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asked for comment about the change to All-Star voting, Jackson stated that an absolute requirement of a center was, “outdated and not representative of today’s game or players.”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