Full-Court Press: No center, no problem?

Full-Court Press: No center, no problem?

Published Jan. 21, 2013 4:00 a.m. ET

Clifford Ray isn't so sure about all this.

Ray watched the Olympic gold medal game in August. He watched as a Spanish team without Ricky Rubio gave the U.S. men a scare, and he has a theory about why the Spaniards didn't end up handing the Americans a silver and keeping gold for themselves.

"I knew that whenever they went to the Olympics and they went to the Olympics without a center (it was a mistake)," Ray said. "But they went up and played against Spain, and had (Marc) Gasol not gotten in foul trouble, we might not have gotten so many smiles."

Ray, who's currently a coach with the Sacramento Kings, has worked with big men for years, from Robert Parrish to DeMarcus Cousins. He has some strong views on the position and the league's evolution away from it, and when the All-Star starters were announced Thursday, I couldn't help but think back to the hulking, graying coach who I met a few months ago.

He must have hated what he saw, but he couldn't have been surprised. This year's rule changes did nothing but to codify a trend.

The league announced in October that it would do away with the center position on the All-Star ballot, allowing instead for fans to vote on two backcourt players and three frontcourt. What resulted from the voting was that one "center-esque" player was selected from each conference to start: Kevin Garnett in the East and Dwight Howard in the West.

Garnett has been playing center for the Celtics for a few years now, but there's still a hesitation to call him such. Same with Tim Duncan for the Spurs -- power forward is the preferred term, even if he's technically closer to playing the center position. And even still, neither is a true center.

You could argue that if center still existed on the ballot, Tyson Chandler would have been voted into the start. Last year, with Andrew Bynum in L.A. and Howard in Orlando, there was the closest thing to a true center starting for both conferences, but that's been rare; Tim Duncan started as a center in the West just three years ago, and no one seemed to have any problem with that.

It's hard to be certain that the All-Star starters would look any different without this official erasing of the center designation on the ballot. Sure, there's a chance it might have been, but what's more certain is this: Center does not mean what it used to mean. The low post game has become less of an emphasis, and small ball won a championship last year in Miami. That might work fine in the meaningless All-Star Game, even as a trend in the greater NBA. But Ray (and nearly every other retired center I've talked to) hopes this is just a trend. Remember his question, remember his suggestion.

What if Marc Gasol hadn't gotten in foul trouble?

It keeps getting worse in Atlanta

I saw the Hawks play two weeks ago, and I was shocked when the Timberwolves beat them. Shocked. Now, when the two teams rematch Monday, I'm interested to see exactly what happens, especially since Lou Williams tore his ACL Friday and will be out for the season. There's no way to know yet what losing Williams will mean for the team, but there's also no good reason to think Atlanta will be able to keep up its prior pace without him, especially when its weaknesses began to be exposed even before the injury.

Losing the shooting guard (and his 14.1 points and 3.6 assists per game) was just the latest blow after a strong early season for Atlanta, which has now lost eight of 10 games. It's a shame, in my opinion, if this team tanks, which it looks like it just might. It was fun to have a team no one expected to be good trailing the Heat closely in their division, even if it was the Hawks with their penchant for playoff busts.

Trending up

Yes, I completely grasp that the Wizards, with their .211 winning percentage, are still the worst team in the NBA. I have eyes, after all; I've seen them play, seen the standings. But I'm going to go out on a limb and say that within the month, they won't be. That title will be assumed by possibly the Suns, probably the Bobcats, and though the Wizards will be among the seven or so worst teams in the league at the end of the season, they won't be clinging to .211 forever. They're playing desperate lately, and it's working; although they lost to the Clippers Saturday, it was close, 94-87, and after it took them 27 games to win their first four games, only five were needed for the next four, the last of which occurred Thursday in Denver.

