The NBA world has been consumed with finding the next MJ ever since he retired, and the MVP award has gone to a perimeter player in each of the last four years -- Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Derrick Rose. But the real story has been in the paint, as the last four titles have been won by teams with super-sized front-lines featuring two near seven-footers.
Since the Lakers acquired Pau Gasol in 2008, they have gone 12-2 in playoff series, either winning the title or losing to the eventual champions. The only two teams that beat them (Boston in 2008, Dallas in 2011) were the only two teams that had the size, length and skill to match the Lakers front-line of Gasol, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum.
Most teams are lucky to have one big man who can play with the ball in his hands and defend the rim; the Lakers have three. When Bynum (7'6 wingspan), Gasol (7'5 wingspan) and Odom (7'0 wingspan) are clicking, they are playing on a different plane than the vast majority of the league. Offensively, they can put their hands straight in the air and either pass or shoot over their slower, smaller defenders; defensively, the sheer length of their arms makes passing lanes and shooting angles disappear.
After making it to the Western Conference Finals in 2007, the Utah Jazz ran into the Lakers three straight seasons -- losing 4-2 in 2008, 4-1 in 2009 and 4-0 in 2010. With a front-line that prominently featured the 6'9 Carlos Boozer and the 6'7 Paul Millsap, the Jazz never really had a chance. In 15 playoff games between the two teams, Boozer shot 45% from the field while Gasol shot 58%.
It wasn't until the Boston Celtics in the 2008 Finals that the Lakers faced an equally formidable front-line. Anchored by Kendrick Perkins, a 6'10 280 brick wall of a center with a 7'6 wingspan, and Kevin Garnett, one of the most versatile and athletic seven-footers of all-time, the Celtics could match the Lakers pound for pound and inch for inch.
The importance of length was magnified two years later, when the Lakers and Celtics staged an epic seven-game rematch in the 2010 NBA Finals. Perkins went down with a torn ACL in Game 6 with Boston up 3-2, forcing the 6'8 Glen Davis into a more prominent role in Boston's front-court rotation. The Lakers' Game 7 victory was decided by four points, and a game that close will have many heroes and goats, but those missing inches made a crucial difference.
Down 57-53 at the start of the fourth quarter, Gasol drew two consecutive fouls on Davis in the first minute, overwhelming him through sheer length. The Lakers got into the penalty extremely early, and in a game where they averaged only 20 points a quarter, got 12 points from the free throw line in the first 10 minutes of the fourth. These constant trips to the foul line neutralized Boston's suffocating half-court defense, while also keeping the Celtics from pushing the ball in transition, where they were most effective.
Knowing that the road to a championship went through L.A., the Dallas Mavericks furiously upgraded their front-line in the last two years: adding Brendan Haywood (7'0 with a 7'6 wingspan) and Tyson Chandler (7'1 with a 7'2 wingspan) at center. While many believe the Mavericks blueprint is too unique to replicate, Dallas was following in the footsteps of L.A. and Boston before them: their success revolved around playing two seven-footers nearly the entire game.
Dirk used his length to unleash an indefensible barrage of jumpers from every part of the floor; Chandler used his length and athleticism to defend the rim and the other team's more dangerous front-court player. It was a perfect "fit" of strengths and weaknesses: Dirk was all-offense, Chandler was all-defense and together they formed a seven-foot Voltron.
In the pivotal Game 5 of the Portland series, Dallas forced the Trail Blazers to go small, playing Gerald Wallace and Nic Batum at the power forward position and leaving LaMarcus Aldridge as the only Trail Blazer over 6'9 on the floor. Dirk's jump-shooting ability dragged him away from the basket, and Chandler used his size to grab 13 offensive rebounds and swing the series' momentum back to Dallas.
It was the same story throughout Dallas' run to the championship, culminating in Dirk and Chandler overwhelming Miami's undersized front-line of the 6'9 Joel Anthony, 6'8 Udonis Haslem and the 6'10 Chris Bosh in the Finals.
LeBron James is the NBA's best player because of his ability to dominate the paint at 6'9 and 270 pounds, and for all the talk of his mental fragility, the blueprint for beating him has been the same for five years now: a mobile and athletic seven-footer who can cut off his usually overpowering drives at the rim. It was Tim Duncan in 2007, Kevin Garnett in 2008, Dwight Howard in 2009, Garnett again in 2010 and Tyson Chandler in 2011.
So while perimeter players dominate the off-season hype and post-season accolades, the road to a championship still goes through the paint. If the last four years have taught us anything, it's this: never underestimate the importance of height and length in a game involving throwing a ball through a ten-foot basket.