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<p>(NBC Sports Bay Area, Jerry Coli/, Mitchell Leff/Getty Images, Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports)</p><p><br/><br/></p>
(NBC Sports Bay Area, Jerry Coli/, Mitchell Leff/Getty Images, Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports)

At the Center of it All

The center position may have the most complex history of any position in the NBA, from utterly dominant, to obsolete, to revolutionary. It typically serves as the position of the biggest, tallest, or strongest player on the court. At the beginning, though there were big, tall, and strong players, this didn’t mean much. The players were still figuring out how exactly to play this newfangled game in an infant league, and weren’t exactly sure how to utilize the center position.

That is, until  Wilt Chamberlain.

Chamberlain was unlike anything the NBA had ever seen before. His hulking 7 foot 1 inch frame, complemented with a freakish 7 foot 8 inch wingspan, was unprecedented. He could physically punish any defense thrown his way with his size alone. However, his bulk was only half of his dominance. The athleticism he displayed was mind-numbing. He could dunk from the free throw line, outsprint guards, outjump Olympic high jumpers, and move his feet quicker than a linebacker. The NBA had seen elite athletes before, such as George Mikan, Bob Pettit and Dolph Schayes, but nothing close to what Chamberlain was.

It immediately showed as soon as he took the court for the Philadelphia Warriors. In his very first game as an NBA player in the 1959-60 season, he would score 43 points and corral 27 rebounds, completely overwhelming the New York Knicks much like he would almost every other team during his 14-year career. However, in an era where teams dreaded the night they would face the Big Dipper, one player was consistently up to the challenge of countering Chamberlain’s otherworldly output. Bill Russell, drafted 3 years earlier in 1956 by the Boston Celtics, led the only team that appeared able to hold Chamberlain’s inhuman abilities in check, defeating the Warriors in the regular season and ousting them in 6 games in the playoffs in that 1959-60 season.

And so began one of the greatest rivalries in basketball history, one Russell would go on to win definitively with a record 11 championships. However, Wilt would also leave a lasting imprint on the sport through a number of outrageous records, including averaging 50 points per game in a season, averaging over 48 minutes per game in an NBA season, and of course, his legendary 100-point game.

Though Mikan before them had shown how much being tall could matter in the NBA, Russell and Chamberlain’s rivalry and individual dominance proved once and for all that height is king. Tall, athletic centers became the most valuable commodity in the league, with six of the 10 first overall picks in the 1960s being players 6 foot 8 or taller, compared to three of the 10 in the 1950s. 

Included in those top picks of the 1960s was 7 foot 2 inch center Lew Alcindor, later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Abdul-Jabbar would headline two decades of dominant centers down low. Other Hall of Famers such as Bill Walton, Willis Reed, Wes Unseld, Moses Malone, and Robert Parish provided ample proof of how dominant and important the center position was during this time period, with the group combining with Abdul-Jabbar for 11 MVPs. The 80s were headlined by the fabled Lakers-Celtics rivalry, but make no mistake: without Abdul-Jabbar or Parish holding down the most crucial position in the game at the time, Bird vs. Magic would not have been nearly what it turned into.

Even with Abdul Jabbar retiring in 1989 holding the NBA record for points in a career, an achievement that stood for 39 years, the center position continued to be the most dominant in the sport. Despite a guard by the name of Michael Jordan hoarding most of the championships and MVPs, the 90s were undeniably a golden age for centers. Hakeem Olajuwan would win an MVP and two championships. Patrick Ewing and his Knicks were a constant threat for Jordan’s crown. Spurs legend David Robinson added an MVP and a championship of his own during the decade. Arguably the greatest of them all, Shaquille O’Neal, who would wreak havoc on the league during this decade with a Finals appearance and seven All-NBA teams to show for it before he truly dominated the early 2000s. However, the 90s were also the beginning of a trend that would continue to grow: the new power forward.

