The Evolution of the NBA Center: What It Means for Nets Big Man Jarrett Allen
New York Post
The Nets enter the 2019-20 season with two centers at the opposite ends of their careers. Jarrett Allen, a prolific shot-blocker with substantial potential is heading into the third season of his young career. Allen is joined by DeAndre Jordan, a traditional center and three time All-NBA veteran. The two are expected to battle for playing time this upcoming season, and Allen will likely need to broaden his skill set if he wants to be Brooklyn’s number one option.
Before getting into this, it’s important to understand how the center position has gotten to where it is today. For decades centers were seen as the key ingredient in a championship recipe. Legends like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Moses Malone, among others, dominated games, awards, and titles. This preeminence is reflected during the 24 year stretch from the 1959-60 season to the 1982-83 season, when the NBA MVP award was taken home by a center in all but two years. Furthermore, out of the 22 seasons where a center did win the award in that stretch, nine of them added an NBA title to go along with it.
Without diving deep into the intricate stylistic differences of the iconic centers during this era, most relied primarily on their strength and size--physically dominating in the paint defensively and offensively. Muscling themselves to the rim and primarily taking short-range shots lead to high probability scoring. This was how the cookbook was written, filling in players as garnish around the main course: a defensive dominant center who played mostly with their back to the basket.
Today’s NBA centers are drastically different. The evolution didn’t occur overnight, but rather was an accumulation of changes to the game and as a result, to the gameplay. With the introduction of the 3-Point line in 1979 and the emergence of superstar wings and perimeter players like Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan, the game slowly transformed along with the gameplay.
There were still unguardable forces at the center position throughout the ‘90s, specifically Shaquille O’Neal. However, an influx of new rules at the turn of the century, expedited the evolution of the position. The most notable was the elimination of the NBA’s Illegal Defense Rule, which allowed teams to double team opposing players at will and was designed to transition the league away from isolation ball.
While Shaq and some other old school style centers (e.g. Dwight Howard continued to dominate in the first decade of the 21st century), the league was rapidly transitioning. Pace of play, court spacing, and 3-point specialists like Steph Curry (they don’t call him Chef Curry for nothing) were seen as the special sauce for success. To have the same value as the centers of old in today’s space and pace style of play, players are simply called on to do more. They need to defend perimeter shooters while still having an impact in the paint and on the boards. They need to be able to knock down fifteen foot+ shots with some consistency, in order to space the floor for their guards to get to the rim, while still contributing in the post. Some centers answer that call. Players like Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, and Karl-Anthony Towns thrive in multiple facets of the game and are all more than capable of being the best player on a championship team. Others, take Brook Lopez as an example, have re-invented themselves to add value to their team.
The graph below shows the drastic jump in Lopez’s average 3-point attempts per game over the last few seasons:
Getting back to the situation the Nets currently find themselves in, there are centers like Jordan who have continued to play impactful ball while holding onto their old school style. Allen on the other hand will have to prove he can add value outside of what a traditional center brings to the table. To put it lightly, he just can’t compete with Jordan’s physicality, as was evident last season on multiple occasions where Allen was bullied in the paint.
In many ways, Allen is a weaker version of Jordan. They’re both established rim protectors whose offensive value comes from the pick and roll and close range shots. However, Jordan can body up to other dominant big men much more effectively than the smaller framed Allen. What Allen has on his side though is his age and willingness to make adjustments. Jordan was recently asked if he was trying to add new things to his game, to which he
“Hell no. No. No way. If I come out here and start shooting 3s and s**t, then ya’ll
gonna be like, DeAndre, we shouldn’t have signed that guy.”
Allen on the other hand has indicated that not only is he willing to adapt, he’s actively trying to. This offseason he has spent time working on his perimeter shooting, which, if utilized, would make him a multidimensional scorer and open up the floor for his new point guard Kyrie Irving. If Allen can successfully evolve his game, it could prove to be the missing ingredient the Nets need.
Here what Nick Fay and Jac Manuell have to say about Jarrett Allen on the Brooklyn Buzz: