When real big men roamed the NBA lanes, the smaller players had to be decisive, crafty and athletic to penetrate and score in the painted area. Shot blockers regularly averaged well over 3-4 blocks and dominated the paint physically and menacingly. They rejected countless field goal attempts and eventually imposed their will onto offenses. But with the addition of zone defense, the prevalence of the offensive charging foul, and bigger more athletic guards, the role of the pure shot blocker is vanishing. The Defensive Player of the Year averaged 2.8 blocks per game on weak side blocks. And a once proud shot blocker, Shaquille O’Neal, one of the largest men in the league, actually tried to draw a charge against a defender. The plight of the shot blocker is dire.
To watch a pure shot blocker at work is like observing an artist at their most manic moments. It’s captivating and compelling. You don’t know when or where he will strike the canvas again. You don’t necessarily understand why the artist is performing the way he is until you see the entire piece of work. The shot blocker uses various, incongruous methods to coerce guards into launching shots that are inevitably swatted away. When watching a big man at work on defense, you are engaged in the battle between two opposing forces. Quickness and agility against plodding size. Explosive leaping ability against extensive length. Brains against supposedly only brawn. The clever, agile guards penetrate and create, trying to flip shots over 7-footers, or challenge them physically while enticing them into committing fouls. The pure shot blocker reads the body language of each player and counteracts each move separately instead of being overly-aggressive and reactive. And it all results the same way, in a blocked shot.
The first integral part in the demise of the shot blocker is the zone defense. Instead of guarding his man and helping his teammates, the big man has to guard an area. At first, this may be seem to be to the advantage of the shot blocker, however it forces him to ignore the first rule of shot blocking, positioning. The positioning of a shot blocker is not in regard to a place on the court, but in relation to where players are on the court. When, he guards his man, he is free to roam the lane on occasion and intimidate penetrators. But, any good shot blocker sets his feet in correlation with the feet of the offensive player. He shuffles as the offensive player dribbles and keeps his body between the man with the basketball and the rim. And, finally a shot blocker only leaves his feet after his man leaves the ground and jumps straight up. Playing in a zone keeps any defender out of good defensive position, but it is especially detrimental to shot blockers by forcing them into places on the court where they can not be effective. Zone defenses rob a shot blocker of his instincts and make him just another big body. Filling in an area on the court exposes defensive players to back cuts and back picks keeping them in space and allowing offenses to work in space also. Defense relies heavily on contact, physicality, and help from teammates. Zones handicap big men from using their size and strength in those areas.
The charging call is also stopping the shot blocker. And, it affects big men at both ends of the court. The chances of a NBA referee calling a charging call for the defensive player is much higher than the probability of a shot blocker not getting called for a defensive foul. So, coaches at lower levels are no longer teaching kids to get into position for blocks, but instead to find the right position to take charges. Some of the better big men who could ignite a fast break with a good defensive play above the rim, are now relegated to being on the ground with the less athletic players. Guys who are 6’10″ are being taught to play defense like men who are 6’1″ to their detriment. Their size is neutralized on the floor when it could be the focal point of a defense. And, post players are affected by charging calls on the offensive end of the court too. Opposing players draw fouls on posts by flopping incessantly at any contact. Referees decide the outcome of a lot of games because of these calls. Shot blockers who are in foul trouble can not stay on the floor, and thus are ineffective for their teams.
Bigger, athletic players are the final detriment to the pure shot blocking big man. Before the 1990′s, the NBA was considered a skilled league, but in the last 20 years more value has been placed on athleticism than skill level. The thought behind this is that a gifted athlete could learn the same skills at the highest level of competition. But, a less talented athlete that is highly skilled can’t improve. Unfortunately, big shot blockers can not feasibly get any bigger or more athletic without risking injury. Centers of the 80′s were super-sized giants that could stand completely stationary in the paint and wait for guards to shoot lay-ups into their hands. They were 7’3″ or larger and did not have to run the floor or jump to be effective. In the 90′s those same big men were dunked on constantly. As the big men became more active to combat the new crop of athletes, injury caught them. The NBA learned that players over the height of 7’1″ couldn’t survive the grueling NBA schedule. Slowly the gap in size between guard and shot blocking center is closing. Players like the 6’8″, 260 lb., LeBron James are making that closing gap more evident.
With the league getting constantly more athletic, the shot blocker should flourish in today’s game, but they are entering with far less prevalence. The size and athleticism that a big man can carry is limited and guards are rapidly starting to reach that size. Zone defenses and charging fouls plague him, so coaches teach different philosophies of defense. If the league continues in the same direction, then new fans will be robbed of one of the greatest, most domineering forces in all of sports, the shot blocker.