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Why traditional big men are the new running backs of the NBA Draft

Unless you're a star, big men aren't worth what they used to be in the NBA Draft.

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Centers were once the dominant species in the NBA, much like the dinosaurs that once roamed the Earth. But like the asteroid that turned dinosaurs into fossils, the small-ball revolution is having a similar impact on basketball.

Bigs won't necessarily go extinct, but fewer centers are playing heavy minutes in the playoffs because of the emphasis placed on spacing and shooting. More small-ball lineups are being used. Versatility is now more important than size.

Only 11 traditional centers or power forwards are averaging 30 minutes or more in the playoffs. Nine of them were either named to an All-NBA or All-Star team at least once in their careers (the only two that weren't are Serge Ibaka and Steven Adams). The others either score at an elite level like LaMarcus Aldridge or Blake Griffin, protect the rim at an elite level like DeAndre Jordan or Dwight Horward, space the floor at an elite level like Kevin Love or Dirk Nowitzki, or rank highly in multiple categories like Paul Millsap, Al Horford and Andre Drummond.

Unless you're a star, the role of the traditional big has declined in the playoffs. Andrew Bogut is averaging five fewer minutes than the versatile Shaun Livingston. The nifty interior scoring of Enes Kanter averaged eight fewer minutes than Andre Roberson, a journeyman-level wing. Jared Sullinger, an elite rebounder, averaged 13 fewer minutes than the flexible-but-average Jonas Jerebko.

There's actually a legitimate argument that the 35-year-old, past-his-prime Richard Jefferson should continue starting over three-time All-Star Kevin Love. So of course the role of traditional big men is declining. This is obvious. This NBA is twisted right now.

We are potentially going to see the implications of that in this year's draft. Prospects like Utah center Jakob Poeltl, with a well-rounded game that would've placed him in the top-five conversation not long ago, is a projected late lottery pick. Diamond Stone, a classic low-post scorer, might not even go in the first round.

"The game done changed."

But why? Unless a player is a unicorn big man -- like Karl-Anthony Towns -- the changing values of the position no longer require a high lottery pick spent on the role.

Poeltl, for example, isn't elite in any single category, so he likely won't be one of those bigs that actually has a heavy role in the playoffs -- the time of year the games matter most.

This is not a knock against Poeltl. It's just the state of the game. He's a safe pick. He's a good, solid, all-around player. He can finish well on the roll. He's a solid positional defender. He'll block some shots. He improved a lot in two years at Utah.

But he lacks upside and it's not hard to find safe. You can find safe anywhere in the draft, including the middle and end of the first round -- especially this year, which includes some bigs that aren't all that separated from Poeltl.

Chinanu Onuaku is more athletic and a better rim protector. Brice Johnson is a better rebounder and quicker on the perimeter. Zhou Qi is a better shot blocker and shooter. Cheick Diallo is raw, but is a better athlete. Ante Zizic projects similarly to Poeltl, yet he receives little recognition.

So Poeltl has slipped, though he could still go 10 to 30 picks ahead of some of these players with similar upside (or higher due to their specialties).

You could make an argument that it's a win if you draft Poeltl in the lottery and feel confident about his chances of being a rotational big. Maybe you even think I'm underselling his upside and believe he has All-Star potential.

But think about it this way: The running back is still an important position in the NFL. You have to be able to run the ball, just like you have to be able to protect the rim and rebound in the NBA. But teams aren't feeding the ball to their backs like they used to because the passing attack is so lethal and running back production is replaceable by committee.

As a result, running backs drop in the draft because of their lessened importance. The same could be happening with non-elite bigs. The NBA Draft is different, of course, since there are only two rounds. But the same logic applies because of the decreased emphasis on the post up. Teams simply might not get the best bang for their buck by drafting a traditional big like Poeltl in the top 10. Investing a high pick in a player that'll likely receive only 15-25 minutes per game in the playoffs means you're missing out on a potentially more versatile wing or forward.

The small-ball revolution is happening fast. As more teams copy the Warriors' style of play, we'll see more teams going small. Even this year, Oklahoma City put Ibaka at the five and Kevin Durant at the four. The Cavs are putting Kevin Love or Tristan Thompson at the five with LeBron James at the four. Soon we may see more teams shift each player up another position, like the Warriors do with Draymond Green at the five in their Death Lineup.

That's why Dragan Bender and Jaylen Brown are both so appealing as high lottery picks. Raw prospects like forward Marquese Chriss and wing Malachi Richardson are appetizing to some teams for the same reason. Wade Baldwin and Jamal Murray could play both guard spots. The list goes on, and those players bump down the more one-dimensional classic 7-footers.

Jakob Poeltl will likely end up being a solid NBA player. But it's looking like teams have begun to take a long, hard look at the price point of rotational bigs in free agency and the bigs available in the middle of the draft. Unless a team has confidence one of them will be more than a rotational big, you very well might be getting ripped off when a similar option is available for half the price later in the round.

Kevin O'Connor can be contacted on Facebook and Twitter @KevinOConnorNBA. His 2016 NBA Draft Guide can be ordered by clicking here.

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