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Time of true NBA centers seems to be a bygone era

There are fewer dominant centers in the NBA, with Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum as the most preeminent. Small ball has permeated what was once a game of giants.

November 11, 2012|By Ben Bolch
  • Dwight Howard is one of two star centers in the NBA.
Dwight Howard is one of two star centers in the NBA. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

The Twin Towers live on.

A generation ago, the NBA had so many dominant centers that two resided on a single team. Hakeem Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson gave the Houston Rockets a pair of 7-footers who terrorized every opponent not named the Boston Celtics.

The league still has two preeminent centers … among 30 teams.

There's Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum and pretty much no one else.

Tim Duncan was so five years ago. Defensive whiz Tyson Chandler is as one-sided as an attorney's closing argument. Marc Gasol, solid as he is, doesn't exactly make his counterparts quake in their size-22 Nikes.

It's gotten so bad that the NBA eliminated the center designation from All-Star ballots this season for the first time.

OK, so that move was made mostly to give fans more flexibility in selecting frontcourt players, but the timing couldn't have been more perfect.

Small ball has permeated what was once a game of giants.

"There's a lot of great centers that play in the NBA today," said Howard, the Lakers big man who is widely considered the best of the lot. "There's just so many guards that outshine them. When you've got LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant and all these guys, who's going to talk about the other guys?

"I mean, it's not a flashy position. I've never seen a center on 'SportsCenter' shooting a fadeaway. It's always the guards. Those are the highlights that everyone wants to see."

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the legendary Lakers center, said the need for instant gratification has created "lotto fever."

"The way the game is taught now, everyone just wants to work out there at the three-point line or they want to dunk, so it's one or the other," Abdul-Jabbar said. "The whole balance between being able to get your points on the perimeter or in the paint has really become skewed now.

"It's basically a reflection of style more than anything else. The bodies are still there."

Indeed, a quick glance around the NBA reveals more than a handful of 7-footers. Many of them, including Dallas forward Dirk Nowitzki, like to drift out toward the three-point line and avoid the body blows that come with playing underneath the basket.

There are also plenty of faux centers such as 6-9 J.J. Hickson as teams go with smaller, quicker lineups. Miami won last season's title without a true center, its front line often comprising the 6-10 Chris Bosh and the 6-8 James.

"With the game getting so much quicker, there's a lot of emphasis on playing smaller and speeding the game up," Mike Brown said this week before he was fired as Lakers coach. "So it's harder to find the 7-footer that can play a speed game.

"Back in the day, it used to be a grind-it-out, physical game. It used to be a lot of half-court sets and the tempo wasn't quite there at times, so you could have a 7-footer and play him a lot of minutes even if his foot speed wasn't there. But nowadays it's hard. You don't see the Mark Eatons out there anymore."

Abdul-Jabbar and his sky hook may also be the stuff of grainy videos, but at least fans will be able to see a likeness of him starting Friday, when a statue of the NBA's all-time leading scorer is unveiled outside Staples Center. It's a reminder of a bygone era of larger-than-life players such as George Mikan, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and, more recently, Patrick Ewing, Yao Ming and Shaquille O'Neal.

Howard remains a believer in the current centers, listing Sacramento's DeMarcus Cousins and Utah's Al Jefferson among the best of the current group. Abdul-Jabbar touted Joakim Noah as an emerging talent, no doubt in part because the Hall of Famer has worked with the Chicago center on post moves that could complement his strong defensive play.

It may take someone with Abdul-Jabbar's credentials to help make center skills elementary again.

"A lot of the people who teach the game now to kids in grade school really don't know how to play with their backs to the basket, so all they're teaching are guard skills," Abdul-Jabbar said. "In order to learn center skills, it's becoming a more rare and esoteric part of the game and it shouldn't be that."

ben.bolch@latimes.com

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