THE shift to small ball almost drove the center position to extinction. Suddenly, there was a big man renaissance. After the small forward era (LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant) ended, the next batch of league leaders became point guards. Now, bigs are starting to gain prominence.
The last 4 MVPs went to near 7-footers Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic. These bigs are versatile, one using freaky athleticism, one a playmaking prodigy using his unique skills and wits. Top three draft picks this year were all big men. This was supposed to be a new era where true bigs and not stretch fours would take centerstage again.
Thus, the idea of pairing Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns would not be so outlandish. At certain times, it even looked like genius. However, reality steps in, and a twin tower attack is so easy to predict, while the defense can often get left behind.
What's wrong, players or the paradigm?
There are twin towers that succeeded, and it was even the goal of every team to assemble them. The best paradigm is Tim Duncan and David Robinson, both highly anticipated first overall picks, NBA-ready years before they entered the league. Of course, they played for the best sports organization in North America with the San Antonio Spurs, with an all-time great coach. It's a generational assembly we likely won't see in the next decade.
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The earlier attempt to assemble two first overall picks (which were usually big men) was also in Texas, with the Houston Rockets getting consecutive first overall picks in highly questionable fashion. Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon did not win a title, as Sampson was a player ahead of his time. Ironically, Olajuwon got his glory after Sampson left. In contrast, Robinson won his title when Duncan arrived.
The plan for the Minnesota Timberwolves is to have a defense-offense dynamic between Gobert and Towns. Gobert is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, earning the cool nickname Stifle Tower. But those days are gone, and the Wolves defensive rating is even better when Gobert is NOT on the court.
It's probably an effect of reliance. At the back of their minds, they know they have Gobert as a rim protector, cleaning up their shortcomings. When Gobert sits, his teammates feel the need to compensate. Meanwhile, Towns' ability as a floor spacer has been overestimated. It's also quite a waste. Why do you need Towns' physique and dexterity when he'll just take jumpshots. Any other guard could do that, probably better than Towns.
Will it ever work?
Should we now close the book on Twin Towers in the NBA? Bragging rights in the NBA used to be having multiple 7-footers. Nowadays, it's even a curse. Looking at the past half-decade of NBA drafts, the biggest disappointments at the top were mostly the big men.
No.1 pick DeAndre Ayton, No. 2 Marvin Bagley of the 2018 NBA Draft are verging on becoming busts. Ayton has quite a decent career, but not worthy of a first overall 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 led to disaster. Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan is Exhibit A. Darko Millicic over Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade is the next. There are also Michael Olowokandi and Andrea Bargnani, even Andrew Bogut — all No.1 picks.
How come NBA teams still can't grasp the lesson? Tall is good, but nowadays, there is a price to pay. Injuries, slow switching, or getting baited into fouls are some of the risks that a team could face when they roll the dice on a big man.
Even here in the Philippines, drafting because of height has led to regret. Drafting unknown Maurice Shaw simply because he's 6'9 was a big mistake, when he had all the red flags with inactivity and injuries. Managing just one big man is not easy in today's game, and gambling on having two seven-footers on the floor requires more effort for their teammates.