30. DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers
Too often we lament the loss of the fundamentally sound star center without appreciating the attributes of today’s big men, or acknowledging the circumstances that have forced them to adapt.
DeAndre Jordan may lack the drop steps and accompanying counters inherent to every star center in the 1990s, but there is plenty he can do physically that few at the peak of the center position could match or account for. Given simplified one-on-one matchups, with the easy-to-read help defenses prior to the advent of zone defenses in the NBA, perhaps Jordan could find ways to leverage his skill set in traditional fashion—alas, that’s not how the NBA works today.
Last year, Jordan averaged a career-high 11.5 points and 15 rebounds per game. And though his elite athleticism should allow a large enough margin of error to expand some of his offensive responsibilities, the ceiling on his own production probably doesn’t extend much higher. And that’s okay.
Basketball is still payed inside-out, but it’s no longer done by confronting a defense head on with brute strength. Putting a back to the basket also means turning to a myriad of complex zone defenses, and there are better ways to provoke a defense to collapse without forcing entry passes through a thicket of arms.
Today’s NBA is about manipulating space, and value can be found in a player’s gravity—the ability to draw and occupy defenders—as readily as it can in raw scoring averages. The Orlando Magic’s Nikola Vucevic may be able to give his team 20 points and 10 rebounds through a variety of ways, but is his presence really more threatening than Jordan lurking along the baseline?
Though he almost exclusively relies on the creativity of others, Jordan also provides the conditions for that creativity to thrive. His size, athleticism, and tenacity demand that he be accounted for at all times, lest he establish position for a lob or offensive rebound. That frees his teammates up to get into the middle of the paint, or draws weak side defensive rotations to open up corner three-pointers—none of which ends up in his box score.
Defensively, Jordan is capable of quarantining an entire section of the court, averaging 2.2 blocks per game. And if his defense isn’t always sound, his presence is at least always felt.
29. Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks
While Jordan represents one of the ways big men have evolved to adapt to today’s NBA, casting off all but the most essential parts of their game, Paul Millsap offers the alternative path.
In the free flowing nature of basketball, roles and responsibilities can shift with each dribble or pass. The more specialized a player’s skillset is, the more an opponent can scheme for his limitations. The Atlanta Hawks have crafted a system built on versatile talents, capable of adjusting to any situation on the fly. No one embodies that ethos more than Millsap.
Once relegated to scrapping out garbage points and dirty work in his early years with the Utah Jazz, Millsap has grown into an all-around force with the Hawks—averaging 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 1.8 steals per game while shooting 47.6 percent from the field and 35.6 percent from three-point range on three attempts per game.
Millsap isn’t the type of star you can build a program around, but his ability to fill all gaps makes it easier to construct potent lineups. On any given possession Millsap can be seen spreading the floor for Jeff Teague or Al Horford one moment, then comfortably attacking closeouts the next—finding open teammates on the move or finishing at the basket. Switch a screen and Millsap can exploit the matchup in the post. Put size on him and can work in open space to get past the slower defender.
On defense his utility is almost as versatile as his offense. Good bulk and wingspan let Millsap credibly defend his power forward position while nimble footwork allows him to track some wings. He can help wall off point guards at the point of attack, or make the right rotations on the backline of defense.
Though none of these attributes are considerable enough to anchor either side of the ball, his ability to call forth any given skill to meet any given need works to further breakdown disoriented defenses and interrupt opponent’s offenses.
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28. Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz
Necessity is the mother of invention, but it can also be a crushing weight. Early in his career Gordon Hayward was able to carve out a nice niche as a secondary scorer and playmaker against defenses tilted towards Al Jefferson.
Though that Utah Jazz team had a limited (but competitive) ceiling, beneath the core of Jefferson and Millsap it had acquired promising young talents like Hayward and Derrick Favors—which it brought along slowly. When their growing need for more minutes intersected with contract renewals for established veterans, the Jazz decided to cast off the training wheels and turn the franchise over to their young core.
The group was less prepared for the moment than expected, with Hayward in particular struggling to grasp his new role. Devoid of any other consistent source of playmaking, Utah’s needs stretched beyond Hayward’s skillset, cratering his efficiency as he absorbed possessions and defensive attention he simply wasn’t accustomed to. His field goal percentage dipped to 41.3 percent, and absent the same catch-and-shoot opportunities, Hayward’s three-point shooting dropped from 41.5 percent in the 2012-13 season to 30.4 percent in 2013-14.
