Elite center's extinction myth
The reports of the center position's death are greatly exaggerated.
Many will remember this postseason as "The Stephen Curry Playoffs," and with good reason. The baby-faced 25-year-old has exploded onto the scene in his first playoff run for 25 points, 8.3 assists and a staggering 3.9 3-point makes per game. If there's anyone who can identify with a lanky underdog who loves to shoot from anywhere on the floor, it's the casual NBA fan -- or anyone who has ever picked up a basketball.
But are you seeing what the centers are doing in this playoffs?
You know, the position that the general public has declared extinct after a '90s era during which skilled 7-footers roamed the Earth and dominated the playing field. Patrick Ewing. Hakeem Olajuwon. David Robinson. Dikembe Mutombo. Rik Smits. Alonzo Mourning. Brad Daugherty. Go ahead, throw Shaquille O'Neal into the mix if you'd like.
So where have all the elite centers gone? It's a common refrain, but you'll find some pretty darn good centers right here in the playoffs. Look around the league and you'll see that most of these remaining teams feature a big-time center anchoring both ends of the floor.
We have Marc Gasol, the reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year who happens to be the best passing big in the game. He has scored at least 20 points in six of his past seven games. How in the world are the Memphis Grizzlies looking like the best in the West after trading their top scorer and go-to option in the clutch, Rudy Gay?
Look no further than uber-skilled Gasol, who iced the Game 4 win Monday night with a 15-footer with 22 seconds left as part of his 23-point, 11-rebound and 6-block performance. By the way, Curry and Gasol are neck-and-neck on the playoff PER leaderboard (22.7 and 22.1, respectively).
Then there's sharpshooting Chris Bosh, who just dropped 20 points, 19 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocks in a Game 3 win over the Bulls. The Heat have the best defensive efficiency of the playoffs with Bosh anchoring the team's back line. (Playing the Bucks and the Bulls helps.) Bosh may not look or play like a traditional center, but he's averaging two blocks per game this postseason and (psst) he's actually taller than Dwight Howard.
Prefer a back-you-down-and-lay-it-in center? Try Roy Hibbert on for size; the 7-foot-2 big man was practically built for the brutally slow-paced '90s basketball. If you're nostalgic for some skilled post moves, pull up some video from Hibbert's 24-point Game 3 against Tyson Chandler, whom the coaches just voted to first-team All-Defense. Hibbert put on a back-to-the-basket clinic on Chandler, using either hand for a delicate hook shot that seemed transplanted from a different era.
Oh, and the Pacers' defense was the best in all the land this season with a 96.6 defensive efficiency. Hibbert was at the center of it all, which makes it all the more baffling how he failed to receive more votes for All-Defense than Kobe Bryant this season.
Elsewhere, the Chicago Bulls would have left the playoffs weeks ago if it weren't for Joakim Noah, who admitted recently to having a tear in his plantar fascia in his foot. Despite that debilitating injury that reportedly feels like running on a bed of nails, Noah has been his hyperenergetic self and as much of a double-double lock there is in this game. As an All-Star and two-time All-Defensive team recipient, Noah already goes down as the best center in Bulls history since Artis Gilmore.
And we haven't even gotten to Tim Duncan yet, who's playing almost exclusively at the 5 now that Tiago Splitter is hurt. Duncan has become the first player to average at least 19 points and nine rebounds in the playoffs after turning 36 years old (minimum 100 minutes). Ewing, Olajuwon or Robinson have never done that, and neither did Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
So again, where did all the good centers go?
That's five of the remaining eight teams with centers playing a monster role in their playoff efforts. And that's before we get into Andrew Bogut (averaging 11.8 rebounds in just 28.7 minutes per game) and Chandler, who's clearly limited by a bulging disk in his neck. The only person who hasn't realized that Serge Ibaka -- who put up 17 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks on Monday -- is the Thunder's best center is his coach, Scott Brooks, who inexplicably still plays the offensively bankrupt Kendrick Perkins 20 minutes a night while Kevin Durant desperately searches for scoring help.
It's no coincidence that six of the top seven defenses this season are still alive in the playoffs, and they all boast a two-way anchor in the middle (Indiana, Memphis, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Chicago and Miami). Centers are more vital than ever. With spread offenses, an array of high-flying point guards and an explosion of analytical information in the sport, two-way centers, who can both protect the paint and score on the other end, have become the greatest commodity in the game.
You can look beyond the current conference semifinals field to see talented centers everywhere in the league. Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett, Brook Lopez, Larry Sanders and Al Horford helped carry their respective teams into the playoffs. Toss in Al Jefferson, LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol and Nene Hilario. Greg Monroe, Andre Drummond, Anthony Davis, Jonas Valanciunas, Nikola Pekovic and DeMarcus Cousins are well on their way. (Here's a long list of efficient giants, curated by Grantland's Zach Lowe
.) The number of good centers in this league is striking.
So next time someone complains that elite centers are a dying breed, tell that dinosaur to watch a minute of these playoffs first because he obviously hasn't been paying attention. If he did, he'd know the purported extinction of the great center is nothing but a myth.