Traditional centers Howard, Bynum two of rare breed
LOS ANGELES — The “dinosaurs” live.
They don’t rule the NBA as they once did, but neither do they seem heading to extinction, as Shaquille O’Neal has so often predicted.
The traditional dominant 7-footers remain a rare breed. Orlando Magic general manager Otis Smith said Saturday there are just five true centers left. But the NBA Finals features two who will spend the series crashing into each other the way it was for so many years before rules changed and the giants abandoned the paint.
The Magic have been built around Dwight Howard. The Los Angeles Lakers have been grooming Andrew Bynum. Along with Yao Ming, O’Neal and a fifth center Smith would not identify, there is a renewed sense that championships can still come in giant packages.
“People needed to be reminded,” said Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a Lakers assistant tutoring Bynum. “The personnel hasn’t led itself to that. It’s a very effective way to play the game and to win. There are a lot of 7-footers. They just don’t play that way.”
Like Abdul-Jabbar, the centers in the Finals and their teams’ general managers said the move away from traditional centers was not by choice. With few dominant centers left, teams found other ways to win. That doesn’t mean they wanted to change.
“If you polled most coaches and asked them where you’d like to start, I think they’d say with a great center or a great ball-handling guard,” Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said. “The easiest, most high-percentage shot is the one closest to the basket. That’s going to happen most often with a dominant center.”
“We know if you rebound, clog the paint and defend from the basket out, you have a better chance of winning. I don’t think that’s going to change, and the only way to do that is to have dominant big men.”
The Chicago Bulls dynasty, Kupchak said, “broke tradition.” The Miami Heat had O’Neal, but he was far from his dominant Lakers days by the time Dwyane Wade carried Miami to a title against the Mavericks, whose stars played outside the paint.
The Detroit Pistons and Boston Celtics lacked dominant centers. In the Spurs’ three championships since David Robinson retired, power forward Tim Duncan handled much of the center responsibilities but usually with someone else playing center next to him.
“We’ve seen the game change,” Kupchak said. “The line and the rules, the zone defenses, encourage teams to take jump shots. But I really believe if you can have a dominant big man — they certainly have one that dominates, and we have one who we believe can dominate, and Pau (Gasol) is a low-post player too — it’s a way to win.”
Though the Lakers hope Bynum, 21, becomes that sort of force, progress stalled by his injuries each of the past two seasons, Howard is considered a worthy heir to the legends, with ample room and time to grow.
“He would be an even better asset to his team if he had a go-to shot,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “He doesn’t have a lot of smooth offensive skills. I can see where he’s worked on his hook shot with Patrick (Ewing). But having a good offensive game to complement his incredible defensive skills would just make him that much better.
“(Bynum) has got the tools. He doesn’t exactly know how to use them. He hasn’t competed a lot. He started playing in high school. The injuries have slowed him down.”
Both are a long way from Abdul-Jabbar’s standard as a six-time champion and all-time leading scorer. But Howard, 23, has surpassed Yao as the league’s top-scoring center, was the defensive player of the year and took the Magic to the Finals in his fifth season by defying the trends of other big men of his generation.
“I get asked all the time, ‘When is Dwight going to develop a 17-foot jump shot’, and I say, ‘Why does he need a 17-foot jump shot? Because everyone else has one?’” Magic GM Otis Smith said.
“There are not many (dominant centers) left because we’re all making them into jump shooters. There’s maybe five centers left. Most centers want to be guards. We’re fortunate to have a center who can play with a back to the basket and do the things you need to win.”
“It is a copycat league – if you can. If you don’t have a big, you can’t play big.”
In some ways, however, little has changed. Kupchak said current rules allowing zone-oriented defenses provide ways to defend big men without another big man, but that no coach would choose it.
“Teams with an effective big man dominating have a big, big plus to get to this level (the Finals,”) Gasol said. “I don’t know if they forgot it or not. The league markets the smaller men. We can go out there, be effective and help our team to win.”
A traditional 7-footer will win this season’s title. Rather than moving toward extinction, they could be ready to flourish again.
“I think we both have a lot of respect for each other,” Howard said. “And knowing that we’re like dinosaurs in the NBA, there’s not a lot of us, so we have to stick together.”