When analyzing the philosophical underpinnings of a sport, it's useful to look at how other sports do things. Of the four major team sports in North America, hockey is the most similar to basketball. Both involve five players bringing a ball/puck up the rink/court to put it in the opposing team’s basket/net; the biggest difference, of course, being that the goal is raised ten feet off the ground in basketball.
And while the presence of a goalie fundamentally differentiates hockey, both sports still require a lot from the players stationed closest to the goal -- the defensemen in hockey, the big men in basketball. When hockey analysts talk about defensemen, they almost always do so in the context of “pairs”, with teams trying to find the best two-man combinations they can put on the ice. In contrast, not enough time is spent in basketball talking about how playing different combinations of big men changes the dynamic of a game and a team.
Nothing that occurs in a basketball game happens in a vacuum. On the offensive side of the floor, if neither the center nor the power forward can knock down a perimeter jumper, the paint becomes awfully crowded. That was a huge problem in Oklahoma City before Serge Ibaka developed his jumper: Ibaka and Perkins’ men would camp out in the paint, leaving no driving lanes for Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant and causing the Thunder offense to stagnate.
On the defensive side of the floor, if neither big man has the footspeed, length and athleticism to protect the rim, it’s going to be very difficult to have an elite defense. That was the main problem in Dallas for almost a decade: since Dirk Nowitzki has always been a defensive sieve, that left protecting the basket to slow-footed lumberers like Erick Dampier and Brendan Haywood. If you want to know why Dwyane Wade had one of the greatest NBA Finals of all-time in 2006, start there and not with the referees.
In hockey, coaches try to pair a “puck-moving” defenseman who can run an offense from the back-line with a more physical partner who can move offensive players out of the crease in front of his own goal. Similarly, in basketball, a team needs to get offense -- shot-creating, passing, shooting -- from one of their big men and defense -- rim protecting, controlling the low block, rebounding -- from the other.
That’s where the versatility of your big men becomes so important. The biggest difference between Pau Gasol and Dirk Nowitzki isn’t what they do on the court; it’s the type of players you can put next to them. Nowitzki, the best scoring 7’0 in the game, and Gasol, one of the most versatile 7’0 in the NBA, are both future Hall of Famers, but Gasol’s ability to do almost everything on the court allows many more types of big men to be successful next to him.
There’s nothing a big man can be asked to do that Gasol, in his prime, couldn’t do. On defense, he can defend centers on the low block, while also being able to move his feet on the perimeter and cut off penetration from guards. On offense, he can shoot the ball from the perimeter, score on the low block as well as pass the ball from the high post, low post and top of the key. In essence, he can play the power forward and the center spots at a high level on both ends of the floor
That, in turn, gave the Lakers coaching staff a tremendous amount of flexibility. When they won back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010, they started games with the 7’1 285 Bynum at the 5 and Gasol playing from the high post at the 4. However, the closed out games with Gasol at the 5 and Lamar Odom playing as the 4.
Odom’s game has declined over the last two years not just because he’s no longer in shape but because he has yet to find a big man partner as compatible as Gasol. As a 6’10 point forward without a great outside shot, Odom needs a very particular type of center to be most effective: a 7’0 who can stretch the floor to create driving lanes as well as finish at the rim while also being able to get his back on defense at the other end of the floor.
Playing alongside Nowitzki in Dallas never made much sense for Odom, since neither could handle the defensive responsibilities at the 5. As a result, Odom spent a lot of time playing at the 3, where he could no longer blow by bigger defenders but was forced to shoot over the top of smaller ones, not the strength of his game. When he did get into the lane, he had to dish off to lead-footed and brick-handed centers like Haywood and Ian Mahinmi, which is kind of like Tom Brady being forced to throw to D3 WR’s.
When evaluating roster moves in the NBA, the importance of that type of fit, especially between two big men, is often overlooked. There’s no question that the league is becoming smaller, with teams playing more and more perimeter-oriented players at the 4, but that only further emphasizes the importance of versatility. The Heat going small full-time only works because LeBron is the most versatile player in the NBA, capable of defending every position, big or small, at a very high level.
Basketball, like hockey, is a fluid game involving finding the best combination of players to put on the floor in a given situation. So while advanced statistics are rightly gaining a bigger role in how the game is analyzed and teams are built, it’s important to remember the context behind them. The right pairing of two big men, like Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler in 2011, can be greater than the sum of their parts, but the wrong pairing, like Nowitzki and Odom in 2012, can also be worse.