Is it just me or does it seem that centers—the tall, gangly, or just plain gigantic guys who play down low, clog the lane and make little guys’ lives miserable—are disappearing from the NBA the way floppy Pete Maravich socks once did? Oh, there are still plenty of tall guys, but if they’re anything like Kevin Durant, they’re actually elongated 2s and 3s rather than lumbering, Godzilla-type 5s.
In another era Durant, Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Blake Griffin and their type would have been considered centers and likely forced to play with their backs to the basket on offense and stop anybody from ever driving through the paint on defense and probably be forced to grapple the whole game like sumo wrestlers. Now, those quasi-centers are so athletic and skilled that they play like glorified ballhandling guards, shooting three-pointers and scoring from all over and guarding almost anybody.
True, there’s this budding superstar center, Joel Embiid, 7-feet, 250 pounds, who seems cut from the tough-guy Bill Russell/Artis Gilmore mold, with the way he rebounds and blocks shots. But Embiid is so graceful and quick and talented that he might develop into another Durant-style shooting threat from all over the court. Yes, he can pull off all kinds of dunks, but he also can launch the long shots, even making six three-pointers in an early two-game stretch against the Clippers and Raptors.
Embiid’s up there with the league leaders in scoring, but hardly any other centers are. And it’s no wonder why. The trey rules all these days, and if you want the face of the long three-point shot, look no further than Stephen Curry’s glowing little mug. Curry doesn’t have to worry about Goliaths on the block when he’s the David launching shots from near half court. Maybe it was Michael Jordan who started the wheels moving toward mid-sized athletes who can spread the floor and whiz past slower centers and make the game one of athleticism and ballet-like skill rather than Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O’Neal-style hugeness. Guards like Curry, Kemba Walker, Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Zach LaVine, and of course, whatever- position-he-is-or-wants-to-be LeBron James, now dominate the offensive stats. Rebounds? Yes, centers still get a lot. But would anybody trade, say, John Wall for Willie Cauley-Stein? Curry for Hassan Whiteside? Don’t think so. It’s not the centers’ fault the game has changed. Just like it wasn’t the mastodons’ fault about that climate issue. It’s called survival of the fittest or, simply, basketball evolution.