It takes a kind of new breed of men in the middle to compete at the highest level
Being bulky in the NBA has taken a much different look in recent years. New defensive rules and evolving basketball bodies mean that a center or power forward can no longer quite take permanent residence in the post. Simply having some extra size on the enemy isn’t going to beguile contemporary teams. Deep shooting, mobility and passing skills closer to the perimeter have all become staples in today’s frontcourt game. Big men who can boast the skill sets of guards and wingmen are an ever-increasing population.
This is not to say that the classic distinguishing characteristics of big men are gone from our world; they’ve just become more marginal aspects of a larger picture. Some exceptions notwithstanding, it takes a kind of new breed of men in the middle to compete at the highest level in 2014.
5. Al Jefferson
Behold the master of the big man past. Big Al—whose nickname is lately becoming “Professor Al”—has a brilliant, hypnotic touch on the block and a sweet touch with his mid-range shot. Even Mister No. 1 on our list can sometimes be fooled by his crafty veteran footwork:
Jefferson is the centerpiece of his Charlotte Hornets' offense, and can spread defenses beyond the block with a rangy jump shot. He consistently draws a double team almost regardless of where he catches the ball, and opens up the Hornets offensive in a way so big it's hard to measure.
4. Marc Gasol
It comes as no surprise that one of the poster boys of modern, versatile big men comes from abroad, where the frontier of NBA strategy has exploded past the bruising style of the 1990s. Paired with the more vintage, down-low approach of Memphis Grizzlies teammate Zach Randolph, Gasol is allowed to freelance and put his uncanny stamp on the game in myriad ways. Watch Gasol toss the ball to the perimeter with the arc of a league-leading shortshop:
There's almost too much to account for, from the defense's perspective, when a player as big and skilled as Gasol is on the floor. It doesn't hurt his resume being one of the very best defenders of the lane, either—Gasol had a remarkable 5.23 defensive real plus-minus in 2013-14, second in the league for all centers.
3. Joakim Noah
The spirit animal of his domineering coach Tom Thibodeau, Noah is a relentless emotional and intellectual beast who overwhelms the opposition with a critical mass of hustle plays and his vision for seemingly invisible passing lanes. Often referred to as a “point center” as he ran the Chicago Bulls’ offense from outside the lane in 2013-14, Noah is one of the most unique players in the game.
Joakim inspires something like culture shock every time his towering frame takes the ball down the court with an authority and fluidity nearing that of Chris Paul’s. Despite coming in at 6'11", Noah’s comfort on offense has never been as a backdown man. His savant passing, clever off-ball motion and advanced understanding of spacing make for a package that no team wants to deal with.
2. Dwight Howard
Along with then-coach Stan Van Gundy, Dwight Howard formed the template for contemporary rim-protection with the Orlando Magic. A spry, hulky enforcer who can chase sharper-shooting bigs to the perimeter and fall back to the basket fast enough to squash slashers, Howard’s “Superman” moniker is what results from an impressive athlete also mastering the complex tenants of a thorough defensive system.
There’s never been a shortage of Dwight criticism from his predecessors, however. The desk of Shaq and Charles Barkley has long been a petri dish for misunderstandings of a big boy’s role in today’s game, as both beloved figures never miss an opportunity to snipe at Howard for his shortage of aggressive, butt-first action on the block. Howard often kowtows to such rhetoric and stalls his defense trying to perform so to match the moves of yesteryear. But when he blocks out that nostalgic babble and relishes his strengths as a pick-and-roll finisher and defensive demon, D12 points the way toward the paint action of tomorrow.
1. Anthony Davis
Meet the future. The 21-year-old Davis is already putting his New Orleans Pelicans squad on his back for a playoff push in the spiky Western Conference, and doing it by playing basketball like no one has before him. His 6'10" frame makes most people call Davis a center, but the unibrowed phenom’s game can fit into any positional box—but his role probably shouldn’t be squeezed into any of those categories.
AD played a dominant point guard as high-school sensation in Chicago, and his court awareness and coordination frequently remind us how that looked. He’s a threat from any part of the floor not just because he’s bigger, faster and stronger than most of the league, but also because he’s smarter. And he’s made an unparalleled art out of the act of swatting a shot while recovering the ball—a corralling takeaway that acts as a telling symbol for just how singular Davis’ value is. Anthony is the league’s best big man now, but in a few years or less, we might be talking about him as the very top specimen in the game.
— John Wilmes