I wrote in the beginning of the season that one of the main storylines to keep an eye on is the evolution of the center position. (Here, in case you missed it the first time.)
Well, we’re almost halfway through the season, and, crunching the data regarding the center position specifically, the first conclusion to draw is that, well… um… there really isn’t much to base a conclusion on. That’s because so many of the centers have been hurt for significant chunks of time. If you play center in the NBA, chances are high that you’re having trouble walking these days. Apparently, having a “C” next to your name on an NBA roster means that you’re likely to be Crippled, or even that you might be Cursed.
Check it out: Yao is out for the season, and might be done forever. Oden, too. Bynum can never seem to give the Lakers a long stretch of healthy productivity. Kaman can’t get back on the court for the Clippers. Okur has hardly been available for the Jazz. The Suns might be a playoff team if Robin Lopez could return to the form he was in for parts of last year’s playoffs. And the Bulls could potentially be lethal — if they could keep their center, Joakim Noah, healthy.
Looking at all these injuries, I postulate that human bodies approaching or exceeding 7 feet in length are just not meant to run up and down a basketball court at the speed of today’s game. Actually, strike that. I don’t “postulate” anything — I’m trying to build up my street cred, and people with street cred don’t “postulate” things. Please let me try again… Looking at all these injuries, I hoopserve that human bodies approaching or exceeding 7 feet in length are just not meant to run up and down a basketball court at the speed of today’s game.
Nice. Now I got my street cred intact.
With my street cred intact, I’m ready for a few other hoopservations about the current state of the center position:
1a. If a team has a 7 foot body it can roll out onto the court, who can both walk straight and catch a basketball, that team is in good shape. Bonus points if the guy was born in the 1970’s, and was a force 5 or more years ago. He doesn’t have to be able to move fast or jump high. So long as he’s 7 feet tall and in one piece, you can fake your way through having a real center. Just roll him out there and hope nobody notices. It’s basically like Weekend at Bernie’s, if Bernie was 7 feet tall and used to be a good basketball player. Evidence in support of my point: Big Z in Miami. Duncan in San Antonio. And, of course, Shaq.
1b. If a team has a center who can stay relatively healthy, and produces about 12 points, 9 rebounds, and 2 blocks, it has a distinct advantage over other teams. In fact, if a team has such a guy, that team is almost certainly a playoff team. Evidence in support of my point: Roy Hibbert (13.5 ppg, 8 rpg, 1.8 bpg), Andrew Bogut (13.5 ppg, 11.4 rpg, 2.8 bpg), and Emeka Okafor (10.9 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 1.8 bpg).
2. It’s possible to win the battle of the paint armed only with a capable power forward. The numbers that some power forwards are putting up are just silly. They’re like video game numbers. I’m talking about Amar’e (26.4 ppg, 9 rpg, 2.3 bpg), Blake Griffin (21.7 ppg and 12.5 rpg), and Kevin Love (20.6 ppg and 15.6 rpg).
Where does this leave us? I think it’s wrong to say that a good power forward without a capable center alongside him is good enough to win with — in fact, it’s interesting that Blake and Love, with numbers like those, aren’t leading their teams to more victories. One possible explanation is that those guys don’t block shots (not the most meaningful stat in the world, but a good indicator of defensive presence in the paint) nearly as often as real centers do. In contrast, Amar’e is blocking more than 2 shots per game.
Looking ahead, I’m psyched to see what the Bulls do when Noah and Boozer get to play together for a while, what the Lakers do when Bynum and Gasol develop a rhythm, whether the Mavs are able to get over the hump now that they have Chandler playing next to Nowitzki, and what the Hornets are able to do with West and Okafor. (And, as I’ve stated repeatedly, what the Clippers will do once Kaman and Griffin are playing together.)
In closing, let’s revisit the discussion about the Knicks trading for Carmelo, in light of this information. If they keep Felton and Stoudemire, then, with Carmelo and any mediocre perimeter shooter (Gallinari, Chandler, Fields, and Toney Douglas all fit the bill), they would be good enough on offense to play 4-on-5. That would enable them to play Turiaf (an offensive liability who is a presence on D) at center alongside Amar’e, giving them a distinct advantage over most teams in the league.