Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Shaq and Yao, the Last of the Great Centers (July 12)

Sadly, we won't be seeing a matchup like this anytime soon...
We’re now at Day 12 of the NBA Lockout and there is still no end in sight. Goodness knows I’d give an appendage for a random, out of left field deal to break later on this afternoon, but I won’t be holding my breath. Since I have absolutely no desire to talk or write about the lockout, I figured I’d examine another little problem the NBA is having. Check out this list and see if you can identify what I’m talking about:

Al Jefferson
Dwight Howard
Brook Lopez
Al Horford
Marc Gasol
Andrea Bargnani
Andrew Bogut
Emeka Okafor
Roy Hibbert
JaVale McGee
Tim Duncan
Chuck Hayes
Tyson Chandler
DeAndre Jordan
Marcin Gortat
Samuel Dalembert
Spencer Hawes
Kwame Brown
Darko Milicic
Joakim Noah
Nenad Krstic
Andrew Bynum
Joel Anthony
Andris Biedrins
Ben Wallace
Kurt Thomas

Figure it out yet? Here’s a hint – this is the list of every NBA center from the 2010-2011 regular season that played at least 1000 minutes and averaged at least 20 minutes per game. There are 27 of them.

Does that help? If you’re still struggling, just go back through and read those names one more time. What was your initial thought? Did you throw up in your mouth? Even a little bit?

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m talking about the rapid death of the NBA Center.

The recent retirements of Shaquille O’Neal and Yao Ming have deeply saddened me as a basketball fan, not just because I loved both players, but because they represent the final passing of an era. Not too long ago, the NBA was a game for big men. Hall of Famers such as Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Shaq, Tim Duncan, Alonzo Mourning, and Dikembe Mutumbo all squared off against each other on a nightly basis. Even the non-superstars such as Rik Smits, Rasheed Wallace, Kevin Willis, Rony Seikaly, and Vlade Divac were excellent post presences. Perhaps it’s just my nostalgia kicking in, but it certainly seemed like just about every team had a quality center. Now, heavyweight matchups like Joel Anthony vs. Spencer Hawes or Chuck Hayes vs. Nenad Krstic are common place. Pardon me for not sitting up in my chair to see Andris Biedrins miss another layup…

Looking at that list, many of the “centers” aren’t really even centers at all! Some players are really power forwards masquerading as centers (Al Jefferson, Al Horford, Nene), some are woefully undersized (Emeka Okafor, Chuck Hayes, Joel Anthony, Ben Wallace), some avoid rebounding as if the ball were laced with anthrax (Brook Lopez, Spencer Hawes, Nenad Krstic), some are so inept offensively that they there would literally be no difference in production if their fingers were cut off and they were left with nubs (JaVale McGee, Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan, Kwame Brown, Darko Milicic, Andris Biedrins), one has girly hair (Joakim Noah…not sure how this is relevant), and one actually plays like a girl (Andrea Bargnani).

What made Shaq and Yao so unique amongst today’s centers was their combination of incredible size and amazing skill. Both players commanded a double team each and every time they touched the ball. Both players were almost a guaranteed two points if you got them the ball deep enough in the post. Where do you find that nowadays? Even Dwight Howard, the best center alive, has limitations on the offensive end. Want to know how bad it is? Just look at the meager statistical output of the 27 centers I listed above!

Points Per Game (Min 10.0)
Dwight Howard – 22.9
Andrea Bargnani – 21.4
Brook Lopez – 20.4
Al Jefferson – 18.6
Al Horford – 15.3
Nene Hilario – 14.5
Tim Duncan – 13.4
Andrew Bogut – 12.8
Roy Hibbert – 12.7
Marc Gasol – 11.7
Joakim Noah – 11.7
Andrew Bynum – 11.3
Emeka Okafor – 10.3
Marcin Gortat – 10.2
Tyson Chandler – 10.1
JaVale McGee – 10.1

Of the 27 centers that played significant minutes, only 16 averaged double digits.
Of the 16 centers that averaged double digits, only 5 averaged at least 15 points per game.

Compare that list to a similar one from the 1995-1996 season.

Hakeem Olajuwon – 26.9
Shaquille O’Neal – 26.6
David Robinson – 25.0
Alonzo Mourning – 23.2
Patrick Ewing – 22.5
Vin Baker – 21.1
Shawn Kemp – 19.6
Rik Smits – 18.5
Christian Laettner – 16.4
Bison Dele – 15.8
Arvydas Sabonis – 14.5
Gheorghe Muresan – 14.5
Otis Thorpe – 14.2
Elden Campbell – 13.9
Bryant Reeves – 13.3
Vlade Divac – 12.9
Oliver Miller – 12.9
Olden Polynice – 12.2
Rony Seikaly – 12.1
Shawn Bradley – 11.9
Sam Perkins – 11.8
Andrew Lang – 11.7
Matt Geiger – 11.2
Dikembe Mutumbo – 11.0
Kevin Willis – 10.6
Rasheed Wallace – 10.0

That’s 26 centers scoring at least 10 points per game! That’s 53% more centers scoring double digits! Even more remarkable is the production from the top. An astounding 6 centers finished in the league’s top ten in points per game! WOW!

