At the beginning of the season, the NBA announced it would change the format of their fan-voted All Star ballot. The Center position is eliminated, leaving three "frontcourt players". This decision has sparked different reactions from the league's big men, most notably Dwight Howard, who came out strongly against the new format. Rockets' coach Kevin McHale lamented the "sad state" of the position in today's NBA. The league rep Stu Jackson stated that the old ballot "just seemed a little outdated and didn't represent the way our game has evolved," an echo of recent player personnel decisions by some teams to shift to a small-ball lineup with more wings and guards. While Dwight Howard has no worry of getting voted onto the starting lineup in any ballot format, and the change could help clarify questionable position labels like why the Spurs label Duncan a power forward, some believe that the center position in the NBA is a thing of the past, or at least the importance of it has drastically decreased. A lot of this change could be attributed to Lebron James' impact on the league, a Magic Johnson type player capable of playing multiple positions in Miami's "position-less offense." With such an influential singular player such as Lebron, a lot of teams are reacting to the challenge the Heat present.
But the center position is far from dead. The NBA has experienced ebb and flows in position importance like this one before. In the mid 1990s, The only two years when Michael Jordan wasn't owning the league, the Hakeem Olajuwon-led Houston Rockets won back-to-back titles, beating teams featuring Patrick Ewing and Shaquille O'Neal. The mid 1980s also saw teams create lineups featuring one or two dominant big men, like McHale-Parrish of the Celtics. As recent as 2011, the success of the Dallas Maverick's title run was in large part due to the defensive ability of Tyson Chandler. Other recent championship teams were pushed over the top by the addition of centers or power forwards who played like them: Pau Gasol / Andrew Bynum, Kendrick Perkins / Kevin Garnett, and Tim Duncan specifically. This season the Grizzlies, with a strong duo of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, showed with a thrashing of the Heat Sunday night that their lineup could be a perfect foil to the small-ball teams of today. Looking ahead, the Jazz, with a rebuilding core of four talented big men in Enes Kanter, Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Derrick Favors, could be in a good place to be a constant contender after Lebron's reign is over. Along with the NBA's next unibrow-ed star Anthony Davis, the league has some intriguing young centers in Greg Monroe and Demarcus Cousins.
The tools that a successful center must have have undeniably changed. The powerful, heavy footed "tough guys," like Perkins, Greg Oden and Hasheem Thabeet have found little success in the past few seasons. Dwight Howard was right on the mark in his remarks that centers attract less highlights than guards or wings do, but there is more talent in those positions today than there is in the center position. However, while an unlikely source of wisdom, Howard was again right to say "that doesn't mean you take out a position because of the game evolving, because the players that play center are evolving also." This gets at the basic point: basketball, after all the new offensive philosophies, advanced statistical metrics and over-analyzation, is determined by the talent of the individuals on the floor. The NBA once belonged to Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain at brief moments to Olajuwon, Abdul-Jabbar and Shaq. They're not around now, nor is there any center today who can control the league's attention like Lebron James and Kevin Durant. But they won't always be around, and the next player to claim their throne might be a center. Sure, the game is evolving; but the center position isn't going anywhere.
- John Graham (guest writer)