Even in NBA's 3-point heavy small-ball era, here's how some teams are still finding success by going big

There's a simmering frustration among some longtime NBA fans that things might be changing a little too quickly, and heading toward games that more closely resemble 3-point contests than actual basketball games. The league has set records for 3-pointers made and attempted in each of the last six seasons, and they're on pace to do it again this year. With teams hoisting more 3-point shots than ever before, it only makes sense to have as many shooters as possible on the floor at all times, so we've seen teams increasingly use the power forward position to get another floor spacer in the mix.

While that's the case for most NBA teams, some are bucking the trend by going with more traditional two-big lineups featuring a true power forward and center or, depending on how you look at it, two centers. It seems entirely antithetical to the pace-and-space, wing-heavy, switchable style of play that has swarmed the league over the past several seasons, but there is evidence to suggest that going old-school still has its advantages.

So far this season, the Heat (Bam Adebayo-Meyers Leonard), Pacers (Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis), Trail Blazers (Zach Collins-Hassan Whiteside), 76ers (Joel Embiid-Al Horford) and Lakers (Anthony Davis-JaVale McGee and Davis-Dwight Howard) have all spent significant minutes with two traditional big men on the court. Obviously players like Davis, Embiid, Horford, Leonard and Turner extend their range beyond the 3-point line, but only Horford is in the top 75 in the league in 3s attempted per game.

The idea behind playing two bigs together is that what you lose in 3-point shooting (and possibly allowing more 3-point attempts), you more than make up for defensively with rim protection and rebounding, and offensively with more shots in the paint.

"Look, rim shots are still better than 3s. If you dominate the paint, that bodes very well for you," said Blazers coach Terry Stotts, who began the year with 7-footers Collins and Whiteside starting together before Collins suffered a shoulder injury. " ... You do the best with the players you have, and try to put them in positions to be successful. I think there are a lot of ways to win games in this league. Three-pointers have obviously had a huge impact, but getting to the rim and getting free throws is still statistically, analytically even better than the 3."

So far in a very small sample size (particularly with injuries to Turner and Collins and a two-game suspension for Embiid), the stats show that the double-big lineups have been successful, especially on the defensive end.

*Data from NBA.com, accurate as of Nov. 13, 2019

2019-20 double-big lineupsMinutesOff RatingDef RatingNet Rating
Heat (Adebayo-Leonard)180106.4100.85.6

Lakers (Davis-McGee)

129

103.4

99.3

4.1

Lakers (Davis-Howard)

92

119.1

90.5

28.6

Pacers (Turner-Sabonis)

89

106.1

102.2

3.9

76ers (Embiid-Horford)

88

96.7

88.6

8.1

Blazers (Whiteside-Collins)

49

118.1

100.9

17.2

Stotts' thinking is right in line with some great work done by Tom Haberstroh of NBC Sports last season. Haberstroh analyzed box scores and determined that a team out-shooting the opponent from the 3-point line was not even close to the most accurate indicator of success. What was? Field goal percentage and defensive rebounding. When you play two bigs together as opposed to a wing in the four spot, those two categories will almost certainly increase and, in theory, give your team a better chance to win. 

The Utah Jazz are a great test case for this. Last season they spent a lot of minutes with two traditional big men -- Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors -- playing together. This offseason they traded away Favors and replaced him with a 3-point marksman wing, Bojan Bogdanovic, in the starting lineup. Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell has been the focal point of the offense on both teams, and while he said he enjoys being able to get out in transition and play faster with more spacing, there was one glaring difference between last year's team and this year's.

"The biggest thing obviously is the rebounding. That's definitely huge," Mitchell said. "But I think being able to get out in transition, the spacing's a little bit different, for sure. I think that's one thing we're getting used to, but definitely rebounding I'd say is one thing we miss with Favors down there."

The stats bear out Mitchell's feeling, as lineups with Gobert and Bogdanovic (obviously in a much smaller sample size) are significantly worse when it comes to defensive rebounding than last season's lineups with Gobert and Favors. In fact, the Gobert-Favors tandem was an absolute beast on the glass, posting the best defensive rebounding percentage of any two-player lineup with over 500 minutes together last season, according to NBA.com.

Utah JazzMinutesDReb%

Gobert/Favors lineups

739

80

Gobert/Bogdanovic lineups

302

76.2

The other double-big lineups echo this trend, with most producing defensive rebounding of 77 percent or higher.

So far, however, it hasn't seemed to hurt the Jazz in terms of overall performance, and that's likely due to the boost in shooting through the addition of not only Bogdanovic, but also Mike Conley. The Gobert-Favors lineup made 2.1 3-pointers per game last season, while the Gobert-Bogdanovic lineups are hitting a whopping 7.4 per game so far. It goes back to what Stotts said: You do the best with the players you have. It would make no sense for the Jazz to start Gobert alongside Ed Davis (when healthy) or another traditional big if it meant leaving a player of Bogdanovic's caliber on the bench. Utah coach Quin Snyder did say, however, that losing Favors took away some of the team's versatility.

"I think that obviously gave us a unique look. It was a luxury in many respects as far as situations defensively where we could really match up when teams were big," Snyder said of the Favors-Gobert lineups. "So we've had to figure some things out defensively -- still trying to set the bar high for our group. And then on the offensive end, we kind of look the same throughout four quarters, where before we played a little differently based on who was on the floor. That continuity for us is not there yet, by any means. I think it's something that's still evolving."

Are we going to see a reversion to most teams having two traditional big men play the bulk of the minutes together any time soon? Probably not. But we've seen so far this season that even in the 3-point shooting, wing-heavy modern NBA, double-big lineups can still be effective.

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