Centers Reclaim the Paint, and NBA

There was a time long ago when big men ruled the NBA. It was a time when Shawn Bradley, Eric Montross, Bryant Reeves, Tony Battie, and Michael Doleac were drafted in the lottery, because being caught without a good center in the NBA was like being O.J. Simpson and not having a lawyer.

But for every solid center drafted, you'd find yourself a Alek Redojevic. (Who? Yeah, exactly — 7-3, 245, 1999, Toronto Raptors, 12th pick.) Then, there was that era when every seven-footer with a little bit of bulk was called Baby Shaq — Eddy Curry, Desanga Diop, James Lang.

These were dark times.

Then we all gave up on finding this rare breed. The Michael Olowokandi experiment failed. The Robert Traylor era ended. And Knicks fans thought Frederick Weis was the anti-Christ. So teams began to settle for smaller, hybrid centers.

And it worked.

They found players a tad short of seven feet who would run the court, grab a few boards, and defend the post well enough to get their fast breaks started.

Carlos Boozer, Mehmet Okur, Pau Gasol, Brad Miller, and, the quintessential hybrid center, Amare Stoudemire. And even Elton Brand passed as a "center."

But we all knew they weren't "true" centers.

So when this season came around, we thought it would be more of the same. But something very strange happened. In just one season, a center-depleted league became a big man's world again. I looked away for a second, and solid centers were everywhere.

The best way to understand this phenomenon is to split up the centers into three categories: 1) the old guys; 2) the journeymen; 3) the young guys.

The old guys — Shaq, Ben Wallace, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas — are quickly wearing down. It's the first year they aren't among the premiere centers in the league. It's largely because they've just gotten old, but it's also because everyone else has gotten so much better.

The journeymen are what give the position depth this year. Brendan Haywood has become a solid center, averaging 10 points and 8 rebounds a game. And Marcus Camby has become one of the best rebounders in the history of the game. He's got an uncanny ability to chase down the ball, almost Dennis Rodman-esque. Then there are Samuel Dalumbert (11 ppg, 10 rpg) and Jeff Foster (6 ppg, 9 rpg). These are solid centers teams can depend on to man the paint.

The big men have reclaimed the low post. A few years back, I wouldn't have been afraid to stand in the paint with any of the league's center — except Shaq. But have you seen Dwight Howard's shoulder? There's no way I'm standing within 10 feet of that man-child-beast. Yes, I just used the phrase "man-child-beast."

They are not simply filling a position. They have become the center-pieces of their franchises.

Howard is the leader of this up-and-coming group of centers. Yao Ming and Carlos Boozer are the oldest of the group. They guarantee their respective teams 20 points and 10 rebounds a game, at the least. That's what a franchise center does for you.

But Howard didn't get that memo. So the 22-year-old is putting up numbers that are even scarier than his broad shoulders — 24 ppg, 15 rpg.

Even Chris Kaman is getting into the flow of this center resurgence with 18 ppg and 14 rpg. And Andrew Bogut (12, 9) isn't doing too shabby, either.

Of course, there are a few young guys in the mold of the hybrid center, led by Stoudemire. Al Jefferson (20, 12), Emeka Okafor (14, 11), Al Horford (9, 10), and Andris Biedrins (11, 10) are all guys who would traditional be power forwards, but have filled the center role for their teams.

And then there's the 20-year-old Andrew Bynum (11, 10) who looks like he could be a 20-15 guy at some point in his career.

I just named nearly 20 centers who will give a team the post presence they need to compete in this big man's league. And that's not even counting Greg Oden, who is coming back next year.

But will this last? Or will the NBA return to small ball after the big-man trend goes through a regression?

Well, the last time it was a big man's league, a few guys named David Robinson, Hakeem Olajuwan, Shaquille O'Neal, and Patrick Ewing ruled the paint in every game they played in. In turn, they single-handedly changed the way teams approached the game. (Minus the Bulls, of course, with the legendary Luc Longley and his sidekick, Michael Jordan.)

So what's in store for the future? Until a meteorite like Jordan (maybe LeBron James?) comes and changes the course of the league, it will be the land of the giants for at least the next decade.

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