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The NBA's Fad with Small Centers

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Point guards in the NBA have never been taller than they are today. Centers, on the other hand, have been declining in height since the mid-90’s. You can hardly find a true 7-footer among centers in the NBA today who’s relevant. International big men Joel Embiid and Kristaps Porzingis are likely the only true 7-footers (6’10” and 6’11” don’t count, sorry) who are worth watching. Nikola Jokic stands at 6’11” and Anthony Davis, no matter how hard he’s been labeled as a 7-footer, is only six feet and ten inches.

Bam Adebayo, Tristan Thompson, and Kevon Looney – what do these three players have in common? They each stand at 6’9” and have been starting centers for a good portion of their NBA career. And the guy who plays backup for Tristan Thompson with the Boston Celtics, Robert Williams III, stands at 6’8” – talk about Brad Stevens’ preference for smaller big men. He puts either Grant Williams or Semi Ojeleye at Power Forward, and both players stand at the shooting guard height of six feet and six inches.

What’s up with today’s NBA’s fad for smaller big men? Is it because the Golden State Warriors won three NBA championships by playing the 6’6” Draymond Green in their so-called Death lineup? Is it a result of today’s preference for a more open court, more movement, and the brand of position-less basketball? Is it because smaller players are the only ones who can survive today’s playing style – running up and down the court, switching to quick perimeter players and more screen-and-roll action? Or is it simply a consequence of a player pool that has run dry of bigger talented players? Let’s try to answer each of these questions.

The Golden Dynasty

The Golden State Warriors’ dynasty of the mid-2010’s was one of the most exciting times in basketball history. Don’t get me wrong – I’m far from being a Warriors fan. I’ve been riding the LeBron James train since he took his talents to South Beach, which means I absolutely hated the Golden State Warriors in their heyday.

Despite my antagonistic attitude towards the Dubs, I still enjoyed how they played basketball. Their brand of playground basketball – especially before an isolation-obsessed Kevin Durant came to the picture – was prime time NBA basketball. I loved cheering against them but at the same time enjoyed how they play. And I’m not the only one with this attitude towards the Warriors – the rest of the NBA absolutely loved to hate the Golden State Warriors but at the same time wanted to emulate the way they played, mostly because they needed to be able to put enough points in the board to even have a chance of competing.

A hallmark of the Warriors’ play style was putting Draymond Green (whom some of us thought was 6’8”) who only stood at 6’6” – the same height as Michael Jordan. And the great Michael Jordan wasn’t even considered big for the shooting guard position – he was average and there were enough shooting guards in the league who matched his frame.

The effectiveness of Steve Kerr putting Draymond at center though, was something that defined the Warriors. Prior to Kevin Durant joining, their Death lineup consisted of Draymond Green at center, Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes in the forward positions (both were notably long and athletic wing players) and the Splash Brothers Klay Thompson and Steph Curry at the guards. This lineup, despite the tallest guy being 6’7” made up for their lack in defensive size by being long, active, strong and athletic. Draymond was buly enough to offer resistance to a 250-pound LaMarcus Aldridge in the West Finals, at the same time agile enough to guard a monster like LeBron who despite weighing 250 pounds himself, could run and jump like Russell Westbrook.

Because of Golden State’s success both in winning and in entertaining, it was no surprise that other NBA teams followed suit with the way they structured their team and how they played.

The Modern NBA Play Style

The Warriors’ success ushered in an NBA that fell in love with the three-point line and at the same time one which encouraged perimeter players assuming frontcourt positions (small-ball for short). The modern NBA play style has further progressed to one absolutely drunk in love with shooting three point shots – the 2018-2020 Houston Rockets the extreme version of it, doubling down when they shipped out Clint Capela and put a 6’5” PJ Tucker as permanent starting center.

While I absolutely pray that NBA teams will never once again resort to starting someone under 6’6” at center, I can’t say that I don’t enjoy today’s NBA small ball. Small ball basketball has provided far less stagnant offensive possessions which were so rampant in the 90’s when every team was drunk in love with the post-up. We know now through analytics that post-ups are not the most efficient offensive possessions, and so we are seeing less and less of that in today’s game.

The modern NBA play style has paved the way for smaller players to assume the starting center position.

A Case of Player Durability

Now this is one issue that doesn’t get talked about enough. When I look back on the careers of Ralph Sampson, Patrick Ewing, Yao Ming, and Shaquille O’Neal – true 7-footer starting centers – I see an unfortunate pattern of injury, particularly with the foot. Yao Ming’s foot issue eventually led the 7’6” Hall-of-Famer to end his career after just nine years. Shaq was lucky enough to have played almost twenty seasons, but in the last four or five years of his career he was clearly only a shadow of his former self and was left ‘ring-chasing.’

With the pace and style at which the NBA is being played today, I wonder if true 7-footers could really extend their careers beyond a decade. We have already seen that Joel Embiid and Kristaps Porzingis, while both being supremely talented, have both been bitten by the injury bug one too many times this early in their careers.

