It’s a question that’s asked a lot of the time and now, during all-star weekend, more than ever; is the traditional center position in the NBA dead?  Long gone are the days of Hakeem and Robinson battling on the low block, or Malone and Barkley wrecking havoc. Perimeter players are featured more than every in today’s game.

First of all, what leads to people saying the center position is ‘dead’?

20 Points and 10 Rebounds

Last season (2012 – 13) was the first season in NBA history in which a player failed to average 20 points and 10 rebounds, something which was once the bread and butter of the NBA.  While many will point to the ’13 season as an exception, when you take a look at the average number of players averaging 20 & 10 per decade it’s alarming to see the decline.

Average number of players averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds:

70s: 6.6 players per season

80s: 3.8 players per season

90s: 6.0 players per season

00s: 4.5 players per season

10s (so far): 2.8 players per season – the lowest ever!

It’s clear that the number of players putting up such numbers is declining, more than just a coincidence.

I know the first thing people will say in regards to the 6.6 players per season in the 70s is that the pace was faster.  Correct, the pace in the 70s was much faster than it was later on in the 80s, 90s and onwards until the present day.

The players to have averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds for at least a single season between 1970 and 1980 were: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Elgin Baylor, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain, Dave Cowens, Billy Gunningham, Artis Gilmore, Connie Hawkins, Elvin Hayes, Spencer Haywood, Dan Issell, Bob Kauffman, Larry Kenon,  Bob Lanier, Maurice Lucas, Moses Malone, Bob McAdoo, George McGinnis, Willis Reed, Truck Robinson, Bob Rule, Nate Thurmond, Neal Walk and Sidney Wicks.

Accounting for things such as pace and the differences in the game now compared to when those stated players played and I still reckon a good handful of those players such as (but not limited to) Kareem, Wilt Chamberlain (assuming he wasn’t asked to be a primarily a defensive force and passer like he was in his Laker days), Moses61-819x1024 Malone, Elvin Hayes and Bob McAdoo would average 20 points and 10 rebounds per game in today’s game. Players such as Nate Thurmond for example, as great as they were, weren’t the best offensively and were always defensive-first type players (Kareem is on record as having said Nate Thurmond was the best defender he ever faced).  This isn’t a slight on him, Thurmond’s place in the Hall of Fame is without a doubt justified, however in today’s game I don’t think he would put up 20 & 10 (this doesn’t mean to say that he still wouldn’t be great!)

For the record, I’m not basing a players greatness on whether they can put up 20 points and 10 rebounds. There are plenty of big man that are and have been elite players who didn’t put up these numbers; whether it be because of a different role (not asked to score as much/ not a scorer a la Ben Wallace) but it’s clear from the data that there’s a decline in the big men that are doing so.

MVP Winners

Admiral vs Hakeem
David Robinson vs Hakeem Olajuwon – MVP winners in 1994 and 1995.

The MVP was first introduced in 1956 and from that time until 1980 (a twenty-four year span) only 2 perimeter players (both guards) won an MVP award.

Fast-forward to the present era now and no center has won the MVP since 2001 (Shaq), 13 years! It’s the longest span in NBA history (Duncan (02, 03) , Garnett (04) and Dirk (07) were/all power-forwards when they won.)

The All-Star Ballot

“The league will announce Wednesday a change to its All-Star ballot that will, for the first time, allow fans to vote for three undefined “frontcourt” players instead of having to vote for two forwards and a center. With more and more teams playing smaller than in the past, the definition of “center” was becoming increasingly difficult – not to mention finding enough quality big men for whom to vote.”NBA.com, written by David Aldridge 

That’s a direct quote taken from the NBA.com website in regards to removing the center position from the all-star ballot.

The consequences? Neither the 2014 Eastern or Western All-Stars featured a traditional center, the east didn’t even feature a power-forward!

01 Western Conference All-stars
01 Western Conference All-stars – Look how many big men there were (and Shaq was injured!)

Why?

It’s all well and good explaining the reasons why there’s not as many dominant centers, power-forwards and back-to-the-basket big men in today’s game but why is this happening?

Personally I feel it’s for a number of reasons:

  • Air Jordan Effect: After MJ retired from the league everyone wanted to play like Mike.  That included the big men.  Emphasis was placed on gliding through the air rather than back-to-the-basket post moves.
  • Rules changes: Simply put, it became more rewarding to play like a perimeter player than it did a big-man.
  • The 3-point line: 3 point misses result in longer rebounds, which are snatched up by perimeter players.  Additionally, teams shifted their focus to improving the skill level on these rather than on the big men down low.
  • European influence: Many of the european players play a finesse game over a power one; players such as Dirk, Pau Gasol and Andrea Bargnani shoot mid-range and 3-point shots more often than American born big-men.
  • Limited college experience: Big men enter the NBA after only a year of college.  College was once a learning ground for players, however with limited college experience comes the consequence of not having a fully developed game.

The Future

What about the future? Will we ever get back to the dominant big man era that was the 90s? Probably not.  Small ball is here to stay. Saying that however there is promise, Anthony Davis (power-forward) has proven to be a great player with a lot of potential and many have pegged him to be an MVP caliber player in a couple of seasons and players such as Demarcus Cousins and Blake Griffin have taken a huge leap this season.

You can follow me on Twitter: @SwishNBA

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