The Two Bigs Strategy Is Back in the NBA. Can It Work in the Playoffs?

Jean J. Sanders

On the very first defensive play of the Memphis Grizzlies’ postseason, Jaren Jackson Jr. demonstrated why he’s such a potent defensive force. As teammate and fellow big Steven Adams spaced out to the 3-point line to defend Karl-Anthony Towns, Jackson rotated toward a driving Patrick Beverley and leaped to cut off a potential path for a layup. Then, after Beverley dropped a pass to a cutting Jarred Vanderbilt, the All-Defensive candidate jumped again and rejected a dunk attempt at the apex.

Jackson recorded seven blocks in just 24 minutes of Saturday’s Game 1 against the Timberwolves. He stifled shots after a switch and as a helper, in the half court and in transition, as the lone big man on the floor and as one half of a duo with Adams.

Yet Jackson and Adams, who shared 73 starts and more than 1,000 minutes this regular season, didn’t play at all together in the fourth quarter as Memphis angled for a comeback, ultimately falling short in a 130-117 defeat to the 7-seed. The Grizzlies’ front line was collectively slow at the point of attack, weak on the boards, and ineffective on offense. Adjustments will likely come, but their effort in Game 1 showcased the simultaneous promise and pitfalls of a frontcourt comprised of two big men.

After a decade of small-ball domination, with rivals chasing the Warriors’ five-out Death Lineup, team executives say they realized a two-big unit might still work in the modern NBA after the Lakers won a title starting Anthony Davis and either Dwight Howard or JaVale McGee. After the Bucks followed with a title of their own featuring Brook Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo, the tide shifted even more in that direction.

Now, a handful of contenders have adopted the practice and prospered. The Grizzlies team up Adams and Jackson. The Celtics pair Al Horford with Robert Williams III (currently out with a torn meniscus) or Daniel Theis. The Pelicans surged after inserting Jaxson Hayes into the starting lineup alongside Jonas Valanciunas. The now-eliminated Cavaliers rolled with a healthy Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley. And the defending champion Bucks still rely on a front line of Lopez and Antetokounmpo.

But now Memphis is down a game, and maybe easing away from its two-big principles. Cleveland’s already been eliminated, and New Orleans advanced out of the play-in tournament by leaning on a lineup with no big men at all. So as this postseason progresses, teams are waging a stylistic battle, too: Will these modern Twin Towers alignments flourish, or will the playoffs prove that small ball still reigns supreme?

Ask coaches who use two-big lineups for their reasoning, and they all use the same word, without prompting: versatility. Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff praises his bigs’ “versatility and how we can just put them wherever we need to on the floor.” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer, asked about the growing number of teams with two bigs, notes, “A lot of those names and teams and players that you mention, they’re versatile.” Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins raves that Jackson has “so much versatility, both sides of the floor” and is going to become “one of the most versatile two-way players in the league.” And Celtics coach Ime Udoka says that from the start of the preseason, “This is kind of what we visualized with those guys: versatility across the board, big and small, being able to guard all positions.”

Yet, ironically, that flexibility arises from a singular goal: to protect the rim at all costs.

Even as leaguewide 3-point rates continue to rise, the data suggest guarding the rim is more important than guarding the 3-point line. This graph shows the correlation between a team’s defensive rating and how many points it allows, per 100 possessions, in different regions of the court; a higher correlation figure, as in the case of the at-rim line, means a closer relationship.

Based on analysis of Second Spectrum data

And if the rim is the most important area for a defense to protect, then it makes sense to double the number of deterrents in a lineup—especially when they’re as dominant around the rim as some of the stars of these two-big units. The average defender this season allowed opponents to shoot 64.9 percent near the rim, according to NBA Advanced Stats, but Jackson (49.3 percent), Williams (50.7), Allen (50.9), Antetokounmpo (52.8), Horford (56.1), and Mobley (56.3) were all well ahead of that leaguewide figure. (Lopez was injured for most of this season, but he’s at 47.9 percent since the start of last season.)

