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Jack McCallum
February 22, 1988
The once dominant NBA center has all but disappeared
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February 22, 1988

Where Are They?

The once dominant NBA center has all but disappeared

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Or, on the other hand, have there been changes in the game that are keeping you from dominating? To continue the offensive tackle analogy, perhaps you are playing better than ever, but guards and forwards are just getting most of the attention. Is that possible?

Says Don Nelson, executive vice-president of the Golden State Warriors: "For whatever reason, the multipurpose, multitalented center doesn't exist anymore in the college ranks. I think it's just a demise in the talent of big players."

He's partly right. But there are several other reasons that explain why, as a group, NBA pivotmen are no longer front and center:

CHANGES IN THE GAME—Reason No. 1 is elementary. There are bigger and better players all over the floor. Centers used to be able to dominate, particularly on the boards, simply by being so much taller than everyone else. "You look at small forwards back in the early '70s and the difference is ridiculous," says Mitch Kupchak, assistant general manager of the Lakers. "Guys like Mike Riordan and Bill Bradley couldn't compete with Dave Cowens or Wes Unseld for a rebound. A lot of times the ball would go up and those guys would take off and bolt, get out on the break. 'Leave the rebounding to the big guys.' That's the way it used to be."

Bigger players all over means, naturally, bigger forwards, forwards who are going to compete with centers for the rebounds. Chicago's Charles Oakley (6'9"), Boston's Kevin McHale (6'10") and Atlanta's Kevin Willis (7'0"), power forwards all, would have certainly been centers 10 or 15 years ago. On many teams, in fact, "power forward" has come to mean "rebounding forward." Players like Oakley, the Clippers' Michael Cage, the Lakers' A.C. Green and the Nets' Buck Williams are expected to rebound, rather than play the classic forward position.

By the same token, there are lots of big forwards who want the ball on offense, and who want it down low, in the area that was, in the Chamberlain-Russell days, almost exclusively reserved for the center. There are also forwards nowadays who want room to maneuver and call for the ball out by the foul line. That post area was the hub of most early NBA offenses, and in the hub of the hub was, of course, the center. It was only logical. Throw the ball into the pivot, populated by a veritable giant, and give him the option of passing to a cutter, taking a hook shot, or making some kind of power move. Except for players like Pettit, whose skills were extraordinary for a 6'9" forward of his day, and the 6'5" Elgin Baylor, whose skills would have been extraordinary in any era, forwards tended to play a subordinate role to the centers.

"Forwards didn't demand as much playing area years ago," says Reed. "They didn't post up as much and played the perimeter more. When I was with the Knicks, for example, we ran nothing for [Dave] DeBusschere on the post."

That isn't true today. Any player on the floor, except for, say, the Bullets' 5'4" Muggsy Bogues or a nonshooter like Denver's T.R. Dunn, is likely to post up near the basket from time to time. "It's not important for the center to be your post-up player," says Laimbeer, "as long as a team has someone who is. Ours [Adrian Dantley] happens to be 6'5"."

O.K., but having bigger players all over the court doesn't completely explain the disappearing-center phenomenon. Nor does it explain why the center is no longer the focal point of the offense. It seems so simple to get the ball to your tallest player, give him some space and let him throw up a hook shot or make a power move. Chamberlain averaged 39.6 points a game over his first seven seasons (50.4 in 1961-62) that way. Abdul-Jabbar has scored more than 37,000 points that way.

CHANGES IN DEFENSES—Times have changed and so have defenses. "To get the ball down there and score nowadays," says veteran Portland center Caldwell Jones, "you have to be selfish."

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