NBA free agency 2022: Combo big men have become a necessity -- but good luck finding one this summer

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Why might a 37-year-old who averaged 7.6 PPG last season be one of the most sought-after players when NBA free agency opens Thursday evening?

When P.J. Tucker returned to the NBA in 2012 after playing in a variety of European leagues, he was attractive as a popular NBA archetype: the 3-and-D wing player capable of knocking down open jumpers and defending opposing high scorers on the perimeter.

Over the past decade, the 6-foot-5 Tucker has helped push the league in a new direction. Having started at center for the Houston Rockets during the second half of the 2019-20 season, Tucker has in part established a new, trendy player type: the power forward who can slide to center as teams downsize in the playoffs.

All four teams who reached the 2022 conference finals, including Tucker's Miami Heat, featured one. And now the Philadelphia 76ers, a rare team that won a playoff series without a power forward masquerading at center, could attempt to fill that need by stealing Tucker away from the rival Heat in free agency.

Let's take a look at the rise of the combo big man and whether there are any others lurking in free agency.

Why teams downsize in the playoffs

It's hardly shocking to learn that NBA teams play their centers less in the playoffs. During 2021-22, players who saw the majority of their action at center during the regular season (according to my analysis of lineup data from NBA Advanced Stats) played 20% of their teams' minutes -- exactly what you'd expect with five positions, though the exact percentages can vary a bit from year to year.

Come playoff time, players who were primarily centers in the regular season saw just 17% of their teams' minutes, a little bit higher than the average for centers over the past four seasons (16%).

The conventional wisdom has been that the extra minutes taken away from centers go to wings, whose value heightens in the playoffs as teams increasingly switch on screens and want like-sized defenders who can space the floor. That truism doesn't hold up.