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Go back 22 years to the 1965-66 NBA season when the immortal Walter Bellamy averaged 22.8 points and 15.7 rebounds for the Bullets and Knicks. Yo, Bells—these days that's a $2 million season for a center. Now fast-forward to the '72-73 season and focus on Neal Walk, who was never much better than a journeyman center. Walk averaged 20.2 points and 12.4 rebounds for Phoenix. Rich Kelley is remembered more for his quick wit than for his quick moves in the pivot. Yet in the '78-79 season all he did was average 15.7 points and 12.8 rebounds (second-best in the league behind Moses Malone) for the New Orleans Jazz. Today, James Donaldson of Dallas, who played in this year's NBA All-Star game, would gladly take those numbers. As of the weekend he was averaging 6.8 points and 9.7 rebounds per game.
Remember Swen Nater? Here's a center who averaged 15.0 rebounds to lead the NBA in the '79-80 season. By comparison, Akeem Olajuwon, a contemporary center who is highly praised for his rebounding, has yet to average more than 11.9 rebounds in three seasons with the Houston Rockets.
So, what's going on here? While no NBA executive would take Kelley and Nater over Olajuwon, there is, nevertheless, a trend to be divined from those comparisons. Consider:
Olajuwon, the leading scorer among NBA centers, stood only 15th among all players through Sunday's games. Only four centers (Olajuwon, Detroit's Bill Laimbeer, Washington's Malone and Philadelphia's Mike Gminski) are among the top 10 rebounders. Peruse the list of field goal percentage shooters, long a category dominated by pivotmen, and you'll find only Boston's Robert Parish and New York's Bill Cartwright upholding the honor of the centers.
Quick—name the topflight NBA centers age 30 or under. Remember, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is 40, Parish 34 and Malone 32. For you sentimentalists who want to include Artis Gilmore, recently waived by Chicago and picked up by Boston, he's 38. Here's your list: Olajuwon and the Knicks' Patrick Ewing, both 25; Golden State's Ralph Sampson, 27; Cleveland's Brad Daugherty, a babe of 22. Laimbeer is an even 30.
And there are many who would quibble with even that short list. Though his scoring average has slipped two points this season (from 23.4 to its current 21.4), can we agree that Olajuwon makes it? O.K., let's agree. But some would not include Sampson, who at 7'4" has all the tools but perhaps not the heart. Others would leave out Laimbeer, a tough defensive rebounder and deadly outside shooter but neither an inside scorer nor a shot-blocker. Others would eliminate Ewing, a grand physical specimen but still a work in progress, albeit an expensive one. And others would exclude Daugherty, who needs another season or two to prove himself conclusively.
Centers are not only deficient in stats these days, they're not much in the pizzazz department, either. Jeez, what will the once grand pivot position look like when Abdul-Jabbar, Parish and Malone, the oldies but goodies, hang it up? Will centers become as faceless as offensive tackles? It's not just the ones on bad teams, like Benoit Benjamin (Clippers) and Joe Kleine (Kings), who fail to bring color to the paint. Consider several of those employed by some of the stronger franchises:
Atlanta is one of the best teams in the East, with a combination of Jon Koncak and 32-year-old Tree Rollins in the middle. Chicago's starting center is Mike Brown. Dallas is currently ruling the Midwest with Donaldson in the pivot, while Denver is chasing the Mavericks with a trifecta of Wayne Cooper, Danny Schayes and Blair Rasmussen. Milwaukee is hanging tough in the Central with Randy Breuer, while Portland is second in the Pacific behind the Lakers with Steve Johnson. Is your pulse racing yet?
Each of the above players has at least one NBA skill, but none fits the traditional center's triple-threat billing of scorer/rebounder/shot-blocker. Who's the best of them? Lord knows. Breuer? While his improved play is the talk of Milwaukee, he's having a career year with less-than-eye-popping averages of 13.6 points and 7.7 rebounds per game. Portland's Johnson is the best offensive player of the lot (17.9 points per game), but he's an average rebounder and not much of a defensive presence, and he has been hurt recently. On it goes.
Rarely is a center the focus of his team's offense anymore. Abdul-Jabbar is now the fourth-leading scorer for the Lakers, and, in the Bullets' Malone & Malone offense, 6'4" Jeff takes more shots than 6'10" Moses. (So does Bernard King.) Yes, Houston's first look is to Olajuwon, New York's is to Ewing, and Cleveland's may be to Daugherty (at least until guard Ron Harper is completely healthy), but the offense of every other team revolves around a forward or a guard.