It was all the rage earlier this year when the NBA ballot was released – without a center position. Instead, the ballot simply has two guard spots and three frontcourt spots. Every year before this one, there were at least two centers on the ballot, now, there doesn’t have to be any. This led to pundits claiming the death of the NBA center. Only one problem: centers are getting better, and teams are recognizing their importance as much as ever.
The introduction of zone defense in the NBA has hurt centers, because it allows teams to guard the post in more complex ways than ever before. Teams can swarm the strong side of the ball, meaning that a post player with his back to the basket just has fewer options than they did ten years ago. This change is made worse by lack of talent in this position compared to 20 years ago. Hakeem Olajuwon isn’t walking through the door anytime soon.
Compared to five years ago? The center position has improved by leaps and bounds. The focus of teams on quicker, more skilled power forwards means that on a lot of teams, the center is the entire back line of the defense. Because post play has gotten harder over the years, the ability to zone means a center’s defense is more important than ever.
Watch the Knicks play defense. It’s completely structured around Tyson Chandler’s ability to wall off any penetration. Chandler is the ideal center in today’s game: he’s quick enough to step outside and defend the pick and roll, but tall and long enough to contest shots inside. Veterans like Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan have mastered this for years, and seem to single-handedly transform a collection of mediocre defenders into a lockdown team concept.
Houston was derided for signing Omer Asik to a $25 million contract – Asik had never scored more than 3 points per game. But he has the two most valuable skills in a center: defense and rebounding. Houston is a bad defensive team on the year, but when Asik is off the court, they’re worse than the Hornets. Indiana’s Roy Hibbert has had a terrible offensive season, but the Pacers continue to improve on defense as he learns how to use his body better.
Even under-the-radar big men like Marcin Gortat are having a huge impact on their teams this year, and that’s why a good center is still the most valuable commodity in the league after a true superstar. What has really been fading away the past few years isn’t the center position, it’s the “true” power forward. The number of power forwards who play out of the post along with a center is dwindling every year. Pau Gasol is one of the few left, and he struggles the more he has to play the position. The increased speed and shooting ability of that position is what’s really changed the outlook of the league.
And lest we think that post play is dead as well, we only have to look around the league to find some great examples. Greg Monroe and DeMarcus Cousins, both hidden on terrible teams, are both young big men with very well-developed inside games. Andrew Bynum might be injured, but Dwight Howard slid into his spot on the Lakers without missing a step. If Hibbert returns to form, he’ll join underrated veterans like Al Jefferson and LaMarcus Aldridge as legitimate game-changers at the offensive end.
Don’t be fooled by the ballot. Center is returning to form as one of the stronger positions in the league. The game has changed since the 90s, but big men are getting stronger after a weak decade. Centers aren’t going anywhere.