In November 1986, when the Celtics, Lakers, Rockets and 76ers ruled the NBA with frontcourts featuring loads of size and skill, the great Jack McCallum pondered ways to alter the rules of the game, because increasingly bigger players were shrinking the court and rendering guard play less relevant.
Raising the basket, increasing the size of the court, widening the lane and playing with four-man teams were all weighed with careful consideration. Then-Golden State Warriors coach George Karl told McCallum at the time, “Right now, the Manute Bols of the game are successful just because they are huge. Now, is that the purity of our game that the fan wants to see? I say no. I say the fan wants to see the Michael Jordans and the Julius Ervings and the Magics, the great athletes who can play basketball.”
Fast forward three decades, and Karl found himself on the Sacramento Kings in 2014-15, mentoring DeMarcus Cousins, a rare blend of size and skill, in an era when the coach’s former Warriors were ruling the league with small-ball lineups in the pace-and-space era. The only reason people want to expand the court now is to make room for a deeper 3-point line and lessen the impact of long-distance marksmen. Gone were the days when 7-footers reigned supreme, it seemed, and so it became increasingly easier for the Kings to rationalize parting ways with their mercurial All-NBA big man.
Karl is long gone from Sacramento, but he was the most vocal of those who stirred the pot that eventually boiled over into the Cousins trade this week. We should point out that Cousins is not without blame, but by trading the perennial All-Star center and chasing a more free-flowing, guard-centric philosophy, the Kings created an interesting dynamic in New Orleans, where we will find out if a redwood forest of a frontcourt can still dominate in today’s NBA. Because no duo is more suited to challenge the small-ball mentality of this pace-and-space era than Cousins and Anthony Davis.
Roughly once every decade or so, with a spike in the 1980s, a team is fortunate enough to feature two future Hall of Fame-caliber bigs in their prime at the same time, and the results are rather incredible:
1963-64 San Francisco Warriors
• Wilt Chamberlain: 36.9 points (53.7 TS%), 22.3 rebounds and 5 assists in 46.1 minutes per game
• Nate Thurmond: 7 points (42.3 TS%), 10.4 rebounds and 1.1 assists in 25.9 minutes per game
• Offensive rating: 93 (7th of 9)
• Defensive rating: 88.6 (2nd of 9)
Thurmond was a 22-year-old backing up Chamberlain. His production didn’t reach All-Star level until the following year, when the struggling Warriors traded a disgruntled Chamberlain to the 76ers at the All-Star break. Still, in their lone full season together, Thurmond earned First Team All-Rookie honors, Chamberlain captured the fourth of his seven First Team All-NBA selections, and the tandem turned what was a 31-49 team with Chamberlain the year before into a 48-32 squad that reached the 1964 NBA Finals. They ultimately lost in five to a Celtics team in the midst of winning eight straight titles.
1971-75 Kentucky Colonels
• Artis Gilmore: 21.7 points (59 TS%), 17.5 rebounds, 3.6 blocks, 3.2 assists, 42.2 minutes (20.5 USG%)
• Dan Issel: 25.3 points (54 TS%), 10.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 40 minutes (25 USG%)
• Average offensive rating: 104.1 (3rd of 10)
• Average defensive rating: 97.9 (1st of 10)
Granted, Gilmore and Issel were doing their work in the ABA, but they were a two-headed monster nonetheless, making a pair of Finals appearance and winning the 1975 title under coach Hubie Brown. Gilmore captured ABA MVP honors in 1972, and they combined for seven ABA All-Star appearances in their four years together, before both went on to NBA stardom separately after the merger in 1976.
1974-81 Washington Bullets
• Elvin Hayes: 21.3 points (50.4 TS%), 11.7 rebounds, 2.3 blocks, 1.8 assists, 39.1 minutes (23.6 USG%)
• Wes Unseld: 9 points (54.4 TS%), 12.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 35 minutes (11.7 USG%)
The top two picks from the 1968 draft joined forces in Washington six years into their Hall of Fame careers. The Bullets cycled a few All-Star wings around them — Dave Bing, Phil Chenier and Bob Dandridge — but Hayes and Unseld were the constants during the franchise’s heyday. They won 60 games in their first season together, made three NBA Finals appearances and won the 1978 title.
