Spurred on by the idea of the “death of the true center,” Patrick Hayes surveys three decades of NBA big men.
Graceful big man play has long been one of the most romanticized aspects of basketball, with purists pining for the days when giants like Russell, Chamberlain, and Abdul-Jabbar ruled the paint.
In the 1980s, there was a mini-Renaissance, with Hall of Famers like Olajuwon, Ewing, and Robinson adding their names to the list of legendary centers.
It seems, though, with each passing generation, the so-called “death of the true center” meme grows louder. There’s no doubt that through the decades, the NBA game has grown faster and more perimeter-oriented. More and more modern big men stray from the paint on offense, or even face-up and handle the ball like a guard. Because of more diverse skillsets, many players have become harder to define by traditional positional constraints.
Widely covered, big-name big man busts like Darko Milicic and Kwame Brown seem to add to the theory that there are fewer capable big men available in the draft than in year’s past. But does perception match reality?
There’s no real scientific, debate-free way to prove which recent decade has produced the best quality bigs. So instead, I’m just going to analyze big men taken in the top 30 of the NBA Drafts in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s to compare which of the three eras has the best reputation for producing NBA quality.
Franchise Players (guys you could legitimately build a good team around): Kevin McHale; Hakeem Olajuwon; Patrick Ewing; David Robinson
A Notch Below (guys who could be the second best player on really good teams): Ralph Sampson; Brad Daugherty; Arvydas Sabonis*; Rik Smits; Rony Seikaly
Starters (guys who would give solid production in starting roles on good teams): Mike Gminski; Jeff Ruland; Joe Barry Carroll; LaSalle Thompson; Steve Stipanovich; Roy Hinson; Sam Bowie; Sam Perkins; Kevin Willis; Michael Cage; Benoit Benjamin; Herb Williams; Olden Polynice; Vlade Divac
Bench (Guys who were good enough to make occasionally decent bench contributions): Mark West; Tim McCormick; John Salley; J.R. Reid; Rickey Brown; Reggie Johnson; Larry Smith; Alton Lister; Scott Hastings; Mark McNamara; Fred Roberts; Greg Kite; Randy Breuer; Jeff Turner; Stuart Gray; Jon Koncak; Bill Wennington; Joe Kleine; Mike Smrek; Blair Rasmussen; Greg Dreilling; Joe Wolf; Cadillac Anderson; Will Perdue; Mark Bryant; Andrew Lang; Eric Leckner; Anthony Cook; Pervis Ellison; Roy Tarpley; Danny Schayes; Jeff Sanders
Barely Played (guys who made little or no NBA impact): Darren Tillis; Wallace Bryant; Russell Cross; Earl Jones; Uwe Blab; Mike Brittain; Chris Washburn; William Bedford; Christian Welp; Dallas Cornegys; Ron Moore; Rolando Ferreira; Fennis Dembo
* Note: By the time Sabonis came to the NBA in the 1990s, injuries had sapped him of his trademark athleticism. He wasn’t an All-Star caliber player in the NBA. But he’s going into the Hall of Fame this year, largely based on the fact that he was the biggest star in Europe in the 1980s. We’ll assume, had he joined the Trail Blazers sooner, he would’ve been more than just the complimentary player he was when he finally came over.
Total Players: 68
Players who were at least starting quality: 23
Percentage: 34 percent
Analysis: With five Hall of Famers (counting Sabonis), the 1980s were undoubtedly heavy on talent at the top of the big man class. And on top of those five, Brad Daugherty and Ralph Sampson were both among the best in the league during their top seasons but had really short primes as devastating injuries wrecked their careers. Plus, the tragic 1986 NBA Draft that included guard Len Bias also had three extremely talented big men—Chris Washburn, Roy Tarpley, and William Bedford—whose careers were wrecked by their addictions. All in all, the 1980s produced a few iconic big men, but the top of each draft also produced a high level of busts.
Franchise Players: Shaquille O’Neal; Alonzo Mourning; Tim Duncan*
A Notch Below: Derrick Coleman; Dikembe Mutombo; Marcus Camby; Jermaine O’Neal; Ben Wallace*
Starters: Jayson Williams; Elden Campbell; Brian Williams (later Bison Dele); Dale Davis; Chris Gatling; Christian Laettner; Oliver Miller; P.J. Brown; Gheorge Muresan; Juwan Howard; Brian Grant; Bryant Reeves; Kurt Thomas; Theo Ratliff; Lorenzan Wright; Erick Dampier; Zydrunas Ilgauskas; Tony Battie; Raef LaFrentz; Nazr Mohammed; Brad Miller*
Bench: Shawn Bradley; Ervin Johnson; Felton Spencer; Duane Causewell; Dwayne Schintzius; Luc Longley; Victor Alexander; Stanley Roberts; Sean Rooks; Eric Montross; Cherokee Parks; Alan Henderson; Greg Ostertag; Samaki Walker; Vitaly Potapenko; Travis Knight; Adonal Foyle; Kelvin Kato; Scot Pollard; Michael Olowokandi; Robert Traylor; Rasho Nesterovic; Michael Doleac; Keon Clark; Brian Skinner; Jeff Foster; Othella Harrington
Barely Played: Jerrod Mustaf; Les Jepsen; Rich King; George Ackles; Elmore Spencer; Sherron Mills; Geert Hammink; Luther Wright; Yinka Dare; Sharone Wright; George Zidek; David Vaughn; Todd Fuller; Roy Rogers; Efthimios Rentzias; Priest Lauderdale; Paul Grant; John Thomas; Serge Zwikker; Vladimir Stepania; Aleksandar Radojevic; Frederic Weis
* Note: Duncan produced the first, “Is he a power forward or a center?” conflict for me. Honestly, it just boils down to the eye test for me. Duncan looks more like a center, where as contemporaries like Chris Webber and Kevin Garnett look more like forwards; Wallace and Miller were undrafted, but Wallace is a Hall of Fame candidate and Miller was an All-Star and Olympian. I know I said “top 30 picks in each draft,” but these two outliers had to be included since the ’80s and ’00s just don’t have any similar situations where big men of this caliber managed to go undrafted.
