An Experiment in the use of Double Bigs

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Updated: December 7, 2021
NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Milwaukee Bucks

From the very first possession, Giannis, ex-DPOY, draped his 7’3” wingspan all over the Cav’s new rookie 7-footer. It was a clear sign of respect for the new unicorn slim framed giant who probably reminds Giannis of his younger self. The Cleveland Cavaliers and the Milwaukee Bucks have an interesting roster construction that in a way ideologically connects from the past to the future.

Milwaukee 

The defending champion Bucks in their postseason push last year notoriously ran Brook Lopez at the 5 next to Antetokounmpo, allowing Giannis to play the free-safety rover on the defensive end. On the offensive end, the Bucks played 5-out with Lopez spending over 50% of possessions planted outside the perimeter ready for spot-up jumpers. However, when teams would try to go small or even normal-sized against the Bucks, it gave way to huge mismatches on the post for Giannis and Lopez to expose.

With Brook’s surgery finally being finalized and out indefinitely for the season, Milwaukee has moved up backup big and fan-favorite Bobby Crazy Eyes Portis to the starting lineup. Although as a small-ball big, he and Giannis at times share the responsibility of bodying up centers in the paint on the defensive end, for all intents and purposes it is the first time we have seen Antetokounmpo play the majority of his minutes on the floor at the 5. Although Lopez’s reputation as a jump shooter stems from the year he shot north of 36% and was considered one of the steals of that offseason, for the last two he hasn’t shot over 33% from distance. So, although his shot looks pure, he tends to be a below-average perimeter shooter.

Portis on the other hand is more of a power forward stretch 4 and has really found his stroke being one the best 3 point shooters not only for bigs but for the entire NBA regardless of position. Last year he shot a ridiculous 52% from distance and this year has continued the trend at nearly 47% percent. Now these wild percentages are on less than 2 attempts a game but his bread is buttered inside as a high motor mobile small ball big. But what this allows is Giannis to fully embrace himself as a unicorn and one of the most unique centers in history. He and Jokic share the role as a 1/5, being the primary facilitator and yet the inside presence that punishes mismatches. Long term this may be the optimal option to maximize Antetokounmpo’s role on both ends of the floor and could open a movable contract in Lopez who could be helpful on several other franchises once healthy.

The bigger problem though with the Lopez surgery is that Bobby Portis was their boost off the bench that now has been removed and slotted in with the starters. Outside of those 3 they really didn’t have the size to play Buck’s style bully ball. So, they recently signed DeMarcus Boogie Cousins as their backup big. Last night he was given a generous amount of opportunities to be featured on the offensive end and proved two things that everyone who has covered his years post-Achilles had expected. He still has a burst + brutality to the rim that makes him a problem even for plus defending bigs to stop. However, on the defensive end, he at times looks like a large, confused statue that might as well be 6’6”. 

Boogie also still has yet to find his jumper from distance that made him so unique back in his New Orleans days. This is quite an important tool for him to find minutes as it is the variable that would allow him to play next to Giannis at least in small spurts. The good news though for Milwaukee is that Boogie looks the slimmest he’s been since his early days in Sacramento. His biggest problem in Golden State when he was signed for the mid-level was that he was never available hopefully the lighter load will help preserve his health. He has had a buffet of lower-body injuries and for the enormous man that he is and the position he plays it really is nothing but red flags that flower his previously exceptional resume. If he can stay healthy and embrace his above-average playmaking skills, he may be an interesting playoff tool for the Bucks moving forward coming off the bench.

Cavs

Inversely, Cleveland is starting a true Twin Towers tandem in a pair of young shot blockers. With Jarett Alen at the 5, rookie 7-footer Evan Mobley at the 4, and newly acquired 7-foot Lauri Markkanen at the 3, they are starting the tallest lineup in the league by a wide margin. Evan Mobley, who was the 3rd pick in the draft and in a redraft would without a doubt go no later than 2nd, is at a completely different level than Giannis was in his rookie season. Mobley appears to be a defensive culture unto himself as the once floundering Cavs have been a great surprise team early in this season and in his 4-game absence completely collapse on themselves in a 4-game losing streak.

As of now, the Twin-towers has been an interesting experiment that most of the league’s analysts scoffed at but it has been quite effective. However, from what we have learned from Giannis, is that when you have a unicorn center, their extraordinary gifts become even more vibrant when they are featured at the 5 and centered around four other 3 and D players. The question moving forward would be once Mobley develops and puts on his additional 8-15 pounds of muscle, will they choose to move off of Allen and use him to get the true small-forward they are missing? Luckily for them, Allen has been playing well and is on a very movable contract. However, they could also continue using the big frontcourt as we have seen its recent success in last year’s NBA Finals by the Bucks.

 

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