Hayward was the end all, be all for the Jazz offensively, and with less than stellar talent around him, there were simply too many holes to fill. Pulling a young player’s skillset in so many directions can often rip them from the core of their game, trying to accomplish so much that they accomplish nothing. Credit Hayward for sticking to his strengths, refining and adapting them to meet whatever his teammates needed.
There’s the hesitation into his crossover to buy space for a pull-up jumper, the in-and-out dribble to setup his attack off a screen, and a nifty around the back dribble to wrong foot defenders as he drives downhill.
Last year Hayward averaged 19.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game as his percentages rebounded to 44.5 percent from the field and 36.4 percent from three. Now there’s a decided strategy to attack keyed-in defenses with enough fluidity to work around obstacles presented by the defense.
Without any obvious means of significantly upgrading their point guard position this year, Hayward will be counted on once more to stretch his limits. While Hayward’s skills appear to have fully formed, applying them to so many trying situations has imbued his game with an improvisational flair worthy of the team’s Jazz nickname.
27. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
Innovation is often the result of good fortune—a happy accident that unveils new truths not previously considered. The Golden State Warriors headed into last season expected to be a formidable opponent, but far from the juggernaut that tore through the NBA like a Stephen Curry jumper through nets.
The emergence of Draymond Green transformed the Warriors beyond anyone’s expectations, and it almost didn’t happen. Kerr approached last season with a limited role in mind for Green behind incumbent starting power forward David Lee, and Green’s own overeager play in training camp did little to dissuade that notion. Had an injury not sidelined Lee through the first part of the season, there’s a chance the Warriors would have been successful enough not to afford Green his extended opportunity.
Lee’s injury allowed Green to stop pressing, offering the first security he’d known in his short NBA career. Once Green stopped trying to do too much, he proved capable of doing almost everything, unlocking a number of different lineup combinations and actions not previously accessible to the Warriors—averaging 11.7 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks per game.
Talk of the Warriors’ small ball lineups ignores that Green is a legitimate power forward, capable of defending and rebounding the position and then some, as he proved manning center during the playoffs.
Curry and Klay Thompson stretch defenses to their breaking point, and Green works behind the attention they receive, making plays against scrambling defenses by further breaking them down beyond their ability to recover. He’s not a great three-point shooter at 33.7 percent, but credible enough from the power forward position to pull other power forwards into open space, where they’re less comfortable.
His floor spacing allows reluctant shooters like Andre Iguodala or Shaun Livingston to operate closer to the paint, his playmaking keeps the offense humming while players like Harrison Barnes or Klay Thompson stay within their comfort zones. Defensively, his ability to guard all five positions allows Kerr to hide lesser defenders as matchups dictate. Green’s true value is providing almost every necessary resource from one position, giving Kerr the flexibility to mix and match lineups to solve for any opponent.
26. Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City Thunder
In the absence of traditional big men, this grouping of players shows they’re alive and flourishing, only in different ways. In a diverse field, Serge Ibaka represents an even rarer skillset—combining elite rim protection, swarming defense, and superb three-point shooting (37.6 percent) from the power forward and center positions.
Injuries derailed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s season, and Ibaka wasn’t immune, suiting up for 64 games, putting up 14.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game. At 25-years old, Ibaka likely is who he’s going to be as he enters his prime; a role player with a few star attributes that perfectly supplements teammates Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.
As the Thunder have suffered through injuries over the past few seasons, Ibaka hasn’t shown the ability to take on increased offensive responsibilities, but his presence allows others to flourish as they expand theirs. He’s a low maintenance floor spacer on offense, moving the ball and keeping driving lanes clean for Westbrook and Durant. His athleticism allows him to finish at the rim (69.7 percent) and generate extra possessions (2.1 offensive rebounds).
Where Ibaka shines is on the defensive end. If he’s merely a cog to keep the offense humming, he’s the hub that makes the entire Thunder defense work. Between the length and athleticism of Ibaka, Durant, and Westbrook, the Thunder have been able to craft swarming defenses capable of disrupting even the most precise offenses—notably clogging up the Spurs pass-happy offense on a consistent basis.
With Westbrook at the point of attack defensively, there’s a lot of freelancing in front of Ibaka, and his ability to rotate between multiple threats on any given plays covers a lot of holes their system can’t account for. This season that ability will be stretched to its limits with Enes Kanter on board, but if he can take on those added defensive responsibilities it’ll open up new options for a Thunder team that’s had few of them since the departure of James Harden.
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