NBA's evolving, but big men will always be big

BY foxsports • September 22, 2012

Chris Bosh recently bestowed his official blessing upon anyone (including emissaries from his own team) referring to him — at least from time to time — as an NBA center.

It was quite a revelation.

Anyway, after adding six pounds of offseason sinew and becoming aware that Kevin Garnett has no problem with working at the “five” in Boston, the Miami Heat’s card-carrying power forward welcomes the categorical alteration.

Does this act of altruism suggest a sea change for the NBA? And will the league become cuckoo with power forwards running around at center? Well, according to an assistant coach weighing in on the subject of centers in the world’s greatest league, the answer is simple.

“As the sport continues to evolve,” he said, “coaches will continue to worry less about traditional positions and concern themselves more with putting their best five players on the floor.

“It’s really nice of Bosh to say he’s willing to play center on a more full-time basis, I guess, but a lot of his time in Miami already has been spent playing as the Heat’s biggest player on the floor.”

OK, so while we’re aware that coaches at all levels believe players, fans and media watchdogs should be more concerned with who finishes games rather than who starts them, we’re here to examine the prevailing level of NBA center play. And, as the Heat and Celtics demonstrated last spring, sometimes going smaller is preferable to using a lesser player to satisfy traditional typecasting of position.

To appease the gods of context, let’s check in with an NBA personnel executive.

“Make no mistake, guys like me will never stop looking for — and drafting — really big guys who can run, jump and hold their position in the paint,” the GM said. “That’s why a kid like Andre Drummond can struggle as a freshman and go top 10.

“But you also should remember that guys like me are looking for superstars first. We’ve seen big guys drafted much higher than their skill levels would suggest, but there’s less of it now. The Lakers and Spurs have won a lot of recent championships with elite post players, and having elite 'bigs' is what everyone would like. But we’re also skewing toward elite wing players like LeBron (James), (Kevin) Durant and Kobe (Bryant), going back to (Michael) Jordan.”

Our talent evaluator points out that attempting to pinpoint specific positions in building a championship team can be risky.

“I mean, we’re supposedly in this golden age of point guards now,” he said. “But how many of these elite point guards have championship rings? The thing to remember is . . . superstars whose teams defend at a high level are what we see winning championships. Having a great center may make it easier in some cases, but there just aren’t many of those.”

For the record, most NBA watchdogs insist that any list of prime-time centers be limited to the Los Angeles Lakers' Dwight Howard and the young man he’s replacing, Andrew Bynum, who's now working for the Philadelphia 76ers.

But it should be noted that the San Antonio Spurs' Tim Duncan is one of the greatest centers in history; referring to him as a power forward is — based on where he's patrolled and the players he's worked against — silly.

Our assistant coach — perhaps motivated by his opponent-preparation responsibilities — thinks the NBA center position is not exactly in jeopardy.

“You have (Marc) Gasol in Memphis, (Joakim) Noah in Chicago, (Roy) Hibbert in Indy, (Tyson) Chandler with the Knicks and (Brook) Lopez in Jersey,” he said. “Those are all very good players.”

The center position can look even more solid by lobbing in Marcin Gortat of the Phoenix Suns, the Sacramento Kings' DeMarcus Cousins and (when healthy) Andrew Bogut of the Golden State Warriors.

“I think there are more good fives than people think,” the assistant coach said. “Some, like Chandler and Noah, put in most of their work on defense, but there are some other guys who can hurt you on the block.

“But a lot of coaches have been trending smaller in the middle based on injury sometimes or just trying to create matchup problems.”

Right, tactical changes in recent years have provoked a move toward mobility and the ability to operate in space. The NBA’s reliance on ball screens and shooting 3-pointers to exploit slow defensive rotations has produced more power forwards sliding to the five spot. Many of these hybrid players are employed as pick-and-pop marksmen on offense or help-recover athletes used to combat ball screens on defense.

Although our assistant coach insists that the NBA seems just dandy at center, it’s easy to notice a lack of players arriving in the league with post-up ability.

While AAU/club ball often is targeted for anything that goes wrong at all levels of hoops, the nature of its influence within basketball's player-development model is obvious. For example, any gathering of elite players on one team often leads to an exaggerated level of dribbling by perimeter players.

With club teams having minimal practice time — and often devoting little of the time they have to skill development — offensive designs that rely on spread-court, drive-and-kick constructs are popular. There’s little structure required, and the individual freedom they allow can keep easily poached young players happy. But they offer few post-up opportunities for inside players.

Coaches at the youth, high school and college levels (when they do invest time in skill development) usually include their taller players in drills that emphasize perimeter maneuvers. That’s a terrific way to expand a big kid’s overall ball-skill ability, balance and footwork, but there’s very little effort spent working inside-out or teaching anyone how to operate on the block.

Even though a lot of really large players are being produced, it’s not easy for youth coaches and skill trainers to land enough big kids in one workout to pit them against each other in competitive, game-speed drills.

“This has been going on a long while now,” the personnel executive said, “but young players play too many games during the year and don’t spend enough time working on weaknesses. But even if they’re working on their own, making time to do it, how many big kids go to the park or the gym and practice their post moves or get to try it against legitimate defense?”

The assistant coach thinks emphasis on the 3-pointer and the current popularity of the ball screen will keep steering players like Bosh into the middle.

“Right now, the game is about spacing and defensive rotations,” he said. “But if the Lakers win a championship or two with a couple of 7-footers hammering teams in the paint, we may see more teams going to high-low power sets or using more post-ups to create double-teaming and rotation and 3-point opportunities.”

Or the next O’Brien trophy could land in Oklahoma City.

“With the Thunder going small to close games a lot,” the coach said, referencing a lineup that often requires foes to match up with Durant disguised as a power forward, “we could have more tall guys staying on the perimeter. And if Miami wins again, more teams may try to be more perimeter-oriented. If (Mike) D’Antoni had won a title in Phoenix, we would have had even more open-court offense than what we already had . . . and we had a lot.

“I just don’t know how easy it’s gonna be for anyone to copycat having LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. It would seem easier to find a really good center, wouldn’t it?”

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