The strategy worked: All five teams with two-big lineups defended the area closest to the basket well. Boston, Milwaukee, and New Orleans ranked second through fourth in allowing the fewest points per 100 possessions at the rim, according to Second Spectrum. And while Cleveland and Memphis permitted a higher volume of attempts, they ranked first and second, respectively, in allowing the lowest shooting percentage at the rim, according to Cleaning the Glass.

These teams’ defensive success can’t be credited exclusively to their big men. From the Bucks’ Jrue Holiday to the Celtics’ Marcus Smart to the Pelicans’ Herb Jones, they boast a bevy of effective guards and wings, too.

But their shot-stopping identities start with dominant rim defense, which produces ripple effects across the rest of the court. “When you have your paint protected the way that we have it because of those two guys,” Bickerstaff said about Mobley and Allen before the latter’s injury, “it allows everybody to be more aggressive on the ball and on the perimeter. … It makes the floor look extremely crowded.”

Of course, balancing a winning lineup isn’t as simple as just pairing two tall rim protectors and hoping they mesh. Two crucial bottlenecks block the way. The first comes on defense: Because most opponents play only one big man at a time, one of the Twin Towers must defend on the perimeter.

Most big men aren’t equipped to move comfortably in space, yet these bigs are able to stymie skilled guards and wings without help. The Grizzlies, for instance, allowed just 0.75 points per possession this season when Jackson defended an isolation—the lowest mark among 67 players with at least 150 isos defended. Other notable bigs on this list include Mobley (0.81 points per possession allowed, which ranks seventh) and Horford (0.82, 10th), the latter of whom also defended by far the most individual isolation plays in the league.

“It takes a special 4-man to be like Al,” Udoka says. He describes his starting power forward as “a guy that can guard [Joel] Embiid but also switch onto guards and let Rob do what he does.”

The second obstacle appears on offense. Modern lineups can’t handle two non-shooters at a time, so at least one of the two bigs in a Twin Towers pair needs a jumper to provide spacing.

“You’ve got to have guys that can play both ends,” Budenholzer says. Jackson attempted 5.1 3-pointers per game this season, Lopez 4.1, and Horford 3.8. Even Valanciunas tried 2.1 long-range attempts per game, nearly doubling his previous career high.

Yet even some shooting isn’t sufficient to keep a two-big offense afloat if the players’ skill sets don’t complement each other. Asked about his starting lineup in Boston, Udoka contrasts Horford’s fit with Williams against his fit with Joel Embiid when the two shared the court for a season in Philadelphia. While those 76ers boasted an elite defense with the two big men, their advantage dissipated because they also struggled to score: The 76ers scored 114.7 points per 100 possessions with Horford alone and 113.9 with Embiid alone, according to PBP Stats, but just 106.7 when they played together. (Grouping them with a non-shooter in Ben Simmons probably didn’t help.)

“It didn’t work as well with Joel at times, I think, because Rob doesn’t need the ball as much as Joel did,” Udoka says. “It puts Al in a better position to be able to help us out, pick and pop, play the second side, and a lot of times initiate offense from the top. So [Horford and Williams] stay out of each other’s way and complement each other very well.”

Because two-big lineups still represent a heavy minority of NBA rotations, this sort of roster construction can produce funky, imbalanced matchups that stress an opponent’s favored lineup to the breaking point. This can be an added benefit of the now-unorthodox Twin Towers approach. In regular-season games against Milwaukee and Boston, for instance, Bulls coach Billy Donovan tried to play Tristan Thompson and Nikola Vucevic together—but the Bulls were destroyed on both ends, with a minus-18 scoring margin in 26 minutes.

Sometimes, that novelty can spur further two-big innovation in other teams. Pelicans coach Willie Green started Hayes as the nominal power forward alongside Valanciunas for the first time in a game against Cleveland—after plugging the two into a lineup midgame a month earlier against the Cavaliers—and was encouraged by the results, promising to play the two together more. The Pelicans, who finished with a negative point differential overall, were plus-4.8 per 100 possessions with both bigs, according to CtG.

