Centers coming up short in modern NBA

January 4, 2013

What is happening to my position? (EPA/Paul Buck)

With the piano riff of singer Sarah McClachlan’s “Angel” playing in background, Dwight Howard recently mocked the NBA’s decision to officially remove the center position from the All-Star ballot with an Internet video parody called, “Save The Centers.”

In the video, Howard jokingly asked for help for players like him who feel “alone and scared,” as some McClachlan sound-a-like playfully sang, “In the arms of a center…May you grow tall like Dikembe, never go bald like Kareem.” Howard then closes out the sketch by running his fingers over piano small enough for him to palm in his massive hands and singing more ridiculous off-key lyrics.

Since emerging as one of the league’s premier players, Howard has never shied away from seeking cheap laughs – either with his goofy dance moves or constant grin – but the humor from his latest endeavor is probably lost on those who recognize that the center position didn’t need a demotion from the league to become less relevant. Or that Howard is contributing to the disappearance with his uneven play in his first season with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Basketball’s evolution from a big-man dominated game to a speedy, point-guard driven operation has been documented for some time. But the NBA may have been more prescient than ever when it forced fans to vote for three “frontcourt” players instead of two forwards and a center.

Because this could be the first season in NBA history that no center is averaging at least 20 points per game. Brooklyn’s Brook Lopez leads all centers in scoring at 18.6 points per game and Miami’s Chris Bosh, who is playing center in theory under the Heat’s new position-less system, is averaging 18.

Howard, the lone center to average 20 points last season, is posting his lowest scoring average since his second season in the NBA at 17.3 points per game as he adjusts to playing alongside a dominant wing scorer in Kobe Bryant while recovering from offseason back surgery.

From Mikan to Russell/Chamberlain to Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA championships usually went to the teams that had the low-post scorer who would produce with his back to the basket, rebound  and shut down the opposition on the other end.

The 1990s signaled both a golden era and the beginning of end for centers. During that decade, the league boasted the talents of Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Dikembe Mutombo, Brad Daugherty and Shaquille O’Neal. But in 1995, Kevin Garnett entered the league and refused to be listed as a 7-footer, let alone have his multifaceted skill set get limited to what he considered the most plodding, physically demanding spot on the floor. Two years later, Tim Duncan landed in San Antonio, where Robinson was already in place and he could begin masquerading as a power forward.

Dirk Nowitzki arrived the following year, giving the league the best-ever 7-foot jump shooter and basically eliminating all of the benefits provided by size. And yeah, there also was a guy name Michael Jordan, who established perimeter dominance, won six championships, and led to fewer players seeking to occupy the position that he spent the entire decade vanquishing.

During the 2000s, O’Neal lamented about the NBA’s dearth in size and proclaimed himself, the “last center left,” as the league became overrun with what he perceived as floppers, miscast hustle players and other random position-fillers. Yao Ming was effective, dominant even for a stretch, until he proved to be made of China. Amaré Stoudemire was a center by name, if not game, and moved over to power forward when he had to play with O’Neal.  And rules changes created an environment more conducive to quickness than stiffness.

Howard has been considered the game’s best center, without much opposition, as he made six consecutive all-star appearances for the Orlando Magic. But he has failed to play at the same level in Los Angeles, where is no longer the No. 1 option and hasn’t distinguished himself as a freakishly athletic and dominant physical specimen. His play has been ordinary by his standards and he has been unable to influence games simply by his sheer presence.

When he found out about the center’s all-star demotion, Howard reacted to the move by stating that he didn’t think it was “fair” because teams “need a center on the court.”  That sort of thinking is already becoming outdated, especially after the United States won a gold medal last August with defensive-minded big men Tyson Chandler and Anthony Davis manning the middle.

The list of centers capable of carrying a team offensively on a consistent basis is close to becoming non-existent. Small ball is no longer a catchy gimmick but a necessity since being a quality – or starting caliber – center no longer automatically equates to being an elite NBA player.

Lopez can score but can’t rebound. Andrew Bynum can score, rebound and block shots but is currently unable to play because his knees can’t even handle the grind of bowling.

Roy Hibbert showed promise as he made his first all-star appearance last season – when coaches were still forced to pick a backup center – but he has regressed and never was a reliable scorer. JaVale McGee is more of an adventure ride than reliable force, reduced to a reserve role despite receiving starter money. Andrew Bogut can’t stay healthy. Chandler and Joakim Noah are excellent defenders but limited scorers.

Marc Gasol became an all-star because he is an adept passer and defender but Memphis rarely has to rely on his scoring because of the presence of Zach Randolph. Al Jefferson is a center by default in Utah. DeMarcus Cousins certainly has the talent but could be derailed by his temperament.

The attraction to size remains despite the changes in the game, but any expectation for a pipeline of talented centers has been stunted by the failures of Greg Oden (who is out of the league less than six years after going No. 1 overall in 2007) and Hasheem Thabeet (who is already a reclamation project on his fourth team after going second overall in 2009). Davis, the top pick last summer, represents some hope for the position but isn’t ready to take the crown.

Howard might want to save what is already lost.

Michael Lee is the national basketball writer for The Washington Post.
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Michael Lee · January 4, 2013

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