The NBA Center: Is it Dead?

Can the center position truly thrive in the NBA?

The NBA has traditionally been dominated by giants.

Looking back at some of the NBA’s greatest athletes – Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaquille O’Neal, Dirk Nowitzki, etc. – one can see a common trait amongst all these stars – height.

Of the above listed players, Nowitzki is the shortest at 7-feet tall. 

This may not sound incredibly daunting at first glance, but when you consider the fact that an average male in the U.S. is 5-feet-9-inches tall (according to healthline.com), it does stand to reason that being tall gives you a major advantage.

It makes logical sense: The taller you are, the less likely your shot is to be dettered by a defender. Also, the closer you are to the rim the better, as it should be easier to score.

Typical centers of the past are embodied in players like Andre Drummond and Rudy Gobert. These centers are paid to rack up rebounds, points and blocks, and that’s about it.

Centers are expected to know the few basic post moves, with maybe a few specialty ones. Essentially, the big man cleans up for everyone else, hence the term “glass cleaner” for a great rebounder.

However, we’ve seen the role of the big man change dramatically over the last 20 years.

The NBA is becoming increasingly guard-centered with a heavy emphasis on outside shooting.

In the 2010-2011 NBA season, the average number of 3-point shots taken in a game was 18. This was an increase of 22.5% since the 2001-2002 NBA season (an average of 14.7 3-point shots per game were taken during that season). 

This year, the NBA is averaging 35 3-point attempts per game – an increase of 94.4%. No, your eyes aren’t mistaken. We have seen the amount of 3-point shots taken per game nearly double in the last 10 years.

Trae Young and small shooters have dramatically changed the NBA. (Wikimedia Commons)

Small, shifty guards like Trae Young and Steph Curry have burst onto the scene and revolutionized the game of basketball by launching deep 3-point shots.

By shooting further out, these shooters accomplish two things. First, they tend to score a lot, and they capitalize on the extra point awarded for shooting beyond the arc. Second, they are able to avoid the giant centers that swallow up the paint by shooting far away from them. 

Guards are eliminating the center’s ability to truly be a terror on the floor.

So, does this mean the center position is dead? 

Not exactly.

The NBA still has some traditional centers like Drummond and Gobert, but we are seeing centers gravitate away from the basket and towards long-range shooting.

Joel Embiid is 7-feet tall. Yet, the big man from Cameroon is shooting 3-4 shots a game from beyond the 3-point arc. 

Why? Because he needs to.

Centers like Embiid, Nikola Jokic, Kristaps Porzingis and Nikola Vucevic are expanding their skillsets and staying relevant by knocking down outside shots. 

By forcing players to respect them from the outside, centers are able to open up the paint for both themselves and their teammates. 

James Harden and the “small-ball Rockets” didn’t win a title, but they did defy some people’s expectations. (Wikimedia Commons)

Scoring is king in the NBA. Teams are doing whatever they can to score more. No longer do you have to win by stopping another team and playing great defense; rather, you just need to focus on scoring more.

The Houston Rockets tried a small-ball lineup to reinvent their defense and their scoring. 

In the past, this lineup would have been bullied right out of the gym. In the modern NBA, the lineup almost worked very well.

There is still a need for height in the NBA. That’s why players like Deandre Ayton and James Wiseman were worthy of such high picks. However, no longer can a center just be expected to grab rebounds and have a solid jump hook.

Every forward and center needs to be a stretch-4 or a stretch-5. Come to think of it, if centers can now be smaller and expected to shoot deeper shots, do the positions 1-5 have any value anymore?

The idea of the “perfect center” is continuing to evolve and change over the recent years in the NBA. Big men now have to learn a very different set of skills than they traditionally learn growing up.

It’s survival of the fittest. If you want to be a big man in the NBA, you need to work on that corner 3-point shot, not that drop step.

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