Since the beginning of time everything in the world has evolved into something bigger and better. Think the guy who invented the wheel ever imagined his design would end up on luxury cars or Boeing 747 Jets? Any chance the guys who founded Twitter thought everything on TV would have a hashtag in the bottom lefthand corner just five years after their site launched? And there is no chance in hell that Dr. James Naismith ever thought 6’8, 265 lb dunking machines or 6’11 3-point specialists would ever roam the NBA. The game of basketball looks completely different in the year 2013 than it did in the late 1800′s when Naismith invented it and its nothing like it was in the 1960’s when basketball began to resemble the sport we enjoy today.
Don’t believe me? Turn on ESPN Classic or search on Youtube and watch some of Wilt Chamberlain’s great games. Sure, you’ll see him dominate the game due to his superior size, athleticism and skill. But what you’ll also see is Wilt jumping and grabbing his own teammates’ jump shots while they’re on or above the rim and dunking the ball himself, a play that would get whistled for offensive goaltending today. You’ll also notice Wilt, a 50% career free throw shooter, take a running start from the 3-point line and dunk his foul shots, a clear violation of the current policy which prohibits players from crossing the line on free throw attempts. You’ll see Wilt camp out in the lane for 10-15 seconds at a time until his teammates found a way to get him the ball (or he found a way to take it from them). Finally, you’ll see a 6’7 skinny white guy trying to prevent Wilt from doing all of these things.
Basketball evolves. Wilt was the first great offensive center, a force so dominant for his era that he once averaged 50.4 points per game for an entire season, a record that hasn’t been approached since he set the mark in 1961-62. There were also just nine teams in the NBA that year and only one player, Bill Russell of the Celtics, who even came close to matching Wilt’s size and ability. Teams also didn’t believe in playing much defense during this era, allowing Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double and NBA finals scores to reach 126-121, 129-122 and 110-107 in the deciding Game 7 overtime clash. Wilt was the first dominant center in the league (sorry George Mikan), but he was not the last.
After Chamberlain and Russell left the game, the next great center to come around was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a scoring machine with the most unstoppable shot the game has ever seen, his patented sky-hook, and a long, wiry frame which allowed him to lead the league in blocked shots four times. In college, Abdul-Jabbar (then called Lou Alcindor) was so superior to anyone else that the NCAA banned dunking to make the game slightly more difficult for him. After Abdul-Jabbar retired from basketball as the all-time leading scorer, the NBA benefitted from a run on hall-of-fame centers in the late 80′s and 90’s, including Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson. All three had varying skill sets and subsequently dominated the game of basketball in different ways.
Once O’Neal, the youngest of the trio, retired from the game two years ago, the perception around the league was that there was a drop off at the center position. Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard, a defensive force and athletic phenom, became the NBA’s elite big man almost by default; no one else was close. National pundits made it seem like the position was disappearing, that the 7-footer who could maneuver in the post, block shots and murder opposing point guards who dared penetrate into his lane, was dying out. NBA analysts overrated and overhyped Howard because they felt like the game needed a premier big man for the sole reason that there has always been one (or many) in the league.
The purpose of this article is to let you all know that they are mistaken. There are plenty of good, even great, centers in the NBA today. The reason why it has gone largely unnoticed is because great centers today are different from the ones we grew up watching. The game may never see another player as strong on the low block as Shaq, or someone with as versatile an offensive arsenal as Hakeem, or a guy who just looked the part quite like Robinson (anyone who thinks Howard’s physique is more impressive than the Admiral, spend three and a half seconds on google images and you’ll see things differently).
But saying there are no good centers left in the NBA is an incredible insult to the current crop of bigs, a group who impact basketball games in different ways than the aforementioned band of superstars. They may not be hall-of-famers, but they do so many things to help their teams win that go far beyond the box score.
The game is evolving. Marc Gasol and Joakim Noah, the two most complete centers in the NBA as of right now, aren’t dynamic low-post scorers or high-flying rebounders and they aren’t breaking backboards with earth-shattering dunks. They aren’t dropping 28 points and 15 boards routinely and they are considered, in today’s age of Youtube highlights and exciting superstars, just fringe All-Star players. But what they lack in highlight-reel flare, they make up for in technique and skill. They set screens to free up teammates. They work the high post like magicians, passing through traffic to find open players or patiently protecting the ball while waiting for plays to develop. They are capable scorers with the ability to put the ball in the hoop by penetrating, pulling up for a mid-range jump shot or going to work on the occasional post up. They play terrific defense and are rarely, if ever, out of position on that side of the court. They are reliable free throw shooters, hitting well above the league average for their position (87% for Gasol, 76% for Noah), and they serve as the emotional leaders for their respective teams. They do the little things to put their teams in position to win basketball games, and they anchor two of the three best defenses in the NBA.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying Marc Gasol is as talented as Shaq because that would be outrageous, and I’m not comparing Noah to Hakeem. But I think it’s important to recognize the talent and accomplishments of these players because it speaks to the evolution of the game. I should also point out that nearly every NBA team (remember there are 30 of them now, not 9) has talented big men. Brook Lopez, Andrew Bynum and Al Jefferson are dependable low-post scorers, options early or late in games regardless of who is defending them. Greg Monroe and Al Horford are complete players who can score from anywhere, guard anyone and lead the occasional break. Tyson Chandler and Dwight Howard are forces on the defensive end and frequent recipients of momentum-building alley-oops. I could go on and include budding young centers like DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond, Nik Pekovic, Roy Hibbert, Jonas Valanciunas and Nik Vucevic, all of whom have All-Star potential.
Basketball has evolved. The days of centers averaging 34 points and 16 rebounds per game may be over. But that doesn’t mean that the position is dead, or dying out. It means that the centers, like point guards and every other position in the game, have evolved into something else. So before you rip the league and buy into the cliché that there are no good big men left, take a step back and realize that there are plenty of talented bigs in the NBA, regardless of what the box scores tell you.
End notes: I consider Tim Duncan, Pau Gasol and Kevin Garnett power forwards because that’s what they were for the bulk of their careers. I also didn’t show more love for Howard because his 2012-13 season has been disappointing and injury-plagued, and he’s become as much of a distraction to the Lakers as a contributor.