The center position is in a transitional era, especially in the professional ranks. Fewer and fewer teams have what would be seen as a traditional center on their squad. Long jump shots are becoming the standard fare, and people who have followed the game are asking out loud:
Where is the next generation of centers?
This phenomenon is a direct result of the modernization of the game. I can remember when I started to play professional basketball, almost every team had a legitimate center who could defend and rebound at one end of the court and score high-percentage points on the other. A few recent developments have reduced this particular talent pool dramatically.
First of all, fewer coaches are teaching grade school players how to play the offensive game in the paint. Most youth coaches teach the players a combination of guard skills without any consideration of the way the game can be played near the hoop. This has resulted in preparing the overwhelming majority of young players to play the offensive end of the court facing the basket. On the positive side, it has sent a lot of talented tall point guards into the college and professional ranks, but it has left an important part of the game -- post-up play -- to languish.
Another factor is the 3-point shot. The 3 has created a kind of lotto fever among young players. Getting a three-point play the old fashioned way -- getting fouled while taking a 2-point shot -- is not in fashion these days. An NBA team will shoot 15 to 30 3-point shots in a typical game. By putting a premium on a low percentage shot, the willingness to take that chance is seen as worthwhile.
Many players are also impatient when it comes to running an offensive set. The lure of the 3-point payoff is too attractive for these players, and they settle for low percentage long range shots that lower their field goal percentage and give the other team a chance to play a running game off the additional possessions they obtain from long-range misses.
When the NBA was in its infancy, the teams were able to put together teams that had balance. The centers of that era were aware that they had a special value and made a team's success a lot more feasible.
George Mikan was the first great center in the NBA. His Minneapolis Lakers were the team to beat for the first years of the NBA, which saw the Lakers win five world championships in that span. Mikan was a consistent scorer and rebounder, and his teams were perennial favorites with the fans.
The next great center to play was Bill Russell. His Boston Celtics teams were the most dominant ever to compete in the NBA. Russell was able to dominate the game from the defensive end of the floor. He made the act of shooting a layup an unwise decision when you played the Celtics. His shot blocking and rebounding skills were a big factor in the Celtics' amazing run of success, as Russell's team won 11 world championships in his 13-year career.
Russell was a role model for me on and off the court. I was fortunate that my high school coach Jack Donohue was able to explain to me exactly how Russell was giving his team a greater chance to win. His ability to block shots around the basket made it necessary for the terms playing against the Celtics to rely on their outside shooting ability. His great rebounding skills went a long way to limiting those teams to one shot per possession. His offensive rebounding skills enabled his team to get second and third chances on offense. The bottom line was those 11 world championships, including eight in a row.
Every team in the NBA is looking for the next center who can play the game like Russell. But the style of play he displayed is not being taught to young centers in any meaningful way. That style has become a dying art, and all of us who love the game are in mourning.
At the offensive end, an effective post-up player provides high percentage attempts for his team. However, few post players can deliver the type of dominance that Zach Randolph or Tim Duncan can contribute to their teams. By scoring from the paint area, an effective post player draws double-teams. Those attempts by the defense to sag and bother the post-up player and limit his effectiveness create more room for the perimeter players. Given that extra time and space, the shooters' efficiency improves, forcing the defense to adjust again to try to limit the outside shooters in some way.
The Boston Celtics teams of the 1980s were able to beat you in this fashion. Kevin McHale was a superb post-up player who could score at will in the post against one-on-one defense. He had outside shooters in Larry Bird, Danny Ainge and Scott Wedman to pass to in the event of double-teaming by the defense.
The first game of the 1985 NBA Finals went down in history as the Memorial Day Massacre. In that game, the Celtics shot 7-for-9 from 3-point range. My Lakers team was unable to stop McHale in the paint or Boston's outside shooters on the perimeter. By having a balanced attack, the Celtics took advantage of whatever defensive strategies we tried.
With the reduced number of effective post-up players available these days, more teams are unable to put together the balanced group of players who can play the game effectively in the paint and on the perimeter.
I would like to remind any young players out there that there is wisdom in developing post-up skills. The resulting versatility will make you a go-to guy when your team needs to score. I was able to become the league's all-time leading scorer because of my efficiency in the paint. I played 20 years in the NBA, and for nine of those years, the 3-point shot was part of the game.
In my career, I made only one 3-point shot in 18 attempts. I scored thousands of three-point plays, however, by getting fouled while I attempted my high percentage skyhook. I shot 56 percent from the field in my career and 72 percent from the free throw line.
The outside shooters on my team, Byron Scott, Jamaal Wilkes, Norm Nixon and Michael Cooper, appreciated the extra space they had because the defense had to try to limit my effectiveness in the paint. It's a great way to play the game, and I hope it doesn't become extinct any time soon.