A Dying Breed

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June 25, 2013 by NowhereButPop

By Andrew Doscas

Roy Hibbert is an endangered species.  Along with Joakim Noah, he is one of last true big man in the NBA.  With the way small ball play has been sweeping across the NBA over the past 5 years or so, the big man center has become ostensibly obsolete.  Now as a Knicks fan who grew up during the ’90s, the second golden age of NBA centers, this concept of the center being nothing more than a figurehead is anathema.

The NBA has had two eras of great big men.  The first was from 1960-1974 which included the likes of Bill Russell, Willis Reed, Wilt Chamberlain, Wes Unseld, and a young Lew Alcindor.  This era of great big men was facilitated due to the rather lackluster ability of perimeter shooters, and a greater emphasis on pounding the paint.  The next and most recent era of great bigs was from 1985-2001 which included Patrick Ewing, Hakeem the Dream, and Shaq before he was lazy and out of shape.  These were athletic bigs who are not only strong but fast and agile like Hakeem and Shaq, or had a killer jump shot like Ewing.  During this time, the NBA was at its most physical and aggressive, which I don’t think is a coincidence.  Centers like these not only dominated the paint, but dominated the court.  It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the three teams to make it to the finals in Jordan’s absence were the Rockets, Knicks, and Magic, all of which were led by centers.

The center, in a purist sense of the term, has become relegated to a position given to the tallest guy on the team just by virtue of being the tallest guy on the team.  Look at the Miami Heat and how out of place Chris Bosh, a natural power forward, looks while playing the five spot.  Bosh is the perfect example of how the league has changed, and how the role of the center has changed with it.  Not only is Bosh a power forward, but he is also soft….as most centers in the league are today.[1]  While they might have some post moves, guys like Bosh, Kendrick Perkins, Brook Lopez, or even Dwight Howard don’t assert themselves like bigs of the past used to.  That’s a direct result of a point guard driven league that emphasizes a perimeter game instead of a post up game.

But, at the same time, these teams that play small ball (about 81% of the league), are vulnerable to size.  And I don’t mean size as in vertical presence, but size as in toughness and aggression, guys who are big, but know how to use their size to their advantage.  It should come as no surprise that a team like the Heat have had difficulty in not only matching up against big teams like the Knicks, Bulls, and Pacers, but also in beating them.  Teams with real centers like a Roy Hibbert, or a (healthy) Tyson Chandler have been able to exploit that disparity in size.  This highlights one glaring problem with the way the game is played now; it’s too reliant on the perimeter game and backcourt presence.  In essence, it’s too one dimensional.  By introducing the dimension of a post up, in the paint game, it enables a team to become multi facetted enough to overwhelm the opposing defense on dual fronts.  That’s why the Utah Jazz paradigm on Stockton/Malone worked so well.[2]

With the decrease in “true” centers, the league has become a softer, less aggressive league, which quite frankly, I think is bad for the sport.  That’s what makes Roy Hibbert and Joakim Noah so interesting.  Hibbert was the key to beating the Heat, and may very well be the x-factor if these two teams meet in the playoffs next year.  Noah and Marc Gasol are defensive anchors for two of the best defensive teams in the league, and they play to the strengths of their big men.  The pressure is on these big men to re-assert the need for real centers in the NBA, and once they big to succeed, other teams will realize the benefits of playing big again.

The NBA has had a long, and fruitful line of great centers starting from the first superstar the NBA had to boast in George Mikan.  After that came Russell, Chamberlain, Jabbar, Ewing, and O’Neal.  It’ll be fun to see who will be the next one to carry the torch and keep the big man’s role in the NBA alive and well.

[1] That’s the effect of playing in a league where players get called for fouls just for giving dirty looks.

[2] Having Jeff Hornacek for a couple of years didn’t hurt either.


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