View Full Version : The once dominant NBA center has all but disappeared WHERE ARE THEY? 1988 SI Article

08-23-2014, 05:44 PM
Piggybacking off the thread made by KnicksorBust. I read this article last month and thought it was a great read. Rule changes and the glamour of wing athleticism are easy answers to the question. But I thought it was worth noting that this isn't the first time purists worried about the extinction of great post play in the NBA. I pasted the article but its easier to read if you click the link. Gotta love the Sports Illustrated vault.


The once dominant NBA center has all but disappeared WHERE ARE THEY?

Originally Posted: February 22, 1988

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
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 ft. 4 in.
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 ft. 4 in. Jeff takes more
shots than 6 ft. 10 in. 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.
It's odd: Teams get taller and taller, yet the dominant players,
more and more, are the smaller, all-around ''versatiles,'' the ones
who play everywhere except center -- Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson,
Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Clyde Drexler, Fat Lever, Harper, Alvin
Ah, but perhaps the center position will once again take center
stage when Ensign David Robinson enters the league, probably for the
1989-90 season. Assuming that he can beat out the Three Amigos
currently manning the pivot for the San Antonio Spurs -- Frank
Brickowski, Petur Gudmundsson and Kurt Nimphius -- we will see a
center who seems to have the classic tools. Robinson is 7 ft. 1 in.,
he plays with his back to the basket (though he can also face up and
run the floor), he shoots a hook shot and a turnaround jumper, he
dunks, he rebounds, he blocks shots.
''Maybe Robinson will be the one,'' says Willis Reed, the former
Knicks center who's now an assistant coach with the Sacramento Kings.
''He's certainly the only guy with a realistic chance. It's very slim
pickings beside him.''
Not everyone accepts the premise that good centers are
disappearing, however. ''If there are players that easy, where are
they?'' asks Olajuwon. ''I want to play them.'' Says Sacramento coach
Bill Russell, considered by many to be the best center ever to play
the game: ''There never were more than three dominant centers at a
time. I know when I played, the only other center that dominated was
Wilt ((Chamberlain)).'' Atlanta coach Mike Fratello agrees. ''I think
people might be pushing alarm buttons saying that the end of an era
is at hand,'' says Fratello. ''What era? We had three or four really
great big men, and the whole rest of the so-called big-men era might
be a myth.''
There is some truth to that. The history of the NBA to this point
can be divided into three distinct eras, all dominated by centers:
the George Mikan ) Era from 1948 (his first year in the NBA) to 1954
(his last productive season); the Chamberlain-Era from 1956
(Russell's first year) to 1969 (Russell's last); and the Abdul-Jabbar
Era, which began in 1969 and ended sometime in the early '80s when
Magic Johnson and Larry Bird started the era of the do-everything
player. Moses had a few dominant seasons but not enough to define an
era. Bill Walton might have been the center to take over for
Abdul-Jabbar and rule through the mid-'80s, but his foot injuries --
sadly -- turned that into mere speculation. There was no Walt Bellamy
And, to be sure, even those who do feel that good centers are
vanishing are hardly pushing panic buttons. The game is better than
ever, more entertaining than ever. Watching Magic Johnson run is