1984-86 Philadelphia 76ers
• Moses Malone: 24.2 points (56.5 TS%), 12.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.3 blocks, 37 minutes (27.2 USG%)
• Charles Barkley: 17 points (61 TS%), 10.7 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.3 blocks, 32.7 minutes (21.4 USG%)
• Average offensive rating: 109.3 (7th of 23)
• Average defensive rating: 107.5 (10th of 23)
Barkley was listed at 6-foot-6, but he played bigger, so we’ll lump this duo in with other legendary big man combos. Philly was already a force, of course, having won the title two years before Barkley arrived as a rookie in 1984. Playing with another Hall of Famer (Julius Erving) and two more All-Stars (Mo Cheeks, Andrew Toney) has that effect. In their first season with Barkley and Malone, the Sixers reached the East finals, where they lost to a Celtics squad on their way to four straight NBA Finals appearances. The next season, the 76ers came within two points of a second straight conference finals — sans Malone, who missed the playoffs with an orbital fracture and was traded in the offsesason.
1984-87 Houston Rockets: Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon
• Ralph Sampson: 19.5 points (52.4 TS%), 10.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.7 blocks, 35.7 minutes (24.6 USG%)
• Hakeem Olajuwon: 22.4 points (55.9 TS%), 11.6 boards, 3.1 blocks, 2.1 assists, 36.2 minutes (25.3 USG%)
• Average offensive rating: 108.2 (11th of 23)
• Average defensive rating: 106.5 (7th of 23)
The Rockets improved by 19 games in 1984-85, when Olajuwon joined fellow No. 1 overall pick Sampson, and they won 50 games for the first time in franchise history the following season, helping Houston own the Showtime Lakers in a Western Conference finals stunner. They succumbed in the Finals to a 1985-86 Celtics squad that ranks among the greatest ever. Dubbed “the new monsters on the block” by Boston coach K.C. Jones, they both made the All-Star team in each of their three seasons together, but their partnership was cut short when Sampson’s injuries made him expendable in 1987.
1980-93 Boston Celtics: Kevin McHale and Robert Parish
• Kevin McHale: 17.9 points (60.5 TS%), 7.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.7 blocks, 31 minutes (22.4 USG%)
• Robert Parish: 16.8 points (59 TS%), 10.2 rebounds, 1.6 blocks, 1.5 assists, 32 minutes (21.3 USG%)
• Average offensive rating: 111.1 (5th of 23)
• Average defensive rating: 105.9 (9th of 23)
Speaking of those 1980s Celtics, they won three titles in five Finals appearances with McHale and Parish manning the middle. Their success is skewed by the presence of Larry Bird and a few more All-Star-caliber talents, including fellow Hall of Fame big man Bill Walton off the bench. Still, McHale and Parish’s ability to score both in the post and mid-range gave opposing team’s matchup nightmares. They combined for 16 All-Star bids in their 13 seasons together, and McHale swears to this day the sheer size of that frontline would have caused all sorts of problems for the modern-day Warriors.
1997-2003 San Antonio Spurs
• Tim Duncan: 22.9 points (55.9 TS%), 12.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 2.5 blocks, 39.3 minutes (28 USG%)
• David Robinson: 15.2 points (56.5 FG%), 9.2 boards, 2.2 blocks, 1.7 assists, 30.5 minutes (23.3 USG%)
• Average offensive rating: 105.3 (10th of 29)
• Average defensive rating: 98.4 (2nd of 29)
Two years removed from his MVP season, Robinson played just six games in 1996-97, effectively aiding Gregg Popovich’s tanking mission for Duncan at the no-brainer No. 1 overall pick. Robinson and Duncan won 56 games in their inaugural season, and then rolled to the title in the ensuing 1999 lockout season. They remained contenders well after Robinson retired, but Duncan won both his MVPs alongside The Admiral, culminating in the two delivering a second title in Robinson’s 2003 swan song.
The Orlando Magic, with Shaquille O’Neal already in tow, traded Chris Webber for Penny Hardaway on draft day in 1993, robbing us of one other potentially devastating generational big man tandem. Teams have replicated the dual-big approach to a lesser degree with All-Stars crossing paths at various points in their careers, but that’s your short list of Hall of Fame big man combinations in their prime.
Those seven duos reached 16 conference finals and 12 NBA Finals on their way to six titles in 36 seasons, and the only tandems who didn’t win titles lost to Celtics dynasties stacked with Hall of Fame talent of their own. No duo won NBA championships alone, but the success is undeniable. Draw a pair of Hall of Fame bigs, and you’ll be good; build the right team around them, and you’ll be great.
