The beauty of the NBA is that it is continuously evolving. Basketball being played now is hardly comparable to basketball played 30 years ago. Today, the NBA is centered around outside shooting, a style that Stephen Curry popularized and proved that you could win playing that way by winning multiple NBA championships and MVPs. Analytics showed up and made the perimeter shot the hottest ticket in town.
Every aspect of the game is being analyzed and quantified. That resulted in all the teams playing a similar style, focusing mostly on the outside shots. 15 to 20 years ago, outside shooting wasn’t nearly as big of a deal as it is today. You could see much more isolation plays, post-ups, and mid-range jumpers, which aren’t considered effective in today’s state of the league.
The analytically driven league has seen the shortage of dominant centers. Some teams, such as the Houston Rockets go to such extremes that they play the lineup without a guy taller than 6 foot 8. For some, this is unthinkable, given that big-men always dominated the league. From one of the league’s first superstars George Mikan, a great Bill Russell – Wilt Chamberlain rivalry to the dominance of Kareem Abdul Jabbar and later on Shaquille O’Neal, every era of the NBA was centered around a player who was dominant in the paint. Do we need to say, Hakeem?
For a long time, there was a belief around the league that you can’t win without a big-man as one of your best players. Perimeter players who were able to win the title all had great 7-footers on their side. The narrative of not being able to win it all without being a giant also followed Michael Jordan as he entered the league in 1984. Him only being 6’6 “had a lot of people question what he can do.
“We wish he was 7’1″, but he isn’t”Rod Thorn, The Last Dance
NBA players of that time were also skeptical about him carrying a team in the NBA. However, Michael proved them all wrong, winning 6 NBA titles with a perimeter-oriented roster. During his first three-peat, the Bulls starting center was Bill Cartwright. During those three seasons, he averaged 7.9 PPG, 5.1 RPG, and 0.2 BPG. His playoff performances weren’t any better, with an average of 7.0 PPG, 4.5 RPG, and 0.2 BPG. Solid, but not close to historical.
During the second three-peat, Luc Longley was starting at center for the Bulls. He was a slightly improved version of Cartwright, averaging 7.9 PPG, 5.1 RPG, and 0.2 BPG. In the playoffs, he wasn’t any better with averages of 7.0 PPG, 4.5 RPG, and 0.2 BPG during the three regular-seasons. In the playoffs, his numbers were similar to Cartwright’s, as he averaged 7.6 PPG, 4.7 RPG, and 1.0 BPG. Again, dependable, but not close to a standard championship-winning big-men have set.
MJ was the guy who broke the narrative about perimeter players not being able to lead the team to the title. Before Jordan did it, The Bad Boy Pistons led by Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars proved the narrative wrong by leading the Pistons to a back-to-back title in 89 and 90. However, MJ’s dominance in the 90s put an end on the whole story about needing a dominant center to win an NBA title.