Endangered Species: NBA Center

Could Smits and Ostertag stay on the floor in today’s NBA?

Howard Beck’s headline was “The All-Star Center is Officially Extinct.”  The news was the league’s abolition of the center from the All-Star ballot.  Rather than force fans to choose between hard-foul specialist X or 14 points and 8 rebounds role player Y, the NBA adapted to style changes and acknowledged that no longer are its biggest players worthy of automatic slots amongst the games best and brightest stars.  Instead of a Center box to fill on the ballot, there will be two backcourt and three frontcourt spots.  In other words, more forwards, fewer centers.

Nine months ago, without such provocation, I wrote a post to rally support for the endangered species of NBA centers.  With an obvious decline in the number of good NBA centers, I suggested that the league narrow the lane back to 12 feet, where it remains in NCAA and high school basketball.  A narrower lane would give back-to-the-basket players more space and closer proximity to utilize their unique gift to score near the bucket.  In looking at our blog statistics, it’s the 14th-most read link with 248 views as of this moment.  (In case you’re wondering, which you probably aren’t, this post on Alexey Shved ranks first, and this one on Royce White comes in second.)  Suffice it to say, the 14th-most read post on Punch-Drunk Wolves has not inspired any revolutionary change at Adam Silver or Stu Jackson’s office.  The league office embraces the new motion-friendly style of play that has correlated with increased TV ratings and revenues.

When asked for comment about the change to All-Star voting, Jackson stated that an absolute requirement of a center was, “outdated and not representative of today’s game or players.”  He elaborated: “Our players have become more versatile each season,” Jackson said, “and this ballot will more accurately reflect that versatility.”  According to Jackson then, the reason for change is due to the evolution of the NBA’s player.  They’ve become “more versatile.”

That’s bullshit, of course.  Big men are not more versatile today; quite the contrary.  League rules have changed to relax help-defense restrictions (read: make life difficult for posts) and hinder defensive tactics against pick-and-roll (read: require mobility for big defenders, and discourage post play as a comparatively-effective offensive weapon).  The goal of killing isolation sets was achieved, with the center position being hit by a stray bullet.  In regards to Jackson’s quote, does anyone think that Chris Bosh is more versatile than Hakeem Olajuwon?

Now it certainly should not be taken as a given that extinction of true centers is a bad thing.  As previously indicated, TV ratings and fan interest are at their highest levels since Michael Jordan was pushing Bryon Russell off for Finals-winning jumpers.  People enjoy the “New NBA.”  Did you watch that Spurs-Thunder series last summer?  I did.  It was some of the prettiest basketball I’ve ever seen.  Fast, skilled players were working in unison in a dynamic game of chess that relied more upon synchronization, unselfishness, and shooting ability, than brute strength and one-on-one matchups.  Tony Parker and Russell Westbrook, two of the fastest dribblers in modern league history, took turns carving up opposing defenses not always for immediate baskets but kick-out passes that initiated all sorts of ball and player movement.  Fans tired of one-on-one ball perfected by Jordan and bastardized by Iverson and Marbury welcomed the change.

But I continue to think that the game can be even better with a narrower lane, for two reasons:

1) Diversity.  With each passing season, we’re absolutely going to see more of two things: Guards who can make plays off of ball screens and forwards who can show hard on pick-and-rolls as far out as possible.  The current league rules make pick-and-roll a necessity, with few exceptions.  The main exception is if you have a freak athlete with size and square-up shooting ability.  LeBron and Wade are two examples, on the same team.  Carmelo Anthony and Dirk Nowitzki are examples.  Kobe Bryant is, or was, an example.  Players with enough size to create their own shot and enough athleticism to benefit from tight hand-check rules.  But without that type of player–for most teams, in other words–the clear-cut best option is the high ball screen.  It maximizes the amount of open space on the floor and forces opponents into playing smaller lineups.  Most teams play high screen and roll.  Won’t fans grow tired of this, just like they did with the Iso 90’s?

