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.

The rise of bigs who score from the perimeter—a style foreign to most traditional centers that is often associated with the Europeans who began flooding the league in the 1980s—is also frequently pointed to as a source of less post play.

Sports Illustrated's Chris Ballard believes there has been a decline in relatable centers in the last decade, with skills that can be duplicated by their fans. He said there is no modern-day skyhook—Abdul-Jabbar's signature shot—which is still commonly seen on pickup courts by people of all sizes. This has resulted in fewer emerging players striving to mirror careers of the past generation's low-post tacticians.

"Shaq was cool," Ballard said of the 7'1", 300-plus pound behemoth, "but he was so unfathomable. Who could play like Shaq? There's no skill set to mimic. It was being huge. Duncan wasn't cool at all. [He was] fundamental. Nothing he did was flashy."

While suiting up in front of his locker room stall for a January game in Oakland against the Golden State Warriors, the Orlando Magic's 6'11" Dwight Howard said he agrees with this assessment.

"Nobody really talks about center," said Howard, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year. "Center isn't a flashy position, but it's the centerpiece for the team."

Centers are often ignored, according to Howard, because they usually score less. "Most people don't understand it because all they care about is one thing, and that's points," he said.

Scoring decides results, but often it's the little, less recognized duties that help produce points and actually win basketball games. "Scoring doesn't get you titles," said Howard. "Scoring doesn't get you nothing but scoring titles, or, you know, you look good on SportsCenter."

Howard would go out and have a monster night, securing 23 rebounds and tying his career-high of 45 points as he guided his team to victory. He also broke a 50-year-old mark held by Chamberlain for the most free throw attempts in a game. Reporters were all too happy to make the Chamberlain comparison after the game, which was fair. His performance was a classic example of how decisive a center can still be in the league today. But Howard admits that center was not even his first choice of positions.

"I always wanted to be a point guard," he said.

There's also the question of training. Jerry West, who played guard for the Lakers in the '60s and '70s, believes that the shortage in centers had led to another deficit: a lack of coaches able to teach the position.

"I don't say that it's a lost art," said West, "but it's not something that many people can teach, I don't think."

The problem has been exacerbated by younger and younger players entering the NBA, which is one of the reasons Clifford Ray, who is considered one of the foremost authorities on coaching centers, said fewer teams now have this essential rim protector. Little or no time in college has prevented these big men from gaining this specific skill set, while at the same time growing physically, mentally and technically. Since 2006, the league has prevented players right out of high school from becoming available in the draft. Now they must wait a full calendar year whether they play in college or not.

Ray thinks the rule is still not enough to bring players up to the same speed on playing the middle as most of the centers of yesteryear. "All the young centers need to be developed," said Ray. "Not everybody can teach. That's what people don't get."

THE SACRAMENTO KINGS are trying to reverse the decline of the center position and brought on Ray as a consultant toward the end of this season to help them do it. In 2010, the team used the fifth overall pick on DeMarcus Cousins, an intriguing but temperamental center from the University of Kentucky. After already selecting 6'11", 250-pound big man Jason Thompson with their first-round pick in 2008, the hope was that the traditional way of building a team--from the center on down--would help revitalize this bottom-feeder of the league for the better part of the last decade.

In early March with the large monitor overhead reading 67 minutes until tip-off against Tim Duncan's San Antonio Spurs and fans just starting to trickle into Power Balance Pavilion, Ray leans his weight behind his forearm and into Thompson's lower back. As another coach passes Thompson the ball, he breaks from Ray's clutch and faces him up. Ray takes a soft swipe at the ball then points Thompson around him for a short jumper.

"Shot, and stay up there with it," says Ray, holding his own arm in the air with wrist cocked forward to show the proper form. The ball swishes through the net. "Good."

After some free throws, Ray and Thompson stand and chat. Thompson, mouth agape and ball at his hip, is already in game shorts and stares eye-to-eye with his mentor.

"Don't ever feel like you're not involved," Ray says, shuffling to different locations on the court, arms swinging like pendulums. "You've got to get yourself involved."

Whatever the cause of the current center shortage, some of the top basketball minds see it as a problem. West says a team might be able to win a championship without a quality center in college, but not in the NBA.

"They're kind of the anchor of a franchise," he argues. "There's always a player of that caliber that may not be a household name, or may not be in basketball's hall of fame, but they do the little dirty work things because they're physical and they know their roles. Late in the year, you watch the impact of these bigger guys on the game, getting key rebounds, making a defensive play."

Abdul-Jabbar agrees, "A quality center is key for a championship team. It is much more difficult to win without a center who can at least get the job done defensively."

The defending Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat are one of the favorites to win the title this postseason, but they don't have a reliable low-post presence. Sure, they have the 6'11" Chris Bosh, but he is a forward. The team is more of a hybrid group; it doesn't technically have a starting center, with a rotation of more traditional, third- or fourth-tier bigs led by 6'9" Joel Anthony coming off the bench for limited minutes. Could they be the first to win the Finals without a quality center?

"I don't think they can win," says West. "They've got two of probably the best five players in the league all on one team. They're enormously talented. The way Miami can win is if they create turnovers on defense. Can they do that in the playoffs? I'm not sure."

As for Ray, though the Kings missed out on the postseason for the sixth consecutive year, he remains optimistic that more teams in the NBA will try to cultivate quality centers. With players like Memphis' Marc Gasol, New York's Tyson Chandler and Indiana's Roy Hibbert continuing to play increasing roles for their teams, the demise of the traditional low-post presence may not be as assured as once thought. The near certainty of collegiate player of the year Anthony Davis, another Kentucky Wildcat big man, being drafted No. 1 overall come June means the next generation of talent might grow up wanting to satisfy this crucial capacity.

"There are young guys who want to be great centers," says Ray, "I'm sure, somewhere working on their game. I just hope that another couple of great centers come down the pike so that it will enhance more of the young people to want to be centers. Not to try to avoid playing center, but to want to play the position and really learn the position."