Small ball lineups have proliferated around the association over the last decade-plus. It has been a rarity, yet not an anomaly, to see teams boast two centers in their starting lineup over that stretch. Those teams’ success has been a mixed bag.
Historically, the sample size we’ve seen shows that an offensive and defensive scheme can be catered to a two-big lineup; with the Minnesota Timberwolves bringing in Rudy Gobert to man the middle alongside fellow All-NBA big Karl-Anthony Towns, head coach Chris Finch has much work to do to ensure sets run smoothly.
Let’s take a look at notable teams in the modern era that saw either major success or failure with two natural star-caliber centers in their starting lineup, and how they pulled it off.
1) 1985-86 Houston Rockets
Yes, the game was played differently in the 1980’s. Yes, many teams featured two bigs over 6-foot-10 in their front-courts. However, there are parallels that can be drawn upon the eras, and the game plans that were implemented.
The 1960s, 80s, and 2020s are far and away the three eras of basketball with the fastest pace (points per game scored on average). 17 of the top 21 team scoring seasons of all time, which boasted points per game (PPG) averages of 110 points or better, were of those two3 eras, the ’86 season included. Thus, the Twin Towers powerhouse proved they could get up and down the court, and hang on the fast break, as well as get up shots quickly on the 24-second clock.
Houston finished the regular season sixth in the league in scoring at 114.4 PPG. They did so averaging the third-most field goal attempts per game. With two all-world talents in the paint, they also dominated on the glass and at the rim, as expected. The Rockets finished second in offensive rebounds at 16 a game, and their 6.7 blocks per game (BPG) ranked third.
As for their sets, indicative of the era, pick-and-roll offense was used few and far between, and the Rockets relied on an inside out approach, often utilizing a 1-2-2 set with Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson on both boxes, looking to make a play for themselves out of the post, dish to cutters, or find shooters from 15 feet.
Building on their impressive division-leading 51-31 record, Houston cruised to the Western Conference Finals before pulling off a major upset over the dynastic Showtime Los Angeles Lakers squad. They gave the Boston Celtics a good run for their money before ultimately falling short in a six-game series battle.
2) 1998-99 San Antonio Spurs
Much argument is made over whether or not Tim Duncan was truly a center masqueraded as a power forward, much like whether Kevin Garnett was 6’11 or 7’0. Either way, the Spurs boasted a twin towers lineup starring Duncan and David Robinson that went all the way.
Despite finishing with the best record in the league in the lockout-shortened ’99 season, the Spurs finished an underwhelming 13th in scoring at 92.8 PPG. Even worse, they finished 25th out of 29th in 3PA at 10.4 a game. For the sake of the record, in the only other championship the two won together, they also failed to reach the top 10 in 3PA, despite having a new ensemble of wing players the likes of Stephen Jackson and Manu Ginobili.
The Spurs played a unique style of basketball with Avery Johnson controlling the offense, and it helped that both big men were capable of stepping out and hitting a free-throw line extended jumper, as well as an occasional 3. In comparison to the KAT-Gobert duo, Towns is the reigning 3-point contest champion, with clear capabilities from deep, but Gobert doesn’t sniff the 3-point line, perhaps for good reason.
Ultimately, the Gregg Popovich led team won the championship, proving that a two- center lineup could win a ring, especially after a wing dynasty dominated the decade.
3) 2021-22 Boston Celtics
Al Horford and Robert Williams III are as centered as centers can get. Yet the reason this duo worked so well was because of their dexterity on both ends of the floor. Having two completely different games, on offense, Al Horford could stretch the floor and allow Boston to run 4-out, 1-in, serving as a catch-and-shoot threat. RWIII thrived in pick-and-roll rim runs and dunks at the basket.
On defense, both big men showed remarkable ability to move their feet off of switches. Williams III showed how talented he was at recovery, often
blocking shots off the chase down if a smaller player blew by. Horford also exhibited great aptitude for staying in front of quicker players. This played a huge role in their league leading defensive rating of 106.9 PPG, and opponent effective field goal percentage (eFG%) of 50.2%.
The Wolves bring in Gobert, who sported the league’s second best individual defensive rating last season, and has much cache on defense as a whole with his many accolades on that end. The biggest wild card will be if Towns can step into a role akin to Al Horford, and make teams’ opposing 4’s work for their buckets, and run them off the 3-point line.
In the West, where power forwards include Jae Crowder, Dorian Finney-Smith, Michael Porter Jr. and Zion Williamson on projected playoff teams, Towns will have his hands full dealing with such small forwards playing the role of power forward by default, who can operate on all areas of the floor, with quicker foot speed.
4) 2014-15 Detroit Pistons
Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond were two centers once primed for long and prosperous careers. The Pistons also surrounded both with versatile talent. Yet, the experiment with the two natural centers failed to live up to expectations.
While Monroe could hit a mid-range jump shot off of the face up, he and Drummond never figured out their spacing together. When added to the fact that Josh Smith –, a natural power forward – was relegated to the small forward position, it becomes clear that Detroit was a mess from a coaching and execution standpoint.
The team finished at 32-50 and failed to make the playoffs. While Drummond was a year away from being an All-Star, Detroit left much to be desired with a bottom 10 pace, albeit showcasing a top 10 turnover percentage; the result of having less ball-handlers on the floor making erratic plays.
The big man experiment can indeed work in Minnesota, if executed properly. On offense and in the pick-and-roll, Karl-Anthony Towns will have to become accustomed to popping out to the wing for points off the trap, leaving Rudy Gobert enough space in the dunker spot if D’Angelo Russell or Anthony Edwards gets the step.
On defense, Chris Finch should want to experiment with zones, particularly a 2-3, where teams are encouraged to bomb from deep; and if opposing offenses are able to slice through the front lines, they’ll meet a lengthy front-court composed of Jaden McDaniels, Towns and Gobert, that projects to be difficult to score against inside.
In transition both ways, Rudy Gobert will need to run hard and fill the lane so that opponents don’t get a one-up with numbers and Minnesota can most effectively maximize its fast-break opportunities.
This season will reveal just how bright the future can be in Minnesota.