Evolution of game a giant problem?

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J.A. Adande and Israel Gutierrez discuss the state of the center position in the NBA.


Israel:  Quick question, J.A.: Is the NBA's latest slogan, "BIG," supposed to be sarcastic? Because I'm looking at the Eastern Conference All-Star starters, and LeBron James as the starting "center" doesn't exactly make me think "BIG."

And out West, I was pretty surprised that Dwight Howard got leapfrogged by Kevin Love in the voting. Now, that could be for any number of reasons (determined Wolves fans, apathetic Howard fans or maybe just the new voting categories worked against Howard), but it reminded Howard of why he was alone and scared enough last year to put together this Public Service Announcement with some inspiration from Sarah McLachlan.

"

The game looks like it's in pretty good shape to me, even without Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon clashing in the pivot.

" -- Israel Gutierrez

My question is should we really be sad, like "in the arms of an angel" sad? Because the game looks like it's in pretty good shape to me, even without Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon clashing in the pivot.

J.A.: First, I love that PSA. It's good to see that Dwight hasn't lost that sense of humor. The sad thing is that video won't be enough to stop the erosion of the low-post game. The analytics guys insist the worst play in basketball is an isolated post-up shot, because it yields the fewest points per attempt. The best thing a post player can do, they say, is pass out to an open shooter. But how are players going to draw double teams and create open shots for teammates if they can't establish themselves as legitimate low-post threats?

That's why Dwight Howard and the Center Center For Centers are doing such important work. Because you know what we'll get if the low-post player vanishes? A bunch of guys shooting contested 3-pointers all the time. The NBA will start to look like a bad college basketball game.

Israel:  Just like the Center Center For Centers, a classic post-up big on a lot of these elite teams would be redundant. The Heat have won two championships by turning the game inside-out: the smaller guys post, and bigger guys either spot up or slash. The advantage there is the guys posting up (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade) are already naturally good passers if they draw a double. The Warriors are another team that will post up Klay Thompson or Harrison Barnes on a smaller defender and work from there.

The Rockets themselves, despite having a player who could be utilized as a classic post-up center, don't just dump the ball into Dwight very often. Now, I personally think that team is a bit too caught up in the analytical and might want to trust Howard more, but it's hard to argue too vehemently given their results.

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Those rare moments when Shaq and Duncan went head-to-head brought me to the edge of my seat. It felt like a throwback to when giants ruled the league.

" -- J.A. Adande

And I'd also argue we have a decent share of classic centers in the game. Nikola Pekovic, one half of the Bruise Brothers in Minnesota, is pretty traditional, and he's a borderline All-Star. DeMarcus Cousins is putting up healthy numbers. Roy Hibbert is probably making Rik Smits proud in Indiana. But in today's game, unless you've got a transcendent talent like Shaquille O'Neal, running a game through a traditional center is challenging because of how well teams have mastered the zone element of defense.

J.A.: Ugh, you mentioned the dreaded Z-word. I fear that the demise of the low-post game will lead to more zones to counter what's become the preferred way to get the ball inside: dribble penetration. If you think about it, fewer big men to get the ball in the post means fewer big men to protect the rim. Unless the model for centers becomes DeAndre Jordan, a shot-blocker who gets the ball only on offense when it's lobbed to him a foot above the rim.

More zones would mean more bland passing the ball around the perimeter. I'll grant you that center-dominated play can be dull at times. The Spurs and Lakers weren't always scintillating when they ran their offenses through Shaq and Tim Duncan. But those rare moments when Shaq and Duncan went head-to-head brought me to the edge of my seat. It felt like a throwback to when giants ruled the league. It was the NBA the way it used to be ... and might never be again, unfortunately. I grew up watching Kareem Abdul-Jabbar go against Moses Malone and Robert Parish in the NBA Finals. Championships should have the feel of heavyweight bouts, not flyweights.

Israel: Well, I grew up watching Michael Jordan and Bill Wennington combine for 57 points in Madison Square Garden. And nobody wanted to be Wennington. So I'm fine with the game today. In fact, all the league is doing with its All-Star balloting switch to frontcourt and backcourt classifications is reflecting what the league looks like. It's not eliminating the center. It's just saying, "Listen, you want to be an All-Star center, be better than the All-Star power forwards who are dominating the game at times."

What beef does Howard really have when  LaMarcus Aldridge, who's an MVP candidate, and Anthony Davis, whose PER is better than any center in the league, also aren't among the starters. Actually, the only center who has a real beef is Cousins, who could argue he's more deserving than Blake Griffin. And even Cousins' game has elements of power forward in it. He likes handling the ball, faces up well and has a midrange jumper he can turn to. There might be more centers shooting 3s, like Chris Bosh, before you know it.

J.A.: I was going to ask what's so great about Bosh shooting 3s until I remembered the mere threat of his jump shot led to Duncan and Roy Hibbert sitting out two of the most critical sequences of the 2013 playoffs, as Gregg Popovich and Frank Vogel made defensive matchup choices that backfired big time. Maybe their mistakes can serve as a reminder that the essential rule of basketball is to control the paint ... and the simplest way to do that is to use the biggest possible player.

You say the Heat can just use LeBron to handle the post on offense. I say good for them, but what about the rest of the league? Even in this era of dwindling big men, it's still easier to find one of them than it is to find another LeBron.

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