“You can’t teach height.”
It was the late Frank Layden, former Hall of Fame coach and general manager for the Utah Jazz, that made famous the quote that’s really hard to argue with. It’s why, if you are 7 feet tall, you are actually more likely to end up in the NBA than any other profession. Those are rather astounding odds considering how difficult it is for most people to make it to the NBA.
But there are two universal truths in basketball. The hoop is 10 feet from the ground and the closer you are to it the more likely you are to get the ball in it.
In the 2007 draft, Greg Oden was not drafted over Kevin Durant because he was more skilled. He wasn’t. Durant had one of the best freshman seasons ever, in his only season at Texas University, winning most of the major awards. He was a 6’10 SF who could shoot from anywhere, rebound the ball and was passionate about the game.
Oden was a 7 footer with a questionable medical history, rather raw offensive skills, and admitted that basketball wasn’t his favourite thing in the world. But because he was a 7 footer who had the potential to impact the game at both ends of the court, Portland picked him over Durant. They did this despite being the team that drafted Bill Walton, whose feet betrayed him and who ended up suing the Blazers because he felt they botched his rehabilitation, and Sam Bowie, a guy who missed TWO college seasons because of injury, over Michael Jordan.
You’d think Portland would have learned from their own history, wouldn’t you?
Although, maybe they did.
Portland’s only Championship came with Walton, a Hall of Fame center, leading the team. Had his feet not betrayed him, and had he not left the Blazers organization, they very well might have won more. And in the entire history of the NBA, only 5 All NBA first or second team centers HAVE NOT won an NBA Championship.
Interestingly, three of those centers made the All NBA team in the last decade. More interestingly, Dwight Howard, who was the best center for the previous season (All NBA first team), probably won’t make the playoffs this year. Can you name the last time the best center from the previous season didn’t make the playoffs the next year not due to injury?
I’ll give you a clue: You can’t, because it’s never happened before.
In the past, having the league’s best center was pretty much a guarantee that your team will be a contender. Apparently that’s not the case, anymore.
There is a lot of talk that the NBA has changed. Small ball is the future of the league. As a sign of the times, the NBA even took out the center position for the All Star game, instead simply having three front court positions.
The current top ten in scoring doesn’t contain one center, and only one is in the top 20, Brook Lopez. Ten years ago, if you count Tim Duncan as a center, which a lot of people do), there were two in the top 10. Twenty years ago, there were four in the top ten. In fact, if you go back every ten years, there were, at least, two centers in the top ten in scoring each season.
Its not just scoring where centers impacted the game, though. Last year, there was only one center in the top ten in MVP voting, Dwight Howard. Ten years ago there were two in the top five. Same with ten years before that. And ten years before that.
During Sunday’s Raptor-Heat game, Raptor commentator Jack Armstrong said that if he had a choice between a wing player who could score and defend and a big man who could score and defend, he would take the wing player, which, he said, was not previously the case. That was his argument that the game has changed.
The Miami Heat are the perfect example. Last year they won the title and the only center they had in their regular rotation was Joel Anthony, a 6’9 hustle player who has never averaged more than 3.5 ppg in his entire career and played a career high 21.2 mpg last year. The only rotation player above 6’9 is Chris Bosh, who is, in every sense, a modern PF.
Miami is certainly not the only team going small. In seemingly the vast majority of the games this season, Raptors coach, Dwane Casey, has elected to finish the game with 6’10 Amir Johnson surrounded by four perimeter players. He does that partly out of necessity (to match up with their opponent) but also to create better spacing on offense.
Starting in 1994, the NBA instituted several rules in order to try and speed up play and increase scoring, including the famous “hand checking rule” and other rules that limited the contact a perimeter defender could have with the offensive player. This was in response to a gradual lowering of scoring league averages, partly brought on by Chuck Daly’s Bad Boys who won back to back Championships by focusing on defense and slowing the pace.
Ironically, the Pistons were only the second team in the history of the league to win a Championship without a dominant center (and the first to win more than once).
