Centers Are Looming Large
Sunday, June 24, 2007
Ernie Grunfeld knows what kind of impact a great center can have on a franchise, a city and a league. Currently the president of basketball operations for the Washington Wizards, Grunfeld was winding down his playing career with the New York Knicks in 1985 when the Knicks won the first NBA draft lottery, and with it the right to select Georgetown's Patrick Ewing.
"Getting Patrick changed everything," Grunfeld said.
Though Ewing never won an NBA championship, his arrival ushered in an era of success that included 13 straight trips to the playoffs and two appearances in the Finals.
The Ewing example looms large as teams prepare for Thursday's NBA draft.
The team with the top pick, the Portland Trail Blazers, hasn't publicly stated its intentions, but basketball history suggests that the franchise would be foolish to pass on Greg Oden, who has been compared to a young Ewing.
The 7-foot, 250-pound Oden played only one season at Ohio State, but his rare combination of size, strength, quickness and agility makes him potentially a once-in-a-generation player, the kind who can sell tickets and sneakers, attract top free agents and compete for championships.
Though the nature of the position has changed in recent years from the traditional back-to-the-basket center in the mold of recent greats such as Ewing, Shaquille O'Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon to more multi-skilled big men such as Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki and Amare Stoudemire, teams that have won championships almost always have had a dominant post player.
San Antonio's Tim Duncan -- the first overall pick in the 1997 draft -- recently captured his fourth title in nine seasons, and O'Neal won a championship in 2006 with the Miami Heat after winning three straight with the Los Angeles Lakers between 2000 and 2002.
Even as players such as Garnett and Nowitzki have redefined the way big men play and inspired a generation of 7-footers, such as Wizards rookie Oleksiy Pecherov, to play a more perimeter-oriented game, it's worth noting that Duncan and O'Neal have accounted for eight of the last nine championships.
"When a guy like that comes along, you take him," said Grunfeld, who nearly won a championship as general manager of the Knicks in 1994, when Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets beat Ewing and the Knicks in seven games in the NBA Finals. "If you get one of those guys, obviously you have a leg up. There are only two or three of them in the whole league and if you have one, you've got a shot."
The issue is that fewer and fewer true centers exist despite the fact that the sport is drawing players from all over the globe. For every Duncan, O'Neal or Yao Ming -- the top three post players in the NBA now -- there are several players such as Garnett, Nowitzki, Stoudemire, Memphis Grizzlies forward Pau Gasol and Toronto Raptors 7-footer Andrea Bargnani, who was the top overall pick last June.
As a youngster learning the game in Ukraine, Pecherov was drawn to Nowitzki rather than back-to-the-basket players such as Duncan.
"I've always liked working on all parts of the game," said Pecherov, who can sign with the Wizards after July 1. "Shooting, passing, dribbling -- I think it's important to be good at several things and a guy like [Nowitzki] is like that."
Because so many big men play a more perimeter-oriented game now, the value of traditional centers has increased. Oden is a lock to go first or second Thursday night; Spencer Hawes, who played only one season at Washington, could go as high as seventh; and Roy Hibbert likely would have been a top 10 selection had he not elected to return to Georgetown.
While Oden clearly is the best center prospect in Thursday's draft, there are several players whose talents symbolize the way big man play has evolved over the years.
Yi Jianlian, who likely will go in the top 10, is a different kind of player than his countryman, Yao. Though 7 feet tall, Jianlian is comfortable facing up and taking his defender off the dribble and has a reliable jump shot but lacks bulk and may struggle defending the bigger centers early in his NBA career.
Hawes was a guard as a younger player and has impressive ballhandling and shooting skills. Jason Smith, who played at Colorado State, is another center whose game is more perimeter than low-post oriented.
If Oden is the next Ewing, Durant may wind up being some kind of freaky combination of Garnett and Tracy McGrady. At 6-9 and 225 pounds, Durant is just as likely to curl off a screen and make a jump shot as he is to post up and score with a power move. Plus, he runs the floor like many shooting guards.
At the very least, Durant's eye-popping talent could make Portland General Manager Kevin Pritchard think twice before taking Oden on Thursday night. Both players have conducted workouts for Portland and Seattle.
"We're not closed down on saying Kevin has to do X," Pritchard told reporters last Thursday before seeing Durant workout. "We're just going to keep an open mind. I have a feeling that he's going to come in and really try to show everyone in the world that he's the number one pick. He will be offended if he's not the number one pick. He's got that killer instinct."
Still, passing on Oden would require serious courage for a franchise that is best remembered for taking center Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan in 1984, and despite the success experienced by nontraditional big men such as Garnett and Nowitzki over the years, their teams have not won championships.
"The game has changed and you are seeing more and more of these 7-footers who can put in on the floor and get to the rim or shoot the long-range jumper and those guys can be very difficult to defend," Spurs defensive ace Bruce Bowen said. "But to me, the game will always be easier when you have a guy like Tim in the paint. They get easy baskets, they draw double teams, they get to the free throw line and they set your defense. Having him down on that block and having him protecting that rim allows all of us to do our thing. Guys like that will always be the most valuable pieces on your team."