The mere idea of a dominant big man is enough to make most GMs around the league salivate and most send most fans into a frenzy that would be more apropos in an institution for the insane. They can control a game like no other position can and have opposing coaches sweat more the night before the game more than any other player.
All that being said, a dominant big man is a rare sight these days despite the overwhelming desire by every team to acquire one. This is not to say that there aren’t quality big men in the league anymore, but the quantity of superbly talented big men has been on the decline since Olajuwon and Ewing left nearly a decade ago.
Its part of a formula that teams have for building a championship team and it is one that has been in place since the inception of the game. The necessity of a big man is an idea that has gone unquestioned for as long as basketball has existed. Very few championship teams in recent memory have had a team comprised with no integral big men (Boston had Garnett, LA had Gasol and Shaq, San Antonio had Duncan and even further back had Robinson, Detroit is as close as it gets and they had Rasheed and Ben Wallace who were each All-Star caliber centers/forwards, and of course Miami also employed Shaq).
It is beyond desire for many teams, it has ventured into the realm of need for a big man. However, supply has not caught up with demand in the very recent past, leaving most teams with millions of dollars locked up in players without the talent or dedication to fulfill their contractual obligations. You don’t have to endeavor much beyond the first round of the draft in years past to see the several failed attempts by teams to pick the next O’Neal or Olajuwon.
In today’s game of basketball, teams have learned to use speed and quickness at the forward and center position to counter the lumbering giants that roam the painted area. A team like the Houston Rockets who have no viable options above 6’10” can nearly upset a heavily favored team like the Los Angeles Lakers who employ Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom who each stand above 6’11”. Whether this phenomenon can be explained through the use of the zone defense or through sheer hustle is just a matter of opinion. The fact that it happened is beyond question.
Take a look at Greg Oden, the supposed next Bill Russell (a comparison that is fair to neither person). He was and hopefully still is an athletic legitimate seven footer who was dedicated to defense and proved his abilities at the collegiate level. Now, jokes can be made at the expense of his overly mature face, but the fact is he came into the level a very young man and remains still a young professional athlete. Still, he has been mainly a flop as a professional, mostly due to injuries that have hampered his growth.
He seems more cursed by his size than blessed by it. He was quoted as saying that he wanted to be a dentist his whole life and just happened upon basketball, a casualty of his gigantic size. What this says about him I don’t know, however his injuries seem to be freak occurrences, a separate and greater force seems to be keeping him away from the court. While on the court, at least this year before his season ending injury, he seemed to be fulfilling at least part of his potential averaging solid numbers and becoming a presence on defense that his size would dictate.
Brook Lopez is another young center that hopes to revitalize the big man breed. Brook, the offensively oriented Lopez twin, has a nice range of tools and skills that he can use no matter the opponent. He is solid offensively and though his defense isn’t top notch, it certainly isn’t horrid. Perhaps I am remembering this whole scenario terribly wrong, but I feel as if the center position used to have multiple Brook Lopez-esque players. Not a ton where every team had a player of that caliber, but at one point Olajuwon, Ewing, Mutumbo, O’Neal, Mourning (who is on the shorter side), and Vlade Divac were all prominent big men on very good teams. Who can you say is truly a talented and pure center in the league now?
Can you really believe that Samuel Dalembert or Andrew Bynum is that good right now? Even Al Jefferson, who is a stud at this nubile stage of his career isn’t exactly bringing Minnesota out of the darkness left by Garnett’s absence. Who else? Roy Hibbert? Andrew Bogut is solid but unspectacular. O’Neal is a shell of his former self and his teammate big Z can do little beyond shooting from outside of the paint. Brendan Haywood is good, although I would slot him slightly under Lopez.
The problem seems to be that all of the talented centers are more naturally suited to being power forwards where they can exploit matchups. It is a matter of evolution, the position gradually sliding from power to precision as the drafts draw on. A guy like Amar’e Stoudemire is most definitely a power forward who is at times forced to play center because of his power and size. Gasol just doesn’t seem like a center, which is convenient because Bynum is blossoming before our very eyes. Al Horford would be a power forward if the Hawks could ever land a solid 5.
Do we even have to mention Hasheem Thabeet? Memphis was drawn in by his size, well more accurately his height since his size can be accurately described as heroin sheik. They thought, despite many concerns about his physical nature or lack thereof, that a 7’3” center could give them an advantage and possibly a post player for the next decade. It is far too early to determine if this was a bad move seeing as how only shortly into his career he broke his jaw and hasn’t been seen since. Could he be a good pick? Only if he can develop a mean streak that has been absent and most glaringly so when he play Dejuan Blair who has gone on to be a success with San Antonio despite his height limitations.
The only player that has had sustained success as a true center in the recent past as a major player has been Dwight Howard. Howard is the typical big man, preferring to operate in the post and focusing mainly on defense. His play has dipped this year and I feel that it is mainly due to the Lakers’ blueprint where they effectively shut down the big man. Despite this, he is still considered the best center in the league since there are really no viable challengers to the throne. He has miles to go before he is considered an offensive talent, still relying on dunks and a failing hook shot. Defense is where his bread is buttered and rightly so. The amount of shots he blocks is dwarfed by the amount of shots he alters. Still, even though SportsCenter top 10 highlights may be littered with shots that Dwight has catapulted 10 rows into the stands, his one-on-one defense isn’t top notch. He doesn’t shut down the opposing center if the opposing team is willing to dedicate the game plan for them.
The position is evolving, as are all the positions, but evolving uniquely. Most positions are gradually getting bigger and faster. The center position may be getting slightly quicker with more athletic men rising through the ranks, but it isn’t getting any taller. In fact, the position may well be shrinking back down to below 7’. The more athletic the position gets, the less of a need there is to have a giant roam the court.
Does a 7’ center give their team an advantage? Well, it is a case-by-case sort of deal, but on the average absolutely. But it has stopped being the norm for teams. More teams are comfortable with the idea of a 6’9” or 6’10” player who can run the court and have an outstanding outside shot being the center instead of the typical center who towers above the opponent and struggle to move around the court without looking like their leg is asleep.