The Whiteboard: NBA big men have never been more efficient

Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports
Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports /

The Whiteboard is The Step Back’s daily basketball newsletter, covering the NBA, WNBA and more. Subscribe here to get it delivered to you via email each morning.

There is a perception that the golden age of NBA big men was a distant era. Maybe the 1960s, when Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell were doing battle. Maybe when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was proving himself unguardable again and again and again. Maybe when Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Patrick Ewing were jockeying for paint supremacy. Whenever it was, it isn’t now. Not when 3-pointers and pick-and-roll creators are the NBA’s dominant force.

But then, you look at Karl-Anthony Towns dropping 60 points on the San Antonio Spurs and some of those preconceived notions start screaming to be reconsidered.

That 60-point explosion was the high-water mark of what has been a strong season for Towns, but, even with the Timberwolves set to make the playoffs for just the second time in 18 seasons, he’s been better. He’s had seasons where he scored more points per game, seasons where he scored more efficiently and seasons where did both. But not many big men have.

NBA big men have never been more skilled than they are right now

His true shooting percentage this season (64.1) is the fifth-highest all-time for a player 6-foot-11 or taller who scored at least 20 points per game. What’s noteworthy is that the four seasons above his have all come within the last four seasons. In fact, 11 of the top 20 true shooting percentage seasons for players that tall, who scored that often, have come within the last six years — all of which belong to Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and Towns.

Obviously, the proliferation of 3-point shooting, particularly for big men, is a part of this but it’s not the whole story. Towns also has four of the 30 best free-throw shooting seasons ever by a player 6-foot-11 or taller who scored at least 20 points per game. Thirteen of those other top 30 seasons belong to Dirk Nowitzki. Of the remaining 17, 12 more occurred in the last decade.

And there’s more to it than shooting. Of the 30 highest single-season assist percentages by players 6-foot-11 or taller, 21 have occurred in the last decade. A special group of players is responsible for a lot of these statistical outliers — Jokic, Embiid, Towns, Giannis, Dirk. But you’ll find others on these lists — LaMarcus Aldridge, Domantas Sabonis, Joakim Noah, Ben Simmons, Marc Gasol.

There are fewer big men in today’s league, especially of a traditional sort. Fewer post-up behemoths also means fewer post defensive specialists whose jobs were to just bang on the glass and use up six fouls on Shaq, Malone or Ewing. That narrowing of opportunities will naturally skew towards highlighting the most skilled players but even at the top of the pyramid there is a strong argument that NBA big men have never been more skilled— as shooters, ball-handlers, passers and creators. They play differently than the giants who came before them but NBA big men have never been better.

SUBSCRIBE. Get The Whiteboard delivered daily to your email inbox. light

Other NBA stories:

The play-in tournament offers a chance for teams currently in the NBA Draft Lottery to make the playoffs and maybe even pull off an upset. Who is primed for a run?

Why Vince Carter’s final season as an Atlanta Hawk, and his years as a veteran mentor, mean just as much as prime Vinsanity did.

The Phoenix Suns have one of the most potent pick-and-roll attacks in the NBA with multiple options to score. Is there any way for defenses to counter?

Looking for more good stuff to read? Sign-up for email newsletter service The Sample. You set your interests (sports, politics, science and more) and every day they’ll send you one edition of a new email newsletter to try. If you like it, subscribe with a single click. If you don’t, delete and you’ll never see that one again. Best of all, for every person who tries the sample through the referral link above, The Sample will help a new subscriber find their way to The Whiteboard.