certainly more aesthetically pleasing than watching Bells toil.
Still, something is missing without those colorful pivotmen of
old. Run them through that 8-mm film loop in your mind: Mikan, the
late Neil Johnston, Clyde Lovellette, Arnie Risen, Harry Gallatin and
Johnny (Red) Kerr. Then, along came Wayne Embry. Followed by Bellamy
and Zelmo Beaty. Followed by Nate Thurmond and Reed. In the '70s,
Abdul-Jabbar wasn't all alone; there were Gilmore, Wes Unseld, Dave
Cowens, Bob Lanier and Elvin Hayes, not to mention Moses and Walton,
one with a face of stone, the other with a ponytail and headband.
Says Pistons general manager Jack McCloskey, ticking off some of
those names: ''I don't think Pat Ewing is in a class with those
It's not so much the pivotman's scoring that's missing -- aside
from Mikan, Johnston, Wilt, Kareem and Bob McAdoo, centers have never
really dominated NBA scoring lists. Still, in only two seasons
(1958-59 and '83-84) has a center not been among the top 10 scorers,
and that could happen this season. No, the big difference is on the
boards. During the first four decades of the NBA, forwards and
guards, for the most part, went up for a rebound only at their own
risk. Cleaning glass was a job for Windex and centers. There were a
few exceptions, such as Dolph Schayes, Bob Pettit and Maurice Stokes,
forwards in centers' bodies, who could rebound with most of the
pivotmen in the '50s. So could Oscar Robertson, the Big O, who in
'61-62 became the first guard to sneak into the top 10 in rebounding
(he was eighth with a 12.5 average).
And now? The 7-foot Ewing makes $3 million per year to average
about one more rebound per game than Denver's Lever, a 6 ft. 3 in.
guard, or three fewer rebounds per game than Barkley, a 6 ft. 4 1/2
in. forward.
Attention, centers -- what gives? Are you going the way of the
dinosaur? Or is there a center shortage in our country right now,
just as we have a teacher shortage or a doctor shortage from time to
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 ft. 9 in.), Boston's Kevin McHale (6 ft.
10 in.) and Atlanta's Kevin Willis (7 ft. 0 in.), 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 ft. 9 in. forward of his day, and the 6 ft. 5 in. 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 ft. 4 in. 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 ft. 5 in..''
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.''
Why? Because a guard will double down on a center whenever the
ball goes into the post. Or a forward will come over to help. Or both
a guard and a forward will come over, setting up a triple-team and
making the center feel like he's trying to change clothes in a phone
booth. ''It's no longer me- against-you in there,'' says
Abdul-Jabbar, who won a large majority of his ''me-against-you''
battles over the years. ''You start out alone with a guy, but all
teams send at least four people to the boards, sometimes five.
Defenses are focused on people inthe post because they're closest to
the basket. That's just common sense.''
Obviously, there are few easy shots in the post now. Says
Portland's Johnson, a .582 lifetime percentage shooter: ''You used
to be able to catch the ball and then just back your man down. The
defenses are not going to let you do that anymore. If you're going to
do something down there now, you better make some awfully quick
moves.'' Sorry, Steve, few NBA centers have ''awfully quick''
attached to their names. Consequently, the swarming defenses quite
easily take the more representative ones out of the offense unless
they are able to compensate with strength or outside shooting skill.