It’s safe to say that smaller centers, who have a lighter weight to carry around while being more stable when they run because of a lower center of gravity, are more physically equipped to handle today’s NBA’s play style. Freaks come along the way like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Ben Simmons who are both at least 6’10” but can run like deer – but they are the exception rather than the rule, and are more fitting to be called NBA mutants than normal human beings.

Not Many True 7-Footers out there?

The question of there being not many true 7-footers out there who have NBA-level talent has bothered me for the last decade. What truly bothers me is that there was a time when true 7-footers David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal, Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon played at the same era – while the 2010’s only provides me with Dwight Howard, Demarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis who all stand under seven feet. You could say that big men have gotten slightly smaller, but when you look at the starting centers now, they’re absolutely anemic.

Although a 7’1” James Wiseman is something I am happy about and the fact that two of the NBA’s best centers – Joel Embiid and Rudy Gobert – both stand at least seven feet. So there’s definitely still some hope for truly big NBA centers to fit in.

But looking around the league, you also see the smaller centers – Bam Adebayo, Thomas Bryant, Robert Williams III, Wendell Carter Jr., Tristan Thompson – the list goes on, and you realize that smaller, more versatile centers who can play under the small-ball pace are thriving. When you want to be able to guard the mutants of today’s NBA, you better be able to have centers who can switch on to them. Who’s fast enough to catch up to a running LeBron James / Ben Simmons / Giannis Antetokounmpo? Who has the combination of length and quickness to guard a Kevin Durant in the half court? Who’s got enough bulk to offer enough resistance to a Joel Embiid in the post?

It seems that the modern NBA center is someone who has a little bit of everything – size, athleticism, mobility, speed, strength and skill. They’re expected to have ALL of these attributes, and I just don’t expect a true 7-footer to check all these boxes.

The Last 20 NBA Finals – How Many True 7-footers Started?

As a fitting end to this article, I thought it might be fun to look back at the last twenty NBA Finals and check how many true 7-footers started. Just based on the last couple of years, I can already tell that the lower we go down this list which starts at year 2000, the fewer true 7-footers we’ll come across.

2000 – Two. Crazy how the Indiana Pacers had a 7’4” Rik Smits paired with a 6’11” Dale Davis in the front court. But that wasn’t enough to beat Shaq – although it did give him some trouble.

2001 – Two. Dikembe Mutombo (7’2”) and Shaq (7’1”).

2002 – One. David Robinson (7’1”) and Tim Duncan (6’11”) made the Nets look tiny.

2003 – Two. David Robinson stood at 7’1” while Jason Collins of the Nets stood at 7’0”.

2004 – One. Shaq stood at 7’1” but was overwhelmed by the two Wallaces of Detroit.

2005 – Zero. But it is worth noting that Rasheed Wallace and Tim Duncan both stood at 6’11” with their frontcourt mates each standing at 6’9” (Ben Wallace) and 6’10” (Fabricio Oberto).

2006 – Three! Shaq (7’1”), Dirk (7’0”) and Desagana Diop. If you don’t remember Diop, just wrap around your head the idea that NBA teams at the time were okay with starting unskilled centers as long as they could provide cover for guys like Shaq.

2007 – One. Zydrunas Ilgauskas stood at a whopping 7’3”.

2008 – Two. Kevin Garnett, while being listed as 6’11” was widely accepted to be at least seven feet tall. Pau Gasol stood at 7’1”.

2009 – One. Pau Gasol.

2010 – Two. Same as 2008.

2011 – Three! Tyson Chandler stood at 7’2” while Nowitzki stood at exactly seven feet. Zydrunas Ilgauskas did not start for the Heat in the Finals, but he was their starting center for most of the season.

2012 – Zero. Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka both stood at 6’10” while Joel Anthony and Chris Bosh stood at 6’9” and 6’11” respectively.

2013 – Zero. Chris ‘Birdman’ Andersen stood at 6’10” while Tiago Splitter whom I swore was a 7-footer, stood at 6’11”.

2014 – Zero. Same for 2013, although the Spurs played Duncan more at the 5-spot this year.

2015 – Two. Timofey Mosgov stands at 7’1” and Andrew Bogut was a true 7-footer at 7-feet flat.

2016 – One. This was the last year the Warriors consistently started Andrew Bogut, who was at a decline and was a liability when switching over to smaller players.

2017 – Zero. Tristan Thompson stands at 6’9” and so does Kevon Looney. Also, Zaza Pachulia stands at 6’11” so he too, doesn’t count.

2018 – Zero. Same as 2017.

2019 – Zero. To my surprise, Marc Gasol stands at 6’11”. Kevon Looney stands at 6’9”.

2020 – Zero. Anthony Davis stands at 6’10” and Bam Adebayo at 6’9”.

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