will collect a pocket pass from D’Angelo Russell, sink a baby bank shot and be back on defense before you realize he even has the ball. He scored double figures on Embiid, Jokic, Drummond, Karl Anthony Towns, Clint Capela, Deandre Ayton, Hassan Whiteside and the Clippers.

Nov 21, 2018; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Portland Trail Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic (27) drives for the basket as Milwaukee Bucks forward Thon Maker (7) defends during the third quarter at Wisconsin Entertainment and Sports Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

While Jusuf Nurkic and the Portland Trail-Blazers haven’t made any power moves yet this year, they are still holding down a 60.0 winning percentage after finishing last season at 59.8. Nurkic is letting his guards and his backups rain down triples like so much Pacific Northwest precipitation: He’s putting up 15.1 points, 10.4 boards and 1.2 blocks with a paltry 2 for 19 from behind the arc.

The Indiana Pacers are also grinding their way towards the top, just slightly above last season, and getting it done with defense. Young athletic center Myles Turner is a menace at the rim, swatting away 2.6 shot attempts per game and tacking 11.2 points, 5.3 boards to boot. Turner, plus forwards Donatas Sabonis and Thad Young, are collectively just 13 of 45 from behind the arc.

In Oklahoma City, Steven Adams is reminding everyone that the Thunder don’t need Carmelo Anthony to make a Big Three. The now-better-balanced Thunder are 12-7 and tied for fourth in the West with Memphis. (They were 8-11 at this time last year.) Adams is racking up career bests, averaging 15.5 points, 10.5 boards and has already tacked 10 double-doubles onto his stat sheet.

It isn’t all good news, of course.

Hassan Whiteside’s Miami Heat are puttering in 11th place out East. Clint Capela’s Houston Rockets and Rudy Gobert’s Utah Jazz have both nose-dived to 13th and 14th in the West, respectively, sloshing around in the Western conference wastewater with rookie Deandre Ayton’s Phoenix Suns in last place.

Nevertheless, it’s intriguing. If any of these teams wins a championship this year or next, will the traditional center retake his former glory? Will there be a time when a big man isn’t told he needs to have a three or a point guard that will feed him alley-oops all night if he wants to be an All-Star?

Probably not…but NBA teams might at least be willing to rediscover and shine up valuables they discarded over the past 10 years or so. And that’s good news if you’re seven-feet tall or a fan who loves a good hard screen (or drop step).