Hakeem Olajuwon Might Be The Only Old-Timer Who Understands What Small Ball Means For Big Men

hakeem olajuwon, shaquille o'neal
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Tracy McGrady thinks the NBA is “watered down.” Charles Barkley says the league is the worst he’s ever seen it. It’s a familiar refrain among a host of former players who simply don’t like the current trends dominating professional basketball, i.e. the overwhelming reliance on three-point shooting, the emphasis on pace, and the increasingly-amorphous nature of lineups and positions that were once set in stone.

But at least one retired superstar has a vision for where basketball is headed, and that’s partially because he himself was ahead of the curve in his day. In his first-person essay for The Players’ Tribune, Rockets legend Hakeem Olajuwon offered his insight on the demands placed on today’s big men and the new opportunities created by the evolution of frontcourt players in the modern NBA.

Small ball has made stars out of of traditional guards, but in my mind the biggest thing it has done is to liberate big men from their traditional duties. They’re no longer stuck in the paint.

Small ball won’t eliminate big men, but it might eliminate our old ideas of positions. Everyone likes to compare eras, but it’s possible that today’s big men are more skilled as all-around players than ever before. Look at guys like Draymond Green and LaMarcus Aldridge in this year’s playoffs. I’m in awe of how they play like guards and centers at the same time.

That’s a bold statement coming from the man who many consider the most skilled post player the game has ever seen. But it was also precisely his own ability to step out on the perimeter and face up his opponents that the Dream saw as a harbinger of things to come. At the very least, it’s a nice change of pace from the chorus of retired players who have nothing better to do than reminisce about how much better everything was in their day.