2) Parity.  With diversity comes an increased number of potentially-effective strategies.  In the 90’s, you needed a dominant one-on-one player.  Jordan, Barkley, Ewing, Olajuwon.  The best teams had a “give the ball and get out of the way” guy.  Double teams came, shooters had hands ready.  You get the idea.  Today’s game is slightly more diversified because there remains a place for one-on-one talent (the big, athletic, square-up player referenced above) but it still puts an premium on either that rare megastar or pick-and-roll pieces.  By narrowing the lane, there would be a new avenue to success via the plodding post man.  Al Jefferson.  Demarcus Cousins.  Nikola Pekovic.  Would it be anything but a great thing for the league if those players’ skills were highlighted and their (currently mediocre) teams became more competitive as a result?  What ISN’T fun about watching Cousins score 40 low-post points while LeBron does the same on the other end, slashing to the basket?  If the rules were friendlier to more types of players, there would be more potentially-effective coaching strategies, greater parity, and as a result, greater uncertainty of playoffs results going into each season.  As things stand, I think anybody would bet a hefty sum that one of Miami, Oklahoma City or Los Angeles will be champs in June ’13.  With a narrower lane, there would be innovation and less predictability.

The relaxed zone rules and tighter hand-check rules were good for the league, but coaches have caught on.  The extinction of the Great Center should set an alarm off that a slight rule change is in order.  Narrow the lane back to pre-Chamberlain days, reintroduce the post player, and watch an already-beautiful game grow more diverse and complex.

cc: David Stern, Adam Silver

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Endangered Species: NBA Center

  1. Couldn’t agree more. Say what you want about ’90s ball, but when most everyone who was anyone – from point guard Mark Jackson to center Rik Smits – developed a back-to-the-basket game (or failing that, could shoot really, really well), you got a lot of fun 1-on-1 situations and an emphasis on exploiting matchup vulnerabilities over and over until your opponent had to concede. Kevin McHale thrived in that style of play. It’s too bad that as Team President and Coach, he never got the memo that the League wasn’t like that anymore. I can’t help but smile when I think of Mac, now sitting on Houston’s bench and probably wondering, “Which matchup problem to attack tonight? Chandler Parsons? Terrance Jones? Omer Asik?” (How did Dork Elvis manage to assemble a starting front line *that* bad? Even when Patrick Patterson comes back, that’s still a b.a.d. front line. Suffice it to say, with the current rules in place, Yao Ming won’t be limping through that door anytime soon.)

    Back on topic, sort of, with a THOUGHT EXPERIMENT: How disadvantaged, in terms of his likely statistical output, is Anthony Davis? Would he have a better chance at being Brad Daugherty if he were drafted in Brad Daugherty’s time, as opposed to a souped up Tyson Chandler in today’s NBA?

    • Davis is actually ADVANTAGED. Because he’s the out-of-this-world elite stretch defender that typical NBA offense struggles against. He’ll be like Garnett, only if Thibs got his hands on him when Saunders did. Even if Davis doesn’t average 20 & 10 (he might, but the 20 is no certainty) his +/- should be crazy like KG’s often is. With my proposed rule change, his comparative advantage as a roaming defender would be lessened in some games. For instance, I doubt he’d enjoy banging down (way) low with fellow Coach Cal’er DMC for 48 minutes. Probably need Robin Lopez or Jason Smith (!!!) to do that for him.

