The writings were on the wall half a decade ago. The big man in the middle – the superstar center who had been carrying championship teams in the NBA for half a century from George Mikan to Bill Russell, from Wilt Chamberlain to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, from Dave Cowens to Moses Malone, from Hakeem Olajuwon to David Robinson, from Shaquille O’Neal to Tim Duncan – slowly started to become a thing of the past.
His demise was first echoed with the rise of Michael Jordan, but we didn’t take it seriously until the likes of Allen Iverson and Steve Nash started winning MVP awards. Then we realised that NBA teams stopped drafting him over smaller players if he didn’t fully deserve it. Then we noticed the existence of big men like Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki – who took their talents away from the post yet kept winning. As a result, we've seen fewer and fewer true centers dominating NBA score-sheets and it's gotten to the point that it looks like nobody outside of Dwight Howard will be remembered from this era as a consistent threat in the middle.
The true center was already sick, his kind soon going to be extinct. And in the 2012 NBA Finals, when the NBA’s two best teams faced off against each other, we noticed that the era of ‘small-ball’ had crept in and all but killed off those talented men in the post. Between the Heat and the Thunder, neither team had a single back-to-the-basket offensive threat in the middle; both teams relied on their ultra-talented small forwards LeBron James and Kevin Durant to play bigger as combo forwards. The center position – now shared between the likes of Joel Anthony and Kendrick Perkins - has become almost entirely restricted to those paid to do little or nothing on the offensive end.
By the 2012 summer, the previously-unthinkable had become commonplace. There were no giants with the offensive skills in the post like Kareem, Hakeem, or Shaq. In fact, there were very few giants with any offensive skills at all. So the league did the next best thing, and began to adopt the small-ball model that has clearly worked. The Heat and Thunder led the way, but a look around the rest of the league showed that more and more teams rely heavier on players who don't work the post on the offensive end. Some of these teams had players like LeBron, Durant, or Carmelo Anthony, who were strong enough to occasionally play the role of a high-scoring power forward. But in the traditionalist's sense of the world, the true post man was dead. Long live the post man.
The true obituary for centers was written this past week when the NBA announced that it would officially be removing the ‘center’ position from the All-Star ballot. Finally succumbing to the reality that each year a lot of talented, smaller players were ignored for big players simply because the big ones were listed at ‘center’, the NBA will now ask fans to vote for two guards and three frontcourt players per team.
The center gently weeps.
But wait... there may yet be a lifeline...
There is a reason why Dwight Howard’s move to the Lakers was the biggest story of the summer. With centers a rare breed, the last dominant one moved to the league’s largest market. Since the Lakers already blessed with Pau Gasol, Mike Brown’s team will be hoping to turn back the clock and remind the world why good ol’ fashioned big men have been the center of attention in the NBA for decades. Gasol’s former teammate, Andrew Bynum, will be hoping to make a splash as the main guy in Philadelphia now. Elsewhere, the likes of DeMarcus Cousins, Marc Gasol, Greg Monroe, Roy Hibbert Jr. and JaVale McGee might want to have their say in saving the post man too. Young’uns like Enes Kanter, Jonas Valanciunas, Andre Drummond, and top rookie Anthony Davis will aim not just to resuscitate the big man, but to bring him back in full force.
Their position may have been removed from the ballot, but it may not spell the end for them just yet. The NBA is in dire need of more superstars in the center position. Who will we develop into the next big thing this season?