Back to the Pelicans. The question now is whether Davis and Cousins are future Hall of Famers. Davis is a 23-year-old with an NCAA title, an Olympic gold medal and four All-Star bids in his first five NBA seasons. Cousins is a 26-year-old Olympic gold medalist with three All-Star nods in seven NBA seasons. If you’re building résumés to submit to Springfield, those are pretty good starting points.
Then, there’s their individual production this year:
2017 New Orleans Pelicans
• Anthony Davis: 27.7 points (57.8 TS%), 12 rebounds, 2.5 blocks, 2.2 assists, 36.4 minutes (32.5 USG%)
• DeMarcus Cousins: 27.8 points (56.2 TS%), 10.7 boards, 4.9 assists, 1.3 blocks, 34.4 minutes (37.5 USG%)
The list of players who averaged 27 points, 12 rebounds and 2 blocks at age 23: Davis and Hall of Fame big man Bob McAdoo, who, we might point out, won a pair of titles backing up Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the twilight of his career. And the list of players who averaged 27 points, 10 boards and 4 assists at age 26: Cousins and Hall of Famers Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor and McAdoo.
Team success together would further their causes, so the next logical question is whether the dual-big philosophy can work in this era. Even in 2003, when Duncan and Robinson were on their way to title No. 2, teams only shot an average of 14.7 3-pointers per game — nearly half of this year’s league-average 26.9 attempts — and today’s players are making those 3’s at one of the highest clips in history. Current rosters are more equipped than ever to shoot over the forest rather than navigate the trees.
But only Rudy Gobert and Marc Gasol have been better among bigs at defending the 3-point line than Davis, so the hope for New Orleans would be twofold — that his almost unparalleled athleticism at 6-foot-10 will negate the advantage shorter stretch fours pose in small-ball lineups, and that his effort on the perimeter might rub off on Cousins against capable 3-point shooting centers. At the very least, their combined 14 feet, 11.25 inches of wingspan should create havoc, even against quicker bigs.
The Oklahoma City Thunder provided somewhat of a framework for counteracting skill with size in last year’s Western Conference finals. They found success against the Warriors’ death lineup with big-heavy lineups that could win the rebound battle, negating their efficiency deficit by simultaneously limiting Golden State’s offensive opportunities and giving themselves a few extra kicks at the can.
Obviously, pairing Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook with a competent big man rotation didn’t hurt, but the blueprint for competing with the Warriors remains the same. Teams are 9-15 against Golden State when winning the rebound battle this season and 0-32 when they don’t. So, Davis and Cousins present a fascinating potential first-round matchup for the Warriors, especially since they combine the size of Enes Kanter and Steven Adams with unmatched skill at the power forward and center spots.
Offensively, consider this when pondering Davis and Cousins in today’s NBA: The 12 aforementioned Hall of Fame bigs totaled 454 3-point attempts in their 36 seasons together, shooting a combined 21.2 percent, while Cousins has attempted 478 3’s since the start of 2015-16, shooting a league average 35.4 percent on almost five tries per game this season. He and Davis are also two of the NBA’s five most productive pick-and-roll partners, even with Darren Collison and Jrue Holiday as their point guards.
If previous pairings are any indication, their usage rates will decline now that they’re on the same team, but it’s a scary thought to consider Davis and Cousins could be more efficient when playing with each other instead of the likes of Kosta Koufos, Anthony Tolliver, Terrence Jones and Omer Asik.
All of which brings us to the final point of emphasis. Where McHale and Parish had Larry Bird, Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge, Davis and Cousins have Holiday, E’Twaun Moore and Dante Cunningham — and almost no wing depth beyond them. Brow and Boogie require little more than a few willing pick-and-roll partners and 3-point shooters roaming the perimeter to make an effective offense. The Holiday-Moore-Cunningham triumvirate is shooting a surprising 39 percent on 10 3-point attempts per game, while Holiday and Moore qualify as slightly above-average pick-and-roll ball-handlers, but there’s a whole heck of a lot of room for improvement filling out the roster around Davis and Cousins.
The problem for the Pelicans now lies in managing a salary cap that’s committed $30 million annually through 2019 to Solomon Hill, Omer Asik and Moore — before they even think about re-signing Holiday this summer and Cousins in 2018. They’ll have to get creative dumping bad contracts while upgrading their point guard and wing rotations, but at least now they have a well-defined path to prosperity.
If we learned anything, it’s that pairing two of the best bigs of a generation is a foundation for success in any era, and few dual-big combos have ever had ceilings as high as Davis and Cousins. As George Karl said, fans want to see great athletes who can play basketball. These two just happen to be huge.
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