Take a look around you. Absorb what you’re watching. These moments only come around every couple of decades. A period of time in which we get to watch those that will later be known as masters putting their signature and artistic flair upon a craft and style that we all are already familiar with.
Renaissance: A rebirth or revival
Somehow amidst one of the most exciting seasons in league history, where parody isn’t just relegated to the perennially wanton prognostications of misguided Hawks fans and Melo apologists as in seasons past, but where parody actually has meaning, as any of a possible fourteen teams have legitimate title shots. A season Where Russell is going all Oscar on us, where Andrew’s ascending, and the Warriors are scorching the league at a record pace.
Amidst all that, perhaps the most resonate narrative of this spectacular season sounds more like a Peter Jackson movie than an NBA theme. But yet here we are, witnessing the return of the giants.
In case you haven’t noticed over the last few seasons the NBA has become cached with a wealth of talented big men not collectively compiled since the mid-to-late 90’s; an era that represents the epoch of center dominance. While this current group can’t really hope to rival the late 90’s group that included all-time greats like David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, Patrick Ewing, and Alonzo Mourning (not to mention a fringe great in Dikembe Mutombo, and very skilled players in Arvedis Sabonis, Rik Smits and Zydrunas Ilgauskas) this season’s group of centers have been one of the most collectively productive groups in NBA history. All while doing it in an era that no longer sees centers as the focal point of an offensive scheme.
But how did we get here?
A long time ago, in a league far far away, a man named Michael Jordan shifted the paradigms of the collective conscious of the NBA. No longer was the Lakers’ "Showtime", the Celtics team first, or the Pistons "Jordan Rules" enough to stop the unassailable will of Michael Jordan. Jordan dominated, and coaches struggled to find ways to keep Michael from scoring, or to keep the ball out of his hands. Coaches facing the Bulls were left with the daunting task of stopping both the singular most unstoppable scorer and the most punishing perimeter defender. A paradox of how to keep the ball out of Jordan’s hands by limiting possessions, while not being able to efficiently run offense due to Jordan’s Bulls ability to lockdown opponents guards.
And then it stopped.
Before the 1994 season Jordan went on hiatus. The Bulls were no longer the greatest threat in the league. And the best player in the NBA no longer resided in Chicago.
And somewhere in Houston you could hear Rocket’s fans shout "The king is dead, long-live the king!"
Over the next two seasons the NBA finals were shadowed by the massive presence of three of the greatest centers to ever play (Shaq, Hakeem, and Ewing) and NBA teams realized that the path to championships no longer went through Chicago, but instead was being paved by the plodding feet of a dominant post presence. And so an era dominated by the most dominant player ever, who just happened to be a two-guard -a concept that was antithetical to longstanding NBA doctrine- now became the era of the center. Once again.
Now, while we all know about the King’s triumphant return and another run to three-peats, it’s undeniable that the league had changed in his absence. The NBA had again become the dominion of the bigman, as evidenced by fact that from ’94 to ’99 there was an average of 4.5 five centers among the top-twenty in usage percentage (a statistic that is typically dominated by ballhandling guards or one-on-one dominant perimeter players) with an apex of six centers in the top twenty in the ’96 season (Shaq-2nd, Hakeem-3rd, Ewing-4th, Robinson-6th, Smits-7th ((do you mean to tell me he was a better option for initiating an offense than Mark Jackson?)), and Zo-8th). For those keeping score at home that’s six centers in the top ten!
Of course the argument can be made that a part of this is surely due to the overall superlative skills of this collective group of centers, but notice that the trend began in ’94 with a peak in ’96, this shift was more in response to a changing trend in style of play league-wide, than just the glut of great centers. Add to that the fact that all-time greats like Kareem and mid-80’s Hakeem don’t even have seasons that crack the top 250 all-time in usage percentage (the stat isn’t available prior to 77′ so undoubtedly Wilt may have had a few seasons to rival the mid 90’s) and you begin to see a trend in terms of how teams were using their bigs to initiate/run offense, directly influenced by a certain "airness" and his cohorts ability to strangle an offense on the perimeter.
Where did they all go?
