NBA Centers and Diminishing Returns

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NBA Centers

Since the dawn of the NBA it has been dominated by big men. Mikan, Wilt, Russell, Kareem, Shaq, Hakeem all at one point or another were able to put a team on their back and almost single-handedly make it deep into the postseason (and in most cases the NBA Finals). The switch was flipped in 2016 when the Golden State Warriors deployed the “lineup of death”, playing 6-foot-7 Draymond Green at center, showing the ever-evolving NBA a new toy to play with, small ball.

With this new style of basketball, focusing primarily on perimeter shooting and playing as quickly as possible, the traditional big man has been phased out almost entirely and has given birth to a new class of do it all seven footers with insane athleticism, skill or both (In reference to Karl Anthony-Towns). These players put up MVP caliber statistics and have All NBA impact based on the regular seasons but as the postseason approaches, and the deeper teams make it into the playoffs, the value of these players wane significantly. Some examples of this are Joel Embiid against big guys that can shoot (Aron Baynes kind of and Horford), Rudy Gobert against offenses that spread the floor that put him in pick and rolls, and Jokic and Towns against any playoff offense. Even a center like Clint Capela who has the best lateral agility of any center in the NBA today was benched in a later playoff series in favor of PJ Tucker playing small ball center last year.

I am of the belief that the center is dead. No matter how fun it is to see Joel Embiid put opponents in spin cycles, Jokic putting on a passing clinic, or even Clint Capela throwing down monstrous dunks, having a dominant center in the modern NBA can only take you so far into the postseason. Their bodies simply can not keep up with guards, close out hard on opposing shooting threats, and deal with the constant being attack when facing an offense with adequate spacing. Over the last three or four postseasons, the minutes seven footers have played have taken a turn for the worst and only look to further decrease as time goes by, specifically for the prototypical centers. 

Regular Season Minutes played per game:

Postseason Minutes played per game:

In the case of players such as Jokic and Aldridge’ whose team’s success is dependent upon them playing significant minutes, we can take a look at their PIPM in both the playoffs and regular season. (Jokic does not have PIPM due to this being his first postseason so we will use the 2017-2018 PIPM of the top 3 centers in playoff minutes per game in 2018-2019 for this table)

PlayerRegular Season PIPMPostseason PIPM
LaMarcus Aldridge3.54-0.98
Rudy Gobert3.750.92
Steven Adams1.93.23

 

(Link: https://www.bball-index.com/17-pipm/)

And on a more rudimentary level take a look at the teams that made it to the conference and NBA Finals last year. How many of them had a player six-foot-eleven or above on their team? The answer is one, JaVale McGee (shoutout to McGee for keeping the center position alive). The players who tend to become more valuable as the stakes get higher are those who are smaller (prototypical forward size) which in turn allows them to move around better and give their team more value i.e. Al Horford, Clint Capela, PJ Tucker, Tristan Thompson, Kevin Love.

I believe that for a team to be built around a center, said player must be so dominant offensively that it makes the defense negligible (we are talking all-time great levels of offense which is very unlikely) because in most cases the center’s defense will be a sieve in the teams defense and playing them an ample amount of minutes would lead to you just having to outscore your opponent. There are only two true centers in the league today that I feel can ever reach that level of offensive impact (Jokic and Embiid). However, Embiid’s name might as well be Mr. Glass and Jokic still does not understand how to leverage his passing acumen with his ability to be a truly dominant scorer if he chooses to.

In the 2017-2018 playoffs, Clint Capela was arguably the best center (either him or Horford) statistically posting the second highest Box-Plus Minus from the center position over guys whose teams would traditionally build around one like the Timberwolves and 76ers. The basketball world is full of Capela types, although not as good. There are those who run, jump, play hard and have plus athleticism. These kinds of players are found all throughout NBA free agency and throughout the G-League waiting to be collected by an NBA team for a small contract in comparison to the “Unicorns” who often times bring diminishing returns in the playoffs and will demand a large portion of a team’s salary cap.

This is all about league trends and currently the league is trending in the direction of downsizing and perimeter play from the guard and wing positions and the big men who are succeeding in the postseason are not your traditional seven-foot centers, but the traditionally “undersized” center with good movement skills and athleticism. On the other hand, the NBA is currently being repopulated with young, talented, big men such as Jaren Jackson Jr., James Wiseman, Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis, Karl Anthony-Towns, and Nikola Jokic.

This is the hard thing about projecting trends because as of today, we are at the apex of the perimeter creators with players such as LeBron, Durant, Curry, and Harden dominating the league but the NBA is a conformist league and will always conform to the best players in it. One can reason that the future best players in the league will be big men or an amalgamation of both creator and the big man (Zion, Giannis, Simmons, etc.) due to the simple fact that there is more high impact big talent entering the league than high impact perimeter talent. The only players that have proven to be potentially scheme changing are Luka Doncic, Donovan Mitchell, Trae Young and Jayson Tatum in comparison to the big men aforementioned. However, it is extremely difficult to predict these trends because for all we know the league will be populated with even more perimeter talent.

I say this all to say that although the traditional center in all likelihood cannot be the fulcrum of a team with championship aspirations in the modern NBA, it would be ignorant to completely devalue big men simply because they are big, but rather learn what skills they must have to become truly impactful in today’s NBA. This is why I had a big like Jaren Jackson Jr. third on my board and had DeAndre Ayton behind players he was almost universally ahead of (Wendell Carter for example). Some of the skills are shooting, being able to be a post up threat, ball handling (to pair with the shooting), mobility, rim protection, and smarts. If a big encompasses these basic skills they are worth a look atop the draft because not only will they be valuable in today’s NBA, but will also be valuable if Goliath were to take the world back from David.

 

 

I would like to thank Reece Collins, Ben Rubin and Mike Gribanov for their help with this piece.

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