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NBA Finals: Big-ball is back, and was never really gone

And that is really good for Phoenix Suns fans.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Miami Heat Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

The Phoenix Suns took a center with the first overall draft pick in the year of our league 2018. This after the center-light Golden State Warriors had made four straight Finals, heading to their fifth, and while the center-light Cleveland Cavaliers were making three straight Finals.

What were the Suns thinking? No matter how good Deandre Ayton gets, the center position is dead, right?

Seriously, name the starting centers for the Warriors and Cavs in those Finals years. (Late-stage) Andrew Bogut. JaVale McGee. Tristan Thompson. Kevon Looney. Zaza Pachulia. None were key players on their team. None were All-Stars during those Finals years, though Bogut was once a No. 1 pick and All-Star.

Or, maybe just maybe, was it not really about the center position at all? Is it really about finding a cheat code, so to speak? Does it really mean that new Finals-building models are (A) having one of the top two players in NBA history (Cavaliers, Heat, Lakers) OR (B) collecting four current top-15 players in their prime at once (Warriors)?

I feel like, contrary to popular belief, we’ve learned nothing about Finals-building constructive or repeatable in the last half a decade. There’s only one LeBron James. And there’s never almost no chance there’s ever gonna be four prime non-center Top-15 NBA players on a single team again.

You can try to replicate those models, but without the PLAYERS, it won’t take you all the way. The Milwaukee Bucks have tried the LeBron model, but came up short. The Houston Rockets have tried the Warriors model, but came up short. Others have tried a version and come up short too.

That narrows the non-cheat-code model to the Miami Heat (2020) and the Toronto Raptors (2019) out of the East. Those are the only recent Finals teams who have made it without one of those two cheat codes since 2014 (since the West got both cheat codes in 2019!).

Toronto won the whole thing last year without a center as a primary option, though you can argue that late-stage Marc Gasol was a very necessary component. Possibly instructive here is that the Warriors could not sustain their incredible run when their ‘four Top-15 NBA players’ model was cut in half due to injury in the Finals, and even by three-fourths with the decline of Draymond Green.

Now we have Miami versus the Lakers in the 2020 NBA Finals.

And guess what? The game-changing big man has suddenly come back to the fore-front with 6’11” Anthony Davis (a center much of the time whether he likes it or not) and 6’9” Bam Adebayo as the first or second best player on their teams.

No, they are not traditional big men in the Tim Duncan or Shaquille O’Neal mold. On defense, they are faster and more mobile on the perimeter, able to defend little guys as well as big guys. They can stop a dribble-drive or block a shot. They can switch on the pick and roll.

And they are primary options on offense, though in different ways. Bam is a facilitator in the high post and a roll man off the pick and roll, while AD is more of a shooter and fluid shot-creator at all three levels. Both can handle the ball like a guard.

Our own Brendon Kleen did a cool analysis on how their play relates to Deandre Ayton’s potential as a centerpiece of a Finals contender.

All I want to add is that the NBA big man isn’t dead. We just got distracted by the Cavaliers and Warriors finding greatness at other positions.

Finals success is not about positions. It’s about having the best players on the court, in their prime, doing great things the other team cannot stop.

Whether or not the Suns have those great players in Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton is yet to be seen and admittedly quite unlikely (again, there’s only one LeBron, one Stephen Curry, one Kevin Durant... ).

But the fact that Devin Booker is a shooting guard and Deandre Ayton is a center has no negative impact on those chances.

This year’s darling West team was the Denver Nuggets who, gasp, feature a shooting guard and a center as their best players, but came up short because they couldn’t stop LeBron and AD. Conversely, the Clippers two best players are wings, but came up short to the Nuggets in the second round because they couldn’t stop Denver’s guard/center duo. And before that, the Mavericks boasted a small forward/power forward combo as best players (Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis), but came up short to the wingy Clips. The other East finalists, Boston Celtics, featured wings as their best players, but fell short to the Heat in part because they couldn’t stop Miami’s center.

I could keep going but I’ve made my point. It’s not about the position your best players play. It’s about your best players being better than their best players.

We should stop stressing about where Ayton was drafted or what position he plays. Yes, the Suns should have drafted Luka because he’s the better player. I’m just saying it’s not a position issue.

Let’s focus on whether Ayton can become so great at some things that no one can stop him. I can see centers Bam Adebayo, Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic (Nuggets), Joel Embiid (76ers) and even Karl-Anthony Towns (Timberwolves), all with different strengths, being a top-two player on a championship team with the right supporting cast.

The big man is not dead. We just need Ayton to join that difference-making group.

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