Where Have All The Centers Gone?

By Kevin Pelton
For Hoopsworld.com
Sep. 7, 2002

A decade after the Dream Team came, saw, and conquered the competition at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, there have been a number of comparisons made between the Dream Team and this year’s American squad which fell short Thursday in the World Basketball Championships, eliminated from medal consideration after a loss to Yugoslavia. Perhaps the most striking contrast between the two teams is at the center position. While the 1992 US team had future Hall of Famers Patrick Ewing and David Robinson in the middle, this year’s squad has only a number of players who can play either center or power forward -- Dallas’ Raef LaFrentz, Detroit’s Ben Wallace, Indiana’s Jermaine O’Neal, and Toronto’s Antonio Davis.

The striking drop-off at center is not due solely to unwillingness by established stars like Shaquille O’Neal to participate. In 1992, the list of star-caliber centers not on the American team (in some cases, of course, because they were not American) includes players like Charlotte’s Alonzo Mourning, Cleveland’s Brad Daugherty, Denver’s Dikembe Mutombo, Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwon, and Orlando’s Shaquille O’Neal.

While Mourning, Mutombo, and O’Neal are still going strong -- as, for that matter, is Robinson -- the list of players who have joined them is short. The only center to join the NBA since 1992 I’d consider a star on that level is San Antonio’s Tim Duncan, and even he is officially listed as a power forward to Robinson’s center.

What’s happened, then, to the great post center? In my opinion, there are four primary explanations.

1. Less Emphasis on Fundamentals
I think that the hand-wringing on the loss of fundamentals amongst modern players is often overstated, but I do believe it is true that fundamentals have declined in value. There is nothing more fundamental to post play than good footwork and post moves. In general, the quality of footwork and post moves has dropped dramatically over the last decade. Here is a case where I do believe that early entrants have hurt the NBA. In high school, players destined for the NBA are unlikely to develop moves down low because they can simply overwhelm opponents with their size, strength, and athleticism. The same can be true in college, but at the NCAA level post skill development is necessary to maintain this same level of domination. As well, teaching is far more effective in the NCAA. Is it any wonder, then, that the NBA player with arguably the best array of post moves (Duncan) spent four years at Wake Forest?

Another problem in the area of fundamentals is that the number of quality teachers is simply lacking. The vast majority of coaches in the NBA and at lower levels are guards who have little to offer to centers in the way of post instruction. Making matters worse, one of the few places where centers can hone their skills -- the Pete Newell Big Man camp -- could be no more. According to a recent Ric Bucher column for ESPN.com, the NBA is considering prohibiting its personnel from participating at the Newell camp, which Newell says would mean its death. For shame.

2. The Desire for Versatility
It seems that nowadays players don’t want to be known as exclusively post players. Thanks to the success of players like Kevin Garnett, even 7-footers now often aspire to be able to play inside and on the perimeter, to be able to handle the ball and shoot it. The effort to hone these other skills, however, comes at the detriment of post scoring ability. Personally, I can understand where this desire comes from, but the alternative is provided by O’Neal. His range is limited at best and O’Neal only rarely takes players off the dribble -- yet he’s still the single greatest offensive force in the NBA.

3. The MJ Factor
What could a 6-6 shooting guard have to do with centers? Perhaps everything. Prior to Michael Jordan, the generally-held assumption was that an NBA team could not win a championship without at least an above-average starting center. But then Jordan and his Bulls won six championships with average players at best in the middle -- first the venerable Bill Cartwright and later Luc Longley. Every other championship team since Chicago first won it has had a star center (Houston with Olajuwon, San Antonio with Robinson or Duncan, and the Lakers with O’Neal), but that hasn’t changed the opinion that while a top-tier center is very nice to have, it’s not absolutely necessary.

4. Greater Emphasis on Defense
In the last decade, offense has declined throughout the NBA. While many would like to put the blame for this on worse shooting, I believe it can be traced back to the Pat Riley Knicks, the Mike Fratello Cavaliers, and perhaps as far back as the ‘Bad Boy’ Piston squads that had already completed their run by 1992. Teams like these caused their descendants, especially in the Eastern Conference, to play slower style of defensive-minded basketball.

