NBA's only five-position threat, LeBron could be a star at center
He's everywhere -- on the block, at the point, behind the arc! As his supporting cast struggles to provide consistent play against the resolute Pacers, LeBron James has displayed, once again, a stunning array of skills. This week's issue of Sports Illustrated explores how he does it all, position by position.
In an exclusive excerpt, Hall of Fame big man Bill Walton explains how LeBron could be a difference-maker at center. To read about James' impact at the other four positions from this week's issue, subscribe to Sports Illustrated here and purchase the tablet edition here.
James has played some center -- including in last year's Finals, against the Thunder's Kendrick Perkins -- though just in short spurts. Hall of Fame big man Bill Walton (conjuring up analyses both strategic and, well, esoteric) makes it clear, however, that James could handle the pivot, and for long stretches.
I think things changed for Miami when Erik Spoelstra started going more and more with what everyone calls small ball, but I call skill ball. You put your best players out there regardless of size, and if you have good, skilled players, whatever you give up, you will get back.
I think of LeBron as the center in those situations. Yes, the Heat would have to play a different game from the one with a traditional center on the floor. But it's a different game these days anyway. It's a quickness game, it's a trapping, pressing game.
And while LeBron is a "new" player in terms of size and strength, he's also a throwback. You go back to those Celtics teams of the early 1970s -- which I think are among the most underrated teams of all time -- and they put a quickness team on the floor with players like John Havlicek, Jo Jo White, Paul Westphal and Don Chaney. And the center was Dave Cowens, who is not that much different from LeBron in terms of size [Cowens was 6-foot-9 and 230 pounds] and style.
Picture how the center plays. He's not only in the low post; he's also at the pinch post [the elbow area around the foul line] and the high post. This plays right into LeBron's hands. He's an outstanding passer and has outstanding footwork, which are two things you look for in a center. One thing all the great centers had in common was mobility -- Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Cowens, David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, even Shaq. And obviously LeBron is one of the most mobile players in the league.
LeBron would give up some inches when he had to go to the hole, but Cowens could take it right at Kareem and right at Wilt. He made them play his game. LeBron would do that. He would figure out a way.
Here's something else you want from your center, and it's maybe the most difficult thing to find: a willingness to fight for the ball underneath the basket. Russell, Cowens, Nate Thurmond, those kind of guys did that, and so does LeBron. He goes in there and, because of his strength and competitiveness, he gets the ball.
Would LeBron sometimes need help defensively because he would be giving up inches? Yes. But everybody needs help. Do you think I played Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and guys like that one-on-one? And this is a help league right now.
Plus, who could guard LeBron? What center is equipped to take on that challenge? He can post you up and take you outside and shoot effortless jump shots. I remember when LeBron had to play guys for the first time and he was saying, "Omigosh, these guys are so big and physical." And I thought, OK, now he knows what it's like for guys going against him.
Plus, being a center goes beyond basketball. It's not merely a position; it's also a concept. The center is no longer about big plodding, motionless stiffs standing as monoliths waiting for the ball to fall into their laps. The center is all about movement, creativity, imagination, the vibrant, explosive game.
Only the truly unique players get to be called the center, for it's not a designation that is simply handed out. It's a title, a recognition, an acknowledgment of who really has a game.
And LeBron has a game.
-- As told to Jack McCallum