Over the 74 year history of the NBA, spanning from 1946 to 2020 the evolution of the game is especially the big man is truly something to behold. In the beginning, big men were seen as too slow and uncoordinated to succeed. This all changed with George Mikan using his 6 foot 10 245 pound frame to dominate the competition. In just 7 years in the league, Mikan was a 4-time all-star, 3-time scoring champ and most of all winning 5 championships. Mikan’s post-game and ambidextrous hook shoot along with his size led to the development of more dominant big men. Mikan was truly the original big man. Mikan retired in 1956 at the age of 31. That same year William Felton Russell was taken 2nd overall by the St Louis Hawks. He took the league by storm with his defensive intensity and rebounding. Russell would go on to average 14.7 points and 19.6 rebounds per game his rookie season. Russell’s career was highlighted by his 11 rings and 5 MVPs.
3 years after Russell was drafted, Wilt Chamberlain was taken in a territorial selection by the Philadelphia Warriors. His athleticism and power combined with his scoring prowess had never been seen before. Chamberlain was the most dominant force the league has ever seen. His most spectacular season saw him average 50.4 points while snagging 25.7 rebounds per game. Blocks weren’t recorded for most of Chamberlain and Russell’s careers but rumors are they averaged about 8 per game. They truly ruled their era with an Iron fist combining for 13 championships and 9 MVP awards. Chamberlains scoring prowess from the center position was never seen again…. Until a young kid named Lou Alcindor burst onto the scene.
Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr was drafted 1st overall by the Milwaukee Bucks out of UCLA. The Newyork native rocked the basketball world with his patented skyhook. He wasn’t the most talented post scorer but his unstoppable hook shot landed him on the top of the all-time scoring list. Over his 20 year career, he averaged 24.6 points and 11.2 rebounds. Blocks were recorded for the majority of his career averaging 2.6 per game. His accolades include 6 championships and a record 6 league MVPs.
This is where the play style of Big men starts to take a turn. Hakeem Olajuwon is perhaps the most versatile big man of all time. Never before has the league seen a man that size be able to guard positions 1 through 5 and record a quadruple-double with steals. Olajuwon is first place on the all-time on the leagues shot blocking list. His post moves are second to none. Over his 18 year career Olajuwon was a 2-time Defensive Player of the Year 2 time NBA champion and 2-time finals MVP. He averaged 21.8 points 11.1 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per game.
Dirk Nowitzki was taken 5th overall by the Milwaukee Bucks In 1999 but was immediately traded to the Dallas Mavericks. His ability to stretch the floor was matched by none. The German sensation could score from anywhere. For someone his size to be able to shoot like that it had never been seen before in the NBA. But the truth is, it has been like that overseas. Players like Tony Kukoc and Drazan Petrovic could shoot with the best of them. Dirk’s historic career ended last year with a farewell tour. Accolades he achieved included 1 championship 1 MVP and 14 all-star selections. His entire legendary career was spent with the Dallas Mavericks. Over 20 years the German Race Car averaged 20.7 points 7.5 rebounds and 2.4 assists.
The absolute impact on playstyle these legends have had on the new generation is astounding. As basketball fans it’s amazing to comprehend just how big men have changed. Players like Karl Anthony Towns and Kristaps Porzingis are so different than players like Andre Drummond and Rudy Gobert. It’s amazing to think of just how many different big man playstyles there are right now.