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Centers are still valuable, you just better be right

The league is trending away from center being the dominant position, but having a great center is still highly valuable.

NCAA Basketball: Duke at Texas Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

One of the more interesting aspects of the NBA Draft is how it often reflects broader trends in the NBA.

Heading into this year’s draft, the small-ball revolution is nearly complete. The league has transformed over the last eight years into a three-point firing beast, with nearly every team in the league, even the bad ones, shooting a lot of threes and rarely playing two bigs simultaneously. As a consequence, the traditional center, the kind we remember as recently as the mid-2000s, is basically extinct.

Back-to-the-basket bigs basically don’t exist anymore and if they do, they’re either on bad teams or backups for better ones. Teams across the league are trying to load up on as many switchable, rangy wings as possible to combat the small-ball onslaught.

So naturally, five centers are expected to be taken in the top 10 of this year’s draft.

There’s been a lot of debate about the definition (and necessity) of a true center in today’s NBA. Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle seems to believe you need a center that can shoot and switch and guard out to the three-point line. After a loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers in November, Carlisle explained the difficulty playing any of the Mavs’ traditional centers against a Cavs lineup that featured Kevin Love at the five.

“I was uncertain if we could get any of our real centers into this game because of the matchup with Love,” Carlisle said. “Salah [Mejri] gave us a big lift in the second quarter. We went back to him in the third and we had a few of those problems you have when you’ve got a rim protector that has a responsibility out at the three-point line.”

So as more teams load up with smaller bigs and bigger wings, all of whom have more versatility and shooting, conventional wisdom sees the center position as considerably less dominant and necessary than it was when Shaq and Tim Duncan were rampaging through the league. It’s why our own Kirk Henderson has argued for the Mavericks to draft a wing this summer, though he’s softened that stance somewhat.

It’s definitely true that the center position has changed, and there are a lot of bad bigs with bloated contracts. But here’s the thing: while the position has changed, I don’t think the value really has. The quality of players at that position has just become way more volatile than the earlier NBA era in which centers had a higher floor.

Look at the teams currently playing in the second round of the playoffs and their centers:

  • Houston — Clint Capela, one of the best rim runners and rim protectors in the leauge,
  • Utah — Rudy Gobert, potential Defensive Player of the Year who (when healthy) pushes Utah to another level.
  • Golden State — While not a traditional center, Draymond Green is their defensive engine as a small-ball five.
  • New Orleans — Anthony Davis. Yep.
  • Toronto — A part of their leap this regular season was getting improved play out of Jonas Valanciunas.
  • Cleveland — One of their bigger weaknesses all season was inconsistent play from their fives. Tristan Thompson showed in their Game 1 win against the Raptors why he can be so valuable for them.
  • Philadelphia — Joel Embiid is one of the best players in the league. He almost single-handidly transformed the 76ers from lottery trash to 50+ wins.
  • Boston — Al Horford doesn’t put up the numbers, but makes he one of the biggest impacts for any team in the league and is the linchpin of their defense (and their offense with all the injuries).

Centers are still mighty valuable. The problem is that the potential for a big man to bust is higher than ever before. A big who can guard the rim, hang in the pick and roll, play good defense and be a threat on the other end of the floor is supremely valuable. It’s just harder than ever to find a center who can do those things. If a team hits on one of those centers in the upcoming draft, it might change their fortunes and pull them out of the doldrums. If they bust? Well, get used to the lottery.

Wings on the other hand are pretty safe now. A tall-ish perimeter player that can do at least one thing well has huge value, even if the other parts of their game don’t come around. Andre Roberson turned into a player the Thunder couldn’t afford to lose (as they learned when he got injured), and when he shoots, people go blind. Jae Crowder has always been a plus player, yet you look at his career stat line and it’s like the dude is allergic to showing up in the box score. Or look at Kirk’s own example of Kelly Oubre — he’s going to get paid this summer coming off a season where he [checks notes] averaged about 12 points and 4.5 rebounds per game and shot 34 percent from three. Wings that can walk and chew bubble gum at the same time are just so valuable because the best teams in the league will run you off the court if you can’t match them. It’s an arms race. Literally, the longer the arms the better.

This high risk, high reward nature of the center was never more evident than the 76ers’ first round series against the Miami Heat. Miami had a max-contract Hassan Whiteside and the Sixers had the aforementioned Embiid. Embiid dominated when he returned to the court, blocking nine shots in three games, all wins, to close out the series. His presence effectively ended any drama in the series, stifling the Heat’s whirling drive-and-kick attack. Whiteside? He averaged 15 minutes a game, shot less than 50 percent from the floor and was basically a non-factor. Dude only had one game in the series where he made more than one shot. That’s a max contract big! And in one playoff series he looked like a player from another generation, like an NBA Hardwoods Classic tape transported to the modern day. It was stunning to see how quickly today’s NBA passed him by.

So, I get it. Centers are risky as hell. It’s unlikely that DeAndre Ayton will be the next Embiid, Mohamed Bamba the next Gobert, Jaren Jackson Jr. the next Myles Turner, Marvin Bagley III the next A’mare Stoudemire or Wendell Carter Jr. the next Al Horford. The possibility though, is tantalizing. Not every new big man needs to be able to shoot threes like Embiid or Karl Anthony-Towns — Capela and Gobert are perfectly fine as dominant defenders and elite roll men. Players can create spacing in more ways than just shooting. A prime lob threat can open offenses just as well as a spacing big. Just look at what Dwight Powell has done in Dallas.

Because the small-ball era doesn’t mean size isn’t important. Centers still matter in today’s NBA, even the ones that can’t shoot — you just have to be right more than ever before. The safety net is gone, because simply being tall is no longer good enough. But the upside is so alluring, I don’t blame the Mavericks or any other team for embracing the chance to change their franchise with one draft pick.