Then it all began to change. After ’99, as Hakeem, Ewing, Robinson, and Zo watched their bodies begin to fall prey to the deleterious machinations of time and wear-and-tear, and every young player aspired to be like Mike, the league became more perimeter-oriented. Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter and their ilk came to define an era of super-athletic players getting out into the open-court and bombing 27 footers. GM’s still aspired to find the next great center (and for the record they always have, and to varying degrees, always will), and so many a pick were used on players like Michael Olowokandi, Kwame Brown, and Yao MIng. But as these players flopped, or fell victim to what has seemed to become the inevitable plague of injuries that besiege a cadre of our most exciting young bigmen (R.I.P. Greg Oden), offenses shifted, perhaps for good. That didn’t prevent organizations from hoping they could find their next big thing, as a center or power forward was taken first overall in the draft 10 out of 11 times from 95′ to 06′ (Allen Iverson in 96′ is the sole outlier) but the league had clearly shifted to a perimeter-oriented mentality where offensive schemes were concerned. Players like Kobe, Allen Iverson, and Tracy Mcgrady came to define a generation of one-on-one players.
Along Came D’Antoni
For those wondering who to credit, or blame -depending on your stance- for the re-structuring of NBA offenses to what we are currently watching, look no further than MIke D’Antoni. During a time when the league was rife with perimeter stars, offenses still functioned under two systems; bully-ball (see Shaq, Howard, Yao) or get the ball to your best players and get the hell out of the way. And while teams like L.A. were able to make this formula work, this marginalized teams with lesser individual talents.
Enter MIke D’Antoni, via a successful stint in Italy, as the new Phoenix head coach in ’05. D’Antoni came from a European system that lauded ball movement and unselfishness, as he entered a league that played anything but that style. At Phoneix, D’Antoni had a talented low-block scorer in Amare Stoudemire, one of the most unselfish point guards in NBA history in Steve Nash, and a bevy of perimeter shooters. He also had a vision for how to open the game up and optimize possessions, bringing with him the unselfish ball movement and point guard dictated offenses that he had had such success with in Italy. Sure those Phoenix teams are known for their relentless fast-breaking and 8 seconds or less mentality, but their indelible mark was their ability to kill you in the pick-and-roll game.
In the halfcourt set, D’Antoni’s scheme forced teams to pick their poison between Nash coming around a screen, or a hard-charging athletic force in Stoudemire slicing through the paint after rolling. While few teams can hope to replicate the combined skill of Nash and Stoudemire, coaches quickly began to co-op this offensive philosophy, as it optimized a skilled point guard’s ability to dissect a defense while still getting the team’s big’s great looks in the painted area. A melding of best case scenarios. Now the point guard was back to being the primary decision maker, something we hadn’t seen as a theme since the 80’s, and yet teams were still able to get their dominant presence the ball in the paint without the inevitable plodding as he tried to get to his preferred spot of attack. Double-teams no longer could immediately come to force the ball out of the big’s hands, as defensive rotations meant a perimeter shooter would be left open and now the team’s best decision-maker could dissect the defense, rather than their post player. In D’Antoni’s first season Phoenix would go on to lead the league in points per game by almost an entire seven points over second place finisher Sacramento (Phoenix averaged 110.4 to Sacramento’s 103,7). Of course a big part of this was Phoenix’s high-reving fast-break offense, but while Phoenix was deadly in the open-court, they were beguiling in the half-court set.
Further proof as to how effective or different D’Antnoi’s system really was is the immediate impact it had on his best two player’s. Nash would go to win his first MVP, while leading the league in assists (by 2.5 more per game than second place finisher Brevin Knight). And Stoudemire’s points per game jumped by 6 per contest to 26 per (still his career high), while leading the league in 2 point field goals (in no small-part due to how many opportunities he had at the rim with lobs from Nash after rolling on a pick) and finished 4th in PER at a robust 26.6.
The league’s ethos was shifting, and D’Antoni was leading the charge. Centers needn’t be the dominant offensive force. Point guards could now dictate the game while directly keeping the bigman pacified. Prior to Nash’s ’05 and ’06 MVP campaigns, only one point guard had ever been taken first overall (Magic in 79′). Following that three point guards were taken first overall in a five-year stretch (Derrick Rose in 08′, John Wall in 10′, and Kyrie Irving in 11′). Bigmen were no longer the key to franchise success. Even more important was the number of teams that soon adopted pick and roll heavy offenses. The Clippers, Wizards, Hawks, Blazers, Hornets/Pelicans and others, all adopted offensive schemes that looked incredibly similar to the Phoenix half-court sets. This in turn helped spurn the growth of the three-point specialist as well, as defenders "digging-in" were made to pay by their open man in the near corner. But most importantly it redefined the way teams looked to get their bigs the ball.