Up to this point in NBA history, power forwards had essentially played the role of a complementary center. With the notable exceptions of Elvin Hayes and Bob Pettit, it was extremely rare for the power forward to play a larger role on the team than the center. However, the 90s began to see multiple players break that mold. Charles Barkley was a gifted post player and a dominant rebounder. Karl Malone was an unstoppable three-level scoring machine. Dennis Rodman was the main rebounder for five championship teams. A young Kevin Garnett was handed a massive six-year, $126 million deal to be the Timberwolves’ franchise player. Tim Duncan won a championship two years into his career, with an aging David Robinson as his secondary star.

With the success of these new power forwards and the allure of playing a position that didn’t demand such a physical toll on the body, many skilled big men were suddenly flocking to the 4 spot of the lineup. Despite some holdovers continuing to dominate into the early 2000s, such as prime O’Neal racking up four championships and an MVP, the demanding importance of the center was beginning to dwindle. Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Bosh, and Pau Gasol would add to the ranks of uber-talented big men, ditching the grind of being a center for the growing appealof the power forward position.

This isn’t to insinuate the 2000s was devoid of talented centers. Dwight Howard was a monster on the defensive side of the ball, and he alongside Amar’e Stoudamire wowed crowds with their flashy dunks. Yao Ming, though he struggled with injuries later in his career, combined a powerful 7 foot 6 inch frame with a soft shooting touch that led to eight All-Star appearances. But the shift in the power dynamic was clear: the best big men of the 2000s were not the ones playing center.

The movement away from the traditional big bruisers of old only continued in the 2010s. Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat would popularize the term “positionless basketball,” as he didn’t play a traditional center at all on his Heat teams early in the decade Instead, he put either the aforementioned Bosh or Udonis Haslem down low, a strategy that would help yield his team two championships. Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr decided to take the idea of not having a true center a step further, slotting versatile forward Draymond Green against opponents’ centers. 

The 6 foot 7 inch Green became the face of a new movement that began to be adopted across the NBA: small ball. With greater emphasis being placed on the value of the three-pointer, teams needed more players capable of shooting from and defending the perimeter. The big, lumbering centers that had been so dominant in the paint-oriented eras of the past were quickly left in the dust, and the big men left behind could not adapt quickly to remain relevant. So, teams began ditching big players entirely. The traditional centers of before soon found the market for their position dwindling, with more and more teams following the highly successful Warriors blueprint that brought them four championships.

It devolved to the point where the Houston Rockets of 2019-2020 traded or released every player on their roster over the height of 6 foot 9 inches except an ancient Tyson Chandler, who only saw garbage time minutes. Their starting lineup often consisted of Robert Covington playing “center”, despite being a traditional small forward. Some of their lineups also put PJ Tucker at the five spot, which created a lineup consisting of no players over 6 foot 6 inches on the court.

This was obviously the extreme of the spectrum, but it also showed just how outdated the big men of the time had become. The closest to a dominant center during the 2010s was Anthony Davis, but even he typically preferred to play the role of power forward. Rudy Gobert would prove to be a defensive menace but couldn’t stay on the floor when teams played five perimeter shooters. Karl-Anthony Towns had a shooting touch never seen before in a center but was a defensive liability with effort issues. Giannis Antetokounmpo also emerged as a monster in the paint, but he was slotted as a power forward alongside center Brook Lopez. It appeared the hulking giants of decades past were a dying breed, and the NBA would continue to move into an era of sleeker, smaller, and shorter players.

But entering the beginning of the 2020s, that would soon prove not to be the case.

Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid have patently tyrannized the NBA in a way no center since the early 2000s. Combined, the duo has won the last three MVPs, with 2021 and 2022 going to Jokic, before Embiid claimed his first in 2023. Embiid in particular has led the league in scoring two years in a row, the first center to lead the league since O’Neal and the first to do it two years consecutively since Bob McAdoo did it three times from 1973-1976.

Both standing at 7 feet and weighing over 280 lbs, they are decidedly against the grain of what the NBA had been trending toward. Yet they are absolutely mauling an environment that was supposed to be built around eradicating players of their size. How are they managing to revitalize a position that was supposedly left for dead in favor of the smaller,  faster,  more athletic?

The answer seems quite simple in retrospect: they simply took what the modern NBA gave them. Without the strict borders of what a traditional center could do in an offense, Jokic and Embiid have expanded on the playmaking element of being a center that is suddenly possible because of how spaced out the court has become.

