The Mystery of the Disappearing NBA Center


Why are fewer and fewer teams relying on the position once dominated by greats like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal?

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For much of the NBA's history, dating back to its formation in 1946, the league has been dominated by centers. Legendary big men like Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were nearly unstoppable: players with the height and reach to block shots, capture rebounds, and score nearly at will. Since then, contemporary names like Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal, and Yao Ming have taken their place. Lately though, these impact centers have all but vanished. Duncan is at the end of a distinguished career, while O'Neal and Yao retired last year. Today, only two players—the Orlando Magic's Dwight Howard and Los Angeles Lakers Andrew Bynum—among the league's 30 teams are widely viewed as conventional bigs. And the numbers are not improving.

Still, many NBA veterans have said a team cannot win a championship without an impact player at this pivotal position. As the star-studded Miami Heat, led by LeBron James (who plays guard and forward) and Dwyane Wade (a guard), makes its second attempt to win the Finals during this year's post-season, they will try to prove these crusaders of the center wrong.

In a game fundamentally built on height, it seems the tallest player is being phased out. So where have all the centers gone?

BASKETBALL HAS ALWAYS been a game played from the inside out—from the hoop outwards. A regulation NBA court is 94 feet long and 50 feet wide, but it is within the narrow painted lane, known as the key, where games are won or lost. It is the space where centers traditionally dominate, as scorers on one end of the court and protectors on the other.

"An effective center should have the ability to deny the opposition any easy points in the paint," Abdul-Jabbar—a six-time champion and most valuable player, the league's all-time leading scorer, and arguably the best to ever play the position—said in an email interview. "Offensively a great center will have an arsenal of shots that make him impossible for one man to guard."

For years, that was the formula for success. More than just putting up points, a traditional center employs the low-post technique—a physically demanding, back-to-the-basket set of offensive and defensive fundamentals. The low post—an imaginary region on both sides of the key—is one of the most important areas of the court, and one that a team's center must control. Basically, he acts as his team's last line of defense, while also performing many of the unpleasant work that few of today's superstars are willing to do. It entails highly desired, lowly recognized duties, everything from setting screens and posting up on offense, to jamming up the painted lane around the hoop and turning away shots in the defensive zone.

Centers became so dominant, in fact, that the NBA twice changed the rules of the game in an attempt to level the playing field between those teams that possessed one and those that did not. Hoping to offset the supremacy of the Minneapolis Lakers George Mikan, the league doubled the width of the key—from six to 12 feet—in 1951, and then increased it again to 16 feet in 1964 to counteract then-San Francisco Warriors big man Wilt Chamberlain. By widening the space, pushing players a further distance from the basket and lowering their shooting percentage, the NBA tried to make it more difficult for these men in the middle to do either so effortlessly.

Other rule changes, in particular those that sped up the game, also worked against centers. The first came in 1955 with the inception of the 24-second shot clock. With it, players were forced to run up and down the court more often, which took a physical toll on the game's biggest bodies.

More rules devaluing the big man were around the corner, and the role of the center has been changing ever since. When the NBA introduced the 3-point shot in 1979, teams began to put an emphasis on developing the perimeter shooter, who tended to be a shorter, more agile player.

The change also, for the first time, forced centers to play defense out away from the basket. Before then, they were used to controlling the game by blocking shots and grabbing rebounds. Chamberlain and Russell each averaged nearly 23 rebounds a game for their careers. Today, the leading rebounder is Dwight Howard, who has pulled down an average of 13 per game over his seven-year career.

In recent years, even more issues have emerged and helped lead to the demise of the center. Part of the problem is that large bodies have shown themselves to be particularly prone to injury.

Greg Oden is a case in point. At seven feet and 285 pounds, the Portland Trail Blazers made him the first overall pick in 2007. Over the next five seasons, he spent more time sidelined by knee injuries than on the court. Since entering the NBA, Oden has played a total of one regular season's worth of games. After five knee surgeries—two on his right and three on his left—the Blazers cut him this past March.

Another former Trail Blazer center—drafted No. 1 overall in 1974—Bill Walton suffered from chronic foot problems during his career. After earning the league and Finals MVP awards in his team's 1977 championship season, Walton broke a bone in his left foot in 1978. Repeated ankle injuries subsequently robbed him of a good chunk of his career. He would return to play a supporting role with the Boston Celtics 1986 title team, even garnering the Sixth Man of the Year Award that season, but the damage had already been done. He eventually retired after 13 years in the league, playing in only 44 percent of his teams' regular season games—still the record for most games missed in a career.

More recently, the 7'6" Yao Ming fell victim to similar, longstanding foot and ankle injuries. These problems included bone breaks, infections, and fractures. After regular attempts to remedy his acute issues through rest and surgical operations, he left the game before the start of this season.

"A lot of big guys have problems with their feet," said Clifford Ray, the center for the 1975 champion Golden State Warriors. "I mean, think about it, you're 240, 250 pounds. Something is gonna go wrong."

Since retiring in 1981 after 10 seasons in the league, Ray has had latent injuries of his own. He had both knees replaced in 2010 as well as nerve damage in his feet.

IN THE MEANTIME, the other four positions—point guard, shooting guard, small forward, and power forward—where players possess the ball more often, have become more popular among aspiring players.

"Who do kids emulate?" asks all-time great Jerry West, inspiration for the NBA's logo. "They don't emulate big players. They emulate smaller people who can dribble the ball through a damn Coke bottle. Those are the things that excite kids."

"Everybody wants to be like Michael Jordan," adds Hall of Fame center Patrick Ewing.

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Kevin Fixler is a writer based in Oakland, California. His work has appeared on Yahoo! and Sports Illustrated.

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