So, what has changed? Why is the center position declining so rapidly? Where are all the dominant big men? 15-20 years ago, the NBA was full of highly skilled and incredibly dominant 7 footers. Now, the league is full of 6-9 power forwards working the low post in lieu of a legit center. Here are some of the theories…

The international game has helped ruin the center position. The late 1980’s and the early 1990’s saw a dramatic rise in the prevalence of foreign scouting. Young international stars such as Arvydas Sabonis and Vlade Divac found success in the NBA, paving the way for over a decade of hot shot international prospects to get their chance at glory. As I wrote about earlier, the international craze didn’t quite turn out as expected, leaving NBA rosters littered with busts like Saer Sene and Alek Radojevic. Going beyond the players themselves, critics point to the “Euro-style” of play as a key reason for the decline of quality post players. In truth, most international players are not accustomed to the NBA’s physical style of play, preferring a finesse face up game to the traditional back to the basket post game.

Another theory is that Kevin Garnett helped ruin the center position. Now, follow me on this, because I’m not saying people actually blame Garnett. KG was taken 5th overall in the 1995 draft. From that point on, NBA GM’s began looking for “the next KG.” He was an uncanny combination of size (legit 7 footer), athleticism, and perimeter skills. Not many 7 footers could consistently hit from 20 feet like KG could. Many “next KG’s” were drafted over the course of the next decade, causing an influx in perimeter oriented post players.

Here’s my take on what has really caused the dearth of quality big men. At lower levels of basketball, size is everything. A 6-8 guy in high school is pretty much going to beat the crap out of whatever 6-2 guy is guarding him, no matter how raw and unskilled the taller guy is. At higher levels, size difference is a much smaller factor, and once you reach high level college ball, everyone is tall! It’s at that point that true development begins. Can you add a jump hook to your arsenal, will you figure out proper footwork, can you spot the double team…all these things are absolutely necessary in order to be a quality center. Here’s the thing, NO ONE IS STAYING IN COLLEGE! Talented post players like DeMarcus Cousins and Derrick Favors always leave school after one year, leaving a wealth of development and experience on the table.

The other thing they leave behind is the knowledge of how to dominate. Players like Olajuwon, Robinson, and Shaq knew how to dominate their competition…not just beat them, but to crush them. The development of big men is usually much slower (just ask Dwight Howard) and a few years of dominating college competition could have been invaluable to a player like Favors.

Hopefully, the downward trend turns and the center position makes a comeback. Most things like this are cyclical in nature, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we start seeing some talented bigs coming out in the next five or so years. Still, the list of 27 centers above is sobering, and it makes me wish Shaq and Yao were still healthy and in their primes. In the end, a list of crappy current players simply doesn’t do their careers justice. They were the last of their kind, and the game will definitely miss them.

Shaquille O’Neal
23.7 PPG
10.9 RPG
2.5 APG
2.3 BPG
.582 FG%
15 All-Star Games
3 NBA All-Defensive 2nd Teams
4 All-NBA 3rd Teams
2 All-NBA 2nd Teams
8 All-NBA 1st Teams
4 NBA Championships
3 NBA Finals MVP’s
Future Hall of Fame

Yao Ming
19.0 PPG
9.2 RPG
1.6 APG
1.9 BPG
.524 FG%
.833 FT%
8 All-Star Games
3 All-NBA 3rd Teams
2 All-NBA 2nd Teams
Future Hall of Fame

(Note: Roy Hibbert is the next great big man! He’s about to take off! BIG HIB! COME ON THE PODCAST! PLEASE!)


  1. First off, Bison Dele scoring 15 a game, if only we knew what happened to you dear friend. Secondly this is coming from a guy that loved the Jazz back in the day. The Jazz tried to make a deal in 1998 for Rony Seikaly, had that happened and they may have beaten the Bulls. I watched an old game from that series the other day and the Jazz had been forced to sit rely on a combination of Adam Keefe/Antoine Carr because their dynamic duo of Ostertag/Foster was so inept. How sad, I watched Luke Longely and I believe at that time Brian Williams dominate!!!

    Point of my Rambling: Malone-Stockton forever, and how I miss the days of quality big men!!

  2. I didn't know about a failed Rony Seikaly trade. Seiks was criminally underrated for how solid a player he was. For five years in his prime, Seiks was good for nearly 17/11 every single year. Heck, he'd be on the All-NBA team with those numbers today!

  3. Also, did we ever figure out why you loved the Jazz back in the day? Jeff Hornacek?

  4. I used to be tall, well I stopped growing, so I was the height I am now in like the 7th grade. I played power forward and the first ever NBA game I saw live was the sky box at MSG (Knicks v. Jazz triple OT). Whose game would you fall in love with, Ewing's nasty post game, LJ post back injury when he was just grandmama, or the MAILMAN!!!

  5. Ironically, you eventually turned into a shorter version of LJ!

  6. Ouch....I may have more hops than LJ at the end there, and I don't have that nasty beard and gold tooth. LJ could be homeless on the side of the road and you wouldn't even know it was him!!

  7. Come on! You know it would only take you 35 minutes to grow that nasty beard!