The Decline of the Franchise ‘Centerpiece’
*Photo via USA Today
Is basketball truly a ‘little man's’ game? Not literally little, even the “small” NBA players are much taller than the average person, but little as in the big man/center may be becoming obsolete.
Ever since the league's existence, the ‘big man’ has ruled the NBA. From the first ever franchise player, George Mikan, to the man with the most rings, Bill Russell, and finally, to arguably the most dominant center ever, Wilt Chamberlain. They were the standard at the center position: Powerful, dominant, intimidating, athletic and unstoppable.
Centers like Willis Reed, Moses Malone, Elvin Hayes, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Bill Walton followed those legends and continued to reign supreme in the game of basketball. Then, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson and Shaquille O'Neal took the game to new heights. (Shout outs to Dave Cowens, Robert Parish, Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning too).
If you had a franchise center, you had a legitimate shot at winning a championship. As a matter of fact, out of all the centers just named, Patrick Ewing and Dikembe Mutombo were the only ones NOT to get a championship ring.
Fast forward to the 2015 NBA Finals, Game 4. The Cleveland Cavaliers were leading the series 2-1. Steve Kerr makes the adjustment of going with a small line up by starting Andre Iguodala in place of Andrew Bogut. Wait, what? That means Draymond Green (who is an undersized power forward) would play center, guarding Timofey Mozgov, and Harrison Barnes (small forward) would guard Tristan Thompson.
*Photo via Getty Images
One would think that the Cavaliers had the advantage on the blocks against the smaller front line of the Warriors, right? But, the series turned in favor of Golden State because Cleveland lacked a skilled big capable of taking advantage of the Warriors’ small ball lineup. The result: The Warriors ended up winning the championship.
Back in the day, this may not have happened because most of the ‘bigs’ were more skilled in the post than this era of big-men. The modern day center pool has diminished drastically. Whether it is the lack of big men, coaching (especially at the younger age), or disappointments like Dwight Howard, who was supposed to be the next great, skilled center, it’s obvious that the center position just isn’t what it used to be.
Injuries have also been a major part of the big man’s demise with potential great centers like Yao Ming, Greg Oden and Andrew Bynum’s careers being cut short by injuries. Also, one of the next great franchise centers, Joel Embiid, has yet to play in a single NBA game (regular or pre season) since he was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers.
It seems that it isn't “sexy” to be a center anymore. More and more vertically gifted players coming up want to play like the "little players" because that's what Sportscenter and Youtube show the most (See Thon Maker or Bol Bol, 7-foot high schoolers who both play like guards).
Even with the small ball trend on the rise, the league has phases; so, this could be just another one of those flash in the pan movements that eventually fades. Two of the top three picks in the 2015 NBA Draft were centers.
The Minnesota Timberwolves drafted Karl-Anthony Towns as the first overall pick and the Philadelphia 76ers selected Jahlil Okafor (yes, another center for Philly) third overall. If they dominate the league, they could resuscitate the seemingly “dead” center position in the NBA by forcing teams to go “big”, rather than “small”.
With these two franchise centerpieces, maybe there is hope after all for the big men on the blocks