The closest thing to a center in the starting lineups of Saturday night’s game between the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs was 6’8″ Boris Diaw. Of course, there were mitigating circumstances — the Warriors’ biggest, big men, Andrew Bogut (toe) and Festus Ezeli (knee), were injured and Tim Duncan is 100 years old — but, these are the two best teams in the NBA and they were playing without centers! What does that say about the state of the center position in the league today? Has the NBA colossus gone the way of the dinosaur? Or, if he’s not already gone, is he doomed to extinction?
A Lineage of the Genus, Center
One thing I noticed in making my All-Decade Teams was the string of great centers that ties NBA generations together. Even more so than other positions, centers seem to have had a tidy progression of the “league’s best” title from one generation-defining player to the next. There have been some seasons when more than one great center was worthy of the title, but centers have tended to dominate the league for long stretches and the transitional periods without a dominant center have been infrequent and brief. To illustrate my point, I’m going to use Basketball-Reference’s statistic, Win Shares (in the regular season), as a summary measure of a center’s quality. During the 67 seasons since the start of the NBA, 20 different players have been the top center in Win Shares for a season; 11 individuals were the leading center more than once [note: throughout my analysis, I have used Basketball-Reference’s positional definitions: Centers and Center-Forwards were included, Forward-Centers, e.g., Tim Duncan and Ben Wallace, were excluded]. Combined, these 11 centers were “the league’s best” for 58 seasons (83% of league history): George Mikan (3x), Neil Johnston (6x), Bill Russell (2x), Wilt Chamberlain (9x), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (11x), Moses Malone (3x), Hakeem Olajuwon (4x), David Robinson (7x), Shaq O’Neal (6x), Dwight Howard (5x), and DeAndre Jordan (1x and counting; he’s leading the way for a second straight year).
The TNT advanced analytics team (i.e., Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Webber, and Charles Barkley) would have you believe that the modern NBA Big Man does not measure up to the NBA Big Man of seasons gone by; that he has attained a level of dominance far below historically great big men like, for example, I dunno: Shaq, Webber, and Chuck. During their post-game shows, the trio frequently denigrate modern centers. Trashing Howard’s game is a common trope; “he should be getting 20 and 15” is the refrain. The guys lament that Howard has never fully realized the potential of his freakish athletic ability and complain when his impact on the game falls short of their standards. Similarly, his contemporary, Jordan is often mocked for his shortcomings (free throw shooting and…all other kinds of shooting) and seldom celebrated for his abilities (catching lobs, blocking shots, and inhaling rebounds). But is all this criticism of modern centers really fair? Are Howard and Jordan just the NBA equivalent of parakeets; harmless evolutionary descendants of vicious dinosaurs, like Russell, Chamberlain, and Abdul-Jabbar, or do they deserve more credit?
When Centers Roamed the Earth
In stark contrast to their prehistoric counterparts, there is one distinguishing anatomical feature of the modern center: unburdened fingers. Howard and Jordan — the two most recent players to win multiple league’s-best center honors — ain’t got no rings (“sure don’t!”). On the other hand, every center who repeatedly earned the league’s best center mantle before them, had a championship to back it up: Mikan (4x), Johnston (1x), Russell (11x), Chamberlain (2x), Abdul-Jabbar (5x), Malone (1x), Olajuwon (2x), Robinson (2x), and O’Neal (4x). At the inception of the league, having a world-class center was pretty much a necessity for any would-be champion, as 16 of the first 20 NBA titles were won by a team with Mikan, Johnston, or Russell. Put differently, 19 of the first 20 NBA champions had a Top-5 center (by Win Shares) anchoring the squad; 11 of the first 20 NBA champions had a Top-2 center (of course, there were as few as 8 teams in the league during this initial stretch, but still). In the subsequent 20 years (from 1969-70 season to 1988-89 season), the centers’ relaxed their stranglehold on the league, as Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar, and Malone, managed only seven championships. Moreover, only 14 of the 20 champions had a Top-5 center and only 7 champions had a Top-2 center. In the third 20-year interval (from 1989-90 season to 2008-09 season), Michael Jordan and his before-their-time, small-ball Bulls redefined the role a center could play on a championship team. Jordan’s greatness made any deficiencies of Bill Cartwright, Will Perdue, and Luc Longley totally irrelevant. The Bulls won their six championships despite of, not because of, their center play. During the 1990s-2000s era, Olajuwon, Robinson, and O’Neal, managed 8 combined championships, but only 8 of the 20 champions from this period had a Top-5 center and only 4 of the 20 champions had a Top-2 center. In the last six years (and counting), the relationship between strong center play and championships has apparently ceased to exist. The standard-bearers for modern centers, Howard and Jordan, have won zero championships. The six most recent NBA championships have included only two Top-5 centers: Andrew Bynum on the 2009-10 Lakers (4th in Win Shares) and Tyson Chandler on the 2010-11 Mavs (2nd in Win Shares). Two of the last four champions have featured Joel Anthony (17th and 40th for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 Heat, respectively) at the center position. The 2014-15 Spurs didn’t have any centers on the roster by my definition (Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter, and Boris Diaw are all listed as F-C on Basketball-Reference).