Total Players: 78
Players who were at least starting quality: 29
Percentage: 37 percent
Analysis: Other than Shaq, the ’90s can’t compete with the big man star power of the ’80s, although the overall depth at the position might be a tad better.
What also happened in the 90s was a run on size—the success of players like Ewing, Olajuwon, and Robinson, along with the slow, slug-it-out pace of ’90s teams like the Pistons, Knicks, and Heat caused most teams to go searching for a back-to-the-basket big man to park as the centerpiece of a ball control, halfcourt offense. As the large number of first round picks who became no better than bench players in the decade shows, teams often reached for size and came up short.
Franchise Players: Pau Gasol*; Dwight Howard
A Notch Below: Yao Ming; Tyson Chandler; Andrew Bogut; Andrew Bynum; Al Horford; Joakim Noah
Starters: Joel Przybilla; Jamaal Magloire; Eddy Curry; Brendan Haywood; Samuel Dalembert; Nenad Krstic; Chris Kaman; Kendrick Perkins; Emeka Okafor; Andris Biedrins; Anderson Varejao*; Spencer Hawes; Greg Oden; Roy Hibbert; Brook Lopez; JaVale McGee; Serge Ibaka
Bench: Stromile Swift; Chris Mihm; Kwame Brown; Etan Thomas; Jake Tsakalidas; Primoz Brezec; DeSagana Diop; Steven Hunter; Jason Collins; Darko Milicic; David Harrison; Tiago Splitter; Johan Petro; Ian Mahinmi; Shelden Williams; Hilton Armstrong; Jason Smith; Alexis Ajinca; Kosta Koufas; B.J. Mullens; Hasheem Thabeet
Barely Played: Mahmadou N’Diaye; Dalibor Bagaric; Rafael Araujo; Melvin Ely; Curtis Borchardt; Maciej Lampe; Pavel Podkolzin; Fran Vazquez; Patrick O’Bryant; Mouhamed Sene; Oleksiy Pecherov
* Note: Yes, I know Gasol plays power forward for the Lakers, but his game is more like that of a center and he played center for playoff teams in Memphis, so he counts for my purposes; Varejao was actually the 31st pick in the 2004 draft, but he was the 30th player chosen because Minnesota forfeited their pick at No. 30.
Total Players: 57
Players who were at least starting quality: 26
Percentage: 46 percent
Analysis: The league got quicker post-1990s, and as a result, plodding big men stopped getting drafted so high. But, interestingly, the league as a whole also got better at evaluating big man talent as the percentage of big men drafted in the top 30 between 2000 and 2009 who become at least capable of starting is way up compared to the ’80s and ’90s.
Also, consider this: there are still players in the bottom two categories who have good chances to move up. Tiago Splitter was brought along slowly this season by the Spurs, but it’s conceivable he could play a big role next season. And although Alexis Ajinca, B.J. Mullens, and Hasheem Thabeet have not played much as of yet in their careers, they’re all former first-round picks who have shown enough potential for teams to keep trying to help them improve. Ian Mahinmi, a bit player for the Dallas title team, was also productive when pressed into duty in the Finals after Brendan Haywood’s injury. He could improve and earn a bigger role down the road.
But the bottom of this list is not the only place that could see some upward mobility. Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol are already producing at Hall of Fame levels, and both still have many prime years left. In the next tier, Andrew Bynum and Joakim Noah could conceivably continue their development. One or both producing at a franchise-player level within a year or two is not out of the realm of possibility.
Below them, Roy Hibbert, Brook Lopez, JaVale McGee, and Serge Ibaka have all shown that, at the very least, they have the physical tools to mature into future All-Stars.
And, on top of that, Yao Ming, who recently retired, is this decade’s Brad Daugherty, a fantastic player who suffered devastating injuries that robbed him of prime years that may have made him a Hall of Famer.
Today’s big man might be more multi-dimensional, but big man play is far from a dying art in the NBA. The league has proven to be either getting better at identifying talent that will lead to NBA success or teams are getting better at helping young bigs individually develop.
The young crop of big men currently in the league have a chance to rival the so-called golden ages of center play as they continue to help the position evolve.