Two lists of elite basketball players were released Thursday, and they indicated very different things about the state of the NBA center.
According to USA Basketball, the big man is thriving.
According to the NBA, the big man is dead.
Dwight Howard could start for Team USA at the World Cup this summer.
Dwight Howard will not start for the Western Conference All-Stars next month.
It's OK if you're perplexed. So were TNT's commentators when the NBA All-Star rosters were unveiled on Thursday night's broadcast. Neither squad's starting lineup will feature a traditional center—an apparent first in All-Star history.
The cause? The NBA's new ballot, which asks fans to vote for two guards and three "frontcourt" players, without respect to position. Given a choice, fans went for the flashy forwards over the plodding 7-footers.
The top vote-getters in the East frontcourt: LeBron James, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. The winners in the West: Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin and Kevin Love. That's four small forwards and two power forwards, all of them averaging at least 22 points per game.
Howard, long regarded as the NBA's top center, finished fourth in the Western Conference frontcourt race, nearly 8,000 votes behind Love. Roy Hibbert, the Indiana Pacers' towering center, finished fourth in the East, about 411,000 votes behind Anthony.
Both Howard and Hibbert are virtual locks to be chosen as reserves by the NBA's head coaches, who will submit their ballots over the next week. But it could be James vs. Durant in the center circle when the ball is tossed up in New Orleans on Feb. 16.
It might please the fans, but it sounds like heresy to basketball traditionalists and, well, centers.
"They shouldn't have snubbed out the center spot," Shaquille O'Neal said on the TNT broadcast. "We still have centers."
The NBA was trying to be progressive when it revamped the ballot for the 2012-13 season. The game is evolving. Teams are playing small lineups. There are 7-footers shooting three-pointers. In Miami, coach Erik Spoelstra advocates "positionless basketball."
So NBA officials went there, too, eliminating center as a separate category. It had no effect on last season's All-Star Game, as fans still selected Howard to start for the West, while an injury paved the way for Chris Bosh to start for the East, preserving the appearance of a traditional lineup.
The ballot change seemed reasonable, given the dearth of dominant centers in recent years. Except the position seems to be having a renaissance.
Witness the Team USA roster, which was released earlier in the day. Three centers, all rising stars, were added to the 28-man roster: DeMarcus Cousins of the Sacramento Kings, Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans and Andre Drummond of the Detroit Pistons. Cousins is 23. Davis and Drummond are 20.
Those three will join the veterans Howard (age 28) and Tyson Chandler (31). If Hibbert, 27, hadn't previously played for Jamaica, he would have been a shoo-in to make the USA roster, too.
The line between center and power forward is, of course, blurred. The 6'11" LaMarcus Aldridge, also named to Team USA, has shifted between the two positions in his career with the Portland Trail Blazers. Bosh, a forward for most of his career, is now the Heat's starting center.
O'Neal is right: The NBA still has quality centers. But the position has changed since he entered the league in 1992 and dueled Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing and David Robinson in the paint. Some of the best bigs today are defense-first players: Hibbert, Chicago's Joakim Noah and Memphis' Marc Gasol.
Still, there are eight players classified as "center" averaging at least 16 points per game, including the injured Brook Lopez and Al Horford. And there are several young big men showing promise, including Cousins, Davis, Drummond, Minnesota's Nikola Pekovic and Orlando's Nikola Vucevic.
This isn't 2004, when Jamaal Magloire made the Eastern Conference All-Star team by default. The league could reinstate the center spot and not be embarrassed by the results.
The ballots for All-NBA teams still list center separately. Box scores on NBA.com still include a "C" next to one starter on each team. The NBA.com statistical database allows you to sort by position—"center" remains an option.
The center is not dead, positional revolutions notwithstanding. Except in All-Star balloting.
If the NBA's goal is to load the All-Star Game with flashy, crowd-pleasing scorers, then the new ballot is working. But if player popularity is all that matters, why stop at center? Why not embrace positionlessness in its entirety, remove all labels from the ballot and just let fans vote for their five favorite players in each conference?
Worth noting: The ballot wasn't the only culprit this year. Howard killed his public image by sulking his way out of Orlando and Los Angeles within less than a year. He has regained some of his popularity in Houston, but losing a voting precinct as large as Southern California is tough to overcome.
The Howard snub sent Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey on a minor Twitter rant Thursday night.
It's a house election right now w/Centers gerrymandered out MT @5thQuarterMag It's 4 fans. Would U like presidential election 4 All-Star Gm?— Daryl Morey (@dmorey) January 24, 2014
In another tweet, he declared:
NBA all star voting process set up well for Iowa high school girls basketball. Offense only & only guards and forwards.— Daryl Morey (@dmorey) January 24, 2014
With Kobe Bryant injured, Morey suggested that Houston's James Harden (a likely reserve) should start. Or Howard could start and Durant could shift to shooting guard since, as Morey noted with a twinge of sarcasm, "positions don't matter."
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.
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