The super tall, like Nerlens Noel, are at the core of the sport. But things change.Seven-footers! There just aren't a lot of them. Of the few thousand people who are that tall, or close to it, on the entire planet, how many of them are any good at basketball? Five, maybe? Ten?
But every team needs at least one, and everybody knows that. So you do what you've got to do to get one -- even if it means passing up other, probably much better, players.
On draft night, I overheard somebody rattling off all the reasons not to draft Nerlens Noel. Torn ACL, no offense ... you know the arguments. The reply, from a former team executive, was on the money: "Yeah, but there are only two ways to get big guys. You have to get them here tonight, or you have to pay like crazy."
The struggle for big men is on the minds of every front office, every day. You might not like having to draft them high in the lottery. But you also won't like the other ways you can get them.
When I was a young fan, my thought was maybe we'll find a pretty good center for cheap, from some other league or something. That can happen with guards and the like. But with the truly big men, that happens just about never. That's just how it is.
So teams go to amazing lengths to get them, taking Greg Oden over Kevin Durant, for instance. (Notice the height of both players drafted ahead of Michael Jordan?) If you're huge, NBA teams will consider you.
Related: If I told you I know of an NBA player who can't dribble or shoot -- you know the rest, right? There is no other way. He must be tall as hell.
Meanwhile ... there is no denying that the league is changing. In a couple of decades the league has nearly quadrupled the number of 3-pointers. Small-ball lineups were killer for a lot of teams in the playoffs, including the champion Heat. Like LeBron James, Michael Jordan also won titles playing on teams without a notable center.
Which makes me wonder: What if some of those teams that can't find a decent value center just -- gasp -- went without?
I asked a handful of NBA experts to weigh in. I was wondering, if a team fully committed -- dedicating not just the minutes, but also the dollars -- roster spots and coaching strategies to playing a certain way, could it do well playing small ball essentially all season?
I assume the basic tradeoff would be: To what extent might you make up for getting killed in the paint sometimes with the better spacing, movement, 3s, dunks and other open looks that could result from having dollars that might go to centers instead go instead to more skill players?
Bottom line: Is it possible that a well-coached, carefully constructed team could do OK in the NBA going a whole season without a real center?
EASTERN CONFERENCE EXECUTIVE: Certainly a team could successfully navigate a season without a true center as you outlined, but it would have to be with a veteran rotation that adheres to pretty strict defensive principles.
Offensively, it's no problem. Most guys would much rather have space to work with and not have to dump it down to the wood, which means more shots.
The psychological barrier of not having rim coverage defensively is what needs to be addressed the most. The actual players on the court, particularly the perimeter guys, are ingrained to believe that the cavalry is there if they get beat, so the rotations will have to be dialed in and the backlash for getting beat will have to be minimized. The breakdowns in communication are usually when help comes and no one helps the helper. If the opposing team sees frayed edges in the defense, i.e., a reluctance for weakside help to arrive on time, a reluctance to give up self from help defense, it will attack that weakness all night.
Veteran players who are smart and can adjust rotations very efficiently will be able to manage adequately defensively while being able to create scoring at the other end with lots of spacing, and a draw-and-kick offense.
I think we will see it work in the future but likely the first will be when the natural center is injured and it occurs out of necessity. I don't sleep on the mental factor -- perimeter guys love knowing that someone will be there at the rim, and knowing that they don't have said someone at the rim may be problematic at first, especially for a rook.
I said too much, but bottom line, of course it will work with five players who have enough experience. I don't think too many teams are dying to be the first to try, but more and more, teams are wary of giving a roster spot to a 7-footer who can't play and opt for either a relentless rebounder or someone who can hit a 3.
It would take a coach with serious fortitude as well -- every coach I have ever worked with (and that's saying a lot) obsesses about length in the paint. An innovator will embrace this; traditional coaches will spit the bit.
