Life is cyclical in the NBA.
Trends come and go, and what was previously unfashionable comes back stronger than ever.
Off the back of the Golden State Warriors' dynastic domination over recent seasons, teams tried to replicate that formula, forcing traditional big men off the floor as teams opted for more mobile, switching defences, honed in on guarding the 3-point line.
Last season, the Houston Rockets took it to the extreme, bringing to life micro-ball with no player above 6-foot-7 in the starting lineup. After some initial success, things eventually caught up with the Rockets when they ran into the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the playoffs, finding no answers for Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard and co.
Since Golden State's first title in 2015-16, teams were averaging 24.1 3-point attempts per game. That number has climbed each season, now sitting at 34.9 per game.
The big men are now raining in 3s as the game takes on a new evolution, but in a "point guard's league," they're doing more than that. In fact, they're leading some of the best teams in the NBA. The league's big men are among the early leaders in MVP voting, with two of the top five candidates being centres in Nikola Jokic, who is having perhaps the best offensive season from a big man in recent memory, and Joel Embiid, who has the Philadelphia 76ers at the top of the Eastern Conference.
Meanwhile, Rudy Gobert is anchoring the league's No. 2 defence as the Utah Jazz race out to their best start in franchise history (24-5).
Not since the 1999-00 season has a centre been named MVP when Shaquille O'Neal took home the award. Could this be the year that changes?
With that in mind, let's take a look at the big men setting the NBA alight through the first half of the season.
Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
After their impressive run to the Western Conference Finals, the Nuggets have struggled out of the gate this season, sitting eighth in the West. But it's had little to do with the play of Jokic, who has been nothing short of dominant.
The Serbian big man is averaging a near triple-double, dishing out 8.6 assists a night to go with 27.4 points and 11.1 rebounds, while shooting 40.2 percent from deep. Only once in NBA history has a centre averaged at least eight assists per game in a single season, when Wilt Chamberlain (8.6) did it in 1967-68 for the Philadelphia 76ers.
In 28 games this season, Jokic has recorded seven 30-point games, two 40-point games and one 50-point explosion against the Sacramento Kings, where he became the first centre to record at least 50 points and 10 assists since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975.
Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
The 76ers are looking like championship contenders after re-tooling their roster with some offseason additions, but the main reason for their success has been the sheer dominance of Embiid.
Averaging 29.1 points, 10.8 rebounds and 1.2 blocks on 39.7 percent shooting from the 3-point line, Embiid has become a reliable threat from the outside, while still remaining as the league's most dominant player on the block, averaging 9.5 points per game out of post-ups.
Oh yeah, he's also quietly become the league's best midrange shooter.
Trust The Midrange. pic.twitter.com/DyPVME2feh- Kirk Goldsberry (@kirkgoldsberry) February 13, 2021
Alongside LeBron James, Embiid is the early favourite to win MVP, and his value to the conference-leading 76ers is evident whenever he's not on the floor. Philly is 18-5 when he has played and just 1-5 in games he's missed.
That sounds a lot like an MVP to me.
Joel Embiid finished with 31 points tonight in a win over the Rockets, his 12th straight game with 25+ points.- ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) February 18, 2021
Embiid is 1 of 3 players in 76ers history with 12 straight 25-point games (Allen Iverson & Wilt Chamberlain) pic.twitter.com/iguRHdKOm9
Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
The Jazz are off to their best start in franchise history. While their lights-out 3-point shooting and free-wheeling offence are a big reason why, it's their defence that sets the table for everything else ... and their defence is Gobert.
The Frenchman leads the league in defensive rating and defensive win shares. When he's off the floor, opponents have shot 42.6 percent from the field as opposed to 46.7 percent when he's on.
when you think you have rudy beat: no you don't#NBAAllStar | @rudygoberty27 pic.twitter.com/BoyWSgeQ4o- utahjazz (@utahjazz) February 3, 2021
If Gobert, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year winner, takes home the award again this season, he will become just the fourth player in NBA history to win it at least three times.
Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers
In his third season with the Pacers, Sabonis is averaging career-highs in points (21.5) and assists (5.7). He's knocking down 35.8 percent of his triples, up from 25.4 percent from last season, and is among the league's best pick-and-roll players.
Averaging the sixth most points per game (4.6) as the roll man, Sabonis continues to evolve into one of the league's brightest inside-out players.
The 24 year old's offensive production goes beyond his scoring, recording two triple-doubles so far this season, becoming one of the better passing big men in the NBA. With 5.7 assists per game, only Jokic, Draymond Green and Giannis Antetokounmpo average more dimes per game among big men.
Sabonis is also tied with Rudy Gobert for most points created from screen assists, generating 15.9 points per game.
😤 Career-high 36 PTS for Domas- NBA (@NBA) February 18, 2021
😤 17 REB, 10 AST, 3 STL@Dsabonis11's MONSTER triple-double powers the @Pacers in OT! pic.twitter.com/KJz4Xqs2Tf
With his seventh triple-double in a Pacers uniform coming this week, Sabonis is now the franchise's all-time leader.
Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
While he's having somewhat of a down year statistically as injuries have disrupted his start to the season, Davis is a certified top five player in the league.
Sure, he plays a lot of his minutes at power forward, but the Lakers' most effective lineups come with him playing at centre, as we saw in last year's Finals against the Miami Heat.
With his combination of scoring at all three levels, rim protection and perimeter defence, it's hard to find many weaknesses in his game.
Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
The Heat are struggling, with injuries to their key players robbing them of consistency. In light of that, Adebayo has been their most consistent performer when he's been on the floor, averaging 19.9 points, 9.2 rebounds and 5.3 assists through 25 games, while anchoring their defence.
Miami is allowing 39.9 points per game in the paint - the fewest in the league - thanks largely to Adebayo's defensive presence.
Perhaps the perfect modern big man in terms of skill set, Adebayo impacts the game on both ends and, in a similar vein to Jokic, can act as the team's primary facilitator.
At just 23 years old, Adebayo has the potential to develop into the league's best big man in years to come.
Nikola Vucevic, Orlando Magic
The Magic big man tends to fly under the radar, but he's established himself as one of the best centres in the league.
Vucevic is enjoying a career-year for the Magic with 23.4 points per game to go with 11.6 rebounds, while shooting the 3 at a scorching 41.4 percent clip on a career-high 6.2 attempts per game.
In February alone, Vucevic has recorded two 40-point games, including a career-high 43-point, 19-rebound, four-assist performance against the Chicago Bulls.
Christian Wood, Houston Rockets
Signing a lucrative deal with the Rockets as a free agent, Wood got his season off to a scorching start, putting up 22.0 points and 10.2 rebounds on 42.1 percent from 3.
Currently sidelined with an ankle injury, it's no coincidence the Rockets have been in freefall since he's been out of the lineup, currently riding a seven-game losing streak.
Having bounced around five different teams and in and out of the league since 2015-16, Wood has seized his opportunity in Houston. While he's only played 17 games in a Rockets uniform, he's quickly established himself as their most important player.
A Most Improved Player of the Year award doesn't seem out of reach for the 25-year-old.
Julius Randle, New York Knicks
On track to earn his first All-Star selection this season, Randle looks to have found a home in New York and, more importantly, has given Knicks fans hope, not for the future, but for right now.
The 26-year-old is producing career-highs in points (23.2), rebounds (10.9) and assists (5.5), and recorded the best game of his career this season against the Atlanta Hawks, dropping 44 points, nine rebounds and five assists, including a career-best seven 3-pointers.
Randle is on track to be just the second player in NBA history to average 20-plus points, 10-plus rebounds and five-plus assists while shooting 40 percent from 3, the other being Larry Bird in 1984-85.
Between the MVP contenders and the nightly standout performances from power forwards and centres around the league, I think it's safe to say the big man is back.
Here are some other centres who have shined this season:
- Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
- John Collins, Atlanta Hawks
- Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas Mavericks
- Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
- Clint Capela, Atlanta Hawks
- Andre Drummond, Cleveland Cavaliers
- Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns
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