Houston Rockets

('88 Record: 46-36)

What's the big deal with centers? People say that teams have no shot at a title without a talented big man. Bob Cousy never won a title without Bill Russell. Oscar Robertson never won one without Kareem Abdul-Jabaar. Elgin Baylor and Jerry West were stuck at #2 for years until West finally won a title when Wilt Chamberlain arrived. But, now, people say, there are no dominant centers. No Russells, Abdul-Jabaars, or Chamberlains waiting in the wings to be great. Champions will still be crowned, but they won't be led by the traditional great center. The days of the dominant center, it is said, are over.

I missed it. Not the whole thing, but most of it. I missed the era of the dominant center. Abdul-Jabaar has been going pretty well since '79-80, but no one would argue that these have been his dominant years. Chamberlain and Russell are legends in someone else's time, not mine. Their statistics live forever, but the dominating presence they had on the court disappeared when they retired. I can't compare them to today's crop of centers in any way other than statistically and that would be a ridiculous comparison, done many times previously to show that Chamberlain and Russell are incomparably great.

How did the centers dominate the sixties and seventies? What was so special about them? Did all centers dominate their teams back then or was it just the amazing dominance of a few? If it was just a few, then this is a lot of hullabaloo about nothing. But it wasn't just a few, was it? Say it ain't so, Jack.

Sports Illustrated's Jack McCallum wrote about 'The Vanishing Center' in the February 22, 1988 issue. According to him, NBA centers aren't as good as they used to be. A lot of old timers say things like that. Cars aren't made as well as they used to be. The milkman doesn't deliver to the doorstep anymore and the doctor doesn't make house calls anymore. The family used to gather around the radio at night for The Green Hornet, instead of around the television for Knott's Landing. Lemonade isn't even as good as mom used to make. Even marriages aren't made the way they used to be. The good old days to old timers were 50 years ago, not a few months ago. People who have been around a while always see the past through the proverbial rose-colored glasses. I don't know if Jack McCallum is an 'old-timer', but he's older than I am and I remember when I was calling people my age 'old guys'.

'The good old days weren't always good. Tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems...' - Keeping the Faith, Billy Joel.

Did you know that the great Wilt Chamberlain couldn't shoot free throws worth beans? And most every time he went to Beantown, he lost. When the game was close and Chamberlain's team had the ball, he was the guy to foul. He was worse than Dennis Rodman and Kenny Norman are now. Chamberlain said Kareem should have retired five years ago, but when Kareem was on the free throw line in the Finals, down by one to the Pistons with 14 seconds left, he made them both. His second shot was the winning point. Chamberlain in his prime probably wouldn't have done that. Clutch free throw shooting wasn't what made Chamberlain great. Bill Russell wasn't a whole lot better. These guys could rebound, but they laid more bricks from the free throw line than the third little pig.

Free throws aren't that important, you say. I'm not going to argue with that, but what is important in a center? Rebounding and scoring? These two were great at those things. They also blocked a few shots, though no one knows how many. But, nowadays, does a center have to rebound and score? If he has a tremendous rebounder or scorer playing next to him at power forward, the center can sit around on defense and block shots defensively, just hanging around for open shots offensively. Mark Eaton does that for the Jazz. No offense from him, but a tremendous defense is centered completely around his shot blocking ability. Is Mark Eaton a dominant center or not?

Will someone please define exactly what is a 'dominant center'? At least tell me who is dominant and who isn't. Yes, you, Jack. You say Dave Cowens, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale are dominant centers. Kareem Abdul-Jabaar is another one? Even now, when he can't rebound and doesn't score very well? Moses Malone is dominant. That makes sense. He rebounds and scores almost like the greats. What about Bill Laimbeer, Jack? Or, how about Jack Sikma? Akeem Olajuwon, you say. Your avoiding the question, Jack. Besides, Olajuwon hasn't won a championship. Hasn't had the right personnel around him. Does it work both ways: the dominant center can't win without the dominant supporting cast? Yes, Jack? You want to go to the bathroom? I guess you can go, but when you come back, I want an answer. Anyone else have an answer?

What seems to be most 'dominant' about the dominant centers is their ability to score. Russell wasn't a great scorer, but made up for it with his rebounding. Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabaar, Parish, Cowens, McHale, and Malone are all good scorers. Olajuwon isn't anything special, though he does score a lot. Bill Walton was an OK scorer, but also nothing great, at least not statistically.

Is the idea of a dominant center partially an illusion? Robert Parish has never had the great stats of Abdul-Jabaar or Malone and played on a couple losing Golden State teams before going to the winning Celtics and Larry Bird. Was Parish 'dominant' before he got to Boston? Patrick Ewing looks just as good as Parish is. Is he destined to be 'dominant'? Does he have to wait until the Knicks are a better team? 'Dominant' seems to be almost as much attached to the center's team's play as to his own individual play. If the center doesn't rebound and score, he won't be called dominant unless he's playing on a great team. If the center plays on a bad team, he won't be called dominant unless he rebounds and scores extremely well.