Consider Indiana Pacer center Steve Stipanovich. He is effective
because he has the quickness and all-around athletic ability to turn
himself into a perimeter-type offensive center along the lines of
Laimbeer. Meanwhile, Stuart Gray and Greg Dreiling, his backups, are
practically helpless against the suffocating double- and triple-teams
because they are so slow.
But more aggressive team defense doesn't explain the disappearing
center completely, either. Why aren't more big men learning proven
center techniques such as Abdul-Jabbar-type sky hooks, or low-post
moves like the ones Johnson has worked on? Sure Olajuwon is a gifted
natural athlete, but isn't it strange that this immigrant from
Nigeria seemed to learn more about low-post play in one year -- his
first in the NBA -- than most young American centers learn in a
lifetime? Why is it, according to Trail Blazer coach Mike Schuler,
that ''a lot of centers come to us and don't have the proper
CHANGES IN THE PLAYER -- Zone defenses are banned in the NBA
because they make muck of play underneath the basket and particularly
inhibit the giants who have traditionally been the pro game's
greatest attractions. College coaches have to beat zones, and to do
so they need face-the-basket jump shooters. And, even if they asked
for volunteers to learn the classic back-to-the-basket center moves,
they might not get any takers.
''Kids growing up today love to play facing the basket,'' says
coach Morgan Wooten of DeMatha High in suburban Washington, D.C., one
of the country's most respected schoolboy coaches. ''A kid gets big,
gets some skill, and he doesn't want to become Kareem. He wants to
become a small forward or a Magic Johnson. I liken it exactly to the
reason we never seem to have enough good baseball catchers. Kids
don't want to put on those tools of the trade. It's tough in there,
what with the defenses designed to shut off the inside. So you have a
^ situation where, to begin with, kids aren't working hard to become
skilled inside players, and, second, it's not very glamorous.''
So, why don't high school coaches force their talented 7-footers
to learn the classic pivotman's game? Maybe they'll be tutoring the
next Abdul-Jabbar.
''Most coaches bend the system to fit the kids,'' says Wooten.
''And the kids want to face the basket.''
WHAT'S IN THE FUTURE? -- And here's the way it is in the NBA: The
eternal search for the ''franchise'' center, the man who can hoist a
team on his back and carry it to the championship -- the way
Abdul-Jabbar did the Milwaukee Bucks in '70-71 -- continues unabated
in many quarters. Before this season began, Portland, which in 1984
drafted Sam Bowie, a center, ahead of Michael Jordan, would have
parted with the multitalented Drexler to pry Sampson loose from
Houston. And Nelson gave up two All-Stars, guard Sleepy Floyd and
center Joe Barry Carroll, to get Sampson (and guard Steve Harris) to
Golden State two months ago. Says Cleveland general manager Embry:
''I'm still convinced that you need a great center to win in this
league. Basketball hasn't changed that much.'' That's why Embry's
first move upon being hired by the Cavaliers in June 1986 was to ship
Roy Hinson and $800,000 to Philadelphia for the right to draft
Daugherty, Cleveland's center for the '90s.
Will the current crop of college centers help reverse the trend
when they graduate to the NBA? According to Marty Blake, the NBA's
chief scout, the top five pivotmen available for the draft in June
are Rik Smits of Marist, Rony Seikaly of Syracuse, Will Perdue of
Vanderbilt, Eric Leckner of Wyoming and Rolando Ferreira of Houston.
Are those pulses still racing? The best of them is probably Smits,
and no one, to date, has predicted a Rik Smits Era.
Since basketball aficionados search for centers with the intensity
of ornithologists stalking the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker, there
is already much talk about the talented senior class of high school
centers, led by Alonzo Mourning, a 6 ft. 10 in. smoothie from Indian
River High in Chesapeake, Va., who is bound for Georgetown. Will we
get our next Chamberlain, our next Russell, our next Abdul-Jabbar
from that group?
Wooten certainly is a doubter. ''I already know the first question
a lot of these guys asked recruiters. 'Who are you going to get at
center, because I want to play forward?' '' he says. ''I don't know
who out of this class will even be a center.''
As things stand now, perhaps Daugherty, with his smooth passing
and heady play, will be the center of attention in the '90s. Or maybe
it will be Ewing. Or perhaps Olajuwon, the best bet. Now that the
long shadow of Sampson no longer constrains him, maybe Akeem will put
together a few monster seasons of the old-fashioned 30-point,
20-rebound variety.
Or, it could be Robinson. Can he be an officer, a gentleman and an
NBA people aren't exactly bubbly about his chances. Says Detroit
general manager McCloskey, ''He hasn't demonstrated up to now that
he's got what the great ones had.'' And here's a scouting report on
Robinson courtesy of Rick Mahorn, the Pistons' bullyboy power
forward: ''They talk about this Robinson kid, but he looks to be a
finesse player who runs the floor. He's nothing like Wilt was or
even like Akeem is now.'' Better polish up that hard hat, Ensign.
Yes, these are hard times for NBA centers, what with collapsing
defenses stifling their shots and forwards who are more like tall
tight ends grabbing away their rebounds. Pay heed, those who would
crown David as king, and lower your expectations. Never mind asking
whether Robinson will become another Chamberlain, Russell or
Abdul-Jabbar. A more germane question for this center- less time is
this: Will David Robinson's best ever match Walt Bellamy's?