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During the existence of the NBA, there has always been a dominating center in every era dating back to George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Elvin Hayes, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal. The league has gotten accustom to seeing the offense go through the center position whether it was by scoring or facilitating. From the 1960’s to the late 90’s, general managers and owners always looked for the dominating big man to start or lead their team. And most centers if not all were skilled in one way or another whether it was passing, low post, running the floor, shooting the mid range-jumper and so on. Although it was perceived that this tradition would go on forever, the position has been modified.
In today’s game, the center position is very much alive and important to their teams. Although most fans (between the ages of 30 and older) are not appreciative of the big men in this era, they are still just as important to their respective teams as the icons of their past. The skill set has diminished from the older days, but the athleticism has heightened. Players like DeAndre Jordan, Andre Drummond, Dwight Howard, Tyson Chandler, Hassan Whiteside and Robin Lopez are the staples of today’s centers. These hybrids are not depended upon to be the focal point of the offense but still demands a lot of respect while on the court.
Instead of playing from the post up and having the offense ran through them, they are merely used to set picks, and create second chance points. In the 80’s and 90’s, if a pick was set by the center (pick and roll), it usually resulted in a 12 ft jumper or pump fake and drive to the rim (Patrick Ewing, David Robinson and Kevin Duckworth comes to mind). Now with their ability to jump out the gym, it usually turns into a lob. In this era, the defenders are so worried about the lob that the defensive switch on the center will stay in which will also attract a double team to prevent the alley hoop; this causes a wing-man to be open for the uncontested shot or an open lane for the player with the ball to drive and get the easy lay-up. We’ve seen a few big men be able to run the floor in the past, such as Russell, Alonzo Mourning, Robinson and O’Neal but that wasn’t the norm of big men back then. The new millennium “five” position will sometimes be the first player down the court with an easy dunk or lob because of his running ability.
Defensively is where they dominate the game. There undeniable presence on the floor prevents easy and high percentage shots from being attempted. Now, the fact that most of the high flyers are scared to even attempt to posterize some of the elite shot blockers due to the possibility of getting embarrassment, unlike the great dunkers from previous eras, might have something to do with it. There have been games where Whiteside has blocked eight shots or more. Another plus for the centers are putting their imprints on the game by rebounding. An art that is very underrated in today’s game can start the break and deny second chance points for their teams. There ability to go out on the perimeter and defend is a skill that was rarely seen in the past. Because of the stretch forward being able to live outside the paint, it has caused the evolution of the big men to be agile and quick enough to defend those type of players.
Can we say today’s centers are better (you have to be out of your mind to say yes)? We can definitely say they are just as important but in a different fashion. The biggest knock on these special type of centers is their free throw shooting. Yes, O’Neal and Chamberlain struggled mightily from the line, but most of the centers had decent numbers for big men back then. Not the case in today’s game. The free throw shooting is so bad that they make O’Neal look like a 85% free throw shooter. You couldn’t pay a team to send Ewing to the stripe 30 times in a game, he would hit at least 22 of them. This is one flaw that can’t be hidden.
Howard is the sole reason why we have the center position playing this type of basketball. Although there was a lot of upside and expectations for Howard to carry on the dominating center tradition, he never wanted to put the team on his shoulders (the 2009 Finals might have something to do with it). Will we ever see the dominating center again in the NBA? Not in the way we are accustomed to seeing it but looking at a Karl Anthony Towns, he could kick start another era with the changing of the centers.