So that brings us back to now
Within this new offensive system centers are no longer the mechanism by which dominance is achieved. Offensively a center is now expected to do the dirty work that once was relegated to the bruising power forwards of the late 90’s. While defensively they are still expected to protect the rim in a manner that their height dictates. Teams are no longer looking for the next Shaq’ -gone are the days of watching a center post, and re-post, in mind-numbing repetition just in an effort to force feed him the ball- teams would now rather win with some amalgam version of Charles Oakley and Mutombo. Gritty, yet unselfish, especially in terms of expecting the ball every time down on the offensive end.
That’s not to say this group lacks talent or depth. There are a legitimate 16 high-quality starting centers in the league right now. And while some of those include offensive forces like Nikola Vucevic or Demarcus Cousins, the group is far more supplied with players like Rudy Gobert or Timofey Mozgov; centers able to affect the game without being significant offensive threats yet fill the stat sheet at the end of the evening.
Indicative of this is the fact that of those 16 centers 13 of them have PER’s above 20 at this point in the season. If the season were to end now that would be three more than the prior record of ten in 2013 (still representative of this current group of centers) and well above the average of 6 centers with such a PER from 96′ to 12′. In fact, this year 14 of the top 40 NBA players in player efficiency rating are centers, and there have been no less than 9 centers in the top 40 over the last four seasons. And its of note that that many centers are currently ranked in the top 40 in PER despite the fact that Demarcus Cousins is the only center in the top 40 in usage percentage. That means players are scoring with fewer touches, and with less holdding of the ball. Cousins as well is the outlier for most of this discussion in terms of this generation of centers. Fellow post-heavy bigmen Al Jefferson, Tim Duncan, and Dwight Howard are remnants of a time bygone. Cousins is the only "classic" back to the basket center amongst this current generation, thusly his numbers are far more representative of players from a more post-heavy era.
And though scoring is only a part of player efficiency rating, it’s a very large part, and combined with the absurd number of centers who shoot almost solely from the paint, this many centers with such efficiency numbers speaks directly to the effect of the pick and roll and where it positions these players for scoring. Deandre Jordan, Tyson Chandler and Rudy Gobert take an average of 93% of their shoots at the rim! This tells us that the new emphasis on high percentage shots and limited low block opportunities is forcing centers into positions of success. And that’s s the point.
Teams are now optimizing the ability of this crop of athletic centers to go up and get it, via lob or offensive rebound. D’Antoni began the revolution, but that’s because Stoudemire had the ability to kill defenses when he rolled to the basket. From there came Tyson Chandler, and the half-court game was never the same. There’s a reason Deandre Jordan has only attempted one shot outside of the paint this season, because coaches finally realized that if you never gave centers like Olden Polynice the ball on the elbow, we never would have had to be subjected to that contortionistic interpretation of a follow-through.
And Somewhere Bill Russell Smiles
Outside of their yeoman’s work on the offensive end, what makes this group so exciting to watch is their commitment to affecting the game in all phases. Tyson Chandler, Rudy Gobert, Deandre Jordan, Joakim Noah, Andre Drummond, Hasaan Whiteside (whose 26.9 rebound percentage would be the second highest in a season ever were it to qualify), and several others, comprise a group of bigman who have found a way to dominate without the ball in their hands. This current crop of centers are rebounding and defensive minded players. A group whose offensive skillset is comprised primarily of planting their feet, setting a solid screen, and then busting their ass for a rim run. Though the execution seems simple, the results are deadly. And while you may never see any in this group execute a dream shake, or a sky-hook, as their offensive acumen, or lack thereof, is something of a by-product of the aforementioned shift in bigman culture mixed with the inability for many of these players to cultivate their post game while in college because of the culture of one-and-done, their efforts on the defensive end and on the boards speaks to their physical attributes and collective tenacity.
The numbers tell you these guys are effective.
The eye test tells you these guys are good.
Watch Rudy shutdown the paint, Drummond do his best Moses impersonation on the boards, or Deandre catch every lob within the stratosphere and you know that these guys may do it differently, but man they do what they do well.
With potential number one overall selections, Karl-Anthony Towns a bigman with great face up skills, or Jahlil Okafor, a far more classic-style of back to the basket bigman, perhaps we will see something shift again if these two live up to to be the stars everyone predicts them to be. A dominant bigman is always in demand, but it seems, whether these offensive minded bigs live up to their hype or not, that perhaps what we are seeing is a different way of defining bigman dominance. And both the league and the game of basketball are better for it.