The Changing Role of the Modern NBA Center

As someone who has played center in the past, and who now takes more than a passing interest in the career of the Process himself, Joel Embiid, it pains me to ask this question. But, do centers really matter anymore?

The Towns-Capela Conundrum

The main prompt for this question was the Rockets-Timberwolves series that recently ended in a decisive 5 game victory for the Rockets. Minnesota had many, many problems, but one that stuck out was the struggles of Karl-Anthony Towns, who was a train wreck in the first two games, and collapsed probably more than anyone else in that horrific 50-point third quarter of game 4. Meanwhile, Clint Capela was exactly what the Rockets needed him to be. He was great at protecting the rim all series, didn’t demand unnecessary shots and touches like KAT, and he finished all the lobs and passes he received from Chris Paul and James Harden. Capela finished with more points and blocks than KAT while shooting better from the field and turning it over far less.

Yet, wouldn’t one have to be crazy to think Capela is actually better than KAT? Capela is a quality player and should certainly finish in the top 3 for the Most Improved Award, but KAT had convinced all by the end of the year that he was a top 3 center due to his ability to score in the post, step out for threes, and dominate the boards.

No Boogie in New Orleans

I decided to look at other all-star centers in the playoffs, starting with Anthony Davis. The Pelicans All-Star absolutely feasted on the undersized Blazers, and is probably the MVP of the postseason at present. But even then, Davis proves that the status of centers is ineffective. He himself was power forward most of the year, and was only forced to center after an injury to there team’s other star big man, Demarcus Cousins.

Boogie was having a great year, and many thought the Pelicans would miss the playoffs after he tore his achilles. Instead, Davis took it to another level, and New Orleans’ other starters like Holiday, Rondo, and Mirotic stepped up as well. Before long, the Pelicans were one of the hottest teams in the league, and that showed in their mauling of Portland.

The big takeaway from this stretch of the season is how well they performed without Boogie. The Pelicans improved without him, if anything, and that has led to the report that New Orleans won’t offer him a 5-year max in the summer, but rather a 2-3 year deal worth a little less. And I believe that Cousins is a little more than upset with this report.

Part of it has to do with the fact that Holiday and Davis both already have max deals, but another part of it is a realization that many are coming too. Yes, Boogie is a great scorer, rebounder, and even facilitator, but putting AD at center unlocked something for this team. He’s more athletic and plays better defense, lending himself to the Capela-mold of block shots and finish dunks. He can also shoot mid-range and drive as secondary options, but the defense and finishing are his best traits. Playing him at shooter also opens-up the floor by putting sharp-shooter Niko Mirotic into the starting line-up. Maybe it makes sense to simplify your offense to pick & rolls and threes with one star, rather than have two ball-dependent big men who both demand a lot of touches.

The Changing Makeup of a Championship Center

The last big man to look at is my own big man, Joel Embiid. The Process came back after missing about a month, and he has played pretty well. His shooting is a little off but that’s only due to his trouble seeing with the mask on; a mask that he detests. Embiid has unquestionably helped the Sixers on defense as the Heat were terrified of challenging him at the rim, for fear of getting destroyed like Goran Dragic on that fast break. He was also able to finish inside when the game slowed down, and he once again did a great job drawing fouls.

However, Embiid had his share of mistakes. He took some bad shots, and had countless turnovers where he forced his way inside and stumbled over with the ball. The Sixers were very glad to have him back, but they still took him out in crunch time of game 5 in favour their most effective line-up of Ben Simmons and the four shooters of Marco Bellinelli, JJ Redick, Ersan Illyasova, and  Dario Saric. This line-up blitzed the Heat by knocking down threes, opening up lanes for Simmons’ drives, and all the while having three guys over 6’10” still on the floor. Don’t think I’m criticizing Embiid, however. The Sixers desperately needed his rim protection, and after losing game 2, they won the last three games, in which Embiid participated in all of them.

But what all this shows is that the definition of championship center is changing. Guys like KAT, Boogie, and maybe even the Joker, Nikola Jokic, are great at scoring, but their lack of speed and rim protection (Boogie isn’t that bad, but still) really hurts their teams. The Rockets and Warriors have shown that as long as your center plays hard and finishes at the rim, that’s really all you need from him on offense.

Basketball is an ever-evolving sport, and there is still a place for post ups and pounding it inside. However, those post-ups are for athletic and muscular wings, like LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Centers need to be quick, athletic rim protectors who compliment star guards and forwards on their team. It’s why a guy with no post-moves and less basketball experience–Clint Capela–just dominated a star basketball big man in Karl-Anthony Towns. KAT and his coaches need to figure out how to adjust if they ever want to be a team of true importance in the NBA.

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