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Why Are There No More Big Men?

15 Sep

The conventional low post player has almost become completely extinct. Long gone are the days when two giants met in the paint to prove which man was better and consequently to show whose team would contend for a championship. Battles between Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Moses Malone no longer exist. Neither do the contests between Russell and Chamberlain or David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon. Even Dikembe Mutumbo and Alonzo Mourning, two intimidating shot blockers and somewhat limited scorers, retired nearly ten years ago. The big man has disappeared at the highest level. Shaquille O’Neal may have been the last dominant big man to utilize a back-to-the-basket game to terrorize opponents in the National Basketball Association. And, when Dwight Howard leaves the game of basketball, he could very well be the last official post player to ever play in the National Basketball Association despite his footwork remaining sloppy and unpolished. Big men are a dying breed.

Several different occurrences have led to the demise of the classic NBA center. College, where most big men hone their skills, has become an afterthought for future pros. Guards have become more athletic and are more abundant. Rule changes have aided a quicker pace that leaves lumbering big men out of plays, and injuries have changed how most posts play the game of basketball. The NBA has transformed into a guard-driven league, and centers and power forwards are suffering because of the shifts in basketball strategy and play.

One of the main influences in the cultivation of a dominant big man was learning the game at the college level. Post players need a training ground where they can learn all the finer skills of their position and apply them against good competition. There once were teachers in college basketball who gave big men the foundation of their game, footwork, positioning, and basic post moves and counters. Athletes were allowed to practice their craft at a high level of play against players who did not exceed their talent level. By the time any center moved from college on to the NBA, they were skilled enough to compete at the professional level even if they were physically outmatched. Basketball players knew how to make a basic drop step and use their feet and hips to create separation from a defender. They knew that fighting to get deeper positioning in the painted area on court meant easier shots in the offense. 20 years ago, big men knew how to use a pump fake, gather themselves, and score with someone challenging the shot. Today, post players possess only a fraction of the basketball skills that they had in years past. Big men come into the NBA without the training needed to compete under the rim. Most draftees today are raw athletes with a “huge upside,” or naturally gifted kids who may or may not learn how to play basketball in the pros, rather than polished basketball players who are ready to take the next step in the basketball careers. Nobody has Kareem’s Sky Hook or Hakeem’s Dream Shake in their arsenal. No one  blocks shots like Russell or bullies defenders like Shaq. Centers today do not know how to make a basic jump hook, the staple of offensive play under the basket, and the shot from which most counter moves are built. Big men are no longer taught how to rebound or how to block shots. College no longer serves talented athletes, because players do not stay in school long enough to learn the basics, and only a few coaches actually teach traditional post play. College has become a pit stop for amateurs who want to make the leap to the highest level instead of being a vehicle for basketball guys to become the best player possible. Posts have been failed by the college system.

But, Michael Jordan also stands at the center of the demise of the big man. Jordan proved the systematic formula of great front court play and a good back court equals championships to be wrong. He showed that teams could be successful without having a dominant power forward or center if they had great guards. Michael Jordan became the prototype for all athletes in basketball. He was big, physical, super-athletic, and extremely skilled. But, most importantly, he won NBA titles and made his greatness visible to the public. Jordan showed NBA general managers that big men did not represent the only path to winning; interior scoring was the key. Jordan posted, slashed, and finessed his way to easy buckets in the paint. He scored with such flair that he revolutionized basketball and advertising. He completely dominated his sport from the perimeter and made more money in sports marketing than he ever did on the basketball court. After he took over the league, everyone wanted to play like Mike, even the big guys. Doing the dirty work down low wasn’t as exciting or as lucrative as soaring through the air and making acrobatic shots. Big men began to learn the skills that were once relegated only to guards in an attempt to play like Jordan, and the position of center was irrevocably changed. Kevin Garnett ushered in a new wave of big men who handled the basketball like guards and played out on the floor as much as they did in the post. Versatility became more important than dominance and big men lost their physicality and toughness.

The new found importance of great guard play and the availability of athletic guards forced a change in how the NBA presented the game of basketball to its fans. It changed who they glorified publicly, and it changed the way that they allowed players to play. Finding a 7 foot giant who moved fluidly and had the right temperament to challenge players on a night-to-night basis in the post proved to be a daunting task, but locating an athletic guy at 6’5″ was much easier. So, the NBA enacted rule changes to benefit those players. The addition of the 3-point line gave guards more equality on the basketball court than they ever had before. Scoring in the paint has always been more difficult for smaller players, so the NBA additional point for shooting from long range making them more valuable to teams. When the NBA adopted the 3-point line in 1979, it placed more emphasis on outside shooting than inside muscle. 3-point misses usually produce long rebounds that fly over the heads of the big men boxing out down low making them even more obsolete in today’s game. And then, the NBA changed the way that defenses could play against big men to neutralize them. They made wider lanes in response to Wilt Chamberlain’s dominance in the 60′s and reenacted zone defenses because of the sheer power of Shaquille O’Neal. The NBA has aided in the demise of classic post players by catering to smaller players. The long shots and zone defenses generate fast break opportunities which further pushes big men out of plays. Since the league needs stars to survive and skilled athletic big men are difficult to find, the NBA focuses on cultivating smaller, more exciting guards rather than finding and developing the much rarer big man.

That decision to eschew the classic center was a simple one. In addition to being difficult to find amongst the common public, injuries plague athletes who reach 7’1″. Yao Ming, Greg Oden, Andrew Bogut, and Andrew Bynum are talented big men whose careers have been cut short or hampered by injuries in recent years. And the list gets much more extensive than that as you go back further in the history of the NBA. Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Ralph Sampson, and even Sam Bowie all had promising careers in the paint destroyed by injury. Big men are disproportionately affected by career ending injury because their size puts more pressure against the more delicate bones and ligaments of the body. These players face foot and ankle problems, back problems, and of course knee problems throughout their careers. Ironically, the size and athleticism that makes post players uniquely talented, also makes them more vulnerable to career-shortening injuries.

The classic post may soon be extinct in the National Basketball Association. The impact of Michael Jordan, the new influx of bigger, more athletic guards, the NBA’s  move towards guard play, and the injuries that affect the careers of bigs have sealed their fates. And unless more big men decide to follow in the steps of NBA Hall of Fame post players, classic centers and power forwards may never be seen again.


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