Just 15-20 years ago, in order to win a championship on any level, you needed a dominant center. In fact, the super-sized big man dominated the NBA from its inception in the 1940′s with George Mikan. Bill Russell reigned in basketball royalty with the Boston Celtics from the late 1950′s through the 60′s. He battled super human 7-footer, Wilt Chamberlain, who then nearly broke every NBA record in the 70′s. That torch of dominance passed on to Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul Jabbar), who went on to become the most prolific scorer in NBA history and ushered in the Golden Age of NBA centers, with Artis Gilmore, Nate Thurmond, Wes Unseld, Bob McAdoo, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, and David Robinson in the 1970′s and 1980′s. These centers gave way to Dikembe Mutumbo, Alonzo Mourning, and Shaquille O’Neal in the 90′s, but the next great center hasn’t arrived. With Mourning and Mutumbo in retirement, the lone true center in the league is Shaq and this once great center has suddenly become increasingly lumbering and sadly pedestrian. The rising athleticism of the league, better guard play, and the rise of more versatile big men has almost forced the true center into extinction.
The impact of the center position is far more important than just interior scoring. Present day guards are very capable of scoring in the paint. Tony Parker, a lightning quick point guard with a variety of floaters, has been one of the best interior scorers in the league during his career. Another explosive guard, Kevin Johnson scored well in the paint, but did not advance deeply into the playoffs until the team acquired a high scoring big man, Charles Barkley, a power forward. The big man scores differently than his smaller counterparts. Instead of blowing by players and maneuvering around them, a center powers through or flies over them. By scoring more physical baskets, he imposes his will on the opposition. After Shaq dunked on a player two times when he was in his prime, the player began to concede a few more baskets rather than jump in futility. But, the value of a center is not limited to just scoring. His real value is in rebounding and blocked shots, which ultimately means more possessions for his team.
One of the major reasons for the demise of the center position is the overall athleticism of the NBA. Players now, far exceed the size and natural ability of their predecessors. The shot blockers/rebounders of the seventies, were immobile trees that garnered stats solely on positioning and sheer length. Tree Rollins, Mark Eaton, and Manute Bol all capitalized from using this technique. They all ruled the paint during the 80′s in the era of the giants. All stood 7’2 or taller, but the athleticism of the league has rendered those stagnant players useless. In the seventies the average size of a point guard was between 5’9″ and 6’1″; the current size is 6’1″ and 6’3″. Shooting guards which are already 4-5 inches taller than point guards, have also gained an additional 2-3 inches in height. That coupled with 40 inch vertical leaps, made the taller centers less imposing. Athletic guards regularly challenged these stationary behemoths in the 90′s and they were extinct soon after. The center position remained though, because a few centers evolved athletically too, like Shaq, Olajuwon, and Robinson.
One of the true threats to big men is the high scoring guard. Michael Jordan, possibly the best player in NBA history, won 6 titles without a great center, or even a good big man. He and Scottie Pippen formed one of the most formidable and super athletic tandems in NBA history. They set the template for modern teams. Whereas the big centers were extremely effective interior scorers, they weren’t compelling entertainers because they scored slowly and easily near the basket. Jordan added a real flair and dynamism to the NBA. He could score anywhere on the court from the 3 pt. line to right over the big at the rim. Plus, he added stellar man-to-man defense. He blocked a few shots and averaged well over 2 steals per game, which led to spectacular open court dunks. Pippen, though not as great a pure scorer as Jordan, averaged 20 pts., a block, and well over 2 steals per game as NBA swingman. Contrary to the popular belief that Michael Jordan is the best athlete that ever played, Pippen was actually a better athlete than Jordan. Sacrilegious to the casual basketball fan? Yes, but also true. He was bigger, stronger, and quicker laterally. Pippen could guard the point guard through power forward position and always guarded the best player from the opposing team. The duo of Jordan and Pippen was unstoppable from 1991-1998, when they won 6 titles in 8 years. Jordan retired in 1993 and returned in 1995. They set the precedent for modern teams without bigs like Golden State, Phoenix, and Oklahoma. They proved that teams could win despite having no solid play from a big man.
The last major threat to the relevance of the true center is specifically the emergence of the versatile big man. Ironically, some of the last great centers are responsible for the lost of the true centers. Hakeem Olajuwon, one of the NBA’s greatest players, was one of the most versatile big men in league history. He could score from the free throw line extended. He could drive past bigger defenders and score with his back to the basket against smaller ones. His skill set surpassed all of his contemporaries, even the great ones like David Robinson and Shaquille O’Neal. Larger, sedimentary centers languished to defend him, because he could face up and was lightning quick with explosive leaping ability. And, he finished 1st in league history in blocks and 8th in league history in steals. Since Olajuwon and Robinson entered and dominated the league, big men have emulated their ability to score out on the floor and dominate different statistical categories. Big men tend to face the rim more instead of playing in the post.
The position of the true center is disappearing quickly. It is under siege because of the rising versatility of the big men, the improving play of guards, and the sum of great athletes entering the league. The history of the league has been shaped by giant men that dominated the painted area, but that is changing rapidly. And unless the NBA changes to protect them, they will go extinct.