Tim Duncan, Shaq and the Dominant Center

The times they are a-changin.

Bob Dylan said it back in 1964, and it still holds truth.

Games are much more complex than Pong, 21 Jump Street went from a TV series to a movie with a sequel, and the Rugrats are all grown up.

Amongst those ch-ch-changes is the death of the dominant center in the NBA.

While I do have trouble reminiscing on the primetime years of Russell, Kareem and Wilt (might have a little bit to do with the idea of me being a far off dream for my parents who didn’t meet until 1984), their stats and accomplishments jump off the page. Couple that with the fact that I didn’t even use full names and you still know who I’m referencing speaks loudly.

Much more into my era are the times of Shaq, The Admiral, Ewing, The Dream, and Zo. Again, who needs full names?

For the future of the dominant centers, the prospects seem grim. Recently, Shaquille O’Neal spoke of this epidemic with Sports Illustrated: Okay. Now you’re one of the last true big men, and since you’ve left the league the landscape has changed a lot. There’s a lot more versatile—

SHAQ: That’s my fault. It’s my fault because I used to punish them so much when they’d come down into that paint. Well, now the 76ers seem like one of the few teams that are looking to build their franchise around big men through the draft—

SHAQ: Yeah, but, there’s two types of big men. There’s the Dirk Nowitzki big man and there’s the real physical big man, which is good. That’s not a knock on Dirk Nowitzki, he’s one of the top players in the game. That’s just how he plays. But me personally, I don’t like seven footers shooting three-pointers. So do you think centers like you are extinct in the league?

SHAQ: Oh, they’re gone. I killed them off.

In typical fashion, Shaq claims responsibly for the death of the center, but he may be right.

Largely considered the best center in today’s NBA, Dwight Howard’s career is as labeled much some as a disappointment thus far compared to the original Superman. Howard’s calling card is his defense, which is phenomenal, but his scoring, assists, field goal percentage, and even blocks are below O’Neal’s career averages. O’Neal’s win shares per 48 minutes also trumps Howard’s percentage. This is a comparison of the man Howard was steadily likened to throughout his NBA career. And, hey, O’Neal had successful seasons with Kobe Bryant.

The next best current centers, depending on who you’re asking, are all defense-first players. Joakim Noah, Marc Gasol, and the pre-postseason Roy Hibbert are all defensive anchors on their respective ball clubs. Gasol has a respectable offensive game, and Noah is an improved passer and scorer, but neither are in the same stratosphere as any of the retirees listed above.

You could say we’re comparing apples to oranges, but that is the point here. Where are the new oranges?

Since O’Neal’s last All-Star game appearance in in 2009, the centers selected have been Hibbert, Noah, Howard, Tyson Chandler, Brook Lopez, Andrew Bynum, Marc Gasol, Al Horford, Yao Ming, Amare Stoudemire, and Chris Kaman. Removed Kaman (whom nearly everyone forgets was an All-Star), Stoudemire (who’s more of a PF anyway), Yao (who’s lateral defense wasn’t great) and Lopez (yikes on that end), the rest are all defensive players first and foremost, with some almost exclusively talented on that end.

And then there is Andrew Bynum, the one outlier in today’s case. Bynum was the closest thing to Dwight Howard as the best center in today’s NBA before injuries (and a tiny bit of attitude issues) derailed his career. Bynum was only 24 years old when he ended his career year (18 pts./11 rbs.) during his last season in Los Angeles. The room to grow was there for Bynum to be the most dominant center of the 2010’s.

Going back even further, some other All-Star centers during the early 2000’s were Jermaine O’Neal, Dikembe Mutombo, Ben Wallace, and Alonzo Mourning. Defense. Defense. Defense.

Speaking of Mourning, he added his thoughts to the current state of NBA centers:

 “Basketball is played from the inside out. San Antonio beat us [Miami in the NBA Finals] because they dominated us in the paint. So if you can get somebody in the draft that’s dominating in the paint, they’re going to go first.”

“They’re not teaching fundamentals of the game,” he said. “They’re not teaching the game inside out. Why do you think Tim Duncan is still dominating the game. He’s literally still having an impact on the game at his age because he’s so fundamentally sound. The game is changing because the game isn’t being taught the way it was being taught back in the day.”

He does have a point. Once Nowitzki took the league by storm by being a 7-foot sharpshooter, yet, now more and more young bigs entering the association have been able to shoot from downtown. While most of the shooters are considered power forwards, many play center as well. Chris Bosh, Serge Ibaka, Kevin Love, Paul Millsap, and even Pau Gasol, to an extent, have developed three-point games.

The game has changed, and that’s why, to Mourning’s point, Duncan is still playing at a high level this late into his career. By the logic of this article, Duncan is the most dominant center since Shaquille O’Neal. This is NOT an argument against Duncan being a power forward. He is the greatest power forward of all-time, but speaking to the former Heat centers’ points, he plays like the dominant centers of old.

The future of the center isn’t in the most capable of hands going forward either. As the USA Basketball roster shows, the depth isn’t really there since Mason Plumlee made the roster. The top prospects include DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond, and, if they stay healthy, Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid.

Like they’ve been compared on numerous occasions, Davis is eerily similar to Duncan. Like said before, Davis is a power forward who plays like the better centers of old. He will be the next great big man in the NBA and is already on his way there.

Drummond is the ultra-athletic defensive big man that teams love. Similar to DeAndre Jordan, if either get their offensive game going, they could become part of the next wave of dominant big men.

Then there’s Cousins. The knucklehead puts up the numbers, but it’ll be interesting to see if he can every actually become that kind of dominant.

And then there’s Steven Adams. Oh, wait. Sorry, Reggie Jackson. This isn’t happening.

Other than that, it doesn’t seem like a bright immediate future for the center position. It speaks to the kind of success that Duncan and Shaq enjoyed throughout their playing days.

But, just like high-waisted shorts and boy bands, trends come and go. The dominant center could return to an NBA court near you soon.

Andrew Ball

About Andrew Ball

Andrew is a Texas A&M graduate and has written for ProjectSpurs since April 2014.