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The End of an Era: Traditional NBA Big Men Become a Rare Sight

Chris CarsonContributor INovember 9, 2010

Are Shaq and Duncan the last of their kind?
Are Shaq and Duncan the last of their kind?Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

The post-Michael Jordan NBA has been dominated by the center position.

The Lakers won three straight championships on the back of Shaquille O’Neil. The Spurs, led by Tim Duncan, have captured four titles. Two years ago the Celtics won their first championship in decades, led by the defensive toughness of Kevin Garnett.

However, the Lakers broke the mold with two straight championships. Andrew Bynum gave the Lakers solid minutes after returning from his knee injury, but did not dominate. Pau Gasol played a great series, but most of his points came from high screen-and-rolls with Kobe Bryant, rarely from back-to-the-basket post moves.

The Lakers win was the result of stellar perimeter play by Kobe Bryant and Lamar Odom. The Lakers represent a new trend in professional basketball, the fall of the dominant center and the rise of the perimeter-orientated power forward.

The question is why are things changing? When the formula has been proven, why do teams opt for jump-shooting big men instead of strong low-post players.

The globalization of the NBA has changed the make-up of many teams. Players like Dirk Nowitzki (7'0"), Andrea Bargnani (7'0") and even Yao Ming (7'6") are putting a new twist on the traditional center position.

Nowitzki has arguably the smoothest jump shot in the NBA. He feels more comfortable floating around the perimeter looking for an open three, or driving to the basket for a layup or mid-range shot.

Bargnani’s game is similar. He too is a seven-footer who is more comfortable driving the lane or shooting a three-pointer. Bargnani also has great foot speed for a player his size allowing him to guard quicker players.

Yao Ming plays more in the low post than the other two but still has a strong perimeter game. At 7'6", Yao is the tallest player in the NBA and the strongest aspect of his game is his jump-shooting.

He prefers the high post to the low block. His go to move is a turn-around jump shot. It is no accident that I have mentioned all international players. The way the game is played outside of the United States has affected the way bigs play in the NBA.

The NBA key area is 16-feet wide from block-to-block. The international lane is six meters wide; witch equals around 20-feet from block-to-block.

The wider lanes in international rules make it more difficult for traditional post moves to be affective. This forces big men to develop their jump-shooting and ball handling to keep up with the perimeter-orientated game.

Furthermore, the wide lanes leave less congestion in the key. As guards drive more to the basket, they penetrate and kick for open jump-shots. This leads to a demand in the international game for centers and power forwards with the ability to make the short to long corner jump-shot.

When these players come into the NBA the rest of the league has to try and guard this new offensive weapon calling for more mobile centers and power forwards. However, the international community is not only importing new players, it is importing new offenses as well.

Mike D’Antoni’s Phoenix Suns teams were consistently the most entertaining show in the NBA. D’Antoni’s style of play was directly influenced by his years playing in Italy. The Suns philosophy was get a shot up within seven seconds of any possession. This led to a fast pace game, high screen and roll plays, and the five out offense.

This style serves a mobile power forward like Amar’e Stoudemire very well, but a more traditional center like Shaq would struggle in this system. This explains why the Suns slowed down the game considerably after acquiring Shaq.

D’Antoni has since moved on to the Knicks where he uses the same formula. The Knicks were one of the highest scoring teams in the league two years ago, starting the 6'9" David Lee at center. This may also explain why Stoudemire looks rejuvenated in the Big Apple.

Not all big men play a perimeter game, but these players seem to be less effective. Greg Oden and Dwight Howard were high-profile players when drafted yet their development has been slow.

Oden’s short career has been plagued by injury and as a result he has not become the dominant low post presence the Trailblazers need to complement Brandon Roy. Oden is an offensive liability, and defensively he is prone to foul trouble. Not to mention he is injured again this year.

Dwight Howard on the other hand is a superb defensive player, winning the Defensive Player of the Year the last two seasons. Physically, he has the perfect NBA body. However, after six years in the NBA his only real accomplishment has been winning a slam-dunk contest.

Howard’s post moves look rushed and uncomfortable leading to an awkward running sky-hook and a jumper that looks more like a shot-put throw. Although the Magic went to the NBA Finals two years ago, they had to rely more on Hedo Turkoglu for clutch baskets. Stan Van Gundy needs players like Turkoglu or Vince Carter to score from the perimeter because Howard is too inconsistent offensively.

As the careers of Shaq and Duncan begin to fade, who will pick up the torch as the NBA’s dominant center?

As of right now Andrew Bynum and Brook Lopez are two candidates. Bynum’s length has made his baby hook shot a formidable offensive weapon. Furthermore, playing with Kobe Bryant and working with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar provides valuable experience for his career.

If Bynum can stay healthy, his career could blossom in the next couple of years. Brook Lopez does not play in a high-profile city like Los Angles, but people should take note of him.

Lopez is averaging 18 points, nearly eight rebounds and two blocks for the Nets. In his second year he has shown improvement from his rookie season. At seven feet tall and 265 pounds Lopez is a big low-post presence and the closest thing to Tim Duncan to enter the league in the last five years.

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