Kristaps Porzingis and the rise of ‘Big Man for Small Ball’

New York Knicks Center Porzingis has been averaging nearly 30 points per game this season. / Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“Durability is the last issue Porzingis has to overcome before turning into the game’s next superstar.”

This matter-of-fact yet zealous pronouncement from the New York Post’s Marc Berman is precisely representative of how New York Knicks fans are feeling these past few weeks. The team has won five out of their last six games, led by center Kristaps Porzingis, who earned Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors for his efforts in part of that stretch. “The Unicorn,” as Kevin Durant nicknamed the Latvian expat, is averaging over 30 points and over two blocks per game.

Of course, and as is par for the course in a Knicks fan’s heart, the only surprise would be if the team’s early success did not precede a letdown. The franchise with Tim Hardaway Jr. as its secondary star will not be challenging the league’s best squads in team field goal percentage. But, Madison Square Garden hoops tragicomedy aside, Porzingis’s emergence as an apparently capable superstar is still very exciting. It is the latest example of changing times in the basketball world.

Many analysts and pundits documented a “small ball” revolution gripping the NBA in the 2014-16 seasons. The Golden State Warriors put the league on its heels by playing Draymond Green as an undersized power forward. Bursting at the seams with shooting, agility of body and agility of mind, those Warriors terrorized opponents using “pace and space” (Sports Illustrated, “How the Warriors evolved small ball and, in the process, the NBA,” 10.12.2015). Coach Steve Kerr only became more merciless in the 2016 season, deploying Green as a six-foot-seven center, even further expediting matters.

At first, the revolution seemed primed to discontinue traditional big men: hulking, physical players that can bully—and absorb opposing, bullying efforts—in the post. Power forward David Lee had been a starter in the NBA for many years. Yes, Lee was coming off significant injuries, but in 2015, he was still a post-scorer and offensive rebounder that could produce in large quantities—one whom any observer would have expected to contribute once available again for the Warriors. The power forward, though, rode the bench during the team’s championship march.

“I had some injuries early in the season and we’ve made some decisions since then,” Lee, with admirable equanimity, began explaining to a reporter, “and we’ve been playing a lot of small ball this season and coach Kerr’s come with somewhat of a new style for us” (NBA.com, “Lee focused on Finals now, uncertain future later,” 06.04.2015). Lee was experiencing first-hand the marginalization of his method of production, his way of providing value to the modern basketball team’s game-winning effort.

When one door closes, another one opens. Big men did not, in fact, go extinct as a result of the small ball revolution. Instead, they changed shape and/or adapted.

An aforementioned example of big men changing shape is Draymond Green. The forward had been playing mostly in the wing position before the Warriors’ dynasty took hold. Green isn’t the pinnacle of agility, but he is relatively quick off the mark, which pays dividends when he comes to the perimeter or even into the high screen area.

There are plenty of traditional big men still in the league. Draymond moving away from the basket gives those big, sluggish players the lose-lose choice of guarding his shot and ceding the lane to other cutters and drivers—as well as to Draymond himself, given the quickness differential—or guarding the lane and ceding the perimeter shot. Other players redeployed as big men with some more pep in their step include generational talents like LeBron James and Kevin Durant.

Adaptation has not been in one direction, though. Players with the height profiles of big men are increasingly presenting themselves with highly variegated, guardesque skillsets. Whereas a three-shooting big man like Dirk Nowitzki was a novelty just 10 or so years ago, today, virtually all offense-oriented frontcourt players work to develop their scoring game out towards the perimeter. Post stars such as Demarcus Cousins and Karl Anthony Towns now regularly shoot multiple threes. (Cousins is averaging nearly eight three-point shots a game this fall!)

In this context, the rise of a seemingly complete outlier of a big man, Kristaps Porzingis, to elite-tier stardom (thus far this season) is not entirely surprising.

It is not considered likely either, however. Despite his imposing height and frame (seven foot three), Porzingis cannot push his way into the post like many big men at a mere 240 pounds. A virtual skyscraper, the Latvian also is not very fast. So, how is it possible that Kristaps may very well average 25 or 30 points a game this season?

The answer is that the standard role of an NBA big man has changed dramatically. Instead of camping in the post, big men now often work outside the paint. They start at the top of the key, helping to create advantageous circumstances using their bodies as obstructions. In this vein, they offer pick-and-rolls to ballhandlers, high screens to wings and lane traffic to both on- and off-ball players.

This is all to help these offensive players escape the defenders the opposition wants to guard them with. Frontcourt players like Porzingis, who have all sorts of offensive skills, can especially thrive in basketball plays that develop circumstances like this.

Defenses try to scheme by fighting picks or letting switches happen against bad shooters. As a big man with a great shot from anywhere, Porzingis makes the opposition’s job virtually impossible. He has a superiority against big men when behind the perimeter and against smaller defenders when inside the perimeter. Put the smaller defender on him at the perimeter? The offensive guard can now face a defending big man in space. Keep the big man on Porzingis inside the perimeter? The offensive guard, if the pick is successful, escapes the defense and has a chance to shoot or create other high percentage offense.

Kevin Durant had a point when he labeled Kristaps Porzingis a “unicorn” of a basketball player. Much like Durant himself, Porzingis represents a combination of skillset and physical profile that just shouldn’t be possible.

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