The Lakers won the Championship last year with a very average center. Abdul-Jabaar is the worst rebounding center in the league, but scores slightly better than an average center. Magic Johnson still won a title. It wasn't even Magic's best season. The Lakers were talented at all positions, though. The weakest positions were center and power forward, but all spots scored better than the league average for their position. The same could be said about almost every champion in the history of the NBA. Jerry West didn't wait all alone for Chamberlain to arrive to win a Championship. Happy Hairston, Gail Goodrich, and Jim McMillan weren't bad players at all. They all contributed significantly to the Lakers' Championship season. And Bill Russell didn't win his Championships all alone. Tommy Heinsohn, Sam Jones, Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, Bill Sharman, Bailey Howell, and Don Nelson - all very fine players, contributed heavily to Boston's winning. In every single one of Russell's seasons, at least three of these players, and usually four, were playing with him. Replace Russell on those teams with Zelmo Beatty and the team still would have won at least four or five titles. Replace Russell with Chamberlain and the team may have won a couple more. Good players, no matter where they are, in at least four spots are what make a team dominant. The center just happens to usually be one of those spots. By the way, Abdul-Jabaar never won a Championship without a great point guard.

What's all the worry nowadays about the quality of centers going down? Is it true? It appears that way. Twenty years ago, the average approximate value (AV) of starting NBA centers was 12.7. Ten years ago, the average AV of starting centers was 12.3. Nine years ago: 11.9. Eight years ago: 11.7. Seven years ago: 11.6. Six: 11.6. Five: 11.2. Four: 11.3. Three: 10.8. Two: 11.0. One: 10.4. Boom! NBA centers do appear to be sliding. Is it a drop in quality or just a change in the game?

Ah, I see you're back, Jack. "Make a new plan, Stan." Don't play games with me, Jack. Do you have an answer to my earlier question? I figured not. How about the one I just asked? Both, you say. A drop in quality and a change in the game. The other position players have gotten taller to take some rebounds away from centers. And defenses don't let centers go one-on-one anymore. The double-teaming has made scoring in the low post more difficult. Offenses have gone away from the low post. They are built more around the quick players who can go inside or shoot from outside. Point guards often control the game as centers controlled it in the sixties and seventies. Also, big men aren't learning proven center techniques, such as the sky hook or quick low-post moves. That's a good point, Jack.

What's the reason for that? Back-to-the-basket moves appear to be very easy to the ones who use them. Abdul-Jabaar, McHale, and even Adrian Dantley make low post scoring look simple. Young big players would seemingly want to learn the low post moves. Jack says that zone defenses and the dominance of Magic and Bird have made younger big men into small forward-wannabees. The younger big men want to learn ball-handling and slick passing instead of the proven low post moves. And coaches let them do that.

Now we have Olajuwon, Ewing, Daugherty, Schayes, Breuer, Duckworth, long odds and ragged ends. Are people disappointed with these players? None is the 'franchise' center, like Abdul-Jabaar, but Abdul-Jabaar is a once-in-a-lifetime deal. At center, at least. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson are 'franchise' players, but people keep insisting that a great center is needed to win.

What about the new crop of centers? They're not franchise players, but could they be 'dominant'? 'Dominant' would mean that they put good numbers up and play on a winning team, which is enough for writers to label them as dominant. Olajuwon is ready to be called dominant, if he's not already labeled that way. He just hasn't had very much team success. He's a good rebounder for these times and scores more than 20 ppg. He will never average 20 rebounds per game or score 30 ppg unless he ends up playing on a pitiful club where no one else can score at all. He doesn't score nearly as efficiently as Abdul-Jabaar and probably never will. Moses Malone has always scored better than Olajuwon. Olajuwon's dominance is primarily defensive, which is only half of what made the greats great. Mark Eaton is Olajuwon's defensive equal, but doesn't rebound as well and is so pitiful offensively that he wouldn't appear to be 'dominant' in the sense that Olajuwon is. In terms of winning, though, Olajuwon hasn't been much more successful than Eaton.

Ewing has some of the stats to be called dominant, but is also more of a defensive threat than an offensive threat. The rap on Ewing is that he doesn't rebound well, averaging only 8.2 rpg last year. He shot 55.5% last year, but committed too many turnovers and didn't pass very well, leading to a floor % of .527. And last year was his best year to date. The team around him in New York isn't particularly good, especially offensively where there are no other 50% shooters. His coach, Rick Pitino, seems intent on building the team up with defense, which is where the strengths of all his players lie. If that works, Ewing is certainly a dominant center, but in a different manner than the others have been. His great defense will have led a strong team defense to a title. It probably won't happen that way, though, because offense is usually necessary to some degree.

Brad Daugherty is the most promising of the young ones because his offensive style is the best. He reminds more people of Abdul-Jabaar and Chamberlain than Olajuwon and Ewing do. At this time, he isn't much better offensively than Olajuwon or Ewing, but his low post moves are the best of the three. Daugherty also has a potentially great team around him. Daugherty's defensive weakness is made up for by his teammates and his offense compliments his teammates' well. The Cavs are also all about the same age and developing at about the same rate, which should produce at least one season of 60 wins in the future.

Future San Antonio Spur David Robinson brings hope to a lot of people. He rebounded and scored very well in college. He can play with his back to the basket and can run the floor. Future Georgetown Hoya Alonzo Mourning is another hopeful, but he's only 18 years old and hasn't played a college game yet. Sam Bowie had as much potential as Mourning has, but he hurt his leg in college and never recovered. Ralph Sampson had the tools also, but didn't develop them. It's a bad time to say that Mourning or Robinson won't be a 'franchise' player, but the odds are not good.

So keep faith in what we got now. Olajuwon, Ewing, Daugherty, and the shorter guys, like Jordan, Magic, and Bird, are nothing to complain about. For those of us who never saw Chamberlain and Russell, these players are the best around.

Basketball Hoopla, 1988, L. Dean Oliver