HOUSTON — The NBA Big Man is not what he used to be. At one time it was believed to be impossible to win a championship without a dominating center. But then the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s with Michael Jordan showed you didn’t necessarily have to have a dominant center – or even an average one.
When the Houston Rockets recently ran off an 8-1 streak with All-Star center Dwight Howard out with a knee injury, there was more talk of the nonessential center. From within the Rockets’ organization came grumblings – anonymous of course — about Howard being well enough to play if he really wanted to. And there were other comments that the team was about as good without him.
Indeed, with Howard out, 7-foot, 255-pound Donatas Montiejunas emerged as a down-low force, averaging 16 points and 7 rebounds per game.
That development added support to the Los Angeles Lakers’ decision to let Howard walk after the 2012-13 season. Still, it seems absurd that the Lakers decided to build around a then-37-year-old point guard, Steve Nash.
Lakers president Jeanie Buss said in an ESPN interview, “When you have a big man and a guard, you have to decide whom you’re going to build your team around. The choice was to build it around Steve Nash and what suited Steve Nash instead of what suited Dwight Howard.”
It was not her decision to jettison Howard; that move was made by her brother Jim Buss, who, presidency aside, is actually CEO of the franchise.
When Howard did return to the Rockets lineup, in a win at Denver last Saturday night, Houston saw what it had been missing. Howard had 26 points, 13 rebounds and 3 blocked shots. And Montiejunas showed there was still room for him in the low post, as he scored 25 points in 32 minutes.
It brought to mind the old Twin Towers of Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson.
One who does not buy into the theory of the shrinking big man is Charles Barkley. On TNT’s Inside the NBA, Barkley disputed the notion that the very hot Golden State Warriors can win the championship:
“I think they’re a big guy away. My philosophy has always been live by the jumper, die by the jumper. I said the same thing about Oklahoma City with Westbrook and Durant. They’re never going to win until they get some big guys down low to get some easy baskets.”
Steve Kerr, the Warriors’ rookie coach, replied: “First of all, knowing Charles’ history with prognostications, that makes me feel great. I feel better about our chances now, if Charles said we’re going to lose. But as for not being a low-post team, he’s right.”
The Rockets appear to have the best of both worlds. James Harden has emerged as a two-way player, adding a heretofore missing defensive component to his game. With Howard out, he assumed more of the scoring duties and took over the league lead, supplanting LeBron James and Kobe Bryant with a 26-point average.
The Harden surge has brought local backing for him as MVP. But for that he may need more accuracy. His 41 percent on field goals does not look like an MVP number.
Even so, the Rockets appear to have all the pieces for a title. Harden gives them a perimeter threat, while Howard, Montiejunas and Terrence Jones (14.0 points, 7.5 rebounds per game) provide a superb rotation of three big men. Defense-minded point guard Patrick Beverly has improved his shooting (45% on 3’s), and six Rockets are averaging double digits in scoring.
The talk is all about Golden State, Cleveland and reigning champion San Antonio. But watch out for the Rockets. They are taking off.