Full-Court Press: NBA’s big men off center

This was the summer of the center, even the summer of the centers. In the NBA today, it’s so rare to hear centers, plural, for there to be so much discussion of big men, period, and so there was reason to think that it might carry over. Dwight Howard was shipped to the Lakers, Andrew Bynum to the 76ers, and there was reason to think that Howard might be the missing piece in the Lakers’ plans to take over the world. They were just missing a center, right? Right?

A center, the missing piece? We should have realized it was outlandish back then. Not in this point-guard driven league, where only a handful of teams have anything approaching a true center and big men are role players, hybrids, anything but the pure post players of two decades ago.

And so Howard is in Los Angeles, missing free throw after free throw as the Lakers attempt to hack their way above .500, which has thus far been a futile quest. Nene has played in just seven games in Washington, starting none and excelling in few. DeMarcus Cousins is in a permanent funk in Sacramento, his stats suffering along with his psyche. Roy Hibbert has been an offensive nonentity, and even Nikola Pekovic, the little-known surprise in Minnesota last season, has not been himself, inconsistent and even a non-factor at times.

And those are just the big men who have been playing. Bynum and his increasingly eccentric hair are in Philadelphia on the bench for the foreseeable future. The Warriors’ Andrew Bogut resorted to lies about his health, and he too has no target return date. In Brooklyn, Brook Lopez has dealt with a foot sprain, his injury dragging out and testing the Nets’ patience.

What we’re left with is a world in which Howard, the consensus best big man in the NBA, is part of the league’s most dysfunctional quandary of a roster. It’s a world in which the upper echelon of the position is wide open: Tyson Chandler in New York? Marc Gasol in Memphis? Even Serge Ibaka in Oklahoma City deserves consideration.

The summer of the center has become the year of no center, the donut year. It’s not necessarily surprising, though, save maybe for the Howard situation, and the saga gets stranger by the second. Big men make big bucks because they’re scarce, a dying breed, and then they end up like this crop, sidelined and struggling, for the most part.

Something’s wrong with this picture.

The Pelican questioning

This is not another diatribe about the New Orleans Pelicans; the Hornets’ name doesn’t bother me that much. In fact, what’s most interesting about this new name is the amount of chatter it’s started about team names in general. Across the Internet and airwaves, it seems like everyone is ranking names, coming up with the best names, discussing the merits of what makes a good name.

But here’s a different way to look at it: What are the best monikers right now in the NBA, not because of their cultural or geographical ties, but for the extent to which they fit their teams? Like, if this year’s Magic were especially magical, the Wizards extraordinarily mysterious, the Rockets especially fast. I have to give it to the Grizzlies.

This team seems somewhat grizzly, with its cast of characters and propensity to get into skirmishes and make questionable, brazen comments. They’re a little rough around the edges, definitely scary for opponents, kind of a grizzled underdog that keeps on winning. So even though it’s Vancouver’s name, even if there aren’t too many bears in Memphis, this year, it fits.

Russian invasion

With two standout rookies this year, Portland’s Damian Lillard and New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, it’s pretty easy to overlook the rest of the mediocre crop of first-year players. But direct your attention north, to Minnesota, where a 23-year-old undrafted rookie, Alexey Shved, is fifth among first-year players in scoring (10.6 points per game) and second in assists (3.6). And with Shved, it’s looking like things are only going to get better. He’s getting more comfortable, and when Ricky Rubio returns, the two could make quite a backcourt for the Wolves.

Trending up

The Clippers, who are the streakiest of the NBA’s upper echelon this season. They’ve already mounted a six-game winning streak, and now they’re on a six-game run again, but there are four losses sandwiched in between. The competition hasn’t been there of late, save for the Jazz, but Blake Griffin and company have compensated with double-digit blowouts in four of their last six victories.