Yet for as much as some rivals might be thrown out of their comfort zones against an unfamiliar two-big lineup, sometimes the two-big teams themselves have to adjust to match up against a smaller, quicker, better-shooting team. Last season’s Bucks demonstrated that a two-big alignment is possible even in the playoffs: Lopez played 68 percent of Milwaukee’s clutch minutes in the 2020-21 postseason—the fourth most on the team, behind Giannis, Jrue Holiday, and Khris Middleton but ahead of all the other wings and guards on the roster.

The previous postseason, however, the Lakers went smaller, with Davis at center, in the most important moments; Howard played just three of the Lakers’ 26 clutch minutes and McGee didn’t play any. And this postseason, rival executives question whether Twin Towers lineups can score enough points to survive. The Celtics finished the regular season with the league’s best defensive rating, but only the 10th-best offensive mark, according to CtG. The Grizzlies ranked fourth in overall offensive rating, but just 22nd in points per play in the half court—meaning the league’s most frequent transition team could struggle to score if it can’t generate the same easy opportunities in the playoffs.

Playoff teams like Minnesota—which used its own two-big starting lineup to turn around its defense, albeit with only modest rim protection—will leave Jackson open from the perimeter and force the 32 percent 3-point shooter to make his jumpers. Can the Grizzlies close games with three shaky to nonexistent shooters in Adams, Jackson, and Ja Morant, who’s below 30 percent from distance since the calendar flipped to 2022?

In Game 1 against Minnesota, Jackson missed all five of his 3-point attempts and the Grizzlies once again failed to find a half-court rhythm. And after watching the Timberwolves’ offense attack Adams relentlessly, Memphis removed Adams and left Jackson as the lone closing big man. Jenkins was terse after Game 1, when asked about Adams’s usage in the series. “I’ll watch the film and try to come up with the best game plan for Game 2,” he said, before moving on to the next question.

The Grizzlies aren’t the only two-big team that might be forced to rethink its approach in the playoffs: In the final minutes of the Pelicans’ first play-in win, backup guard Jose Alvarado took Hayes’s place in the lineup, and in the team’s second play-in win, both big men sat for the finish. The Celtics could close games with just one big man on the court even after Williams returns from injury, along with a smaller quartet of Smart, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Derrick White.

At least when teams remove one of the big men to adopt a more modern approach, the one who remains has the—what’s that word, coaches?—versatility to shift roles. According to positional designations from Cleaning the Glass, one of the big men in each of the five Twin Towers pairings played large swaths of time at both power forward and center this season.

Versatile Big Men in Twin Towers Lineups

Player Time at Power Forward Time at Center
Player Time at Power Forward Time at Center
Al Horford 44% 56%
Jaxson Hayes 50% 50%
Jaren Jackson Jr. 60% 40%
Giannis Antetokounmpo 67% 32%
Evan Mobley 76% 23%

Data via Cleaning the Glass

They often play a different style as the lone big man rather than as one of a pair. Jackson sets picks more than twice as often: He averaged just 10 screens per 100 possessions with Adams in the regular season, versus 23 per 100 possessions without his big man partner. Mobley’s screen-setting rate made a similar jump, from 23 per 100 possessions with Allen to 36 per 100 without him.

Yet if a team used to touting Twin Towers must shade smaller because of a particular matchup, it must have not just individual versatility but broader roster versatility, too. The Celtics are a positive example here, with four sturdy perimeter players after trading for White midseason. But on the other end, the Cavaliers didn’t have enough depth to survive with Mobley at center, and even the defending champion Bucks, having failed to replace P.J. Tucker from last spring’s roster, might not have enough wings to build a high-octane Giannis-at-center lineup.

To varying levels, these teams’ two-big approach positioned them to succeed: the Cavaliers and Zion-less Pelicans to contend for the playoffs ahead of schedule, and the Celtics, Bucks, and Grizzlies to strive for a Finals berth. But now they might have to compromise part of their identities to take another step forward.

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