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Off-center

Traditional centers hard to find in today's NBA

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Posted: Thursday March 01, 2001 1:55 AM
Updated: Thursday March 01, 2001 11:04 AM

  Kevin Garnett's athleticism allows him to play power forward instead of center. Jamie SquireAllsport

By Jacob Luft, CNNSI.com

The traditional center doesn't have much of a place in the NBA of the 21st century.

Among the top 40 scorers in the league, there is only one player -- Shaquille O'Neal -- whose name appears in a box score with a "C" after his name.

That wasn't the case as recently as 1995-96, when as many as five centers finished in the top 10 in scoring average (see chart, below). But over the past three seasons, O'Neal has been the only center among the league's scoring leaders.

Diminishing Value
MVP awards won by centers since 1960, broken down by decade. (Point your mouse over each number for the complete list):
Years  MVPs 
1961-70  9 
1971-80  10 
1981-90  2 
1991-00  3 
 
 

Part of the reason is the lack of upper-echelon big men coming out of college. From 1983 to '87, these elite pivotmen were the top overall picks in the draft: Ralph Sampson (1983), Hakeem Olajuwon ('84), Patrick Ewing ('85), Brad Daugherty ('86), David Robinson ('87). Another center, Pervis Ellison, was the top pick in '89.

Since then, the only centers taken with the top pick have been O'Neal ('92) and the underachieving Michael Olowokandi ('98). Faced with this dearth of collegiate big men, NBA teams have looked anywhere and everywhere for a center (see Frederic Weis, the Knicks' 1999 first-round draft pick).

Another explanation for the lack of traditional centers in the NBA is the increased versatility of modern athletes. Players tall enough to play center often have the quickness to play power forward (i.e., Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett). Of the seven players 6-foot-10 or taller in the All-Star Game, only three (Dikembe Mutombo, Vlade Divac and Robinson) are considered traditional centers. The other four -- Duncan, Garnett, Chris Webber and Rasheed Wallace -- are power forwards who could play the five spot.

Center Pieces
NBA centers in the top 10 in scoring average (overall rank in parentheses):
Year  No.  Centers 
2000-01  Shaquille O'Neal* (4) 
1999-00  O'Neal (1) 
1998-99  O'Neal (2) 
1997-98  O'Neal (2); David Robinson (10) 
1996-97  Hakeem Olajuwon (7); Patrick Ewing (8) 
1995-96  Olajuwon (2); O'Neal (3); Robinson (5); Alonzo Mourning (T7); Ewing (9) 
1994-95  O'Neal (1); Olajuwan (2); Robinson (3); Ewing (6) 
1993-94  Robinson (1); O'Neal (2); Olajuwan (3); Ewing (6) 
1992-93  Olajuwan (4); Ewing (6); O'Neal (T8); Robinson (T8) 
1991-92  Ewing (5); Robinson (7) 
1990-91  Ewing (5); Robinson (9) 
1989-90  Ewing (3); Olajuwon (T7); Robinson (T7) 
* Through Feb. 27
 

 
Related information
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Head to Head: Do you need a center?
Statitudes: NBA traditional centers hard to find
SI's Marty Burns: Evolution of the NBA's Big Man
Power Rankings: Center Stage
Photo Galley: 10 Centers Who Changed the Game
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