There is truth to the notion that big men aren't what they used to be. Compared to '90s centers, Howard is less visibly involved in his team’s offense. Below, I’ve listed some career-best usage percentage (percentage of a team's plays used by one player) years from notable bigs:
Patrick Ewing: 31.5, 95-96
David Robinson: 32.0, 93-94
Shaquille O’Neal: 32.9, 97-98
Hakeem Olajuwon: 31.9, 95-96
Rik Smits: 29.2, 97-98
Dwight Howard: 27.2, 10-11
So the best center of this generation, the one teams are ready to gut their rosters for, is less involved offensively than a healthy Rik Smits was. I think some would look at this and lament how we’ve lost our centers, how we’ve stopped making them like we stopped making quality cars, football stadiums, and every other pride signifier in this handbasket-to-hell nation.
I’ll disagree -- respectfully. We never stopped producing quality centers -- we just changed their environment. Back in the '90s, illegal defense rules allowed big men to work with some freedom. Re-appropriating from a piece I wrote on illegal defense’s impact:
These days, it’s commonly said that defenders should be connected “on a string,” their movements inextricably linked. A little over one decade ago, this wasn’t the case. Perimeter defenders were bound to whomever they guarded, and guard-defender units would orbit a dribbling post player like single electrons an atom’s periphery. If there was a “string,” then it connected man to marker.
Occasionally, the defender could break off to double-team this dribbling post player, but, that defensive player could only return to his original mark. Picture Reggie Miller racing over to harmlessly flail at a posting Patrick Ewing, then sprinting back to the three point line so as to cover an open John Starks. The lack of team-defense rotation made it relatively easy for post players to spot an open man (Hint: He’s from whence the double team came).
The allowance of zones shrunk a center’s offensive work space while expanding his defensive work space. Rules that “opened up the game” for current perimeter players, closed it for scoring bigs.