Trending down

The Heat, who lost to the Wizards and then the Knicks this week before rebounding with a win against the Hornets on Saturday. This is likely a temporary drop-off for Miami, but after it lost twice in little more than a month to the Knicks, there’s at least some reason to see the power structure in the East as something less than rigid.

Best of the week

Team: The Thunder, who are on an eight-game winning streak and have effectively put to rest any notion that they should be longing for James Harden. This week, they beat the Nets, Lakers and Pacers, largely through maniacal play from Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Which brings us to . . .

Player: Durant. He went off for 32 points against the Nets and then 36 against the Lakers on 19-of-35 shooting this week. He’s also second in the league in PER, with his 28.12 mark creeping up upon LeBron’s 28.99.

Courtside hug: LeBron and Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin after the Heat’s 105-101 loss to the NBA-worst Wizards Tuesday. Apparently LeBron snubbed a fan in the process, but you’ve got to cut him some slack — how do you not hug RGIII if you get the chance?

Worst of the week

Team: The Cavaliers, who have lost 15 of their last 17 games, including twice to Detroit this week. Without Kyrie Irving and now Dion Waiters, Cleveland seems to be a on a crash course toward the league’s worst.

Player: The Suns’ Michael Beasley, whose 21-point outing Saturday couldn’t even save him from this designation. Even with such a night, Beasley still has more field goal attempts (256) than points (251), and he has the worst plus-minus of any player in the league, -179. The next-worst: Charlotte’s Ben Gordon, at an excellent-by-comparison minus-136.

Proposed rule change: David Stern’s proposal that intentional fouling of a player without the ball throughout each game should lead to two free throws and the fouled team getting possession. The rule was applied to the last two minutes of games to avoid “Hack-a-Shaq” incidents, and for a while after the big man ceased to be a force, it was close to irrelevant. But now Howard is shooting free throws at a miserable percentage (47.9, to be precise), the hacking has recommenced and Stern wants the rule modified. That’s no coincidence.

Telling stats of the week

300 points, 100 assists, 17 games: Since 1985, Damian Lillard is the third player to record more than 300 points and 100 assists in his first 17 games; the other two to do so were the Bulls’ Derrick Rose in 2008 and the 76ers’ Allen Iverson in 1996. Now, through 20 games, Lillard leads all rookies in scoring (18.9 points per game) and assists (6.5 per game).

29 30-10 games: Kevin Love scored 36 points and had 13 rebounds Friday night. It was his 29th 30-10 game in the past three seasons; no one in the NBA has more over that time period.

30,085 points: Kobe Bryant’s career total. He eclipsed the 30,000 mark Wednesday in New Orleans, at age 34 years, 104 days. That made him the youngest of the five players who have reached it (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain) to do so, and he’s just 1,334 points behind Chamberlain, whom he’ll likely pass this season, along with Jordan.

What we heard

“I call him Similac.”

 — 34-year-old Kobe Bryant on his nickname for 10-years-his-junior Kevin Durant, referring to a brand of baby formula.

“Sometimes the basketball bounces your way and sometimes it doesn’t.”

 — Magic coach Jacque Vaughn after Wednesday’s loss in Salt Lake City. I include this not for its substance, but for the final piece in Vaughn’s nominee package for the Saying Nothing In a Lot of Words Award.

“No. Because the idea of Ron laying in the stands unconscious with all his teeth knocked out . . . no way. That whole arena was against and I didn’t have it in my heart not to do anything.”

 — The Spurs’ Stephen Jackson, to ESPN The Magazine on whether he regretted the Palace brawl in 2004, part of a particularly interesting series of his reflections about the incident.

What’s ahead

Hawks at Heat, 7:30 p.m. ET Monday: The Hawks are just a half-game behind the Heat for tops in the Southeast Division, and they’ll take a three-game winning streak into the matchup, coming off a big win in Memphis. Atlanta lost to Miami, 95-89, on Nov. 9, and Monday’s game could be a chance for them to steal a win while the Heat are down.

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