Today’s NBA is considered a guard’s league. Teams have made an effort to go smaller making big men seem obsolete. The traditional big man may be dead, but that doesn’t mean they’re extinct they just evolved. Traditionally big men are valued on their ability to clean the glass, guard the paint like it’s a bank vault, and impose their will in the post. They were usually the skyscrapers on the floor, but there were exceptions (Hakeem Olajuwon) to the rule. The vanguards for traditional big men include Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem, Shaquille O’Neal, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, and Tim Duncan. Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki were also generational big men, but not traditional. They were the beginning of the new big men we see today.
Garnett and Nowitzki brought a new dynamic to seven-footers. They broke the cage of scoring exclusively down low and added the outside jumper to their repertoire. Garnett expressed his respect for his rival ESPN in 2014.
“It was a crazy era for fours. In a lot of ways we’re similar when it comes to approach, when it comes to our craft, work ethic, but we’re two totally different players. Dirk does a lot of things on the perimeter, his shot is one of the best in the history of the game. We have a totally different realm of things, but we’re both respectable, both have complete bodies of work, both are great players.”
Big men had decent touch from the mid range (i.e. Hakeem, Ewing, Duncan) always existed, but KG and Dirk pushed it further. They devastated down low like their big men brethren, but they also extended their limits past the free throw line. Garnett was the first Swiss army knife power forward. He could pass like a guard, shoot like a wing and still do everything a big man is supposed to do (block shots, pull down boards, and score down low). Dirk proved you didn’t have to be built like a Transformer to have a devastating post game and don’t have to be a small forward or shooting guard to be your team’s best three-point shooter. Those two went head-to-head for 18 seasons and now we get to see their effect in what looks to be the league’s next great “rivalry”–Karl-Anthony Towns vs. Kristaps Porzingis.
If the Knicks had not won two meaningless games at the end of the 2014-15 season they would have had Karl-Anthony Towns. When the top pick became a realistic option Towns was being thought to be the savior. The local kid (Towns is from Jersey and grew up a Knicks fan) was coming to save the franchise from another decade of ineptitude. Instead the Knicks won a couple games, surrendered best lottery odds to the Timberwolves and saw their savior leave before he had the chance to arrive. The Knicks fell to the fourth pick, selected some unknown European named Kristaps Porzingis.
Towns was put in the ideal position for a rookie. The Timberwolves drafted him with the intent of pairing him with Andrew Wiggins who projects to be the best shooting guard in basketball within the next couple of years. He had experience against older and more talented players while playing for the Dominican Republic’s National Team. That experience translated to an immediate leadership role at Kentucky and the same would be expected of him in Minnesota. During his rookie season he got to learn from Garnett himself. Towns’ Master’s program in leadership allowed him to be ready to lead the team alongside Wiggins heading into his sophomore year. With Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, Tom Thibodeau’s hoops genius at his disposal he has the chance to be the core of a dynasty.
In New York Porzingis is in a polar opposite situation. The Knicks are nowhere near title contention, but not willing to completely rebuild. Carmelo Anthony is not going anywhere so the only option is compete for a title. A reduced role plus the added pressure of playing for a playoff spot rather than lottery ball could have hindered Porzingis’ development. Instead, it has been the opposite. Up to this point Porzingis has been able to handle ever growing expectations and seems immune to pressure. That could be credited to his professional career starting two years prior in Europe where he has a pro at 16 years old. In just two years he has gone from being compared to the walking dunk poster preset, Shawn Bradley, to the European legend Dirk.
Despite their polar opposite situations both are set up for stardom and that is because they have each other. Competition breeds greatness and the league has seen rivalries push good players to great and great players to transcendent. Michael Jordan would not be MJ without Isaiah Thomas and the Bad Boys Pistons. Patrick Ewing and David Robinson made each other better. We already talked about Dirk and Garnett. LeBron always had the rotating cast of Carmelo, Kobe, Paul Pierce and the Celtics, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and the ghost of MJ to measure up against. Some players spend their whole careers searching for that rival (i.e. Kobe), but others are blessed with one (Magic and Bird).
They know this and have not shied away from acknowledging this. Towns told ESPN’s Ian Begley that him and Porzingis keep in contact. Porzingis texted him earlier this season “We have to start taking over and taking that next step.”
Dirk and Garnett had the same unspoken respect for each other. Although they were not fierce rivals, their competitive drive indirectly had an effect on each other.
“What you appreciate about the guy is his competitiveness,” Dirk told ESPN in that same 2014 piece. “He’s out there and always into the game. I don’t care if it’s the first quarter, or fourth quarter or a preseason game, he just has that competitive spirit and if you obviously see that in your opponent that makes you raise your level up and makes you compete even harder. So I think we had some great experiences against each other.”
When their rookie season ended Towns was the better man. He took home Rookie of the Year after pulling away from Porzingis at the tail end of the season. Both were in impressive overall and both proved they were a cut above their talented draft class.
Towns averaged 28.8 points, 16.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 2.6 blocks per 100 possessions. Porzingis was not far behind, he averaged 25.8 points, 13.2 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 3.4 blocks. Towns was the evolution of the modern day big man and Porzingis was an android proficient in rim protection and long distance shooting. Still with all the success both enjoyed the two had yet to put together a classic duel that sets off a rivalry.
When Towns and Porzingis met for a back-to-back showdowns this year they had a golden opportunity to put on a classic and they seized it. In their first meeting in Minnesota Towns erupted for a career-high 47 points, 18 rebounds, 3 blocks, and 2 assists. He bullied any defender the Knicks threw at him and owned whatever part of the floor he wanted whether it was underneath the basket or 20 feet out.
Porzingis responded with 29 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 blocks of his own. He was not the one-man wrecking crew Towns was. He countered KAT’s brute force barrage with finesse. Running the floor, putting the ball on the floor (his greatest asset on offense) and hitting off-the-dribble shots we usually see Kevin Durant take. For every Towns rim-rattler Porzingis answered with a twine-tickler. Porzingis’ 29 would be enough to get the win thanks to a Carmelo Anthony game-winner, but a rivalry had been born.
In the second meeting just two days later both were off with Towns only managing half the point total of the game before and getting the loss yet again. Porzingis currently holds a 4-0 record over his rival, but that is sure to change. These two are meant to do this for many years to come and we are lucky enough to have a front row seat.