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Centers of attention

Centers of attention

Credit: Getty Images

Chris Kaman isn't perfect, but he's more than sufficient as far as centers go. (Andrew D. Bernstein//Getty Images)


WFAA Sports Blogger

Posted on July 12, 2012 at 2:43 PM

Updated Thursday, Jul 12 at 2:47 PM

The game changes faster than our perception of it does. 

If a resource is incredibly rare, you don't spend your time trying to acquire that resource. You try to find ways to get the same production (alternative methods) without that resource.
That’s how the spread offense was born. Coaches began to realize that the offensive linemen that were being recruited at their non-powerhouse schools were not quality enough to run pro-style offenses. They didn’t have time to complete a route that extended further than ten yards and would routinely get stomped when facing superior defenses. They were chasing their own tails and thus the spread offense was born out of necessity. Gasoline is another prime example. We’ve spent decades trying to control the most gas when we should have been finding logical substitutes to using so much of it.
True centers in the NBA are a rarity and have become all but extinct. So, when the mid-season debate of Dwight Howard vs Deron Williams crept into Mavs fans' minds my stance was already sternly cemented: “It’s much easier to win with average center play than it is average point guard play.” That was my auto-response, as I felt I had become an instant expert on the matter within hours of the pickle being presented.
It turns out that Deron WIlliams made the Mavs' decision for them by choosing Brooklyn over Dallas. But the team has adjusted by picking up Center Chris Kaman, likely the best offensive 5 in franchise history on a 1-year deal. It's not a sexy addition, but Kaman is a very solid piece, especially considering the short commitment. And as you're about to find out, the traditional methods of evaluating a center are massively outdated. 'Different' may be exactly what the Mavericks need right now.
Here’s the research of “true centers”, who they are, and what do they mean in terms of winning.
I’ve created my own classification on what a true center is nowadays because the eyeball test simply doesn't work anymore. Here goes...they have to average 30 minutes a game, they must average 15 points and 9 rebounds and 1 block per game, and they must actually play in the post and defend their position. 
These are the centers who averaged 30 minutes per game last season
BROOK LOPEZ (27.2 he would have averaged above 30, but injuries knocked his number down) 
These are the “true centers”  in the game today
DWIGHT HOWARD (20.6/14.5)
ANDREW BYNUM (18.7/11.8)
AL JEFFERSON (19.2/9.6)
MARC GASOL (14.6/8.9)
Exemptions. These players excel in one area and don’t qualify in another but we all know they are true centers. 
TYSON CHANDLER -- Chandler only scores 11 ppg but our memories of his time in Big D, as well as his defensive player of the year award, tell you he defends his position more than adequately.
BROOK LOPEZ -- Injury is the only thing that kept Lopez off the true center list. I tend to think his 6rpg ’10-’11 was an aberration.
AL HORFORD -- What Horford did during this year's playoffs (15/8.3) is what I expect from him from here on.
ROY HIBBERT -- Hibbert averaged 12.8ppg and 8.8rpg in his 3rd year and solely makes the list because everything he does is in the post. He’ll be a true center with no exemption needed next year.
Players with the potential to be true centers...
SPENCER HAWES -- Hawes was the free agent post player that I have the most interest in this off season. He averaged 9.6/7.3 this season, which isn’t staggering. But at age 24 it’s rather impressive. The downside to Hawes is he shoots a lot of jumpers (63% of all shots) for a post player. The upside is he’s 24 as I mentioned, and was literally the best-passing big in the game last season. In fact, according to he rated out as a better passer than Jason Terry and Rodrigue Beaubois. 
There’s no real stat for defending your own position well but blocks can indicate solid help defense. Hawes had a better block rating than Tyson Chandler last season.  
JAVALE MCGEE -- Careers go to die in Washington. They also go there to get off on the wrong foot. McGee honestly doesn’t throw up that many wild-assed outside shots per game. He’s just so bad at them that they leave a resonating effect. 57% of all of his shots taken are around the rim. His potential is limitless. In Washington last season he almost averaged a double-double in 27 minutes a game.
He has an extremely unpolished but electric game that could be molded into something that resembles a true center in a matter of 2-4 years. He’s a knucklehead but not in the self-destructive way. He’s just goofy and lacks maturity. But he has some low post game. 
GREG MONROE -- Holy cow. Get ready for every team in the NBA to start trying to find their own Greg Monroe. If I had to name one player your girlfriend has never heard of that will have 3+ All-Star game appearances in his future I’d give you Greg Monroe. Detroit rolled Monroe strictly at center this season out of necessity, and they found the future of their team.
Technically he’s already a true center by the numbers but he’s left off my list because I’m not certain of his ability to defend his position yet and his numbers are inflated. That Pistons team is so bad that Monroe averaged more FG attempts last season than James Harden. The encouraging thing about his development is that Monroe dug in whole-heartedly to the center position. He camped out on the block and rarely wandered. 72% of his shots were around the rim. It’s going to be annoying watching this guy waste his next 3 years in Detroit. Please, somebody, trade for him. 
NIKOLA PEKOVIC -- Where in the hell did the Timberwolves find this guy? I don’t feel I need to give you any other evidence besides his awesome arm tatoo. Pek don't care.
None of the teams that have a “true center” on their roster even made their conference finals this year. My humble interpretation of the matter is that “true centers” (or players perceived as such) cost so much against a team's cap number that they downright restrict the squad's ability to field a roster deep enough to challenge regularly in the post-season. Howard makes 19.5 million a season, Bynum makes 16.1, Jefferson makes 15 and Marc Gasol makes roughly 13. Gortat makes a reasonable 7.7 million a year but that roster has many other problems. 
The point is that in most cases these “true centers” are soaking up almost a quarter of a team’s 57 million dollar cap. The fringe true centers are almost as valuable as the true centers because their cap number is tolerable. 19.5 million is enough salary to sign a collection of 3-4 pretty good secondary players. The ultimate loophole is age and having a player still on his rookie contract.      
I say this with absolutely zero statistical backing or research but it feels like “plays” used to be drawn up to get the ball closer to the basket for a shot attempt in the post. I get the feeling that 90% of plays are now drawn to get an open perimeter shot or a penetration. 
Maybe I’ve been watching too much Mavericks basketball. A few teams still look for an entry pass and swing the ball to help their big get better post position, but I can name them on one hand. Somewhere Hakeem sheds a tear. True centers are the gasoline of the NBA, and most teams are flying around in nuclear combustion-fueled hovercrafts. 
Mike Marshall is a producer and reporter for Sports Radio 1310, The Ticket. He waited very patiently for this article to be published, and his editor appreciates that. Tweet him about the NBA or new music @machine1310.