At various points in 2022, it has seemed like the NBA might once again belong to the 7-footer. Joel Embiid nearly won MVP honors while becoming the first center to win the scoring title since 1999-00 (and the first to average more than 30 points a game since 1981-82).1 Young, up-and-coming 7-footers like Mitchell Robinson and Isaiah Hartenstein had far larger impacts in 2021-22 than the previous year. Scrawny 7-foot Gonzaga prospect Chet Holmgren went No. 2 in the draft to the Oklahoma City Thunder. And according to Basketball-Reference.com’s win shares, 7-footers improved their share of leaguewide value in 2021-22 after a half-decade of mostly steady decline. In many ways, it might appear that the league is returning to its former glory as a giant-dominated field.
But don’t be fooled by the apparent renaissance for this tallest category of players. Among the four teams that made the conference finals, only one 7-footer played even close to 10 minutes per game for his team in the playoffs: the Miami Heat’s Dewayne Dedmon, who averaged 9.9 minutes off the bench through Miami’s postseason run. Even though the contributions of 7-footers during the regular season seems to be on the rise, the most successful playoff teams have frequently lacked 7-footers in the postseason.
The NBA’s shift away from position and toward role is one possible explanation for the concurrent boom and bust of the league’s giants. Plenty of teams have experimented with eliminating certain positions on the depth chart: The Boston Celtics started longtime wing Marcus Smart at point guard en route to the 2022 Finals. The Toronto Raptors used 6-foot-7 rookie forward Scottie Barnes as their backup point guard. Such rotation quirks haven’t taken over the league completely — Steph Curry and Jrue Holiday won championships starring as more traditional point guards in the last two seasons — but the trend of eschewing 7-footers in the postseason is notable and not without its statistical rationale.
Once upon a time, a center’s defensive prowess was judged based on his shot-blocking. Now, with advanced stats based on player tracking, they can be judged on their ability to force misses at the rim without actually touching the ball, which encompasses more plays. During the 2021-22 regular season, Jakob Poeltl finished seventh in the NBA in blocks per game,2 averaging 1.7. But Poeltl actually led the league in shots contested within 6 feet of the basket, challenging 8.6 shots per game.
And it turns out, the best rim protectors are, on average, slightly shorter than the best shot blockers. Of the 10 best shot blockers in 2021-22, six were at least 7 feet tall. But of the 10 best rim protectors — measured here as players holding opponents to the greatest differential from their expected field goal percentage on shots within 6 feet of the rim — only two were at least 7 feet tall.3
|Myles Turner||6’11”||2.8||Jarrett Allen||6’11”||-15.1%|
|Jaren Jackson Jr.||6’11”||2.3||Jaren Jackson Jr.||6’11”||-14.5|
|Anthony Davis||6’10”||2.3||Rudy Gobert||7’1″||-13.0|
|Robert Williams||6’8″||2.2||Jaden McDaniels||6’9″||-12.1|
|Rudy Gobert||7’1″||2.1||Wendell Carter Jr.||6’10”||-11.3|
|Mitchell Robinson||7’0″||1.8||Isaiah Stewart||6’8″||-11.2|
|Jakob Poeltl||7’1″||1.7||Giannis Antetokounmpo||6’11”||-11.2|
|Evan Mobley||7’0″||1.7||Robert Williams III||6’8″||-11.2|
|Mo Bamba||7’0″||1.7||JaVale McGee||7’0″||-10.9|
|Kristaps Porziņģis||7’3″||1.6||Nic Claxton||6’11”||-10.8|
Similarly, how we rate rebounding acumen has arguably changed in the player-tracking era. The rebounders with the 10 highest per-game averages this past season, whether on offense or defense, ranged in height from 6-foot-8 to 7-foot-1.4 On the other hand, the top 10 players who most helped their teams’ rebounding rates — measured via on/off rebounding percentage differential — included guards Damian Lillard (6-foot-2) and Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot (6-foot-7) on the defensive side and Buddy Hield (6-foot-4) on the offensive side.5
Some teams, such as the Utah Jazz when they had Rudy Gobert (who was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last week) and the Philadelphia 76ers with franchise cornerstone Joel Embiid, have built around traditional 7-footers Others, like the champion Golden State Warriors, have used the concept of role-sharing to enact dramatically different visions of team construction. Golden State employed a rim-protection-by-committee approach, with starting small forward Andrew Wiggins leading the team in contests per game within 6 feet of the rim. On the offensive end, Wiggins was also the most efficient screener in the league among players with at least 300 on-ball screens, per Second Spectrum. The Warriors’ only rotation player taller than 6-foot-9 was Nemanja Bjelica, who came off the bench.
The Warriors have long based their success on positional flexibility — and arguably pioneered it in the modern game. In the 2015 Finals, Golden State outscored opponents by 60 points with 6-foot-6 Draymond Green at center and were outscored by 19 points with 7-footer Andrew Bogut at the 5. Kevon Looney, the Warriors’ starting center in much of 2021-22, earned just over $5 million, but Green spent plenty of time playing center and earned just over $24 million. Green was the Warriors’ best per-game rebounder (tied with Looney), rim protector and shot blocker. Though it’s a bit of a cliche, ability, not size, is what really wins basketball games. There are competitive advantages to be found in that fact for the best teams.
Of the 14 7-footers who played at least 1,000 minutes in the regular season, only five reached the playoffs. Of those five, only Embiid and Gobert were among their teams’ five best players, per FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR player ratings. And though Embiid boasted Philadelphia’s best on/off rating in the playoffs, and Gobert the Jazz’s fourth-best, their teams flamed out early relative to expectations. The Sixers lost in the second round despite adding James Harden midway through the year, while the Jazz didn’t even make it that far — and then dismantled their roster in the offseason.
Embiid and Gobert are undeniably brilliant rim protectors, but both struggled to contain the pick-and-roll, contributing to their teams’ playoff defeats. Against the Heat in the playoffs, Embiid faced 141 pick-and-rolls defending the screener and allowed 1.058 points per chance; Gobert defended 138 against the Dallas Mavericks and allowed 1.068. (As a point of comparison, the average half-court offense in the playoffs scored 0.974 points per chance.) Both players executed drop coverage on a plurality of their defensive possessions, staying below the level of the screen to deter both the ball handler and the roller in the paint. And yet, both players allowed over 1.1 points per chance on drop coverage in the series their teams lost, numbers that got even worse against the opposing team’s stars (whether it was Jimmy Butler of the Heat against Embiid or Luka Dončić of the Mavericks against Gobert).
That’s a vast, exploitable weakness in an individual series, and it’s one that more flexible teams are better able to adjust to. Looney and Green defended comparable numbers of pick-and-rolls in the playoffs, and both were excellent, allowing fewer than 0.9 points per chance apiece. Of course, the Warriors simply had more defensive options than the Sixers or Jazz. Against Dončić, the Warriors also struggled with drop coverage, so they both switched his pick-and-rolls and “showed” against them more often than they dropped.6 That tactical adjustment might be more possible to make with smaller, more versatile defenders than with lumbering, traditional big men.
All of this isn’t to say 7-footers are going extinct. Players like Gobert and Embiid remain spectacular, but teams need to find ways to be more flexible in building teams around their abilities — perhaps, starting with other defensive approaches for the pick-and-roll. Whether building through free agency or the draft, one lesson offered by the case studies of Embiid and Gobert is clear: If you are making a big center your centerpiece, you need flexible teammates to avoid playing just one style of basketball.