NBA centers are a sorry bunch

Published Nov. 23, 2010 12:00 a.m. ET

Andrew Bynum hasn’t played a minute for the Lakers this season, yet somehow managed to find a place on the NBA All-Star Game ballot.

Bynum might not be deserving, but at least he’s on it.

Greg Oden didn’t even make the ballot, which lists the names of 12 centers in each conference.

When you consider that only a few seasons back, Oden and Bynum were being hailed in some quarters as the second coming of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, and what has happened to them since, you can see how far the center position has fallen in the NBA.

Once the game’s marquee position, back when the Russells and Chamberlains ruled the court, and more recently when Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal and Patrick Ewing starred in the middle, the position is now a wasteland of injured All-Stars and would-be stars, old guys ready for the retirement home and power forwards playing out of position.

As if Joakim Noah is really a center. Wilt would have snapped the Bulls’ “big man’’ in half.

We hear a lot about the Nets’ Brook Lopez being a “franchise center.’’ Oh, really? Back when there were real franchise centers in the NBA, their teams won more than 12 games in a season. Often, they would win a dozen in a month.


Check out the All-Star ballot and you wonder why there’s even a roster spot for centers in the game. Go ahead, you can vote for JaVale McGee of the Wizards. Thanks, but I’ll pass.

Centers used to clean up when it came to the MVP Award. From 1960-83, centers walked off with 21 out of 24 awards. You know when the last time a center won it? Back in 2000, when Shaq captured his one and only trophy. (The fact he’ll leave the game with only one is criminal, but that’s another story for another day.)

Yes, Tim Duncan won back-to-back MVPs in 2002 and 2003. But he’s always been listed as a power forward, and that’s how we’ll always regard the greatest player in Spurs history.

“The league’s changed a lot in terms of big men and centers,’’ said Knicks president Donnie Walsh. “Nowadays, more and more, we have big guys playing outside. So your center now has to be able to go out there and guard their big guy. That wasn’t the case when I had Rik Smits in Indiana. Back then, it seemed like every team had a big guy who played down low.’’

It seems like 50 years ago when big men ran down the court, or, more often, lumbered to the post, planted themselves with their back to the basket and went to work. It was back in a time when the game was played “inside-out,’’ when big men needed low-post skills, and when it took a lot for a guy to score 20 points in a game.

Center is now a position for mobile big men who can step out and shoot 3s, like Toronto’s Andrea Bargnani or Utah’s Mehmet Okur. Thank heaven, there is still a deluxe banger and an enforcer like Kendrick Perkins, the best of a dwindling lot. Perkins, the unsung member of the Celtics, is still rehabbing from tearing up his knee in Game 6 of the Finals last June. His Finals counterpart, Bynum, played only sparingly during the final four games of the Finals, because of a worsening knee. Even five months later, he’s not expected to start practicing until mid-December.

From Oden to Bynum to Perkins to the Rockets’ Yao Ming to the Clippers’ Chris Kaman and to the Bucks’ Andrew Bogut, why does it seem like centers are always getting hurt? They used to be virtually indestructible, but now they’re among the most brittle players. Yao’s bruised left ankle is supposed to keep him on the shelf for another two weeks, at least. Making a comeback from a foot injury that cost him all of last season, he was being limited to 24 minutes a game, as it was.

Oden, to the surprise of no one, is out for the season again. This time he had microfracture surgery on his left knee. In four NBA seasons, the former No.1 overall pick of 2007 has played the equivalent of one 82-game regular season for the luckless Trail Blazers.

“I thought when they added Oden, that was going to be the next great team in the West,’’ said the Knicks’ Amar’e Stoudemire. “They already had Brandon Roy, who was an All-Star. When I was with Phoenix, I had a chance to go up against Oden. He was strong, a great shot-blocker and more athletic than I had expected. With those two, they had the right pieces to challenge us and the Lakers in the West. They had a very bright future.’’

Only the Lakers have been able to overcome their center’s health problems. Without Bynum, the Lakers will still be the team to beat. With him, they’re pretty much unbeatable.

The center position used to be where you’d find the game’s highest-paid player, with the most recent example being Shaq. But that’s already 10 years ago, when he was in his prime and not the 38-year graybeard who has been reduced to playing only 22 minutes a night for Boston, and can’t do better than 10 points and six boards a game. Imagine.

Now, wing players dominate at the bank. Among the handful of players from the 2007 rookie class who were just extended, Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant got the lone “max’’ extension, worth $85 million. The two centers who were extended, Atlanta’s Al Horford and Noah, each received about $25 million less than Durant. Oden didn’t even get extended, showing you that he’s probably not long for Portland when he returns from his latest round of knee surgery.

Without Oden, Yao or Bynum able to stay on the court for long stretches, there is only one premier player at the position in today’s NBA. But when people discuss Orlando’s Dwight Howard, it’s invariably to point out his flaws. He might be the NBA’s reigning Adonis and its two-time defending Defensive Player of the Year, but he still doesn’t have the quintessential low-post game to match after six seasons in the league, and despite three straight first-team All-NBA berths. And that’s after working the past three seasons with Magic assistant coach Patrick Ewing, and even after getting a five-day tutorial from Olajuwon this past summer.

“He is getting better, but the Magic have no chance of beating the Celtics or the Heat,’’ Charles Barkley observed the other day. “Dwight Howard has to become more dominant. He is still not dominating. He is not making them double him every time. Unless Dwight Howard becomes more dominant, like a young Shaquille O’Neal, the Orlando Magic are just going to be a good-looking regular-season team with a bunch of good players. They are not going to beat the Heat or the Celtics going to Vince Carter with the game on the line. It has got to be Dwight Howard.”

Even with his flaws, Howard is the best center in the NBA today, hands down.

Then again, that’s nothing to brag about.