In the history of the NBA, a starting lineup with two big men sharing the court is not commonly seen but has proven effective. We have seen it in the past with duos of Kareem Abdul-Jabar and James Worthy, David Robinson and Tim Duncan, Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes, and several other dynamic duos.
For the Washington Wizards, this is a tactic that head coach Wes Unseld Jr. started tinkering with last season when he would bring Daniel Gafford off the bench and utilize him with starter Kristaps Porzingis. With Porzingis’ ability to space the floor, it opens an avenue to the rim for a lob to Gafford, as well as their ability to utilize the pick-and-roll game. It also puts together two great rim protectors on the defensive end.
Coming into his second season with the Wizards, Porzingis needed to be ready to adapt to the changes Unseld Jr. would make with the starting lineup. Porzingis is used to being the tallest guy on the floor, so adding Gafford to the mix turned out to make things a whole lot easier for him.
“I love playing with Gaff,” Porzingis told NBC Sports Washington's Wes Hall. “Whenever I’m on the perimeter or I’m not able to get to the help, I know there’s another guy who’s going to have my back and vice versa.”
The question coming into this season then became how often we would see Porzingis and Gafford on the court together. Fast forward to Nov. 28 when the Wizards took on the Minnesota Timberwolves, a team that implemented this tactic with their two big men in Rudy Gobert and Karl Anthony-Towns, this seemed like a prime opportunity for Unseld Jr. to throw his own big men duo. But he ultimately stuck to his game plan and decided to wait.
Just two games later the Wizards finally got to see another showing of Porzingis and Gafford together during the second half against the Charlotte Hornets. Into the month of December, the Wizards hit their roughest stretch of the year where they went on to lose a season-high 10 straight games. Unseld Jr. needed to act fast and make some changes and it all started when the Wizards ended their losing streak by defeating the Phoenix Suns.
Porzingis was out for this game, due to a non-COVID related illness, so Gafford got his first start of the season. This ended up being the turnaround the Wizards needed, as it resulted in an end to their losing streak and Gafford posted 12 points and nine rebounds in his starting debut. Just two games later at Sacramento, Unseld Jr. decided to finally test out the two big-man starting lineup.
Their debut was a success, resulting in a 125-111 Wizards win. When the good is going well you stick with it, as the Wizards went on a five-game winning streak following the change and then two weeks later went on another six-game win streak.
“For me that’s the thing I love, to have another rim protector out there, another rebounder,” said Porzingis on Gafford. “It kind of gives everybody, especially the guards, a bit more confidence to push up because there’s not only one but there’s two guys who can protect the rim if they can beat from the perimeter.”
When the starting duo tandem first began, Unseld Jr. said he was going to give the pairing at least five games in the starting lineup before making a decision on whether to keep it. When both are healthy and in the lineup, the 'Unicorn' and the 'Landlord' have started every game together since Unseld Jr. made the change during the end of the new year.
Porzingis and Gafford are both averaging at least 1.2 blocks and 3.4 rebounds per game. They are both currently in the top 20 in blocks per game; one of three pairs of teammates in that category alongside, Indiana Pacers Myles Turner and Isaiah Jackson and Atlanta Hawks Onyeka Okongwu and Clint Capela.
“Definitely not that athleticism,” Porzingis said on if he has ever played with someone similar to Gafford’s skillset. “The athleticism that Gaff has, with his size that’s the craziest thing. Lowkey a part of me really wants to see him one day in the slam dunk contest because I think he will surprise a lot of people.”