THE shift to the small ball almost drove the middle position to extinction. Suddenly there was a Big Man renaissance. After the era of small forwards (LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant) ended, the next league leaders became point guards. Now bigs are starting to matter.
The last 4 MVPs went to nearly 7-footers Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic. These bigs are versatile, one with freaky athleticism, the other a playful prodigy using their unique skills and wits. The top three draft picks this year were all big men. This was to be a new era where real bigs, not stretch fours, would take center stage again.
So the idea of pairing Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns wouldn’t be so far-fetched. At times it even looked like a genius. However, reality kicks in, and an attack on the Twin Towers is so easy to predict while defenses can often be left behind.
What’s wrong, player or the paradigm?
There are twin towers that have succeeded, and it was even the goal of every team to assemble them. Best role models are Tim Duncan and David Robinson, both highly-anticipated first overall winners, NBA-ready years before they entered the league. Of course they played with the San Antonio Spurs for the best sports organization in North America, with a great coach ever. It’s a generational gathering that we’re unlikely to see in the next decade.
The earlier attempt to put together two first overall winners (who were usually big men) also took place in Texas, with the Houston Rockets receiving back-to-back first overall winners in a highly questionable manner. Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon did not win a title as Sampson was ahead of his time. Ironically, Olajuwon got his fame after Sampson left. In contrast, Robinson won his title when Duncan arrived.
The plan for the Minnesota Timberwolves calls for a defensive-offensive dynamic between Gobert and Towns. Gobert is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year and has the cool nickname Stifle Tower. But those days are over, and Wolves’ defensive rating is even better when Gobert is NOT on the pitch.
It’s probably an effect of trust. In the back of their minds, they know they have Gobert as a rim protector to address their shortcomings. When Gobert sits, his teammates feel the need for balance. Meanwhile, Towns’ ability as a ground spacer has been overrated. It’s also quite a waste. Why do you need Towns’ physique and dexterity when he only does jump shots? Any other guard could do that, probably better than Towns.
Will it ever work?
Shall we now close the book on Twin Towers in the NBA? Showoff rights in the NBA used to have several 7-footers. Nowadays it’s even a curse. If you look at the past half decade of NBA drafts, the biggest disappointments at the top have mostly been the big men.
No.1 Pick DeAndre Ayton, No.2 Marvin Bagley of the 2018 NBA Draft are on the verge of going broke. Ayton has had quite a decent career but is not worthy of a first pick. Meanwhile, Luka Doncic and Trae Young, drafted after them, are certified franchise players and even MVP candidates.
We’ve had numerous instances in NBA history where choosing a big man over a guard resulted in disaster. Sam Bowie on Michael Jordan is Exhibit A. Darko Millicic on Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade is next. There’s also Michael Olowokandi and Andrea Bargnani, even Andrew Bogut – all No. 1 picks.
How come NBA teams still can’t get the lesson? Big is good, but nowadays you have to pay a price for it. Injuries, slow switching, or foul play are some of the risks a team might face when rolling the dice against a big man.
Even here in the Philippines, drawing has caused remorse because of the altitude. Drafting the unknown Maurice Shaw just because he’s 6’9 was a huge mistake when he had all red flags with inactivity and injuries. Managing just one big man isn’t easy in today’s game, and betting on having two seven-footers on the ground takes more effort from their teammates.