It is getting hard not to notice that successful NBA teams have gone small and nowhere was that more noticeable than in the NBA Finals when the Golden State Warriors sat their regular season +8 starting center Andrew Bogut in order to completely dominate the Cavaliers in a game of small ball.
For the Warriors, the Finals were the exception, but for other NBA teams, sitting down their tradition center in favor of someone more mobile is often a necessity if they want to win. Centers, especially young centers with good stats are too often not leading their teams to good results as illustrated by teams falling behind with them on the court.
Jonas Valanciunas 12 points, 8.7 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, 26.2 minutes, -0.3 points +/-
Valanciunas is a traditional center who does his work in the paint and he often looks pretty good against other young traditional centers like the Pistons Andre Drummond. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the mobility to cover the stretch fours and fives that drag him away from the basket, so Coach Casey often sits him in the fourth quarter despite his ability to hit free throws. The Atlantic Division winning Raptors were +3.1 points versus their opponents as a team. Valanciunas was a negative while he was in the game.
Andre Drummond 13.8 points, 13.5 rebounds, 1.9 blocks, 30.5 minutes, -0.7 +/-
Drummond looks like he is having a big impact on the game until one notices just how often offensive players like to challenge him and are all too often successful. The Pistons were once again a terrible team at 32-50 and averaging a point less than their opponents, so it’s possible Drummond looks a lot better surrounded by better talent (who doesn’t?). However, more talented teammates aren’t going to help that 38.9 percent from the charity stripe.
Roy Hibbert 10.6 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.6 blocks, 25.3 minutes, -0.8 +/-
A big physical defensive center on a big physical defensive team, but the Pacers outscored their opponents on average by +0.3 points and were better off with the former All-Star on the pine. It might be hard to comprehend, but Indiana gave Hibbert to the Lakers in a straight salary dump this summer. So much for the importance of having a traditional center on your team.
Hassan Whiteside 11.8 points, 10 rebounds, 2.6 blocks, 23.8 minutes, -1.1 +/-
Whiteside was a surprise and generated a lot of buzz, but not many wins. The Heat were 18-30 with Whiteside, although no one is blaming the center. The Heat’s season was disrupted by trades and injuries, so it’s nearly impossible to evaluate. It’s possible things look a lot better for Whiteside this time around.
Brook Lopez 17.2 points, 7.4 rebounds, 1.8 blocks, 29.2 minutes, -1.4 +/-
The Nets stunk last season, but Lopez is supposed to be a star center capable of impacting the game. It isn’t easy to accept his team had a losing record and was outscored by their opponents with him on the court. One alternative explanation is the game has changed and our perceptions are wrong.
Other NBA centers that weren’t helping their teams win last season include: Al Jefferson (-1.8), Chris Bosh (-2.3), Nikola Vucevic (-4.1) and Jordan Hill (-5.7).
Of course it isn’t all doom and gloom surrounding NBA centers. Put enough talent around them and their image improves greatly: DeAndre Jordan (+7.6), Dwight Howard (5.2), Zaza Pachulia (+3.6), Timofey Mozgov (+3.2), Marcin Gortat (+3.1), Tyson Chandler (+3.1), Marc Gasol (+2.8), Pau Gasol (+2.4) and others. But other than the Gasol brothers, which centers are really anything more than talented role players whose lofty +/- stats aren’t being created by the stars they are playing with?
Teams haven’t stopped drafting 7-footers and the basket hasn’t been lowered from 10′. The big traditional center isn’t gone from the NBA, at least not yet, but it is getting a lot harder for a slow-footed heavy-weight to make a living against this new breed of mobile bigs and today, mobile is often being associated with 6’9 and shorter.
The NBA has become a quicker guard driven league. Those general managers that can’t adjust to the trend may find success is a lot harder to find than their next big dominate center.
Heading into his fourth NBA season after starting almost every game for Toronto since his arrival in 2012, the usual career progression for a 7-footer in this situation would be to sign a maximum dollar contract extension and his team would be happy or possibly feel forced into making it happen. However, in Valanciunas’ case, it’s pretty obvious that the Raptors simply can’t afford to do it.