How Could Center Position Be Addressed?

Monday, June 12, 2006

Q. Like Jermaine O'Neal has expressed, I think the team needs another person who can get the job done in the middle. If Larry Bird addresses this problem, do you think he will try to acquire a big man through a trade, try to draft one, or develop one of our current players : David Harrison, Jeff Foster and/or Scot Pollard? (From Kyle in Holly Springs, N.C.)

A. After an all-too-brief respite – and thank you for your patience while I was on vacation – it's time to get back to work. So let's dive right into the mailbag by getting into something of a debate with our very own franchise player. O'Neal's assertion that the team's biggest need is at center is paradoxical, because he is the best candidate on the roster to fill that position. For all intents and purposes, he already is the center, offensively, because he's the primary post threat and the first option in the offense. Defensively, in order to alleviate physical wear and tear, others have guarded the opposing center, allowing O'Neal to move to power forward.

Foster, Harrison and Pollard have provided a strong variety of matchup options to ease the defensive load on O'Neal. Foster can deal with the more athletic big men; Pollard is ideally suited to the less mobile behemoth-types; while Harrison has the potential to be a game-changer because of his size, offensive skill and shot-blocking. If you could somehow combine all three into one player, you'd probably have what O'Neal wants – in fact, you'd probably have what every team (except, possibly, Miami) in the NBA wants.

Very few NBA teams have true centers anymore. It has become increasingly common for teams to go to a two-post system, where one player is the focal point, offensively, and the other plays a complementary role, either by assuming the larger defensive responsibility or providing the needed floor spacing. It was good enough for San Antonio to win a couple of championships. It worked for Detroit, with Rasheed Wallace (offense) and Ben Wallace (defense) fitting together very well, albeit unconventionally.

That said, Pollard is a free agent, Foster is coming off two years of injury problems and Harrison has been slow to develop, so there should be some level of uncertainty about that particular slot on the depth chart. The draft offers the easiest way to acquire another big body, but also the most uncertainty. As for free agents, Ben Wallace will be out of the Pacers' price range, leaving a second tier consisting of guys like Nazr Mohammed, Joel Przybilla and Michael Olowokandi. Denver's Nene, though a restricted free agent, would be a gamble, albeit at a reduced price because of his knee. That leaves trades and, when it comes to centers, it's always a seller's market in the NBA because demand far outstrips supply.

All of which is another way of saying this: quality centers are the hardest commodity to acquire. Even if Pollard leaves, the Pacers still will have a deeper crop than most. While I'm sure there will be an interest and effort in replacing Pollard, should he leave, that doesn't mean this is the position of highest priority this summer.