The Dinosaurs Part 1: The Near-Extinction of the Center Position

Photo from Getty Images

In the modern NBA, being tall is nearly a death sentence for many players.

While big men before would be praised for being, well, big, today’s centers would be punished heavily for their size. Teams now hunt mismatches constantly (especially in the postseason), and with the sheer depth of talent from the guard position, it’s open season against the centers of the NBA. That, along with the seemingly lack of “true” centers right now, has led many pundits to declare the center position right now to be dinosaurs, in the sense that they’re already extinct.

But is this even true? Did the once-thriving center position become extinct over time? It’s a question worth investigating, and that’s what we’re going to do today.

Photo from Getty Images

A Dying Breed?

It’s hard not to say that the center position isn’t what it used to be. Looking at the MVP voting race of the last decade, it’s plain to see that centers aren’t quite what they used to be anymore.

You might notice that there was a three-year stretch between the 2016 and 2018 seasons in which no center cracked the top 10 in the MVP voting discussion. 2019 saw the rise of two new centers who we’ll be talking about in a different article, but before their arrival onto the scene, centers who also were the centerpieces for a contending team were hard to come by. Joakim Noah placed fourth in the MVP voting race in 2014, and he was basically the last center to be considered seriously for the award (until Jokic’s emergence in 2019. Oops, spoilers?).

Compare this to the 90’s, where centers very nearly ruled the world.

This doesn’t include Karl Malone, who could’ve been a center today, but played PF primarily this era. Still, with a list that have such names as Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Patrick Ewing, along with other notables like Brad Daughtry and Tom Chambers , it’s clear that centers had their glory days before.

Photo from USA Today

A Three-point Meteorite

So then, what happened? How did the game that had a ten-foot-high goal suddenly shied away from the big men that can abuse their height?

Many of the reasons are rooted in the different philosophies on offense. Of course, the three-point shot was key to these differences. When the three-point line was first introduced back in 1979, a lot of people thought that it was simply a fad, a gimmicky twist to a game that they’ve known for a damn long time. However, teams slowly but surely warmed up to the idea of shooting more threes.

While the percentage of made threes did not have such a drastic change over time (33.1 in 1990, 36.8 in 2021), that spike in attempts meant that even just a four-percent swing can make all the difference. Many point to Stephen Curry and the Warriors for pioneering the three-point movement, but in reality, their success only served as a catalyst for an already-growing scheme. The Warriors exposed the big men on defense by running actions to free up multiple people, including their de facto center Draymond Green on the perimeter, leaving traditional centers lumbering towards their doom in an attempt to stop the three-ball.

Photo from AP

This shift to the three-point line also meant that centers who couldn’t shoot threes were hindrances to a team’s offensive potential. A non-shooter on the court meant more defenders that can chase around shooters without worrying about giving up a three. It’s also another body that clogs the lane when said snipers attack a closeout. Post-up threats could still be effective, but only when they can both shoot from deep AND facilitate from the post. Gone are the days of just forcing it to your largest man and hoping for the best.

Ball-handling has also advanced in such a way that flat-footed big men have a much tougher time handling quicker guards and wings on the perimeter. This marvelous video from Ben Taylor of Thinking Basketball showcases the evolution of dribbling from generation to generation.

These less-restrictive dribbling rules, along with a higher tolerance for contact by referees, has given big men fits in the past few years. Teams before would hunt smaller guards on mismatches, putting them against larger and more dominant centers to score easily on the paint. But now, the hunters have become the hunted. Teams figured out that penetration from guards lead to more high-quality opportunities, both inside and outside the three-point arc. Now, aside from the aforementioned chasing shooters beyond the line, bigs have to worry about being left in isolation against a guard that has a bevy of ankle-breaking moves to beat them.

It’s why guys like Enes Kanter and Timofey Mozgov couldn’t stay on the court that much during their playoff runs. It’s why Andrew Bogut, despite his massive impact as a facilitator for Golden State, got less minutes in favor of Green in the Finals. Of course, smart coaches can map out defensive schemes to “hide” these big men. But what’s the point of creating a new scheme for a possibly mediocre center that doesn’t provide much on offense if you could just fight fire with fire? Many teams simply opted to downsize and go small themselves.

Photo from Getty Images

The “Evolutionaries”

For every rule, there’s always going to be exceptions, though.

Two “old-school” centers in the league today have been supremely dominant this season, bucking the trend of slow-footed big men being phased out of existence. In a rather shocking yet welcome twist, Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets and Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers have emerged as the early front-runners for the MVP trophy.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series where we’ll look into how these two players fought off extinction and adapted to the current NBA climate, as well as if these two can revive the dying NBA center position.