Welcome to “The Blueprint,” a series about roster philosophy and data science in the NBA. This collection of pieces explores Aneesh Namburi’s personal ideology in modern team building while incorporating a custom Python dash app to provide statistical backing, as well as a tool for future player/role identification.
In the latest edition of 'P.I. Pulse,' as part of "The Blueprint" series, Aneesh Namburi provides an overview of one of his most valuable player archetypes: the big man.
If you missed "The Blueprint: Off-Ball Wings," check it out here.
Let’s be clear. The big man is not dead. Rather, it has evolved massively, a stark contrast from the role it occupied even five years ago. Previously, bigs' skill sets were highly dependent on their physical traits — boxing out and rebounding, finishing around the basket, etc. As the NBA has evolved into a much more skill dependent league, the tasks required of big men have consequently diversified and expanded greatly.
The modern big needs to be able to space the floor, play make, and act as a vertical/roll threat out of screens. Furthermore, having bigs who are versatile defending the pick-and-roll is important for teams in order to throw a multitude of looks at opponents. Due to the increased level of skill and versatility required to play the position, it’s almost impossible to find all these qualities in one player, which is why I largely prefer a committee approach.
I’m obviously not advocating against rostering the league’s elite bigs, but it is very difficult to find a big that checks all the different set boxes. Additionally, it is no secret that there is an oversaturation of one-track big men on the market. Thus, it makes sense to take advantage of the landscape and make calculated investments and acquire players who can maximize impact in a smaller role. This allows you to free up resources for the rest of your roster and allocate money and assets to the roles where the delineation between championship level players and others are much more distinct (basically they need to play more minutes = more money).
A couple questions that I’ve received is what this theory means for the one-dimensional defensive centers that are excellent within an antiquated skillset (Rudy Gobert, Clint Capela, Jarrett Allen, etc.) or offensive bigs who aren’t superstars but still positive contributors (Domantas Sabonis, Nikola Vucevic). I generally call these players “B-Level” bigs, and this is probably the area I’ve spent the most time thinking about in terms of value on a championship roster. The answer I’ve come up with is that it is tough to build a contender while tailoring the structure of your team for someone that is not the first or second offensive option, especially when you take into account contract status. When you factor in the cost of these players, in addition to the assets it will take to protect their weaknesses, it leaves your roster with little margin for error.
Today, bigs are the easiest low-usage players whose impact can transform a playoff series. In the playoffs where adjustments can transform a series, maximizing lineup flexibility is a great tool for teams. Having solid options available for a variety of scenarios can tilt these scales in your favor. I like to divide bigs into three general categories: roll bigs (provide screen gravity and a vertical threat), spacing bigs (can stretch drop bigs with shooting, specifically above the break), and playmaking bigs (attack tilted situations — specifically when the ball handler is trapped — usually operating in the short roll, drawing defensive attention and hitting teammates). I mentioned having coverage diversity, the ideal situation is to have bigs who can each play below, at, and above/switch the screen. The drop big is used for primary rim protection and to deter rim attempts, the big at the level of the screen applies himself against the high-level pull-up shooters, and the big who can play above the screen or switch is the premier option for high leverage situations where opposing offenses will be match-up hunting. It is also important to organize these bigs in a way where you can mix-and-match them and potentially play multiple (or even none) at the same time.
To be transparent, the area I am still parsing through in my own head is how to balance my offensive and defensive philosophy with my theory on contracts. On one hand, a single niche skill allows for more optionality, but they are “inferior” options and usually don’t optimize my constant movement dribble/pass/shoot offensive principles. Compare that to the better big man candidates who present more versatility but due to their performance, cost significantly more and are more rare to find. Unless you have a multi-skill rookie big, it is tough to fit both aforementioned criteria, but how many coaches are comfortable trusting inexperienced bigs (arguably the toughest position to master) in the most high leverage situations? However, the increase of these multi-skill bigs coming into the NBA is happening at a rapid rate, so it might solve my primary concern with a committee approach while also finding a player on a smaller contract, if you're lucky enough to find them in the draft.
Carter, Jr.'s combination of block percentage, playmaking, and finishing around the hoop are all positive. Throw in his flashes of shooting at Duke and the search results yield a few perimeter-based players. His profile offers potential to run that five-out scheme, offensively.
Sharpe presented a ton of similarities to Carter, Jr., but with slightly worse athletic tools (mainly his lack of vertical pop which likely correlated to a lower block rate). Like WCJ, having a combination of skilled wings/forwards along with interior-oriented comps portends nicely to future perimeter capabilities. On film, Sharpe showed real flashes passing out of the short roll and elbow, and despite limited vertical pop, he had solid finishing numbers around the rim and seems to have made physical improvements in the pre-draft process.
It’s tough for players with a block rate over 10% and any baseline of offensive skill not to stick in the NBA. Like most of the other results, Turner’s rim protection and finishing carried over, but what has turned him into a DPOY candidate has been his increased lateral and hip mobility.
An elite two-coverage big who also operates at a high level as a pick-and-roll threat (per BBALL Index, Turner’s roll gravity was his second-best skill this past season) and spaces the floor to keep the defense honest (35.5% shooting on 3.3 attempts per game/5.4 attempts per 100 possessions from 3) doesn’t fit either of my categories perfectly, but if you are going to pay a sub-elite big money, you could do a lot worse than his skills and $18M salary.
2021 NBA Draft
A cursory look at Boucher’s and Kai Jones’ game film might cause some people to make comparisons to each other. Not only looking at their numbers, but also a careful look at the tape will change that perception. Boucher has all the indicators of a traditional big, just one that could step out and shoot while also stepping out to defend on the perimeter.
Meanwhile, Jones’ low block rate (even though he did play a good amount at the 4), ball skills, and comps to almost all perimeter based players makes me look at him as a part-time 5 and a primarily perimeter player. And that’s an ultra-valuable skill, as his ability to play five-out offense and switch defensively while having the size to be somewhat of a rim deterrent (similar to Brandon Clarke and Marvin Williams, just taller) is the exact type of player I mentioned in the last paragraph.
Both Holmes and Birch aren’t physically overpowering players, but they present block rates comparable to real footers and college behemoths. Watching film, they not only have comfort operating with the ball as a handler and playmaker (not very apparent in the numbers but on film), but can also finish with real variance from all over the paint, making it tough for defenses to completely shut them off. The big separator is Holmes’ mobility and coverage versatility, whereas Birch is primarily a drop coverage player, which is why you’ll see the current Kings big man see a massive pay raise over the off season. But these are the type of low-value centers to ideally target, yielding real dividends on your roster.
2021 NBA Draft
I picked both Okongwu and Mobley (s/o Compton Magic and USC for having both of them on their rosters) as examples of bigs who I am interested in taking with early picks. I will not lie, I don’t think either players comparison results are super indicative due to playing in a 2-big lineup with the Trojans (though Okongwu’s block rate matching up with massive humans such as Sim Bhullar, Tacko Fall, and Joel Embiid should have assuaged concerns about him being a full-time 5). Both have the potential to be full-time centers despite perceived physical limitations, and both have shown the ability to execute all three main pick-and-roll coverages. When you add in their willingness to shoot outside of the paint this early, their elite finishing numbers, and playmaking flashes, these are the bigs you want to take early in the draft, as they potentially could be useful in any game situation presented. The crazy thing is, there are more of these prospect types coming, with players such as Victor Wembanyama, Yannick Nzosa, and others on the horizon.