Trending down

The Trail Blazers, who looked like an unlikely success story in the West just a week ago before their losing streak stretched to five games and dipped them down to .500. Sure, the first three losses were understandable -- Golden State, Oklahoma City and Denver -- but losing at home to two mediocre (or worse) Eastern Conference teams, Milwaukee and Cleveland, tips the Blazers' fate downward.

Best of the week

Team: The Thunder, who won six straight before losing in overtime to a Denver team that's nothing short of great at home on Sunday. With the loss, they're now tied with the Clippers for the best record in basketball, and their plus-9 point differential is still 0.1 points better than the Clippers'.

Player: LeBron James, who had a stellar week, as usual, but who deserves this designation solely for what he did in Los Angeles on Thursday against the Lakers. He scored 39 points, for one, the highest total of his season, but that's just the beginning. Shooting 68.0 percent, it was his sixth-best shooting night of the season, and his 17 field goals were the most he's sunk in a game this season. Oh, and he scored the Heat's first two baskets of the night on two dunks.

Blocked shot: Russell Westbrook's block of the Nuggets' mascot's half-court shots on Sunday. Of course the home crowd hated it, but you have to laud the entertainment value of the move. Sure, it deprived Denver fans of the free Qdoba queso they get if the shots go in -- and who says they would have? -- but kudos to Westbrook for switching things up and having the nerve to aggravate.

Worst of the week

Team: The Rockets, who in Minnesota Saturday had the ideal foe against whom to end their six-game losing streak but were unable to do so. The Rockets let the shorthanded Timberwolves beat them soundly, 92-79, pushing their road record against Western Conference teams to 1-10. "We are not playing well, bottom line," coach Kevin McHale said after the loss. "We were really in a funk."

Player: Lazar Hayward, whose 10-day contract with the Timberwolves' ended Thursday. He'd been with the team since Dec. 31 on two different contracts, and over that time he scored just 10 points and got more teammates sick (at least three) than he had field goals made (two).

Firing: Alvin Gentry, who parted ways with the Suns Friday. The team cited the fact that though Gentry was "the perfect coach for our previous group" (according to VP of basketball operations Lon Babby), he didn't fit with the current roster. My question, though, is this: Who, exactly, do you think will be a good fit with your disastrous roster, Lon?

Telling stats of the week

20,046 points: LeBron James surpassed the 20,000-point mark on Wednesday, becoming the youngest player ever to do so. He also logged his 5,000th assist that same night, en route to 5,016 at the end of the week, and in doing so, he became one of only 12 players with 20,000 points, 5,000 rebounds and 5,000 assists.

23 of 29 points: That's the share of the Timberwolves' fourth-quarter scoring in their Saturday win provided by Chris Johnson and Mickael Gelabale, both of whom had been signed to 10-day contracts that very morning.

What we heard

"When he has his mind set to do whatever he got his mind set to do, you can't stop him. He makes the game so much easier. He knows how to put the pressure on the defense as well. During that one stretch in the third quarter going into the fourth, he took over the game and made it look easy."

 — The Lakers' Antawn Jamison to Yahoo! Sports on LeBron James after facing him Thursday. Jamison played with LeBron in Cleveland.

"I got to see the tape!" Webster shouted. "John jumped over me! C'mon now."

 — The Wizards' Martell Webster to the Washington Post after John Wall jumped over him to block Ty Lawson's shot that would have won the game for Denver, thus saving Washington's upset.

"Just trying to throw elbows. Cheap shots, just trying to get you off your game. But he's a vet. He's been doing this a long time, but it's all right."

 — Chicago's Joakim Noah on Boston's Kevin Garnett after the Bulls defeated the Celtics, 100-99 on Friday. It wasn't the first time Noah had called out Garnett for his style of play; he did so during the 2010 playoffs, as well.

What's ahead

Nets at Knicks, 3:30 p.m. ET Monday: It's the last meeting this regular season between the cross-town rivals, and the first three didn't disappoint. These are two teams you have to hope will meet in the playoffs, and with the Nets still on their post-Avery Johnson uptick, expect a close competition.

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