DEAN OLIVER: Let me approach it from the perspective of trying to build a championship level team. That’s more than “OK,” but not in the world of a lot of owners, for whom the only “OK” is a championship.
A well-coached, carefully constructed team can get to the playoffs and can have a good defense, but the effort it takes to shut down an opponent without a big man who easily takes care of paint penetration -- that will wear on the players (see Charlotte with Larry Brown in 2009-10). Not only will it wear on the players, but the playoffs open them up for failure. The playoffs are when advance scouting means less because the players really get to know their counterparts on the other side of the ball, their strengths and weaknesses. They end up finding what their advantage is over the other guy. With a paint protector there, the list of possible advantages gets cut down just due to physical presence. If it is just a scheme to protect the paint, that scheme always has a weakness, and it’s a matter of intelligence and some luck to exploit it.
The exception may be the extremely carefully constructed Miami Heat, with three-plus Hall of Famers and Bosh being questionable as a center or paint protector (adding Birdman for the tail end of the season helped). Miami did have to double on the inside and had to recover a ton out of that, which is a weakness, but they survived. It’s hard to make them a standard blueprint, though, because there is just one LeBron James. And there are a lot of relatively cheap paint protectors.
DAVID THORPE: The short answer to your question is yes. Miami is the example. But they employ three spectacular talents, with two guys being ultra elite. "OK" is a bit ambiguous. Ironically, the evolving defenses that have forced teams to find more shooting are also the reason why your idea limits a team's ceiling hugely (absent ultra elite players). Teams can go big against small teams and zone up on defense. Over time the teams that get destroyed each night by paint buckets will just wilt away -- unless they are coached spectacularly
AMIN ELHASSAN: Not only is it possible, it has already happened multiple times in recent years. In fact, the Miami Heat have proven that you can win the title without a true center on the roster, as they prevailed with a rotation of Udonis Haslem (power forward), Chris Andersen (traditionally would be considered a power forward) and Joel Anthony (your guess is as good as mine) at the 5. Going back a little further, the pre-Shaq Phoenix Suns from 2004-2007 featured a center rotation of Amar'e Stoudemire, Kurt Thomas, and at one time, Boris Diaw. (Pat Burke and Sean Marks both graced the roster, but neither played significant minutes, and you can make the argument that neither are “true centers.” The lone exception might be Steven Hunter, who was a true center and played meaningful minutes in the 2004-05 season.)
The NBA is a copycat league, and had any of the other final four teams (Indiana, Memphis or San Antonio) won the title, the discussion would probably veer toward NEEDING a center in order to compete in today’s NBA. My philosophy has always been that the key to building a winner is to have the right mix of talent, game plan and execution, where the latter two factors rely heavily on the first. If that means having a power forward play most of the center minutes, that’s OK as long as you can address the potential pitfalls and the utility derived from playing small exceeds the cost. When I was with the Suns, our lineup analysis indicated that when we put Shawn Marion at the 4, we outperformed opposing lineups by a considerable margin, and that the mismatches created by forcing 5s to guard an extremely agile and mobile big like Stoudemire far outweighed our defensive rebounding deficiencies and scrambling defensive efforts.
The reason why teams invest a considerable amount of resources on true centers is it is easier to impact wins and losses from the center position than probably any other position. Think about players like Roy Hibbert, Brook Lopez or even Dwight Howard. I think we can all agree that they aren’t quite the type of “all-time great” talents at the center position in the same way we compare a Kobe Bryant or LeBron James to all-time great talents at the wing. Having said that, they all find a way to be incredibly impactful on the floor and command top salaries as a result.
But if you have devoted your scarce resources toward elite talents at positions other than center, that does not preclude you from being a winner. You just have to realize the challenges that await your undersized roster and plan accordingly (more aggressive on ball defense, more pronounced weakside help defense, need to have high rebound percentage players on floor, need to be more efficient offensively to make due without benefit of offensive rebound opportunities, etc.).