With this greater emphasis on defense league-wide, naturally defensive skills have been emphasized in centers recently more than ever before. The New Jersey Nets found a quality offensive center last summer in free agent acquisition Todd MacCulloch, but sacrificed him just over a year later for the improved interior defense provided by Mutombo, even though the two players have more than a decade’s difference in age. It would take dramatic improvement for MacCulloch to be an even an All-Star center at this point of his career, but he does have the offensive tools to match the contributions of ‘90’s centers like Rik Smits and Rony Seikaly. Nowadays, that just doesn’t seem as valuable.

There is some hope for the return of great centers, and specifically great post scoring centers. If he lives up to the potential that made him the number one pick in this year’s Draft, Houston’s Yao Ming could certainly be the next great center, even if as a 7-5 jump shooter he is not a traditional post type entering the NBA. Beyond Ming, there are two current NBA players who have the potential to become historically great NBA centers.

Charlotte center Jamaal Magloire was not a highly-touted prospect when he graduated from Kentucky despite finishing his collegiate career as the school’s all-time leader in blocked shots with 268. Magloire lasted until the 19th pick of the 2000 Draft before the Hornets plucked him as a project to eventually replace starter Elden Campbell (who can still play a little himself, even if he might be a power forward). Magloire had a fairly mediocre rookie season, averaging 4.6 points and 4.0 boards in about 15 minutes a night while shooting 45%.

Then last season, Magloire exploded onto the scene. On the surface, Magloire’s per-game averages -- 8.5 points and 5.6 rebounds as he averaged 18.9 minutes playing behind Campbell -- are nothing special. But his field goal percentage of 55.1% was topped by only O’Neal and the Houston Rockets’ Kelvin Cato. Perhaps more impressively, Magloire shot a remarkable 414 free throws in his 1,549 minutes played. Magloire was one of only seven NBA regulars to average at least 10 free throws per 48 minutes, with the other six a fairly elite group -- O’Neal, Allen Iverson, Jerry Stackhouse, Duncan, Karl Malone, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas (a few years back, Ilgauskas was considered a potentially great center, but his career has been devastated by recurring foot injuries). Unlike O’Neal, Magloire made his free throws at a solid if not great 73.0% rate.

With Campbell still in place, Magloire may have to wait another season before getting the chance to become a 30 minute a night player. When he does, he is an All-Star -- and maybe more -- waiting to happen.

While the Hornets stole Magloire, everyone knew about Chicago Bulls second-year center Eddy Curry entering the 2001 Draft. Taken with the fourth pick, Curry struggled initially. Halfway through the season, he had scarcely played and rumors about his poor work ethic dogged Curry. After the Bulls traded away Brad Miller, however, Curry got a chance to start 31 games during the second half of the season. For the season, Curry averaged 6.7 points and 3.8 rebounds in 16 minutes per game, solid performance for a player fresh out of high school.

With his tremendous 6-11, 285 size, Curry has the opportunity to be a force in the paint the likes of which has not been seen in the last decade outside of O’Neal. In his case, refining his moves down low is a definite priority. But Curry did enough last season to shoot 50.1% from the field and also demonstrated surprising touch with a midrange jumper. This season, Curry should start barring a collapse in training camp. It will probably be a few years yet before Curry even approaches his full potential, but once he gets there, opponents better look out.

With players like Mutombo, Mourning, and perhaps even O’Neal nearing the end of the line, the NBA runs the risk of being a league completely dominated by slashing guards and versatile forwards who would rather shoot jumpers than bang in the post. Perhaps someday, the center will become valued only for his defensive shot-blocking ability and a complete afterthought on offense. It's up to players like Duncan, Magloire, Curry, and Ming to ensure that the great NBA center survives into the 21st century.

Kevin Pelton is the lead Pacific editor for News@Hoopsworld.com. If he were only 14 inches taller and 125 pounds heavier, he'd be a monster in the post. He can be reached via e-mail at kpelton@sonicscentral.com.