Big men have dominated the basketball since the game’s inception. And since that point, teams have spent countless hours and dollars in searching for the one that can ensure their franchises success by dominating the low block.
But a drastically changing game — with offenses in the past decade featuring more pick-and-rolls and hyper-athletic scorers than ever before – is changing the value of big men around the league. No longer does the fate of a franchise lie with a 7-footers ability to control a game with his back to the basket. Instead, it’s tethered to how well they are capable of anchoring a defense.
If history is any indication, an injury to a top-flight defensive big slams shut a championship window faster than one can read DNP-Injured. So despite the brightest stars shining from the perimeter and their exclusion from the All-Star ballot, centers still act as the lynchpin for several playoff or title-contending teams.
This season in particular, the health of six big men — due to either their overwhelming impact or lack of a suitable replacement — will play a key role in how the postseason race shakes out.
1. Chris Bosh
It’s hard to consider any player on Lebron James’s team a lynchpin, but Bosh comes close. The other members of this list may provide a more measurable impact in the event of their absence, but a Bosh injury could have a major effect of the Heat’s title hopes. Last season’s playoffs, when Bosh’s absence almost derailed the Heat’s title charge, is proof enough. Thanks to a mediocre collection of big men behind him, Bosh missing in action could again cripple the Heat in a conference finals series matchup against the Celtics or a Finals matchup against the Lakers.
2. Joakim Noah
At 27 years old, Noah has emerged as a mobile big man capable of doing everything a modern five man needs to do. Whether it’s switching onto smaller players in a pick-and-roll or subtly flooding the strongside of a floor against an isolation, Noah is a contender to win a Defensive Player of the Year at least once in the next few seasons. But for this upcoming season, his health — in combination with the absence of Derrick Rose — will dictate whether or not the Bulls remain a playoff team. Any injury to Noah exposes the Bulls strip-mined depth and will force Tom Thibodeau to either play Taj Gibson out of position or give 35-year old Nasr Mohammed starter’s minutes.
3. Marc Gasol
Thanks to a lack of shot-makers, Memphis will need to be a top-tier defense if they want to make a push deep in the playoffs, and they can’t achieve that without Gasol anchoring the team from the rear. From Tony Allen’s reckless style of play to Randolph’s cool indifference, Gasol’s presence papers over some glaring flaws. He’s also the team’s second best playmaker, and the Grizzlies often run their offense through Gasol at the high post. If he goes down, the Grizzlies best hope to replace his defensive value lies with Hamed Haddadi. Yikes.
4. Tyson Chandler
On an aging roster filled with subpar defenders (Ronnie Brewer excluded), the defending DPOY is the key to the Knicks playoff hopes. Amar’e Stoudamire, Kurt Thomas and Marcus Camby simply couldn’t come close to appoximating his defensive value. Without Chandler, it will be an all out attack on the rim all season in New York.
5. Anderson Varejao
While making the playoffs may actually be counter-productive to the team’s long range goals, the Cavs have a legitimate chance to snag one of the final spots in a weak Eastern conference if the shaggy-haired Brazilian can stay healthy. While not nearly as impactful as some of the other names on this list, the Brazilian flop-artist has a solid track record of improving defenses. And though his presence might not help the Cavs affect the title chase, Varejao being moved to another team (like say, the Celtics) could make things very interesting.
6. Andrew Bogut
During the 2009-10 season in Milwaukee (arctic wasteland and my hometown), Andrew Bogut emerged as a bonafide defensive force. Bogut’s health is integral to a franchise with serious playoff aspirations for the first time in years. If Bogut’s injuries keep him out for long stretches, the Warriors — despite their talent and depth elsewhere — will struggle to stay in the playoff hunt. However, if Bogut stays healthy, the Warriors have a legitimate chance to make some major noise in a competitive Western Conference.