As a fan of fundamentals I’ve always kept the NBA’s big-man passing numbers in my periphery. As such, a recent email request from a fan-friend for a deeper look into the topic was all it took to prod me into digging a little deeper. And deeper. And…
It’s felt for a while now like passing from the post is becoming something of a lost art form. I have vivid memories of vintage Karl Malone backing down his man methodically in the post while peeking for that over-the-shoulder-dump-off to a slashing John Stockton for high-percentage points, a skill he worked hard on for many years to perfect, and perfect it he did.
So, it was no surprise to me to find him on the list of premiere passing bigs of the last decade, but who are the others who did bonus damage to opponents by rummaging around in the toolbox and making use of this ever-diminishing tool?
I asked on Twitter, and the usual list of suspects popped up; Divac, Duncan, and Shaq are all there. It took a few minutes, but Pau Gasol, Chris Webber, then Brad Miller, then Kevin Garnett all popped up too. Much to my chagrin, Malone was never mentioned, and neither were a couple other oft-overlooked big dimers.
The criteria cut-off for “elite-passing big man” is at 3.0 assists-per-game.
I tried stay away from “tweeners,” sticking to those that played predominantly either the center or power forward position in a given season (like Andrei Kirilenko of the 2003-04 season, where he made the All-Star game as a PF after Malone’s departure from the Utah Jazz and before Carlos Boozer’s arrival in Salt Lake City, or Juwan Howard for the 2002-03 Denver Nuggets), so no LeBron James, despite his Malone-esque stature.
Of course, if you’re 6’10″ or bigger, you’re probably automatically qualified even if you play the small forward when your oft-injured center happens to string together a few appearances in a row.
The more-accurate advanced stat measurement of assist percentage is represented by font size in direct proportion in the following chart, for example, 2001-02 Lamar Odom’s AST% was 28.6, so was rounded up to font size 29 in the font I used, Sans Bold, while Shareef Abdur-Rahim’s 15.1 AST% is represented in font size 15.
As always, players names are staggered wherever possible, as well as represented in an approximation of his team colors of the season, and half-and-half in a season where that player was traded. Remember, you can always go where I did for the data, for clarification of a particular season’s numbers, Basketball Reference.
And yes, that is a 1949 dime, in case you were wondering.
Malone aside, some other names overlooked were Toni Kukoc, Dirk Nowitzki and Josh Smith, three appearances each, and looming largest of all, the most consistent passing big man of the last 10-plus years, Lamar Odom.
As a third-wheel most of his career, with a reputation for slacking off, it’s no surprise that casual fan and professional blogger alike both overlooked Odom. However, one could easily make a case for the Candyman as Big Dimer of the Decade.
Tim Duncan, Lamar Odom, eight times
Brad Miller, six times
Most assists per-game:
2002-03 Kevin Garnett, 6.0
2001-02 Lamar Odom, 5.9
2004-05 Kevin Garnett, 5.7
Highest assist percentage:
2003-04 Vlade Divac, 28.7%
2001-02 Lamar Odom, 28.6%
2004-05 Kevin Garnett, 27.1%
For some perspective on Odom’s 2001-02 passing season, his assist percentage was better that year than guards Mike Bibby, Tony Parker, Gilbert Arenas, Chris Whitney and his backup, Tyronne Lue, Darrell Armstrong, Tim Hardaway, Kenny Anderson, Damon Stoudamire, Alvin Williams, as well as his very own starting point guard, Jeff McInnis.
But there’s clearly a disturbing trend emerging here, that being that the art of the interior pass is quietly going the way of the dinosaur. It’s interesting to note this downward trend is in direct proportion to field goal percentages going up over the same span.
Malone did it for his last 14 straight, right up to his final push for a ring with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Garnett was a dime threat for 12 straight years, but hasn’t been seen on the list since before the 2008-09 season when only three bigs even qualified for this exercise.
Duncan has made it over the set threshold only 10 of 14 seasons, and almost always barely.
The longest current streak belongs to Pau Gasol, at six straight, but neither Duncan nor Gasol are anywhere near the glory levels of past years’ big dimers.
Something interesting happened when I began looking at Win Shares coupled with big dimers; that this dangerous-to-a-defense facet of the game has been largely ignored over the last several seasons.
The size of the star burst is directly proportionate to the Win Shares total for each player/season. A double star burst is indicative of that season’s NBA leader in Win Shares.
