The Dwight Howard dramatics (but not the fallout) have finally ended after a two-plus year run with his commitment to the Houston Rockets. He has been the most sought-after free agent for the last 3 seasons because he is THE ONLY FRANCHISE CENTER IN THE NBA!
How did this happen? The only one? Really? I thought that players were getting better and more athletic all the time?
In the 80’s and 90’s the Championship Formula was a franchise center, surrounded by 2 shooters, a slasher, and an enforcer. Think Hakeem Olajuwon with Otis Thorpe, Kenny Smith, Robert Horry, and Clyde the Glide.
Even the teams that came up short had the same pieces … Shaq, Dennis Scott, Nick Anderson, Penny and Horace Grant in Orlando. The Ewing Knicks, with Parick Ewing, Charles Oakley (who evolved into a shooter/enforcer), John Starks. The Indiana Pacers with Rik Smits, Antonio and Dale Davis and Reggie Miler.
Among the champs, we had David Robinson and Tm Duncan in San Antonio, along with complementary players ranging from Horry to Steve Kerr to Avery Johnson to Tony Parker to Manu Ginobili. The Larry Bird Celtics, The Bad Boys, Magic’s Lakers, the Kobe/Shaq Lakers. All of these top teams had at their core, an All Star at center. (The Bulls were the one exception).
During the early years of my playing career, from 1981-88 the NBA roster of centers looked like this:
Hall of Famers/Top 50: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Moses Malone, Robert Parish, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, Dan Issel, Artis Gilmore, Bill Walton, David Robinson, Bob Lanier. These are all 20,000+-point scorers (except Bill Walton because of injury)
All Stars: Bill Laimbeer, Jack Sikma, Alvan Adams, Mark Eaton, Rik Smits, Bill Cartwright, Joe Barry Carroll, Brad Daugherty.
Pretty Damn Good Players: James Edwards, Tree Rollins, Darryl Dawkins, Marvin Webster, Mychal Thompson , Rony Seikaly, Mike Gminski, Mark West, Danny Schayes.
That’s 27 centers MINIMUM (as I’m sure that I am leaving out someone) that would be standouts today with at least 13 of them considered true FRANCHISE CENTERS (if not more, using today’s standards). What’s most amazing about this list is that they were all in the league pretty much AT THE SAME TIME.
Today there is ONLY ONE?
Where did they all go?
You keep hearing that players today start earlier, play more, and are NBA ready by the time they are 18 years old. How come none of them are franchise centers? I am a color analyst and call college games, as well as having previously been a full-time NBA analyst. I have done some major college games where their roster didn’t list a single center. They started 3 guards and 2 forwards.
Recently I played a game with some friends to identify the top centers in the game. We could only name 12 teams that even had a center!
In this year’s NBA draft, seven players listed as centers were drafted in the 1st Round. It was telling to hear the commentary as nearly every center was described as a shot blocker, very athletic with no offensive game to speak of. Only Alex Len was talked about as having a nice touch around the basket with a few basic offensive moves. No Franchise Players at the position.
As a matter of fact, do you know who was the last center that lit up the draft prior to Anthony Davis in 2012 (and he is a 5-year project)? The previous center taken #1 was Andrew Bogut in 2005. While he is a nice player, he isn’t considered a Franchise Player and has not yet made an All-Star team.
Before that it was a high schooler named Dwight Howard in 2004. He was described as an athletic shot blocker who was raw with no offensive game to speak of. Sound familiar?
The last center to make teams drool was Yao Ming in 2002. Earlier No. 1s were Kwame Brown and Michael Olowokandi.
You have to all the way to 1992 when Shaq came out to find another game changer. Only two Franchise Centers entered the league as Franchise Centers in the last 20 years!
So with the Franchise Center going the way of the dodo bird, I often get asked my thoughts for the reason for this shift. I hear about the Sports Center effect, where players grow up dreaming of dunking on Sports Center, so that’s all they work on.
Or they come up through the AAU system, where they play a ton of games without getting much actual skill coaching.
My opinion of what happened to the NBA center is a combination of factors. If you examine the development path of NBA centers and compare it with the path to the NBA 30 years ago and the path to the NBA for the last 10 years, you will see some major changes that I think explain the disappearance of the traditional center position.
Here are some of the factors at work: