Schayes: The Franchise Center is an Endangered Species

HowardThe 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!

What!?!

How did this happen? The only one? Really? I thought that players were getting better and more athletic all the time?

I recently wrote about the championship formula for today’s game that the Heat are using to dominate the league with back to back titles. I also mentioned that the formula has changed over the years.

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:

Dwight Howard and Kareem Abdul-JabbarHall 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.

question-mark-95X95Recently 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.

ShaqSIcoverYou 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:

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Comments

  1. Jon says

    I agree with the article and understand what he’s saying. A Franchise Center is one that you can build a championship team around. Guys like Gasol, Noah, Chandler, Lopez, etc all great Centers, but realistically you’ll never build a championship team with them as your best player.

    Andre Drummond, however, is going to join Howard in the rare, true Franchise Center category today. I’m convinced he would be a franchise Center back in the 80s/90s. He’s going to be THAT good.

    (I think Cousins could too, if he weren’t such a malcontent.)

  2. Brian says

    Interesting article. As a Suns fan who watched you in your days with the Suns, I’m hoping that the visionary is McDonough with the Len pick. Perhaps he can turn into the best true center in basketball that force other teams to adapt to the Suns. The Suns need something good to come their way these days.

  3. says

    Just one center? So, we’re going to act like Marc Gasol, Tyson Chandler, Brook Lopez, Joakim Noah, Roy Hibbert and Andrew Bynum (when healthy) don’t exist?

    Not a Kareem or Hakeem on that list, but when you’re bringing Mike Gminski into the conversation, at least give the current crop of players a little bit of credit here.

    • Danny Schayes says

      Thanks for the comment. But please read more carefully. I didn’t say that there is only one center in the league, I said only one FRANCHISE CENTER. That is the player that you build your team around. By my count, there are about 12 teams with actual centers. You listed many of them. Not one on your list is the first option for his teams offense. Most aren’t even AN option in their teams offense. How often does a team set up a play for Tyson Chandler, Joakim Noah, or Roy Hibbert? Who on this list is the guy you call a last second play for to win a game? Which current NBA center will average 20/10 for a THOUSAND GAMES to get 20,000 points and 10,000 rebounds? ‘Nough said

      • Aaron says

        Centers that were the first option for their team last year:

        Brook Lopez
        DeMarcus Cousins
        LeMarcus Aldridge *
        Al Jefferson
        Carlos Boozer *
        Greg Monroe
        Blake Griffin *
        Kevin Love *
        Luis Scola *
        Tim Duncan
        Zach Randolph *
        Dirk Nowitzki *

        * Most likely would have been centers in the 80s and every one of them logged minutes at the center position this year according to 82games.com

        • Aaron says

          Centers that were the number one option for their teams in 1985:

          Herb Williams
          Moses Malone
          Ralph Sampson
          Kareem Abdul Jabbar
          Alvan Adams *
          Tom Chambers *

          * Power Forwards that played some center

        • Danny Schayes says

          Thanks for your reply. However you actually prove my point.

          Look at your list:

          Carlos Boozer, Dirk, Tim Duncan, Zach Randolph, Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, Luis Scola all play the 4 for most or all of their careers (Duncan did move over late in his career). Kevin Garnett actually was a 3 for the first half of his career, then a 4 and only played center recently.

          Also in 1985 Alvan Adams was retired, and you forgot a few guys. Patrick Ewing, Hakeem, among them.

          Please feel free to look it up. I did.

          And Aaron, again most of your 20K/10K list are forwards. I didn’t even go to the forwards of the era, Karl Malone etc.

          While I may be biased about the 80′s I don’t think it can be refuted that it was much more physical then than now. We only had 2 refs, fighting wasn’t an automatic suspension, hand checking, rooting out the post, and chucking cutters were all standard. Even so the lowest scoring teams of that era would be the highest scoring teams of today. This year the Denver Nuggets led the league with 106 points per game. In Jordan’s rookie season 1984-85) my Denver Nuggets AVERAGED 120 with 20 of the leagues 23 teams averaging more than 106.

          Don’t get me wrong. I’m not diminishing today’s players. I think the league is in a very exciting place with tremendous young stars. They just aren’t centers!

          • Aaron says

            Danny,

            I was looking at 1984-1985 as I wanted to pick a year in the middle of 81 to 88. Ewing was still in college, Hakeem was the second option to Sampson, and Alvan Adams played all 82 games. Look back over 1985. Anyone who was 6-10 or taller played center at least sparingly. Moses Malone and Hakeem would be power forwards today. Hakeem started off just like Duncan did playing alongside a center.

            There were only 4 centers who I listed as their teams number one option. Herb Williams could be considered a power forward so you are really only talking about three franchise centers. The eighties were not the era of the center.

  4. Aaron says

    If we look at Centers in the last 8 years who the team went through first in the offense we should look at USG%. Yao Ming had a season of 33.5%, Amar’e had a season of 30.9%, and Shaq had a season of 30%

    From 81 to 88 there weren’t any centers who had a season at or above 30% USG%.

    20,000 point and 10,000 rebound men:
    Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, and Shaq are already there. Dirk, Pau, Dwight Howard, and Bosh all could make it as well.

    From the 80′s Kareem, Ewing, Hakeem, Moses, and Parish

    I think the big thing that your article does not go over is that many players that would have been labeled as centers in the eighties are allowed to play on the wing. Some examples include: Dirk Nowitski, Kevin Garnett, Pau Gasol, Bosh, and Amar’e.

    Overall it was a nice post as it made me want to immediately look up stats to refute your statements. I think it is quite possible that you remember those years better than they were as that is when you played. How could you not be biased. Thank you for the article.

    Aaron

  5. Brad says

    Part of the point of the article is that these guys now do play on the wing, perimeter, high post. There aren’t many productive, high quality true centers anymore and the article explains why.

    There are still talented big man – they are just used in different ways now – ie not so much in center roles.

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