Duncan and Garnett’s consecutive years are easily spotted. That’s Dirk Nowitzki hiding twice in that nebulous cloud of 2006-2008. These three big dimers combine to account for the league lead in Win Shares for five of six years, and it goes back even further than that.
We find Pau Gasol as the current and past three seasons’ leader in Win Shares among qualified diming bigs, but the quality and quantity are slowly being snuffed right of the game like a dying dwarf star.
The golden age for passing big men seems to be from 1993-94 David Robinson right up to 2006-07 Dirk Nowitzki, where qualified big dimers were also the NBA leaders in Win Shares for 10 of 13 seasons –and it would have been 14 straight had Robinson not fallen just shy at 2.9 assists per-game in 1994-95 and Michael Jordan not jumped in the following two seasons to break up the bigs party.
Shaquille O’Neal, who made our chart only once, had his two best years as a passer in this era as well; from 1999-2001, the Lakers’ champ posted career highs of 3.8 and 3.7 assists per-game for respective 19.3 and 18.8 AST%, while leading the league in Win Shares grabbing hardware along the way.
Six times from 1998 to 2006 a Win Shares-leading, big dimer was in the NBA Finals. Dirk in ’06 was the last of his kind to date.
Looking back through the years we also find your Wilts and your Kareems. But neither of those Hall-of-Famers can claim the crown of “best big dimer you’ve never heard of.” That honor belongs alone to one seven-foot Tom Boerwinkle.
Boerwinkle played for the Chicago Bulls back in the days of true grit, with the likes of Norm Van Lier, Jerry Sloan, Chet Walker, and Bob Love. Many of you may have heard Tom call MJ’s “Shrug” game as a Bulls radio broadcaster, but he’s best known for the following excerpts as told by Boerwinkle himself:
“It was a huge thrill to come so close to the NBA Finals, as we did in 1974 and 1975, even if we fell a little short. But my favorite game with the Bulls—a game that gave new meaning to home-court advantage—came on January 8, 1970.
In early January 1970, one of the most wicked cold snaps in Chicago history was paralyzing the city; by January 8, it had been below zero for 10 straight days. Of course, you normally wouldn’t worry how cold it was outside when playing a game indoors at Chicago Stadium, but Murphy’s Law applied to this game—the Stadium’s heater was broken.
It’s funny enough to picture all 5,086 fans who braved the elements that night, wearing their hats, scarves, and gloves during the game. You certainly don’t arrive at an indoor basketball game expecting to see your breath when you cheer for your favorite player. But it wasn’t just the fans who were bundled up—the players on both benches wore coats and mittens to stay warm. It was only about 40 degrees inside the Stadium that night, so could you blame us?
Good things were happening to me from the opening tip. Never had I experienced the breaks—not in high school, college, or the pros—that I did on that night. Everything was bouncing my way. I had 12 rebounds by the end of the first quarter, and was closing in on 20 by halftime.
Despite how evenly matched the teams appeared to be on paper, we proved to have a major advantage in this “Ice Bowl” game. We continued to roll after halftime, and by the end of the third quarter, we were up 115-80.
I already had played more than my average minutes for the season, which were around 30. I wasn’t on the floor much in the third quarter because we were up so big, but by the end of the game, I had tallied an unimaginable 37 rebounds—in 35 minutes. It was an all-time Bulls record, and it stands to this day.”
The gaudy numbers on the glass really stand out, overshadowing another mark Boerwinkle holds; the all-time best season for AST% by a big man, at an astounding 33.8% that same 1974-75 season.
“[Head coach Dick] Motta had carved out a well-defined role for me at center: I distributed the ball from the high post to our scorers, Walker and Love. Those two had an amazing ability to work in close to the basket, so I would dish to them inside and then crash the boards for offensive rebounds.”
Had Boerwinkle played 36 minutes per-game he would have averaged an unheard-of-for-a-big-slow-7-foot-center 8.3 assists per game in ’74-75.
“I’ve always described our Bulls team as a bunch of role players. You might say my role was to do a lot of the dirty work, but I was proud of being in such a pivotal position on a successful team for many years. I never looked at the game in an individual sense; I’ve always operated best within a system. Besides, Bob Love says he still dreams of my back-door passes to him for layups, and I’m ranked seventh all-time on the Bulls in assists, so something must have been working right.”
This forgotten big-man passer and his size 34 font can top my chart any day.
(If you ever wondered why Jerry Sloan is such a tough sonuvagun, this article about the “Ice Bowl” explains much of it. There were also several other records set in this chilly showdown)
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