  2. Richard Bentley

    Hold on here! The NBA widened the lane starting with the 1964-65 season. I didn’t notice much dropoff by the centers then in existence. What’s happened to me is that more big men have become effective ball-handlers and can work well outside of the lane. They also have improved on long-range shooting, while overall the mid-range jumper has gone the other way. You also have a rules-legislated guard-oriented game, since you can’t handcheck them coming up the court. Overall, team speed has increased. So the composite effect is more faceup offense and guard play. It’s no mystery why this is so. The NBA, like all professional leagues, is changed by two main factors: rules changes and player athleticism. Case in point: The reason the lane was widened in the first place is because of Wilt. I certainly do not want to see the lane narrowed. It would take much away from the game. Also note that McHale played his whole career (1980-1993) with a widened lane. One other comment: Nate Thurmond – Wilt Chamberlain – Kareem players don’t come along so often now.

    • Richard, you are correct that the lane has been this wide for decades. But what changed were the zone defense rules. Instead of strictly forbidding zones, they now only police “defensive three seconds.” Also, hand-checking restrictions have made defending the pick-and-roll an entirely different beast.

      Narrowing the lane to college width would not drastically change the game. Pick and roll would still be effective, as would face-up moves for players with that skill set. But it would bring back the low-post player. Pekovic might average 23 points instead of 18. Dwight Howard might win an MVP instead of just being in the conversation.

      One oddity of the NBA game is how tightly it regulates its play. College basketball, which is uglier because of skill disparity more than anything, allows any defensive scheme. The NBA arbitrarily decided that man-to-man is mandatory (with that now relaxed some, as I mentioned). But why have that? To ensure that there’s a gulf in the lane any time a dribbler gets there? Isn’t that what floor-spacing shooters are for?

      The game is in a good place today, but I think that has more to do with the talented players than the rules. I like the hand-check rules because I don’t like seeing athleticism tamed by clutch-and-grab defense. But I’d like to see less restrictions on player location. It’d be fine with me if they abolished defensive three seconds, too. It would place a greater emphasis on coaching and team play, and minimize the effect of having a Top-5 Player–the overwhelming biggest factor for team success in today’s league.

  3. Richard Bentley

    When the zone was strictly forbidden, they still played it, well disguised. I wouldn’t have a problem with any defense allowed, but it would definitely slow down the tempo of the game, which is a selling point for the current style of play. As far as having a top-5 player being the biggest factor in a team’s success, Kobe Bryant with an adequate center eliminates the lane question and the three-second question and the zone question. Larry Bird was a four who was a great shooter. Magic Johnson could play any position. Michael Jordan would make mincemeat of a zone. So style of defense becomes a nonfactor with certain kinds of players. As it has always been, with a great player, you can only try to minimize him. He will still get his points. I remember Russell being complimented after a game because he had held Chamberlain to 40 points. Right now, there is so much athleticism on the court and, along with a decline of fundamentals knowledge, the coach has to ride the athleticism and hope that the light goes on with the players at some point. But I don’t remember a time when a great player didn’t carry his team, 12-foot lane, 3-second rule, or whatever. I have witnessed the growth of the NBA from Cousy on, and it has always been the same.

    • I can’t go back to Cousy/Wilt days, but I can go back to Patrick Ewing days, and the game was played quite differently before the zone changes. Ewing, Barkley, Olajuwon, etc. had more time and space to play back-down ball. Mark Jackson did a lot of his passing out of the post. Michael Jordan made it an artform in his second trio of titles. When Al Jefferson tried to make a career of out ball-stopping post play, it was too late; the game had changed.

      I’m not looking to go back to ball-stopping — relaxed zone rules and the free-flowing perimeter play (aided by no hand checking) should prevent that. But I think the game would benefit from having a handful of great post scorers to go along with its great wing and point guard ones.

      And I don’t mean that superstars wouldn’t matter greatly. I just think there would be a slight nudge in the direction of coaching and team strategy. None of the things we’re talking about have had huge effects, but the extinction of great offensive centers is pretty damn noticeable. The league’s All-Star change is a reflection of what has been clear for years now.

  4. Dave A.

    Andy, I didn’t like playing “white” basketball (center dominated, slow, and over-coached). American blacks and European whites seem to prefer the vertical game (run and gun). No surprise that NBA rosters are filled with them.

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