Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Who needs a center?

Golden State! Phoenix! Shaq is out! The center is dying...

I don't buy it.

From Truehoop:
Make Your List of the Best Post-Up Centers in the NBA... and then notice that none of them even made it to the second round (unless you count Tim Duncan as a center, which is totally fair). ESPN's David Thorpe emails on the changing face of the NBA, in which speed kills:
  • Dwight Howard lost.
  • Shaquille O'Neal lost.
  • Yao Ming lost.
  • Golden state won with no bigs.
  • Utah won with two power forwards -- one a great three-point shooter and the other a multi-skilled scorer.
  • The Nets won with a center who averaged three points a game.
  • Phoenix won with no center on the roster.
  • The Spurs won with the best power forward in history.
  • The Bulls won with a center who can't score and is 6'9.
  • The Pistons won with an aged power forward, and another power forward who is a three-point shooter.
  • Cleveland won with a legitimate center -- but one who is best as a faceup guy.

Think about that. And then think about at the upcoming NBA draft, and the raging Greg Oden vs. Kevin Durant debate. The conventional wisdom is that all things being equal, you take the big man. Thorpe looks at what's working in the NBA these days and asks: why?

Interesting (I like how San Antonio is winning because they have the greatest power forward ever, but the Suns simply "won with no center" as if having one of the greatest point guards ever doesn't help them out), and I'll make my own list:
  • Allen Iverson lost.
  • Carmelo Anthony lost.
  • Tracy McGrady lost.
  • Cleveland won with it's bigs playing well.
  • Utah won with a great low post power forward.
  • Kobe Bryant lost.
  • Dirk Nowitzki lost.
  • The Spurs won with the best power forward in history.
  • Dwyane Wayne lost.
  • Paul Pierce never made it.
  • Joe Johnson never made it.
  • Kevin Garnett never made it.
I'm not trying to be an asshole but the idea that we're somehow lacking low post big men in the second round (and that the league is making traditional post play ineffective) is laughable.

The reason you go with Greg Oden over Kevin Durant everytime is because quality big men are much more rare than multidimensional swing men (which is the reason the Blazers took Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan- they had Clyde Drexler (they also made the Finals a couple times, so its not like they set back their franchise)) they make the game much easier for their teammates (we all see how good the Cavs offense looks with multiple touches for Z and Gooden- and they aren't even that good).

Look, I can name a ton of (past, present and future) multi-talented ("next Jordan") Kevin Durant-like swing men: LeBron, Kobe, McGrady, Joe Johnson, Carmelo Anthony, Paul Pierce, Jerry Stackhouse, Grant Hill and Vince Carter. I'm not saying that these guys aren't good or hard to find or that I wouldn't want them on my team- these are all fantastic players.

However, I can't exactly rattle off the names of a half dozen Greg Oden-like (re: low post) centers: Tim Duncan, Yao and Shaq. That's it. And you noticed that Duncan and Shaq have seven rings between them, right? Compared to All-Star caliber centers, insanely talented swing men are a dime a dozen. If you want to sell jerseys and draw new fans, you take Kevin Durant. You want to win titles? You take Greg Oden.

As for the list low post players that didn't advance in the playoffs, lets dive in shall we?
  • Dwight Howard is physical freak who is extremely raw at the offensive end (plus he's really young and it was his first postseason).
  • Shaq is old (and by the way, won the championship last season).
  • Yao lost to a team anchored by a traditional low post power forward (Carlos Boozer).
  • Golden State beat Dallas precisely because A) the Mavericks' centers are crap at the offensive end, B) Dirk has no low post game and C) because Golden State matched up extremely well in all areas (offense, defense and coaching). Also, Dallas can't pass.
  • The Suns simply beat a bad Lakers team (and they have the twice reigning MVP and people like their chances this year because Amare Stoudamire returned).
  • The Spurs handled a run-and-gun Denver team pretty easily in the first round (and they just beat the Suns in Game 1).
  • The Bulls beat an over-the-hill Miami team with an injured D.Wade and are getting smoked by Detroit because of the lack of inside game.
  • The Pistons are dangerous because all five of their starters can play effectively on the low block. (Ya, Rasheed likes to bomb 3s, but when the going gets tough, he'll go to the post and abuse people).
  • The Cavs have won 5 straight playoff games (without having LeBron 'going off') because of the great low post play from Drew Gooden and Zydrunas Ilgausksas.
I know it's cool to say that the game is changing and that big men are becoming obsolete. It's becoming too fast and we can point to Phoenix and Golden State as the future of the league.

But what did Dirk need to do in order to beat Golden State? Go down low (and hell, if Dallas had a center with just a little bit of offensive skill, they would've been fine). What can Tim Duncan and the entire Piston team do extremely well? Play on the block. Why are 3/4 Eastern Conference teams extremely inconsistent? Too much reliance on jump shots. What does LeBron need to add to his game to "take the next step"? A solid low post repertoire (Jordan had a great low post game).

Look, I'm not trying to advocate a return to those 'classic' mid-90's New York-Miami slugfests but don't get the idea that Oden and Yao are going to get run out of the league just because Golden State beat Dallas.

Classic low post big men are always going to be at least somewhat useful (and with the way they call charges these days, having a guy with a "go to" move that isn't a constant risk for an offensive foul is pretty valuable- but that is a different rant) and are much less common than swing men. The Cavs just drafted a "Kevin Durant" in 2003. There hasn't been an "Oden" since Duncan was drafted in 1997.

I'm not saying the right team shouldn't take Durant over Oden (the Bucks come to mind- pairing Durant with Redd and Bogut isn't a bad way to go about things) but "all things being equal" you take the big man.


BenQRock said...

I tend to agree with you, Ben. Charles Barkley had it right when he said "You don't pass on 7' and 280 pounds."

The flashy play of the Suns and Warriors has lead some to downgrade the importance of players with good low-post skills. However, as you alluded to, Tim Duncan and Shaquille O'Neal have won 7 of the past 8 championships, and the one year they didn't it was Ben Wallace, who anchored the Pistons on the defensive end in the same way O'Neal and Duncan anchored their teams offensively.

The fact that Dwight Howard has no help around him also contributed to his first-round exit.

Ben said...

Howard is also pretty raw down low. He has some power moves, but he doesn't have that 'go to' move quite yet.

You always need a post player, if only for the occasional easy(ish) crunch time basket