Throughout the course of NBA history, there have been a ton of great big men, and the game has evolved immensely since the days of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. The centers of today are adapting to a new style of play, more of a European style that’s predicated on spacing the floor and shooting outside shots more than playing in the post.
Tim Duncan, one of the greatest to ever step on a basketball court, recently announced his retirement, and one of the most dominant players ever, Shaquille O’Neal, doesn’t take kindly to the comments made about Tim Duncan being one of the greatest big men ever. On his podcast, The Big Podcast with Shaq, O’Neal goes into detail about how he feels about Duncan’s place in the realm of great big men:
“I only have one beef with how they’re throwing this around. They’re saying he’s one of the greatest big men. Do you count power forwards as big men? Because I don’t. I was always taught that the big man was a center. I know we got new rules and they don’t have the center spot no more, but no.”
The argument here is what your criteria for big men are? Is it a position, or playstyle? For me, a “big man” can be any power forward or center who protects the paint on defense and spends a majority of his time in the post on offense.
It was early in Duncan’s career that he played a majority of his minutes at power forward because San Antonio was running David Robinson at center; according to Basketball-Reference, since 2000-01, Duncan has played 70 percent of his minutes at center. Since 2007-08, that percentage jumps to 95.
There’s no question that Duncan should be in consideration for greatest big man ever. His style of play did incorporate a mid-range game, but Duncan had no issues going on the block and playing with his back to the basket.
In this new day and age, however, the most sought after “bigs” are the most versatile ones, and they put pressure on the defense because they have outstanding post games and respectable mid-range games — guys like Karl-Anthony Towns, Al Horford, and DeMarcus Cousins.
Also because of this evolution in the game, the position labels are being thrown out the window. It won’t be long until all the teams in the Association are putting their best five guys out there regardless of height, and the Golden State Warriors have been the pioneers of it by labeling Draymond Green (6-7) a center in their small ball offense.
Data courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless otherwise noted
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