The new rules did eventually stop the decline in team scoring, but what it did more, however, was give the perimeter player more of a scoring advantage over the inside player.
It wasn’t long before big men started to move outside to score. Twenty years ago, the NBA had four big men (either centers or power forwards) in the top ten in scoring, and all did most of their damage in the paint.
Last year, the NBA had three big men in the top 10 in scoring, all power forwards, and all were mostly jumpshooters.
So, am I arguing that the the big man era, as we have known it, is indeed over?
The problem is not the game, but the players.
In 1995, the Minnesota Timberwolves drafted Kevin Garnett straight out of highschool. He was trendsetting not just because of how many high school players made the jump straight to the NBA after him, but because he revolutionized the power forward position.
Garnett resisted any attempt to stereotype him. He refused to be listed above 6’11, despite obviously being over 7 feet. He didn’t want to play center, a position he felt too restrictive. And he became far more comfortable on offense taking jumpers than posting up in the paint. Even on defense, he was more comfortable roaming the perimeter than banging inside.
In 1997, San Antonio drafted Tim Duncan after four years at Wake Forest. While he did play the power forward position, like Garnett, he did everything a center would normally do. He scored mostly in the paint, posted up and defended the middle.
Their career numbers are incredibly similar.
Garnett has averaged 19.2 ppg on .499 shooting, 10.4 rpg, 4 apg and 1.5 bpg.
Duncan has averaged 20.2 ppg on .502 shooting, 11.2 rpg, 3.1 apg and 2.2 bpg.
Even their advanced stats are eerily similar.
But the success they’ve had in their careers have not been.
Now, obviously Duncan had the advantage of being drafted by a first rate organization onto a team with Hall of Fame center, David Robinson. Garnett, on the other hand, was drafted onto a team that hadn’t made the playoffs since it’s inception, seven years earlier, and whose leading scorer in Garnett’s rookie season was Isaiah Rider.
So even if Duncan and Garnett were the exact same player, the guy drafted onto the Spurs team is going to have more success than the guy drafted by Kevin McHale.
But I’d argue that, given the same circumstances, Duncan would still have found more success.
Both were excellent defenders (Duncan made the All Defensive first or second team 13 times compared to Garnett’s 12 times), and despite Duncan’s more traditional role on defense, it’s hard to say one had an advantage over the other in this area.
On offense, though, while their career regular season shooting percentages are very similar, it’s the playoffs where there is some separation between the two. And it’s where Duncan’s more traditional post game becomes more valuable.
Defenses famously get more tough in the playoffs, when teams play each other over and over again, and can completely focus on how to stop them. While it might seem that outside shooting would be more important in the playoffs, when it’s harder to score in the paint, it’s actually the ability to score in the post that helps the team more.
What do Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James all have in common, other than otherworldly talent? All found it necessary to become good post players in order to win Championships. In fact, LeBron couldn’t win a Championship until he became a threat down there.
Now, obviously being able to score in the post gets the offensive player closer to the basket and should, in theory, give them a higher percentage shot, in the process. That’s why post men tend to shoot a higher percentage than perimeter players. It also allows him to get to the line more often. Back in 2009, I came up with a simple formula that showed how well a player is able to get to the line, which isn’t affected by how many shots he takes. Anything above a FTA/FGA ratio of .300 is good. Inside players generally have a ratio of .350 or higher. In his prime, Tim Duncan had a ratio of around .450. This season, Dwight Howard has a ratio of .903. Obviously the fact that he can’t hit free throws means teams are far more willing to foul him and send him to the line than give up an open shot or dunk.
And while a guy like Kevin Durant can be an excellent outside shooter, and is currently shooting .516 for the season despite 80% of his shots being jumpers, he’s still more susceptible to shooting slumps than a post player. There is a saying in basketball, “live by the jumper and die by the jumper”. It means that teams can thrive when they are hitting from outside, but when they go cold (and that always happens) the offense dies.
