In the NBA, the winning formula used to be simple: Get a dominant center. Give him the ball in the low post. Watch him go to work.
These days, unless you're Phil Jackson, such an approach won't get you far. That's because other than Shaquille O'Neal and the injured Alonzo Mourning, there are no dominating pivots.
"There are more 7-footers than ever before," says Warriors coach Dave Cowens, a former MVP center for the Celtics. "But only a few have the all-around game to be considered great."
Hakeem Olajuwon. David Robinson. Arvydas Sabonis. Patrick Ewing. Dikembe Mutombo. Vlade Divac. Each is at least 34 years old and on the downside of his career. Meanwhile, highly touted young centers such as Michael Olowokandi, Bryant Reeves and Radoslav Nesterovic, to name just a few, have struggled to turn their considerable potential into performance.
To be sure, there is no shortage of skilled big men in the NBA. Rasheed Wallace, Kevin Garnett, Chris Webber, Tim Duncan and Karl Malone are superstar power forwards who would have held their own in the middle with players of any era. But in terms of true back-to-the-basket pivot men, the NBA is hurting.
The good news is, the landscape isn't completely bare. Chinese centers Yao Ming and Wang Zhi Zhi have captured the attention of NBA scouts, as has University of Arizona 7-footer Loren Woods. In addition, two high school seniors with scary potential -- Tyson Chandler of Compton, Calif., and Eddy Curry of South Holland, Ill. -- could spearhead another renaissance of the center position in years to come.
Traditionally, basketball fans were accustomed to a league dominated by Goliaths. George Mikan led the Minneapolis Lakers to four NBA titles in the '50s. Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell ruled the league in the '60s. Then Kareem Abdul-Jabbar took over in the '70s and '80s.
Along the way, players like Cowens, Bill Walton, Moses Malone, Elvin Hayes, Artis Gilmore, Wes Unseld, Wayne Embry, Willis Reed, Bob McAdoo and Bob Lanier, among others, kept the NBA's reputation as a center-dominated league intact.
In the '80s, Olajuwon, Robinson, Ewing, Robert Parish, Bill Laimbeer and Brad Daugherty carried on the tradition. Beginning around the late '70s, however, subtle changes in the game started to thin out the center ranks. Bigger forwards and guards meant fewer rebounds -- and fewer opportunities to post up -- for some pivots.
Double teams and sophisticated defenses forced others to move outside and shoot jump shots. Meanwhile, playing with your back to the basket somehow became less fashionable.
"When I played, we didn't have the 3-point shot, and there was more emphasis on getting the ball to the big guy," Cowens says. "There wasn't all the trapping defenses and all the double teams. Everybody had a hook shot. A lot of kids today think the hook shot is old school, like it's an embarrassment to shoot it."
Whether any of the youngsters on the horizon can return the position to its former glory remains to be seen. But if they don't, somebody else will. After all, the formula hasn't changed. It's just a matter of finding the key ingredient.
Marty Burns covers pro basketball for CNNSI.com. Click here to send Marty a question or comment.