The Pelicans sent shockwaves through the NBA when they traded for DeMarcus Cousins last week, pairing him up with fellow All-Star big man Anthony Davis. Some even said they were a team built to give the historically dominant Warriors at least a scare in the first round. Fans and media alike drooled over an NBA frontcourt featuring arguably the 2 best big men in the NBA. The only problem is, the Pelicans are 0-3 since the acquisition.
It could be any number of things. It could be that they just got together. They’ve only been on the same team for about a week now, so the lack of time to gel seems like a decent excuse. It could be the fact that Alvin Gentry just isn’t the right coach for those two, but firing Alvin Gentry at this point would mean giving DeMarcus Cousins yet another coach. If New Orleans fired Gentry at this point, they’d risk Cousins viewing them as no better than Sacramento, he’s seen that movie before. The losses are at least a little bit because of the fact that their starting wings are E’twaun Moore and something called a Solomon Hill. But, just maybe, it could be that the NBA big men just can’t dominate anymore like they use to. If you’ve watched the games, it just doesn’t look right. It looks like they’re the ones that are outmatched, not the other teams.
So what happened? In the early days of the NBA, it was all about the big man. The league was started on the backs of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. They grabbed every rebound for their teams back then. They are the only 2 players in the history of the league with at least 20,000 boards. Russell wouldn’t allow any player to score in his paint, and Wilt wouldn’t let anyone stop him from scoring in theirs. The 2 had their battles, and Russell ultimately won most of them. Back then, it was all about the big man. To win a championship, you had to have one.
The league went on through the 70s where the likes of Willis Reed, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Bill Walton were the ones who led their teams to the title. From 1965-1980, every single MVP was a center. Dr. J, as amazing as he was, just couldn’t dominate the game the way a big man could. Back then, basketball was a game for giants. Nothing changed until the 80s. The implementation of the 3 point line was starting to spread the game out, and when two guys named Magic and Bird entered the league, things really began to look different.
For the first time, the NBA was being run by the wings. Bird and Magic were taking down the big men that were expected to be the foundations of championship rosters. This was the start of the NBA wingman era. Suddenly, teams led by the perimeter stars were winning the championships. Nevertheless those teams still had Kevin McHale, Kareem, Robert Parish, and Bill Walton. Bird and Magic may have been the stars, but dominant bigs were still necessary to win championships. Even when Dr. J finally broke through and won his first NBA championship, the best player on that team was Moses Malone. In 1979, the year Magic came into the league, if a team was given the choice between him and Patrick Ewing, I bet most teams would have picked Ewing. That’s just how the NBA was back then. Centers we’re the ones who won the championships.
Magic and Bird certainly started to change things, but it wasn’t until the late 80s and the 90s that teams started to win without a dominant big man. Isiah and MJ both won multiple championships without big man sidekicks. That’s the first time in NBA history that teams really won without an All-Star big.
Still, the NBA big man wasn’t dead, but it was fleeting. Hakeem, Shaq, and Ewing were still leading their teams deep in the playoffs, but this was the beginning of the end for giants like them. As the NBA went on, and the last of the 90s big men began to retire, and Shaq's run came to an end, the NBA began to really change into what it is now. A league without any big men. Since 2006, only one big has won NBA Finals MVP. It was Dirk Nowitzki in 2011. It took a miraculous Mavericks playoff run to win the championship that season, but even though Dirk did win, he had Jason Kidd. In the league today, you need a dominant guard to win, just like in the 80s with bigs. All of the NBA champions since 2006 have had an All-Star guard on their roster.
In today's game, the big man is becoming extinct. The great big man of today aren’t just not winning championships, they’re not winning at all. Arguably the 5 best big men in the NBA right now are Anthony Davis, Karl Anthony-Towns, DeMarcus Cousins, Kristaps Porzingis, and Joel Embiid. These players were supposed to return to big to the NBA game. Yet, none of these players are going to make the playoffs this season. Together, they’ve combined to play 17 NBA seasons, and only 1 of those 17 was a year in which one of their teams went to the playoffs. It was Anthony Davis and the Pelicans, and they were the 8 seed, and got swept.
Yet still, the draft goes the same way it always has. In 2015, 3 of the first 4 picks were big men. You’d think in a league where the big man is becoming increasingly less effective teams would try to find other ways to build their team, but they don’t. The big man is too attractive. Karl Anthony-Towns has all the skills a guard does, and yet his team doesn’t win. The Pelicans are going to be the team to either start the big man renaissance, or change NBA ideology for a long time.
If the Pelicans don’t end up working out, what’s the excuse in defense of the big men? Even if their guards aren’t good enough to win a championship, when you’re this dominant at 2 positions you should be able to overcome that to the extent of at least making the postseason. If you haven’t noticed, the Warriors, the best team in the NBA, are starting Zaza Pachulia at center. But, maybe that should tell you something. Maybe in today’s game the center just doesn’t matter.
The Pelicans can still save the big man. They don’t have to make it work this season, but next season, if they can’t make the playoffs as a top 6 team in their conference with the 2 best big man in the NBA, with a full offseason to implement a system and sign free agents to help them, then what’s there left to say? The idea that you can’t win if you’re team is centered around a big man might actually creep into NBA ideology.
The game against Houston was a perfect first matchup for New Orleans because of the story it tells. Houston shed Dwight Howard and brought in Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson. They went from being the 8 seed to the 3 seed. That game serves as a microcosm of what the league has become. It was once thought a jump shooting team couldn’t win the championship. Now, can a big man centered team win one?
Remember what I said earlier about the MVPs from 1965-1980? All of them were centers. In the last 16 years not a single center has won MVP. Anthony Davis, as amazing as he is, just can’t dominate the game the way a guard or forward can. Today, basketball is a game for the wingmen.