Center of Attention: Changes are Happening
In the NBA’s “golden era” of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the blueprint for success was having a dominant big man. Transcendent stars like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ruled the league. Even in the 1980s, while the Celtics and Lakers dominated the decade, franchises sought out the next great big man as centers monopolized the top of the draft. The Houston Rockets selected centers in consecutive years: Ralph Sampson and Hakeem Olajuwon in 1983 and 1984, respectively. The Knicks landed Patrick Ewing in 1985, the Cavs took Brad Daugherty in 1986, and the Spurs selected David Robinson in 1987. The underlying belief of the league was that you needed superior talent at the center position to compete for a championship.
This belief prevailed into the 90’s when other dominant centers like Shaquille O’Neal entered the league in 1992. Having an anchor to patrol the paint on both sides of the ball was still in demand. However, the role of the center of the ‘80s and ‘90s evolved into the more modern definition: bigs with guard skills, the “unicorn”. Big men like Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki changed the game with their ability to stretch the floor with their shooting while also being able to play in the paint. What was an anomaly then is the expectation in today’s league.
Fast forward to 2018. This summer’s NBA Draft was full of big men who were not only able to hit the three, but were asked to do so in college. DeAndre Ayton, who was selected with the number one pick by the Phoenix Suns, shot right under 34% from three. He averaged right around one three-point attempt per game, making 12 of the 30 he took for Arizona Wildcats. Mo Bamba, who was selected with the sixth pick by the Orlando Magic, hit just under 28% (14 of 39) of his attempts during his lone season with the Texas Longhorns. Wendell Carter Jr, who was selected by the Chicago Bulls with the seventh pick, connected on 19 of the 46 threes he attempted in his one year at Duke, a 41.3% clip.
Now while Ayton, Bamba, and Carter all took a low number of attempts in their college careers, the fact that they have the ability to step outside and stretch the floor is a testament to how the center position has changed. They are still serviceable at attacking and patrolling the paint, but their overall combination of skills has ushered in a new era of bigs who will be expected to do even more than their contemporaries. With offensive schemes in today’s league designed to open the floor for more three-point attempts and pick and roll, big men are expected to keep up with much smaller and faster guards. This minimizes the effectiveness of the slow, plodding big man of the NBA’s past.
In a poll conducted at the beginning of the 2017-18 NBA season, NBA general managers voted Minnesota Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns as the player they would want to build their franchise around. Towns, the number one pick in 2015 out of Kentucky, entered the league with a skill set unlike many before him. Towns is not only able to score in the paint, shoot from midrange, but he has also shown he can hit threes consistently throughout his three-year career. During the 2017-18 campaign, Towns was successful in hitting 120 of his 285 threes, good for 42.1% from beyond the arc.
Towns and many other big men in the league now have to fit in with offenses that move at much faster paces with much more floor spacing. “Pace and space”, as this has been aptly labeled, means that more teams are shooting from beyond the arc, instead of settling for less efficient shots like long 2-point attempts. More space means bigs are expected to move around the floor more which makes spending time around the rim somewhat obsolete in today’s game.
With the NBA game transitioning towards “positionless” basketball, a center who can be on the court during critical times will be vital to how teams game plan going into the 4th quarter of important games. This past May, the Utah Jazz parked the eventual 2018 Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert on the bench in favor of a “small” ball lineup to counter the Houston Rockets’ lineup that placed 6’4’’ forward P.J. Tucker at the center position. Tucker gave the Rockets a line up with essentially five capable 3-point shooters. Even though the Rockets have a top-five center in Clint Capela, one of the best pick and roll centers in the league, having five perimeter shooters allows an offense to take advantage of teams who keep a traditional center on the floor.
The modern-day center is expected to be much more versatile than his predecessors. Denver Nuggets center, Nikola Jokic, who many consider the best true center in the league, is the prototypical archetype for the future. Jokic, who recently signed a 5 year, $146 million dollar extension with the Nuggets, averaged 18.5 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 4.4 assists a game, all while connecting on just under 40% from three. Jokic, like Towns, attempted well over 200 3-pointers for the season, more than three a game.
When other factors such as player efficiency and PER ratings are taken into factor, there are many reasons to believe that the centers that enter the league going forward will need to have the ability to step beyond the arc. It is crucial to have a big who can space the floor and guard both the paint and perimeter. Without these skills, centers will have a hard time staying on the floor during crunch time. If up-and-coming centers in the league continue shooting threes at the same rate that Jokic and Towns did during the 17-18 campaign, the center position will be changed forever. The future of the big man is coming, one three-point jacking 7-footer at a time.
(All stats used were from Basketball-Reference.com)