Being a legitimate post threat also causes the defense to double and triple team you, which gives teammates open shots. A good post player who can also pass well out of double teams helps an offense just as well as a good point guard. Bill Walton and Arvydas Sabonis were two of the best passing big men in the history of the league. They made their teammates better just by their presence on the floor.
That’s why, despite the trend for big men to step outside the paint and stretch the defense, it’s what they do in the paint that affects the game more.
And therein lies the problem with today’s big men. They don’t want to be like the big men of yesterday. And, unfortunately, their teams are not better off because of it.
Take Brook Lopez. He’s a average rebounder, at best, a decent defender, but not one that will ever sniff at an All Defensive team but he’s one of the best (and only) traditional post players in the NBA. And despite having former All NBA teammates, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, it’s Lopez that is the most important player on the team, which is why he’ll be the only Net at the All Star game this year.
There is no other position that can affect the game more than the center position.
While Carmelo Anthony is the Knicks leading scorer, Tyson Chandler is the main reason the Knicks are in the position they are right now. Dallas’ only Championship happened when he was their starting center. And when he left the team imploded. And New York’s defense vastly improved his first year with that team. Few players who aren’t big men can have that kind of impact on the defensive end.
Neither Lopez nor Chandler are ever going to be mistaken for Bill Russell or Shaquille O’Neal, yet they still make a huge impact on their team. Miami didn’t give Eddy Curry his only chance and go after Greg Oden because they were happy with their small ball. Pat Riley knows that, despite his team’s success without a great center, it would be a lot easier to win with one.
You see, all those teams that play small ball do so, not because it’s the wave of the future in the league, but because they simply lack a good center that can impact the game.
The Memphis Grizzlies have the fourth best record in the East, in large part, due to their big front line, anchored by center Marc Gasol, who is probably the favourite right now for Defensive Player of the Year. And they traded away their “dynamic” small forward for spare parts.
San Antonio currently has the best record in the league with a 36 year old Tim Duncan leading the way.
That’s why teams are salivating over the Pistons’ Andre Drummond, who plays just 22 minutes a game and who is on pace to have the worst free throw shooting season in NBA history (!!), but who has a huge impact on the game defensively. He inhales rebounds and clogs the lane like few in the last decade. Plus, as long as he isn’t at the free throw line, he shoots a high percentage from the floor.
Remember, this is the team that won a Championship with another big man who couldn’t hit his free throws if his life depended on it. Ben Wallace won four Defensive Player of the Year awards and was the lynchpin to the Pistons’ success.
Teams are still desperate to find the next impact center because they know he will affect the game more than any other position. And while dominant center seem to be in short supply, nowadays, there will be more on the way. There always are.
Where he might come from is a whole other story, though.
And that’s why Jonas Valanciunas is the Raptors’ most important player, and not Rudy Gay, or Kyle Lowry, or DeMar DeRozan. Gay is a dynamic wing player, the best scorer the team has had in a long time, and an immediate fan favourite, but how far the Raptors go will be dependant on the development of Valanciunas.
Unfortunately for Raptor fans, Valanciunas’ development seems to be taking a back seat to Bryan Colangelo’s need for immediate success. It’s highly doubtful he’ll trade Valanciunas for a veteran who can help the team right now, but since his return from injury, he’s played an average of 8 minutes a game and, so far, has an undefined role.
Plus, when Andrea Bargnani returns from his injury, who knows what kind of minutes he’ll end up getting. Touches for Jonas will be few and far between, with four teammates who need the ball on offense to be effective. And if he’s again asked to play alongside Bargnani, he’ll be hung out to dry on defense far too often.
At this point, it’s hard to say whether Valanciunas will be the type of center that will impact the game like those mentioned above. He’s shown flashes of offensive ability, but certainly not dominant skills that can make you envision a top ten scorer in the league. And on defense, again, we’ve seen flashes, but he doesn’t have the lane clogging ability of a Drummond and he’s simply not strong enough to bang down low with the league’s best post players.
I’m still optimistic, when it comes to Jonas, but the team’s new direction does worry me. If the future is now for the Raptors, what does it mean for the Raptors who aren’t quite ready?