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.