Demise of the NBA center? Greatly exaggerated

Last night Joakim Noah scored eight points on 3-of-7 shooting and scrounged up just four rebounds and a block in 37 minutes … and rag-dolled the Toronto Raptors.

So why are any of us paying even a nanosecond of attention to this persistent notion of “The Death of the NBA Center”?

When the league decided last year to change the dynamics of All-Star Game voting — fans were no longer required to select a center; just three frontcourt players and two guards — it supposedly ratified the conventional wisdom that NBA basketball is no longer a big man’s game. But how you frame that debate makes all the difference.

If the argument is that the NBA’s best players are no longer back-to-the-basket, space-eating Stonehenge monuments chained to the low post, then you win, Captain Obvious. Very few of the league’s best centers even fit that description anymore. Even accounting for the hyper-accelerated athleticism of today’s game, only one elite pro qualifies: Dwight Howard.

But while we’re cherry-picking, arguing that Noah is not Patrick Ewing or that Brook Lopez’s game doesn’t resemble Moses Malone’s, why don’t we shock and amaze with the news that Russell Westbrook isn’t John Stockton and that John Wall isn’t another Mo Cheeks?

The game doesn’t evolve in a vacuum, not at any position — as much as positional designation matters at all anymore. The role of center, like every spot on the floor, has changed along with the NBA. Many big men now launch (and make) 18-footers, step out on pick-and-rolls and even operate as offensive facilitators.

Believe it or not, though, the number of 20-10 centers this season (two: DeMarcus Cousins, Al Jefferson) is the same as it was in 1999-2000 (two: Shaquille O’Neal and Elton Brand) and is only one behind the figure from the slug-it-out era of 1979-80 (three: Moses Malone, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar and Elvin Hayes). For all the nuanced adaptations in style, the similarities between players at the position in today’s game and those from the past outnumber their differences.

But if you can’t get behind even the incremental change we’re seeing, feel free to rejoin your Walkman and Zubaz pants back in the 1980s. You probably can’t handle fewer isolations, better ball movement, tighter defensive rotations and a purer brand of buckets anyway.

Noah, by the way, dished out a career-high 13 assists — his third game of double-digit dimes in his past five — to elevate Chicago over Toronto. As an exceptionally rangy, brainy ball hawk in Tom Thibodeau’s death trap of a defense, Noah has helped keep the Bulls afloat in Derrick Rose’s absence. But he has also, improbably, taken over as a sort of point center — the hub through which Chicago’s offense runs. The Bulls have exactly one player capable of getting his own shot with any regularity — guard D.J. Augustin, an in-season free-agent signing who runs hot and cold — so Noah’s court vision and laser-guided passing isn’t just welcome, it’s essential.

Still, as enjoyable as it is to watch Noah help rebrand the position, one fact is inescapable: The traditional NBA center isn’t dead. Go ahead and dismiss Howard — a physical marvel who makes Alonzo Mourning look like George Mikan — and the ageless Tim Duncan (as much power forward as center) from the discussion. That still leaves us with Big Al and Boogie, plus monoliths Marc Gasol, Nikola Pekovic, Andrew Bogut and All-Star Roy Hibbert who could easily fit in with those Bad Boys Pistons teams or heavy-handed Pat Riley outfits from back in the day. Now just imagine if Andre Drummond, Nikola Vucevic and Jonas Valanciunas continue to develop. And what if creaky Andrew Bynum and Greg Oden finally get themselves right?

With any luck, rookie Nerlens Noel will bounce back from injury to join Noah, Lopez, Al Horford and, perhaps eventually, Anthony Davis (playing more 4 than 5 lately) among the game’s sleek new-schoolers to push the boundaries of the center’s role in the modern NBA game. But they’ll also share space with Kendrick Perkins, Zaza Pachulia and others cut from the same 4XLT cloth, big men who very likely will always have a place in the league. Because no amount of basketball innovation can change one simple fact: You can’t teach seven feet.

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