I think it’s fair to say that this recent championship drought for elite NBA centers is indicative of a lack of truly transcendent play at the position during this particular moment. But keep in mind, Howard did reach the NBA Finals (in 2008-09 with the Magic) and he’s also been to the Conference Finals twice (once in 2009-10 with the Magic and last year with the Rockets). Jordan has had less playoff success, but he and the Clippers are consistently competitive at the top of the Western Conference. So, it’s probably too reductive to judge all modern centers on the basis of Howard’s ability to win a championship, even if that does seem to have a strong influence on how the state of the NBA center is perceived publicly. In my opinion, it’s more informative to look at the performance of all centers in the league, aggregated by season. For example, we can plot the proportion of all Win Shares in the NBA that have been contributed by the center position for every year since 1950 .
Proportion of League Win Shares Contributed by NBA Centers and the Individual Centers that Contributed the Most Win Shares during Each Season, 1950-2016
League-wide, centers (collectively) contributed as much as 31.4% of the Win Shares during the 1950s. Centers remained hugely valuable to their teams during the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, but the plot suggests that the role of the NBA center decreased drastically in more recent decades. The cumulative contribution of the center position reached its nadir in 2007 at a meager 12.3% of the total league Win Shares. Clearly, there’s evidence that centers are less important now than they were in the past, but the plot suggests that the diminishing role of the NBA center may not be a recent phenomenon, with the downward trend beginning in earnest in the late-1980s or early-90s.
Asteroids or Mega-Volcanoes?
It is perhaps a bit counterintuitive to see that the downfall of the NBA center began at a time when there were seemingly so many great players at the position. Take 1990-91 for example, here’s the list of top centers by Win Shares that season:
- David Robinson
- Patrick Ewing
- Robert Parish
- Brad Daugherty
- Hakeem Olajuwon
- Vlade Divac
- Bill Laimbeer
So, how did it happen, what precipitated the diminished role of the NBA center? We can conduct some NBA archaeology to come up with a few theories. One plausible culprit for the decline of the NBA center is the creation of the 3-point line. For anybody under the age of 40, the three-point line is just a given, a stripe of paint that has always been included as part of the basketball court. As such, we tend to take for granted the effect of the 3-point line on the strategy of scoring baskets, but in 1979 the addition of 3-pointers to the NBA must have felt revolutionary. Think about it, since the league began, the smartest way to score was to get as close to the basket as possible. Sure, you might find a more open and, therefore, more efficient shot far from the basket, but, in general, closer was better. Of course, in this paradigm, the biggest men would always be the best scorers and the best defenders and, ultimately, the most important players in the league. Then, suddenly, players were being awarded an extra point for making a shot far away from the basket. That’s a pretty radical rule change and as offensive strategies shifted to include a greater emphasis on creating shots away from the basket, the role of large men consequently became less important. You can see the basic trend of increased 3-point scoring leading to decreased scoring by centers in the plot below.
