In the earliest days of the NBA, the ‘50s and ‘60s, centers dominated. Giants like George Mikan, Bill Russell, and Wilt Chamberlain ruled the league; if you didn’t have a good center, you couldn’t win. Beginning in the 1970s, players became more athletic, making it harder for one player to control the game from the post. Still, it was nearly impossible to win without a standout in the middle: from 1957-1988, precisely two NBA champions did not start a Hall of Fame center (the 1974-75 Warriors and the 1978-79 Sonics). But over the past two decades, behind playmakers such as Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, the NBA has become a guard-oriented league. This was confirmed prior to the 2004-05 season, as the league instituted a slew of rules changes geared towards guards: less hand-checking, clearer limits on blocking fouls, and defensive three seconds. Since 1988, of the league’s 23 champs, only 9 of them have started a future/current Hall of Famer center. Centers have been relegated to a primarily defensive position; of the league’s top 22 scorers last season, just one (David Lee) was a center.
It has long been said that a franchise center is crucial to success. To a large extent, that’s still true. The problem lies with the fact that franchise centers are so few and far between these days, most teams are forced to win without them. Looking across the rosters of all 30 teams right now, there’s only one player you’d think of as a superstar center, Dwight Howard (you could also argue Tim Duncan, but he’s been a forward-center throughout his career, and is certainly not the same player he was in his prime). Howard is the game’s biggest difference-maker on the defensive end, and after working with Hakeem Olajuwon this summer, he is no longer lost on the offensive end (career-high 23 PPG on 60% shooting). He’s been the one constant on the Magic this season, ensuring that they remained in contention among the East’s elite despite undergoing a midseason facelift. No wonder teams are already lining up to sign Howard in the summer of 2012; even though LeBron or DWade might be more talented, Howard’s absurd athleticism coupled with the fact that he is, by far, the best player at his position, will make him one of the most sought-after free agents ever.
But, as the rest of the league is proving, you can win without a franchise center, and increasingly, without any center at all. The two best teams over the past decade—the Spurs and Lakers—both lost future Hall-of-Fame centers early in the decade, but neither missed a beat, combining for four championships after the departures of David Robinson and Shaquille O’Neal. Since Robinson retired in 2003, the Spurs have gone through a revolving door of centers, winning a title in ’05 with Rasho Nesterovic and another one in ’07 with Fabricio Oberto/Francisco Elson. This season, the Spurs have the best record in the league with Duncan, who’s played most of his career as a power forward, at the center position. It hasn’t been a big leap for him, as he’s controlled the paint on defense for San Antonio for most of his career. The difference is, this time Duncan’s the only big guy on the floor—all of the Spurs’ other starters stand 6-foot-7 or shorter.
Then there’s the Lakers, who have flourished over the last three seasons without consistent production from the center position. Only once of in the past eight seasons has an NBA champion featured a center that averaged over 15 points per game. Andrew Bynum can score a bit, and LA starts him when he’s healthy, but they operate without a true center in crunch-time, sending out a front line of Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, both natural forwards. Phil Jackson follows the pattern of most successful coaches—play your five best guys together as much as possibly—and increasingly for the Lakers, as well as the rest of the league, that means leaving their center on the bench.
Odom was the starting center on Team USA’s gold-medal-winning world championship team this past summer, while Gasol killed the Celtics on the boards in last June’s Finals, powering the Lakers to a repeat. The experience that Gasol and Odom have gained the past few seasons make Bynum a luxury rather than a necessity going forward. Bynum is making $14 million this season and will make $15 million next year, the last of his deal. With a league-high $92 million payroll this season and almost $90 million committed next season, trading Bynum would be the easiest way for the Lakers to shed salary should the NBA institute harder salary-cap restrictions once the CBA expires.
The Spurs and Lakers may offer a championship pedigree, but their approach has been reflected across the league, as executives have increasingly opted to bypass the center position when building teams. Just look at two of this year’s top contenders, Boston and Miami. Center was an afterthought for the Heat this off-season, as they signed a couple of old retreads, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Erick Dampier, to play alongside the unproven Joel Anthony. Celtics GM Danny Ainge showed just how little respect he had for a quality center by trading Kendrick Perkins at the deadline to Oklahoma City for a package headlined by forward Jeff Green. While Perkins was not a star, he was a proven, championship-winning center, a rare commodity in today’s NBA.
The recent exploits of the Heat and the Celtics do not mean that NBA teams no longer value an elite center, but rather the recognition that franchise centers are about as rare these days as Bill Belichick saying something interesting at a press conference. For proof, look no further than the NBA draft. Most people had Oden over Durant in 2007 simply because a franchise center is so much rarer than a franchise wing. No one criticizes the Rockets for taking Hakeem number one overall in 1984, even though they passed on the greatest player ever. Hakeem was a franchise center and was the focal piece of two championships. Why did the Blazers take Sam Bowie at number two instead of Jordan? Because they believed he could be a franchise center, which would have carried more value to them than Jordan, despite all his athletic gifts. Every NBA team still craves that dominant force in the middle, the seven-footer who can control the paint on both sides of the floor. But the important thing to remember is that the relationship between franchise centers and NBA teams doesn’t work both ways. A franchise center will almost always create a winning team, but a winning team does not always require a franchise center.