By: Will Stevenson
I was never tall. My dad is 5’6″, my mother is around the same height, and I’m only 5’9″, so I never had the privilege to be tall amongst shorter men. In pickup basketball, a guy like me can go from point guard to big man in a year, or due to crazy eating habits. The big man was always overlooked in a sense, because we short guys just assumed that the big man could rebound, block shots, and shoot the occasional jumper that was always prefaced with, “No, No, No, NO, NOOOO!!!…. Ooooh nice shot!” The big man has always been put in a corner to do specific things while guys like me were allowed to do all the cool things like dribble behind our backs, run the fast break and shoot threes. At the age of 32, I’ve been able to witness the evolution of basketball with my own eyes in the NBA, and it’s something I never thought would happen.
In October of 2012, the league was changing, changing into a league in which we all countered against when guys like Mike D’Antoni with the Suns, Don Nelson with the Warriors played “small ball”. We all remember Stephen Jackson guarding Dirk Nowitzki in the post and lineups that only feature Andris Biedrins as the lone “big man” on the court. I recall those Suns lineups that feature Joe Johnson, Quentin Richardson and Shawn Marion at the 4 while Amare manned the middle. We began to see teams adapt the analytics, the pace of play, the 3 for 2, and other adaptations that would make Charles Barkley’s head sit still. The Starting five, the platoon, the 6’10” Power Forward began to disappear as the big man began to drift further and further away. The NBA All-Star game rid the Center position from the ballot, turning them into “Frontcourt” players, allowing guys like Lebron, Carmelo, Anthony Davis and others to fill the roster, and not allowing a guy like Jamaal Magloire to make the team because they needed to fill the roster with the Center position. I admit, it was a dark time for the big man. Guys were getting hurt left and right, bad free throw shooting kept guys out of the game, and the increasing three pointers being taken along with the pick and roll completely took the slow-footed center out of the game for guys who were 6’9″ and 6’10”, but were agile. I can recall when Pau Gasol was the coveted big man. Marc Gasol was winning the DPOY. Even a guy like Eric Dampier could rake in the “gotta have a big man on the team” contract: that money is now given to Jon Leuer, Ryan Anderson, Mirza Televotic.
It was sad to watch as Dwight Howard kept going from team to team, coach to coach in search of someone that could treat him like Stan did in Orlando. Who was out there to allow him to be a big man again? Atlanta. A hometown move for ticket sales has turned into a first placed record that allows Dwight to be the big man he’s wanted to be: Control the paint, block shots, get a few shots up, and stay on the floor.
Dwight is just one example of the big man returning to glory. Hassan Whiteside, Andre Drummond, Jahlil Okafor, Rudy Gobert, and even Marcin Gortat are just a few of the centers that are still “old school”. You know, back to the basket, pick and roll and defending the rim. I know they aren’t as exciting as watching Lebron and KAT glide across the floor while running the fast break, but they are essential to the league.
And then, something strange happened, like in my opening when I referenced the “occasional jumpshot from the big man”, the three point assassin. I remember clips of Manut Bol shooting threes. I recall Brad Miller with a decent shot, and Mehmet Okur living beyond the arc as they were able to get that set-shot working as guards drove to the basket. I know there are more, but that’s what’s in my memory bank right now. Now, Brook Lopez, Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol, Joel Embid, and Demarcus Cousins are all shooting threes on the regular. Brook Lopez is shooting threes. Marc Gasol is shooting threes! These are slow-footed, no vertical having big men that stayed in the paint and also perfected the midrange jumper as part of their arsenal, and now these guys are allowed to shoot threes? That’s right, it’s actually efficient to the offense. It opens up driving lanes as now guys like DeAndre Jordan can’t just lay off of Gasol when he’s operating the offense beyond the high post, because he might actually shoot, and score. I couldn’t believe the highlights I was watching when I saw Gasol posted up in the corner for a game-winner against the Clippers. I just assumed it was one of those things to throw them off their game; NO! This is a trend.
So here we are, NBA Evolution at it’s finest. We now have big men who can run the offense, pass, and shoot while also playing in the post. I would assume the “small-ball lineups” will hit a snag if these post-playing centers begin to shoot threes at an efficient rate in the league. With contract incentives linked to contracts and raises with All-Star appearances, bringing back the Center position is key for guys trying to get paid early, and allows for others to rake in more cash in free agency.
So look at those names. I don’t even have them all written, I just have a few. I have 12 centers that are viable candidates for an All-Star ballot. Can we bring back the center again? As a short guy, I love guards, but I also cannot dismiss the big man in our league, especially the center position that has be ridiculed and dismissed like the running back in football.
Let’s bring back the Center! NBA, your move.