On the Waning Importance of Basketball's True Centers

Rob Mahoney@RobMahoneyNBA Lead WriterJuly 31, 2012

PHOENIX, AZ - JANUARY 28:  Shaquille O'Neal #36 of the Boston Celtics during the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at US Airways Center on January 28, 2011 in Phoenix, Arizona.  The Suns defeated the Celtics 88-71.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

In the early 2000s, Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan ruled the league in the same way that fantastically productive big men always had. Championships were earned with drop-steps and power moves, and foolishly, fans and analysts expected that to remain constant. A decade hasn't gone by without some radical basketball advancement or another, and yet based on precedent alone, we expected the value of the traditional, back-to-the-basket center to be static.

It was a silly notion to begin with; the game of basketball—much more so than any other major sport—is at the mercy of its own evolution. It's a sport that's practically due for periodic overhauls, as the basic tenets remain the same but the metagame changes drastically based on specific cues. They can be as drastic as the introduction of the three-point line or as unexpected as Tom Thibodeau's impromptu revolution of NBA defenses, but regardless, the NBA game is one of change.

And thus, it should surprise no one that when Duncan retires, the majesty of the conventional center will more or less die with him. Even Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum are decidedly different beasts, and though many mourn the discrepancy between today's bigs and the platonic center ideal, that gap matters far less than the fact than the style of play and developmental curve are angling away from old-world bigs. There's no use in lamenting the inevitable, and like it or not, the kinds of bigs that have dominated throughout basketball history have a much slimmer application today than they ever had before.

That doesn't make traditional centers altogether useless, but it requires that teams sustain themselves through other means. A diet of continuous low-post feeding can give a team a nice foundation, but contemporary defenses are too clever and too flexible to be bludgeoned into repeated losses.

That's not to say that back-to-the-basket threats can't give their teams a distinct matchup advantage, but the orientation of the game has shifted to the perimeter, making it far more important that a big man be able to move (in order to hedge against dribble penetration and contest in rotation) rather than overpower.

We live in a world where Dwight Howard can score 46 points on 23 shots and see his Magic lose by 10 points to the unspectacular Atlanta Hawks. Where Chris Bosh slides over to "center" without penalty, and the Miami Heat play all the better for it. The new fundamental truth of the league is that every team is its own unique organism — set apart not only by its style of play, but by the limitless potential of its personnel.

The base objectives (scoring, rebounding, defending, etc.) are still the same, but the means to achieve those ends are no longer so regimented. Efficient scoring doesn't have to come from the low post. Quality bigs don't have to be good rebounders, so long as the rest of the lineup can make up for their deficit. There's a give and take that exists in modern basketball team-building, and it's far too complex for coaches to plug players into units interchangeably based on an antiquated positionality.

The true center's importance has faded, but only in a way that equalizes offenses around the league. Franchises can build around a big or a ball-handler or a wing, and it makes little difference; all that matters is that the rest of the roster is constructed with a coherent sensibility in mind, and built to accentuate collective strength and mitigate collective weakness.

It's a holistic team concept built to reflect expanding skill sets, and while it's a pity that the likes of Duncan and O'Neal are a dying breed, versatility and creativity won out in basketball's survival of the fittest. Duncan adapted and O'Neal aged out, but beyond the current generation of basketball players are fresh breeds of talent that are exciting for entirely new reasons.