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NBA Centers Facing Extinction

2013 February 20
by Brian Goff

Russell, Chamberlain, Jabbar, Lanier, Walton, Gilmore, Malone, Olajuwan, Ewing, O’Neal.  Over decades, these and other “centers” dominated the NBA.  The “association” conducted its annual All-Star game on Sunday.   For the first time, the league did not list “Center” as a separate position for fan voting.  Yes, some of the players in the game still carry the label, but only one of the starters, Dwight Howard, possesses the physical characteristics or style of play historically attached to the position.  In altering its All-Star ballot, the NBA merely officially recognized the trend in the game – centers have been trending toward T-Rex’s fate along with “Sky Hook,” “Dream Shake,” and “up and under.”

These trends can be quickly seen through scoring statistics.  Whether looking at yearly leaders or career leaders, only Dwight Howard appears in places where the centers of the sixties, seventies, and eighties did, and there are no emerging players of this sort.  The data support extends far beyond points.  It’s also observable in rebounding and shot blocking statistics.  Whether “center” or “low post” player is the label, the type of players associated with the positions are vanishing.

The devolution of the center position reflects a series of indirect effects and outcomes rather than  direct managerial choices.  The adoption and popularization of the 3-point shot made a big impact.  Ostensibly, the shot would open up play in the middle, but over the long run it devalued size and interior skill.  Prior to the 3-pointer, closer shots tended to be better shots, and highly skilled big players excelled at making close shots.  The 3-point shot slowly changed team offensive strategy as well as the long player development.

Along with the 3-point shot, the ratcheting up of physical play in the middle rendered low post play less effective.  By the mid to late 1980s players such as Rick Mahorn and Kevin McHale wrestled for post position.  In earlier eras, court position was ceded based on first to a spot.  By the 1990s, the low post wrestling morphed into all out body-to-body combat.  Centers with fade-away shots such as Olajuwan or Ewing and O’Neal with his brute force could survive but the die was cast.  The same forces bubbled up at the collegiate level.  I sometimes hear fans and analysts express dismay at the “lack of low post skills,” but low post skill is impossible to employ when defensive players are permitted, literally, to shove offensive players.     With high school and college post player becoming increasingly less effective, coaches at these levels adjusted their offensive schemes.  By the 2000s, few players emerge into the professional ranks with low post skills.

Is the extinction of center play a part of NBA brand management?  I can’t say for sure because I have not sat in on NBA executive meetings, but I doubt it.  Brand management in sports is unique in many respects.  Mrs. Smith’s apple pies follow the recipe and packaging decisions of management.  In the film industry segment of entertainment, movies and their marketing display the choices of producers, directors, and screenwriters with a little bit of discretion of actors thrown in.  In contrast, sports entertainment executives exert much less control over their product, at least the on-the-court (or field) aspect.  They can influence it through choice of  rules regarding eligibility, scoring, and fouls (to some extent), but the final combination on display on NBA courts mixes these choices with the unintended consequences of them along with team methods and with the long run evolution of player skills.

This lack of direct control also makes reversing these trends problematic.  In part, the league faces difficult tradeoffs.  The league values the 3-point shot and the the athleticism of  Michael in his era and and LeBron today.  Yet, promoting these aspects of the game may come at the expense of low post play.  Reducing physical play offers an opportunity for positive impacts on both perimeter and low post play, but significantly diminishing aggressive defensive tactics is not an easy task – that’s a topic from my recent Super Bowl post, and one that deserves its own discussion.

2 Responses
  1. michael c permalink
    February 21, 2013

    I think we saw this in spades at the ’12 Olympics. The international rules on low-post defense are very harsh on an extension of the arms to push on the offensive player and fighting for space once position is established. NBA players expected to be allowed more contact, and players like Tyson Chandler who thrive on the physical defense had foul trouble and were ineffective. Repeated fouls in the low post away from the ball aren’t fan friendly however – the gold medal game was all NBA bigs getting way too physical and thus both teams were in foul trouble.
    Your look at how refereeing of the big men affected the outcome is an important issue. Jeff Van Gundy was a long time advocate of reform for big men post foul rules, and he always complained that the biggest players like Shaq and Yao Ming were poorly officiated and took way too much physical play without calls because they were ‘expected’ to absorb it. The way fouls are called when a slasher starts a drive facing the basket versus when a big receives the pass in the post is like night and day. With the higher rates of foul calls and free throw makes from the smaller players, this makes the coaching almost obvious – use your wing players to attack the post off the dribble for many easy fouls.

  2. February 25, 2013

    It does seem that “Centers” these days are being re-defined completely from what fans have come to think of in the past. Centers these days are faster, smaller, more athletic and have skills that would be most prevalent in a SG or SF. While it does seem like we’re losing a part of the game, it does make for some more impressive and entertaining games. It also allows players who wouldn’t normally fit the role of Center to showcase their dominance in other ways and better utilize their shooting skill. This could very well be some NBA brand management, especially when you focus on them completely taking the Center position off the ballot. It leads to the question: “Will, in the future, the Center position and name will be completely irrelevant and deleted from the game altogether?”

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