Boston Celtics big man luminary Dave Cowens made a rare appearance on CLNS Media’s “Bob Ryan and Jeff Goodman Podcast” in 2020, and shared some observations on the evolution of the big man in the NBA since his era in ways which might surprise modern readers.
The tendency in any sport is to see it as if it was always the way it was when you first encountered it. Basketball (like most sports) has continuously evolved however, and the role of the big man has in due course evolved with it. The tendency of bigs in the relatively recent past has been as bruising post operators who tend to use their sheer size to bully their way to a high-percentage shot.
As analytics pushed the game away from that template towards dynamic bigs able to use skill and athleticism to overcome size and muscle, in many ways the game has shifted back towards the type of basketball that made Cowens — just 6-foot-9 — a lethal center despite his size.
“I think that they said you were the center because you’re in a middle everything,” he began. “And a lot of times the ball went inside, you’d make better passes from the post area, the elbow area in the top of the key.” Centering — for lack of a better word — the five as a hub for the rest of the team to work off of offensively isn’t an abandoned tactic in the modern game, but it’s less common today even as teams adopt a more skilled big man approach than even in the mid-1980s. The shift towards post-heavy play would reach its peak in the mid-1990s, ironically just as the dominance of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls began to show the value of wing and guard play as a counter — and has been in steady decline ever since. https://twitter.com/TheCelticsWire/status/1388719921757048833?s=20
Cowens went on to elaborate just how central the big man was in the 1970s for the Celtics (and really, dating back to the Bill Russell era if not earlier).
“So, you know, in Red [Auerbach]’s plays, there’s six plays. The one, the center handled the ball, the two, the center-center pick, the three, the center handled the ball, [also] the four, the six — I don’t know if the five did — and then in our spread offenses center was out there all the time.”
“So that’s how centers were used differently then today, there was more of a skill set, because we all had hook shots, they all had little jumpers, you know, they had a backup game and stuff like that,” he added. https://twitter.com/TheCelticsWire/status/1388674614734295042?s=20
“[They] could protect the rim and all, but they could shoot as well. And most of them are pretty good free throw shooters,” offered Cowens. “Matter of fact, I recall no real clunkers like today with some of these guys.” The Celtics legend isn’t the sort to brag about the hurt he’d inflict on some of the modern big man like the Shaquille O’Neals and Charles Barkleys who came after him — far from it in fact. https://twitter.com/TheCelticsWire/status/1388586177960239107?s=20
“You know, most I mean, I wouldn’t want to play against these guys today. They’re just too damn big and strong — I mean, the velocity!” he began.
“Now, they’re going so fast and there’s so much bigger and so much just well conditioned, because … they train like the guy in the Rocky film [presumably Ivan Drago], you know what I mean? It’s like, it’s nuts. So, I mean, that’s a lot of contact, even though [it’s said] I was rough.”
“But nowadays, the two things that I think have been lost, and maybe not lost because some guys have them, but but number one is the skill. And number two, I don’t know that they’ll have a skill,” Cowens explained. https://twitter.com/TheCelticsWire/status/1388295333441118208?s=20
The Hall-of-Fame big man doesn’t put the blame on the players, however — that falls on the front office and how they’ve been developed as players before getting to the NBA. “I’m not saying they don’t have the skill. The problem is, is that they don’t get a chance are not encouraged to do it,” he suggested. https://twitter.com/TheCelticsWire/status/1386802339403735041?s=20
“Because of the way they’ve made the game played is that the coach is telling them that it’s ingrained in their head now since forever. The best shot is a three point shot,” he said, invoking a popular distaste for an overused and often-misunderstood narrative in today’s NBA. “So you’re just — your shot is a dispensable kind of a thing.” Not so in Cowen’s era — and maybe the not-too-distant future, too. This post originally appeared on Celtics Wire. Follow us on Facebook! [lawrence-related id=49779,49774,49759,49754] [listicle id=49752]