There is no more coveted commodity in the NBA Western Conference than the Big. A more-than-serviceable front court has propelled teams through the playoffs and landed them into the Finals. This is more of a Western phenomenon, and one of historical reverence.
Sure, in years past the East has had dominant Hall-of-Fame-type centers. Alonzo Mourning and Patrick Ewing made their teams winners. There is no coincidence that these two hail from Georgetown. Even Rick Smitz had something to do with those mid-90s Pacers and their relative success. In 2006, Shaq got in on the action and left LA for Miami, and won another title. Today, the good, not yet great, front court players from the Eastern Conference are Joakim Noah, Timofey Mosgov, Nikola Vucevic from Orlando, and Al Jefferson. Not exactly inspiring. Ok, that’s not fair. Jefferson and Noah are very-serviceable.
They grow bigger and better in the West. The Conference is flooded with proven front court talent, and is restocking with youth. DeMarcus Cousins, Serge Ibaka, Donatas Motiejunas from Houston are all potential anchors on future contenders.
Just as we previously reviewed the back courts of the Western Conference title contenders, the below is a trip around the West’s front courts.
Golden State wins 83% of their games. And it isn’t because of their front court. Stephen Curry may be this year’s league MVP, and Klay Thompson continues to soar. Andrew Bogut, the former first overall pick in the 2005 Draft, is just ok. He scores only 6.2 points per game, with only 8 rebounds contributed. Now, he doesn’t get many chances, one could say. Golden State wins when the ball is in Curry’s hands, not Bogut’s, and long shots equal long rebounds.
But, how can someone justify Bogut’s productivity when small forward Draymond Green is getting 12 points, eight boards, and almost four assists per night?
Houston without Dwight Howard isn’t exactly barren in the front court. James Harden makes a lot of people look good, but Motiejunas, the seven-foot Lithuanian power forward is turning into a playmaker himself. He is scoring 12 points a game, but more importantly his perimeter shooting stretches defenses like a young Dirk Nowitzki. Now, he doesn’t play heavy minutes- yet. But, his per-36 scoring is a 15.1. That could be the difference maker in the playoffs when combined with a healthy Dwight Howard.
Not to be outdone is Terrence Jones. The second year man from Kentucky has been oft-injured this year, so his minutes played are way down from last year (1336 less). However, his per-36 point totals are above 16 over that interval. And, what will pay dividends for Houston, Jones is a bruiser. He has zero jump shooting game, but instead he clogs the lane for tip-ins, and dunks. He is shooting 70% within three-feet from the basket.
The Grizzlies have a long history of dependence on bigs. See Bryant “Big Country” Reeves. Then there was Pau Gasol. Now there is Marc Gasol and the incomparable Zach Randolph. That tandem is remarkable. And they remain remarkably healthy. Gasol has started 74 of the 75 games played this season, and Randolph, at 33 years of age, has started 64.
They are stalwarts. Memphis’ troubles in years-past have been related to front court depth. And this year should be no different. They have Kosta Kofous as a reserve center and that is about the only positive. Per 36 minutes played he logs 11 points and 11 rebounds. After Kofous the well is dry.
Terry Stott’s team has taken full advantage of a Northwest Division that is Thunder-less this year without Kevin Durant. Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews had the back court locked in until Matthews went down with injury. Their front court isn’t too shabby either.
The ‘Blazers carry court centers on their roster, but are really inexperienced outside of Robin Lopez and Chris Kaman, two seven-footers. They are anchored, however, by 6-11 power forward LaMarcus Aldridge. He is scoring 23.6 points per game, which when combined with 21 from Damian Lillard, is a quite potent punch in the Western Conference. I really like the combination of Aldridge and Lopez in the front court, but the depth issue will keep them from moving forward. Look for Kaman to be an out-of-character enforcer when things start to get physical in the playoffs.
Without Matthews to balance out the scoring attack, Portland is very limited. Only Arron Afflalo is averaging double-digit points for the Trailblazers.
DeAndre Jordan, and the LA Clippers, have the second-best offense in the Association, scoring 106.8 points per game. The starting front court of Blake Griffin and Jordan are standouts on a roster full of talent. Unlike the thin Portland Trailblazers, the Clippers have six players averaging double digits, led by Griffin’s 22 per night.
That said, if we are only considering front court players, the Clippers are a familiar story. If Griffin and Jordan are off the court, there isn’t much depth. Spencer Hawes’ size affects opposing shooters. Hawes is not, however, scoring many points (5.9) nor grabbing many rebounds (3.7) when out on the court. Good thing Jordan plays 35 minutes per night.
Matt Barnes is a serviceable small forward. He is rangy, a timely shooter, and a decent rebounder.Now we arrive at the San Antonio Spurs. Tim Duncan will go down as the greatest power forward of all time. While that is a lifetime-achievement-type award, he is playing outstanding in this his 18th season. He is shooting 50% from the field, leading the team in rebounds (641), and points (963). That is crazy for a 38-year old.
San Antonio isn’t a one-trick pony when it comes to front court play. They are deep too. Center Tiago Splitter has fully recovered from a calf injury that has been nagging him all season. His productivity is up from earlier in the year, and he is picking up his offensive intensity. Spitter has become the most effective compliment to Duncan since David Robinson.
Diaw is an offensive instigator. He is one of the best passers on the team and his ability to shoot the ball in key situations calls back to Robert Horry. Per 36 minutes he scores nearly 13 points per game, doles out 4.2 assists, and grabs 6.2 rebounds.
Baynes, could be the bruiser on this team. The New Zealand native has gone through stretches of superb offensive play, and others where he has looked clumsy with the ball. Defensively, he is almost always solid. His size clogs the lane and affects shots, even though he isn’t a stereotypical shot blocker. Per-36 he averages over 10 rebounds.
Bonner’s range is his best asset. He shoots the ball well from distance (38% from three-point range) and causes his defender to step away from rim protection duty. That frees the lane for cutters like Manu Ginobili to quickly gather points. He has started 18 games this season, but as a more usual backup, we’ll use the backup statistic, the per-36 minute stats. He scores 10.8 points, two assists and four rebounds.The Spurs have five bigs that can impact the game making them one of the deepest teams in the Association. We didn’t even touch last year’s Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard at small forward who leads his team with 16 points per game.
San Antonio’s size and scoring diversity gives them the upper hand against many possible playoff opponents this year. The have the ability to hit shots from anywhere, and defend with strength and size in the lane. What they lack in the front court, outside of of Leonard, is a truly explosive player. If they remain jump shooters in the playoffs, they could have trouble with the athleticism of Blake Griffin- should he choose to apply it- on defense.