Total Points Scored by NBA Centers vs. Total Points Scored by Three-Point Shots* as a Fraction of Total League Scoring for Each Season, 1950-2016
*The small number of 3-point shots that were made by centers were excluded from the 3-point total each year
While, in broad strokes, there seems to be an inverse relationship between 3-point scoring and scoring by centers, the timing of the increases in the former and the decreases in the latter are sufficiently disconnected to cast doubt on the existence of a true cause-and-effect relationship. For example, the distance from the 3-point line to the basket was shortened from 23’9″ (22′ in the corners) to 22′ all around the arc at the start of the 1994-95 season. The rule change resulted in a huge spike in 3-point scoring. When the 3-point line was subsequently moved back to its original dimensions at the start of the 1997-98, the league’s collective three-point scoring abilities immediately regressed. The change in 3-point line dimensions during the 1990s had quite a dramatic effect on 3-point scoring, but there was no equivalent dip in scoring from centers, which calls into question the strength of the inverse relationship between 3-point scoring and center scoring. Likewise, while the proportion of league scoring contributed by centers has basically remained constant since 2000 in the range of 10-12%, the proportion of scoring contributed by 3-point shots has continued to grow, reaching the current record high of 24.6% of all scoring. Again, this observation suggests that the relationship between 3-point scoring and center scoring is perhaps not very strong, or at least not very linear.
Identifying the K-T Boundary
The K-T boundary refers to a major extinction event 65 million years ago — which marked the end of the Cretaceous (K) Period and the beginning of the Tertiary (T) Period — when dinosaurs became extinct. There may be an equivalent boundary in the history of NBA centers. Let’s look at the minutes played by centers as a fraction of all NBA minutes to find out.
Proportion of League Minutes Played by NBA Centers during Each Season, 1952*-2016
*Minutes played data was not available for 1949-50 and 1950-51 seasons on Basketball-Reference
As you can see, the drop-off in minutes played by centers is even more stark than the decline in Win Shares contributed by centers or the decline in the proportion of points scored by centers. For the first 35 years of the league, the proportion of minutes played by centers was pretty consistent, hovering right around 20% (equivalent to 1 center on the court for each team, at all times). However, in 1988-89 there was a sharp decrease in the proportion of minutes played by centers from 21.6% to 18.4%, followed by another decrease to 16.9% the following season. The proportion of minutes played by centers continued to drop, ultimately reaching 13.5% by the 1993-94 season. It appears quite clear from this plot that something happened at the start of the 1988-89 season, which diminished the role of centers in the league. As an alternative to the Three-pointers-Killed-the-NBA-Center Theory raised above, I suggest that the decrease in production by centers relative to the rest of the league was due to league expansion. At the start of the 1988-89 season, the NBA expanded from 23 to 25 teams and, the following season, the league expanded again, from 25 to 27 teams. This rapid four-team expansion seems to represent the NBA-equivalent of the K-T boundary. Perhaps the number of athletic 7-footers available in the NBA talent pool was the rate-limiting factor for league expansion. That is, it may be that all of the NBA-suitable centers were already playing in the 23-team league in 1987-88. Adding these four additional teams would have essentially added more talented guards and forwards to the league while redistributing the same amount of center talent across a larger number of teams.
Life After the Cretaceous Period
It’s worth noting that since 2010, centers have made a comeback in terms of minutes played, points scored, and Win Shares contributed. I suppose this isn’t necessarily surprising, considering the analytics revolution extols not only three-point shooting, but also scoring at the basket. So, in this new, more efficient, era of the NBA, centers who can score are perhaps increasingly valuable. Another important aspect of the recent center resurgence is the influx of young centers from exotic locales: Enes Kanter, Jonas Valanciunas, Nikola Jokic, Steven Adams, Rudy Gobert, Nikola Vucevic, Clint Capela, Festus Ezeli, Alex Len, and Jusuf Nurkic, to name a few. These are all players that might have gone unnoticed in the 1990s; unless, of course, Jimmy Dolan got involved with his shake and bake. This flood of international players should eventually counterbalance the dilution of center talent caused by the league’s expansion 25 years ago. There are also a handful of promising young American centers: Boogie Cousins, Greg Monroe, Hassan Whiteside, Andre Drummond, Jahlil Okafor as well as forward-center hybrids: Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, and Nerlens Noel. So, perhaps, the future of the NBA center isn’t so bleak after all.