Can't anybody around here play the pivot anymore?
Posted Jan 31 2012 9:30AM
Can a player who never hears his number called on offense and doesn't even lead his team in rebounds make the All-Star Game? Well, not only is it possible, it very well could happen.
And this is no disrespect to DeAndre Jordan of the Clippers, a bouncy, hard-working defender with velcro hands that come in handy when catching lob passes. It just says more about the center position and how secondary it has become.
Dwight Howard is the most dominant big man in a league running short on supreme 7-foot talent. It used to be a player that big would be tough to hide. But plenty of teams now are doing a good job of making centers all but invisible. Or maybe centers are doing that to themselves.
Wouldn't you de-emphasize the position if your big man didn't offer much, especially offensively?
In a trend that is flourishing mainly by default, teams are plugging the middle with one-dimensional role players, power forwards or simply someone who can breathe. We might be looking at the least-imposing group of centers in a long while, maybe ever. The most important position on the floor looks the weakest.
"You just can't find dominant big men, at least not in great numbers," said Rick Sund, the general manager of the Hawks. "It's always been the hardest position to fill, but even more right now. And I don't know why."
Only Howard, Andrea Bargnani, Al Jefferson and Greg Monroe lead their teams in scoring. That's four out of 30 starting centers. And Bargnani is a shooter and hardly a center in the traditional sense, if that even exists anymore. Other than rebounding and blocking shots, centers aren't asked to do anything except stay out of the way.
Essentially, the revolution is long over. The evolution continues. Point guard is now the richest position in terms of depth and skill; almost every team has a good one. Then the swing positions. Centers, the dependable ones anyway, are a rare luxury.
Just digest some of the more interesting scenarios playing out at center around the league:
Blazers: Stung by the string of surgeries to Greg Oden, Portland might make it possible for Marcus Camby to play until he's 40.
Celtics: They're starting Jermaine O'Neal, who's in his 16th year and might get four touches a game. And he's younger and more active than the O'Neal the Celtics tried last year.
Bulls: Joakim Noah's rebounding is 9.1 a game, down from 11.7. His sideways-spinning jumper is something to behold.
Heat: Once home to Alonzo Mourning and Shaquille O'Neal, the middle is being manned by Joel Anthony and Eddy Curry. And Anthony, anyway, is constantly praised for bringing "energy," which surprisingly doesn't translate into many rebounds.
Hornets: Emeka Okafor, taken after Howard in the 2004 Draft, has career averages of 12 points and 10 rebounds and has never made an All-Star team. Howard is 18 and 13 and a four-time All-NBA first team and three-time Defensive Player of the Year.
Timberwolves: They gave a contract to Darko Millicic, whose career was left for dead after he imploded with the Pistons, the team that drafted him over Dwyane Wade (among others) because he was big.
"You'll see a game where most of the time, a center won't be among the 10 players on the floor," said Sund.
In the seven drafts since Howard, franchise centers have been hard to come by. Andrew Bogut was taken first overall in 2005, followed later by Andrew Bynum. But they've been staggered by injuries. And both, when healthy, have made a career of feasting on centers who are too short or too limited to challenge them.
Since the Howard draft, only one draft has produced an All-Star, and that player, 6-foot-10 Al Horford, believes he's better off at power forward, a position he'll never play for the Hawks unless they find a true (and decent enough) center.
The centers drafted among the top 10 since Howard: Bargnani, Patrick O'Bryant, Oden, Spencer Hawes, Horford, Brook Lopez, Hasheem Thabeet, DeMarcus Cousins (who also plays power forward for the Kings) and Jonas Valanciunas. Not exactly an imposing group.
After the Raptors used the fifth pick last summer on Valanciunas, who's still tied contractually to his club team in Europe and won't play in the NBA this season, coach Dwane Casey said: "I don't care if the guy is from outer space, because you can't find a lot of big guys that can run the floor, are athletic with great hands, dives down the lane and finishes at the rim."
If the 19-year-old can do all that, he'll immediately find himself at the front of the line among NBA centers.
The shortage of decent pivot players can be blamed on expansion (not enough big men to fill 30 teams), AAU ball (suspect teaching methods) or the fact it's just hard for mothers to give birth to 7-footers who can do a drop-step without tripping. Even with the search for capable big man going global, how many more Yao Mings have emerged from the billion or so candidates in China?
At this rate, plenty of teams would be thrilled to settle for another DeAndre Jordan. They don't make many like him anymore, you know.
Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.
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