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Are NBA Centers Overrated?

In today’s NBA, you don’t need a dominant center.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

This is going to make a few — or maybe a lot — of people really mad. But it needs to be said.

In today’s NBA, the center position does not matter.

You may recall an article I wrote a couple of weeks ago saying that NBA coaching doesn’t matter (and I stand by that). And that got me thinking, “What else in today’s NBA doesn’t matter?”

To make my argument, I am going to use Adam Fromal of Bleacher Report’s End-of-Regular-Season Power Rankings: Center Edition as a reference. I agree with the majority of his rankings, and it’s a nicely compiled list to look back at as you read this. Ask 100 people, you’ll get 100 different rankings of the top 30, but this will do for now.

I’ll repeat: The center position in today’s NBA doesn’t matter. We have witnessed the transformation of the NBA into a shoot-first league. You need three-point shooters, a scoring point guard, and if you’re going to run a big man out there, he better be able to hit a jump shot, too. Referees don’t allow a lot of contact on shooters; it’s a finesse game, so the need for a bully down low doesn’t exist anymore.

I’ll also mention that my argument is based on regular season team records and team playoff performance from this past 2016-17 season. This is a small sample size, but it’s enough to prove the point.

First, all five centers at the bottom of Fromal’s rankings (30-26) are on teams that made the playoffs. Now, half of the league makes the playoffs, so take that with a grain of salt. (Kelly Olynyk of the Celtics is ranked 26 as a back-up, as well.) The Toronto Raptors were the third seed in the East. Their starting center, Jonas Valanciunas, is ranked dead last. He plays with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. What does that mean? The guards carried that team. Remember that; it will be the theme of this article.

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Enes Kanter, ranked 29th, was on a team that made the playoffs as the six seed in the West. He played on a team with this season’s MVP, who averaged a triple-double. They didn’t need Kanter on the floor.

I won’t go through every single ranking, but rounding out the bottom five are Marcin Gortat of the Wizards and Clint Capela of the Houston Rockets. Both teams made the playoffs as four and three seeds respectively. But think about who else is on those teams: John Wall, Bradley Beal, James Harden (MVP candidate), and Eric Gordon (6th Man of the Year), just to name a few.

When you think of players that are carrying teams, do you ever think of a center first?

Maybe you think of DeMarcus Cousins or Marc Gasol? Those are legitimate stars in the NBA, very talented on both ends of the floor. But consider the end results of their teams. Cousins played for the Sacramento Kings for a good portion of last season before being traded to the New Orleans Pelicans. The Kings were 9 games under .500 with Cousins. The Pelicans, meanwhile, were 3 under .500 with Boogie on the roster.

Marc Gasol is our guy, though, right? He’s part of the foundation of the Memphis Grizzlies, and we love him. All true. But what have we done with him at the helm in the last four seasons? Three first round playoff exits, and one exit in the second round courtesy of the mighty Golden State Warriors.

Some would call that success. After all, making the playoffs seven straight seasons is pretty admirable. But aren’t we supposed to be striving for championships? There have been some awesome regular seasons, but early playoff exits are still the end result.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

So let’s look at the opposite end of the spectrum at the teams that have had success in recent years. That narrows it down to two teams: the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

This past season, the Cavs trotted out Tristan Thompson, the overpaid offensive rebounder. He’s ranked 21 on Fromal’s list, and didn’t even average double figures in total rebounds. The center position for the Cavs was so irrelevant, their back-up center is Edy Tavares, who, like you, I have never heard of. (He appeared in two games this season, bringing him to 13 for his career.) This season, Thompson only attempted five shots a game, and shot less than 50% from the free throw line. That’s not a lot of production from that position, to say the least.

The Golden State Warriors started Zaza Pachulia. He attempted just over four shots and just under two free throws a game. He didn’t block shots or record notable assist numbers, either. His back-up was JaVale McGee, Mr. Shaqtin himself. McGee has virtually the same numbers as Pachulia, the only difference being that McGee can actually dunk.

Those are the last three NBA champions I am talking about there. Sure, some lineups have changed in the last three seasons, but neither team is known for their front court play. Say I’m out of line, but winning teams don’t need a center. For some important stretches of games, Steve Kerr, head coach of the Warriors, played 6’9” Draymond Green, who can shoot, pass, rebound, and move faster than a center, at the five.

Big names like Anthony Davis, Rudy Gobert, and Karl-Anthony Towns make their own argument for keeping them on the floor. They are exciting to watch, demand defensive attention, and are fan favorites. But do they win? The Pelicans don’t. Neither do the Timberwolves. The Jazz made the playoffs only to be destroyed by the Warriors, who, by the way, don’t use their center at all.

Maybe the role of a center is to rebound. I mean, someone has to do it, right? Well, Russell “The Stat-Padder” Westbrook proved that point guards can rebound, too. Last season, 34 of the qualifying point guards pulled down over five boards per 48 minutes. 49 shooting guards did the same.

Six centers were in the top 40 players in PPG last season. The best centers can certainly score, but the only one of those six to make the playoffs was our own Marc Gasol.

With the trend towards small-ball in the NBA, the big, slow, post-moving center has gone by the wayside. There is a market for rebounders, but players like Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and Giannis Antetokounmpo have proven that they can rebound effectively as well. Centers that can shoot long-range jumpers have proven to score at a strong clip, yet their teams don’t win.

If you’re the type of fan that is looking for your team to win championships, using a center as your number one option or highest paid player is not the best structure of an NBA team. That’s just the way it is.

All stats provided by ESPN Stats. Team records by Land-of-Basketball.