Why the NBA center position is alive and well

The plethora of skilled guards in the NBA has led to this myth that the center position is becoming less relevant. While there is no doubt that there is a lack of dominant big men of previous eras a la Hakeem Olajuwon or Shaquille O’Neal, there are still a host of prolific NBA centers. And then there are also bigs knocking on the door.

The establishment

Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan, Joakim Noah, and Marc Gasol have set the foundation for what to expect from great players at that position. I would throw Andrew Bogut into that mix, but the nagging injuries make it difficult to put him where The Big Four have gone.

The rebounding and rim-protecting presence are vital to anchor an NBA defense. While Mark Jackson is on record saying that rim protection is overrated, I couldn’t disagree more. In a league predicated on attacking the rim and shooting threes, if you can ask one player to mitigate half of that load, you will be in good shape. Although the offensive game varies among The Big Four, the common thread is a track record of defense. Five out of the past six NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards have gone to these four. (The other was Tyson Chandler, another player who has been coveted around the league for the duration of his career.)

The future

This year alone has seen the rise of two players that can make a huge impact from the center spot: Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz and Hassan Whiteside of the Miami Heat. At 7’0” and 265 lbs., Whiteside in particular made a name for himself after a crazy triple-double against the Chicago Bulls on Sunday…that included 12 BLOCKS. You’d have to roll back the clock to Shawn Bradley in 1998 to find a player who had rejected more shots than that.

Whiteside’s value to the Heat has been instrumental in their ability to string together wins after LeBron took his talents away from South Beach. After losing five in a row beginning in late December, coach Erik Spoelstra entrusted Whiteside with his first 25+ minute game. 11 points, 10 rebounds, and five blocks later, Spo and the team knew they had found something. He’s posted 13-11 and 3.4 blocks in the month of January…in only 24 minutes per game.

Gobert is not an offensive threat (yet) but he’s defensive presence has been a shining spot for the struggling Jazz. Utah is 17-30 in the ultra-competitive Western Conference but is managing to hold opponents to 98.4 points per game. Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, and Gobert man-handled the best team in the West on Friday on the glass. Gobert hauled in 10 rebounds…six on offense. 

I can’t go any farther without mentioning the polarizing DeMarcus Cousins. Cousins has had an interesting week in social media…but not in a bad way.

Boogie finally earned recognition as an NBA All-Star despite the Sacramento Kings struggles. His vocal support of former coach Mike Malone went over well in NBA circles and that bad-boy DMC of previous years appears to have slowly been tamed. He’s even shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc (oh wait, that’s on a grand total of two attempts).

Brooklyn Lopez, Al Horford, Al Jefferson, Andreg Monrommond, DeAndre Jordan, Tyson Chandler…the list goes on and on. As a natural PF who's playing the 5, Anthony Davis is gaining acceptance as a bona-fide superstar.

Why it’s been tough to measure the value of a center

The media’s general affinity for box score statistics does not favor big men. Aside from a 20-rebound game or a 10-block game, it’s difficult to be impressed when Kyrie Irving is going off for 55 and Klay Thompson is setting NBA records. Offense is sexy. Defense is a grind.

Guys like Paul George last year and Draymond Green this year have started to change that trend. Advanced metrics have also had a hand in that change. Player Tracking on NBA.com is a haven for stat nerds like myself but is also a great place to find the value of the Rudy Gobert’s of the world (opponents are shooting a horrendous 37.1% at the rim against him).

Anthony Davis is well above league average in FG% from virtually everywhere on the floor from less than six feet to greater than 15 feet and is defending all areas relatively equally. The Bird Writes, a New Orleans Pelicans blog, called Davis “basketball’s free safety.

But even advanced metrics have a hard time valuing how big men change shots and often simply their presence alone eliminates or significantly decreases opportunities for opponents to hit the highest percentage shots on the court. 

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So while you won’t see many/any ooh-worthy ball-handling or scoring outbursts from NBA bigs, there is no doubting their value to established teams as well as teams seeking to join the ranks of the playoff teams. And there is plenty of talent in the NBA pool as Kahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid wait in the wings to make their own impact.