Instead of being stationary in the paint or being a standard pick-and-roll partner, Jokic and Embiid are capable ball handlers who read the defense similar to a point guard, and attack it as they see fit. Their offensive skill sets are far more diverse than any center before them, with the ability to score at all three levels at will. Jokic in particular also has an uncanny ability to find the open shooter or cutter when he has the ball. Embiid, on the other hand, specializes in defensive prowess, often following his man out to the perimeter and switching on actions often reserved for when the defense is playing with a smaller lineup.

It is easy to see these two behemoths as simply anomalies in a new world dominated by a growing small ball movement. While it may be true that these two may be anomalies, it likely isn’t with respect to their height. Rather what may grow to be anomalous is their weight.

In 2009, Kevin Durant entered the NBA as the #2 overall pick after taking college basketball by storm. His frame was very atypical for the time, coming in at 7 feet but only 215 lbs. The lack of weight often spelled disaster for players of his height. What he lacked in girth, he made up for in his ability to score at will. He would become the litmus test for whether a skinnier build could hold up in the highest level of basketball.

The answer: a resounding yes. Durant went on to win four scoring titles and has managed to play 15 seasons, with plenty more left in the tank.

So, with the question answered for forwards, a slew of leaner wings flooded the NBA, headlined by Brandon Ingram, Micheal Porter, Jr. and Deandre Hunter. But, with the small ball movement in full swing at Durant’s peak, another question appeared because of his success: what about leaner centers?

Sure, there had been skinnier centers in the past. Some may even say Kareem Abdul-Jabbar would qualify as a lean center. But Durant had proven how much skill a player close to 7 feet tall with his size could have. Could it translate to the center position as well?

Three years into his NBA career with the Knicks, Kristaps Porzingis seemed poised to answer that question with the same answer Durant had. At 7 foot 3 inches and 240 lbs, he seemed prime to lead the Knicks to contention behind his unique skill set that earned him the title of a unicorn. But an ACL tear kept him out for a whole 2018-19 season, during which he was traded to the Mavericks, where he could never regain his previous form before being shipped to the Wizards.

But the glimpse of what could have been in New York was enough to send teams looking for more unicorns. Draft busts such as Thon Maker, Dragan Bender, Bol Bol and Aleksej Pokusevski came and went as teams went in search, with little to show for it. The idea of a unicorn continued to appeal to teams, but the practical options seemed to lean into small ball.

However, the last two drafts may have finally brought the first two successful unicorns into the league. 2022 no. 2 overall draft pick Chet Holmgren combined his 7 foot 1 inch  height and 7 foot 6 inch wingspan to be a defensive savant in college, while also flashing his ball handling and shooting ability. The catch was a recorded weight of 194 lbs, incredibly tiny by NBA standards. However, after a Lisfranc surgery robbed him of his 2022-23 season, he appears poised to help lead a young Thunder team back to the playoffs in what will be deemed his rookie year.

Appearing to be Holmgren’s biggest competition for Rookie of the Year is a player many have already hailed as being the unicorn. Victor Wembanyama, the most hyped NBA prospect since LeBron James. Wembanyama’s blend of size and skill may be the most unique the league has seen since Abdul-Jabbar all those decades ago. A towering 7 foot 4 inches, Wembanyama has the ability to dribble, pass, and shoot like a guard, while also being a premiere shot blocker and deterrent on defense.

Nothing in the NBA is guaranteed. Careers can be wiped away with one wrong step. The optimal style of the NBA at any given time can determine how successful any archetype can be. Holmgren and Wembanyama have much to prove before they can lay claim to continuing the center revitalization in the NBA. But after 30 years of slow decay at the position, the dominance of Jokic and Embiid, along with the promise of the two new rookies, seem to have revived what was once the most important position in basketball to as relevant as it has been in decades. Chamberlain and Russell built a strong foundation for a position that has meant so much to the game of basketball, and their legacy is carried on in the position they pioneered. It is up to Jokic, Embiid, and future big men to keep relevant the position that, even at its lowest points, has always been at the center of it all.

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