In 2019, the NBA instituted some semblance of a standard for measuring players’ heights, after which many players magically became an inch shorter. Boston Celtics forward Al Horford, who supposedly shrunk from 6-foot-10 to 6-foot-9, was one such example.
Fast-forward three years, and the 2022 NBA Finals between the Celtics and the Golden State Warriors is the first since 1976 in which there were no players on the court for the opening tipoff taller than 6-foot-9. In fact, nobody listed at 6-foot-10 or above on NBA.com has even seen the court in this series outside of garbage time.
Even with the caveat of standardized measurement accuracy, 2022 is a far cry from the 1980s, when either 7-foot-2 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or 7-foot-1 Robert Parish started in every Finals, including three times against one another.
As the league has moved towards positionless basketball, teams have cast aside their behemoths, valuing shooting and defensive versatility more than post play and shot-blocking. Just 20 years ago, players 6-foot-10 or taller clocked 29% of all playoff minutes. In 2012, that number was down to 23%. This season, it plummeted to 14%, a new low since the NBA/ABA merger in 1977.
As recently as 2006, 7-footers garnered more than 10% of all postseason minutes. In the 2022 playoffs, just 3.2% of playing time has gone to 7-footers.
There has also been a reduction on the other end of the spectrum. For the first time in more than a decade, less than 20% of all postseason minutes have gone to players 6-3 or shorter.
Combine that with the aforementioned decline of the giants, and there’s been an enormous spike in the prevalence of players measuring in that sweet spot between 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-9. More than 67% of all 2022 playoff minutes have gone to such players, shattering the previous modern record of 61% in 2020.
Smaller guards have been increasingly targeted on defense in recent postseasons, and this year was no different. In the Western Conference semifinals, the Dallas Mavericks repeatedly set screens to bring 6-foot Chris Paul into the action and force him to body up the 6-foot-7 Luka Dončić.
Similarly, taller players have been routinely dragged into pick-and-roll coverage or switched onto speedy guards, where they’re left out to dry. Even MVP Nikola Jokić, despite putting up monster offensive numbers in his first-round series against the Warriors, sat on the bench during several crunch-time defensive possessions to avoid potentially having to stay in front of Stephen Curry outside the three-point line.
The on/off metrics for big men speak for themselves. Of the eight teams in the 2022 playoffs who played at least 100 possessions both with and without a player taller than 6-foot-9 on the court, seven of those teams had a better net rating when they played small ball, per Cleaning the Glass.
If anything, that statistic understates the point. Although they were swept by the Celtics, the Brooklyn Nets actually outscored Boston by 16 points in 34 minutes without traditional centers Andre Drummond and Nic Claxton, hemorrhaging points on defense but scoring at an astounding clip to make up for it. In contrast, the team finished -25 in Drummond’s minutes and -9 in Claxton’s minutes.
The Milwaukee Bucks’ taller lineups also struggled against the Celtics in the second round. Milwaukee was an abysmal -75 when 7-foot Brook Lopez played, as Boston countered Lopez’s shot-blocking by spacing the court and launching threes. In the same series, the Bucks outscored the Celtics by 20 when they went small with either Giannis Antetokounmpo or Bobby Portis at center.
Interestingly, it’s important to acknowledge that in a playoffs defined by successful downsizing of players’ height, two of the most important players in the 2022 NBA Finals have been centers.
Kevon Looney, the Warriors’ only consistent rotation player taller than 6-foot-9, has made his presence felt against the physical Celtics, particularly on the boards. Golden State is +36 in Looney’s minutes, but -35 without him in the first four games of the Finals.
Boston’s Robert Williams III is listed at just 6-foot-9, but his 7-foot-6 wingspan has erased countless Golden State drives in the paint and simply outmatched the shorter Draymond Green on plays at the rim. Boston is +20 when he plays and -21 when he sits.
It’s hard to square these numbers signaling the importance of size in the Finals with the overwhelming trend of traditional centers being played off the court. But even though they don’t shoot threes, Looney and Williams aren’t traditional centers. They’re mobile and can hang with all but the best perimeter players away from the hoop defensively. On the other end, their most important skill is crashing the offensive glass—they’re never asked to post up.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr and Celtics coach Ime Udoka are realizing the value of their bigs. In Games 1 through 3 of the Finals, Looney and Williams each averaged 21 minutes per game, but in Game 4, they played 28 and 31 minutes, respectively.
As long as throwing a ball into a hoop above people’s heads remains the goal of basketball, height will matter. Organizations around the league, however, will take notice of the fact that the last two teams standing in 2022 almost completely ignored the game’s tallest players when building their rosters.
Move aside, 7-footers. 6-foot-9 centers are in.