Can a roster full of 6-foot-9 wings have sustained success in the NBA?
It's the question the Toronto Raptors have been asking themselves since the start of last year when they did away with anything resembling a traditional supersized center and opted instead for a roster packed to the gills with do-it-all wings.
Can you win year after year with such an unorthodox roster?
“Yeah, I think so," Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said.
"In my opinion, you have to choose the way you want to play in the NBA. You can say Golden State is doing it with six-four guys, six-five guys, and winning. So you choose the way you want to play and you go do it," said Raptors president and vice-chairman Masai Ujiri when that question was put to him during his season-ending media availability. "We figure out what we think a good formula for us to win is, we talk about it with coaches, with our staff, and with Nick (Nurse), and we go with it.
"Nothing in the NBA will be successful until you win. You have to win."
A glance at Toronto's first-round playoff matchup may suggest it was a failed experiment. Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid ran roughshod over Toronto's small-ball bigs, averaging 26.2 points and 11.3 rebounds in the series. But take a look at the four teams remaining in the NBA Playoffs for a moment and Toronto's innovative roster may not look so unusual after all.
Between the Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors, Boston Celtics, and Miami Heat, there's only one starting center and four rotation players 6-foot-10 or taller. Moreover, the Warriors and Celtics don't play a single player over 6-foot-9, and Miami roster's just one rotation player, Dewayne Dedmon, taller than 6-foot-9. Dallas, conversely, plays three players taller than 6-foot-9, Dwight Powell, the lone starter, Maxi Kleber, and Davis Bertans, none of whom are considered to be traditional game-changing bigs.
This isn't to say superstar centers can't win in the playoffs. Had Embiid been healthy for Philadelphia's entire second-round series, the 76ers may have advanced past the Heat in the conference semi-finals. The Milwaukee Bucks too, with three key rotation players at least 6-foot-10, came one game shy of advancing to the conference finals.
What it does suggest is the Raptors are onto something. The notion that you need to have someone big enough to defend opposing bigs in the playoffs doesn't appear to be true. The number of teams that deploy game-changing centers has been dwindling and building a roster to stop them has become less important than ever before.
For now, Toronto may be a step ahead of the curve when it comes to this new era of basketball, but in a copycat league like the NBA, the rest of the league will soon be on the Raptors' heels. Whoever wins hoists the Larry O'Brien trophy this season is going to do it without a traditional big and the rest of the league will certainly be trying to follow suit.