How center became the NBA’s most difficult position
“What am I supposed to do?” texts a big man with an impossible assignment
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BY DAVID THORPE
My bright friend Howard Beck, of the “what up Beck” fame on The Lowe Post, recently told me he was considering voting for Cade Cunningham as Rookie of the Year because Cunninham’s playing very well as a point guard, at, Howard said, “the toughest position in the league.”
That last part did something to me. I’ve probably said that phrase myself, it’s widely accepted.
But on a profound level, I just don’t think it’s true anymore. Not in 2022. The whole league has changed, and it’s no coincidence that the three best players in the world—Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo—are all seven-feet tall. The job requirements of the center position have changed, and it’s time to reassess which job is toughest.
Historically, the word “center” meant the team's tallest players, who jumped for the game's opening tip. On-court you’d see them jogging the middle of the floor before parking as close to the center of the court as possible. They were in the middle of the offensive strategies, getting a low-post feed, then passing to a cutter or passing out of a double team. The best scorers would also attack defenses around the rim for dunks and buckets in the middle of the paint. But in those days the games were really controlled by the guards—or occasionally a forward—who could dribble and pass. That’s not to say brilliant men like Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain couldn’t pass. They did. But they played a simplified version of their teammates’ games, light on the difficult task of reading the action. When Shaq would pivot once or twice then find an open teammate next to the rim for a dunk, announcers would shriek with excitement. But standing still and finding an overtly open man is cake compared to organizing the whole offense, reading the defensive coverage, balancing their own scoring with their teammates’, and lasering a pass to barely open teammates through traffic, often while everyone is moving at full speed.
In 2022, centers do all that stuff.
In the NBA, now, the attacks come from all over, thanks to:
Far more skilled athletes at almost every position,
The prevalence of 3-pointers,
Rule tweaks permitting early help toward any perceived threat,
Teammates extended all over the court.
Draymond Green never would have gotten this dunk a couple of decades ago. He’s taking advantage of defenders who are stressed, distracted, and preoccupied.
Today, the center, the rim protector, is generally the person charged with patching any hole in this crumbly wall. Twenty years ago, Green’s man, Andre Drummond, would have spent this whole play a few feet off Green toward the hoop. Stephen Curry’s defender would have also been “below the ball.” For most of basketball history, everyone tried to stay between the ball and the rim, ready to help on a driver. In that world, two players on the perimeter—plus whoever is helping under the rim—might have prevented Draymond’s attack. And in that world, the player in Drummond’s position had to do some thinking, reading, and reacting, but not too much.
That’s all over now. The traditional defensive schemes have been skewered and roasted by, among others, these very Warriors. Hang back as Stephen Curry comes off a dribble hand-off, and Curry will launch 3s, win titles, and dance. So as Green catches the ball and Curry approaches, Green knows both defenders will be Curry-focused.
Curry’s man, Furkan Korkmaz, will undoubtedly “lock and trail” as Curry goes over the top of the dribble handoff. Drummond will be thinking about slowing Curry after he comes over the top of Green, likely with the ball. Andre Drummond has always been amazingly mobile for a man his size, but he’s in a nightmare now. Not only must he survive Curry’s kitchen, but he is also responsible for his own man, and 100 other things that might come up, which we file under “protecting the rim.”
In the locker room, when the Sixers discussed all the bad things that could result from a Curry/Green dribble hand-off, I imagine a Green rim attack was low on the list. You can see in Drummond’s posture that he’s leaning a little away from Green, and a little toward where Curry is about to be. Korkmaz is also lasered on Curry.
Surprise! Curry never gets the ball at all, and Draymond explodes away from Drummond and toward the hoop. Offense has the advantage of initiative. Drummond takes a millisecond to adjust, Green has acres of space, and it’s all over.
Drummond didn’t master this particular predicament; it may not be possible to master. Screen and rolls, handoffs, the get game, pin aways, pin downs, flare screens, shape ups, rolls—every NBA team routinely uses actions designed to put big men like Drummond in position to make impossible reads.
On offense, Green's read was easy. He knows how teams will defend Curry basically every time. Big men today can always roll following a screen—like they once did. Some still do. But now many big men can shoot, and have the assignment to pop behind the 3-point line out of the same action, to create space for teammates. Where to screen, when to screen, when to veer, where to veer, and even when to re-screen are all basic parts of most every NBA set. It is not set in stone, it’s a read by the screener who must take into account what his defender does, how his teammate uses his screen, and how that defender reacts. And because many offenses require the big man to serve as the hub, or center, of a half-court offense, they make reads with the ball too.
It’s a lot to do for the offensive big man, it’s a lot to defend. It’s solving a Rubik’s Cube on roller skates.
My clients play many different positions. We usually talk during the day, and after the game. I don’t want them to text me at halftime, and they almost never do. But one big man who has Drummond’s job—trying to make all the right reads, play after play on defense—just texted me from halftime: “what am I supposed to do?”
Center has become the hardest job in the NBA.
Just about the time Aaron Gordon dunks the ball, Mavericks center Dwight Powell has a moment of body language that seems to ask “what the hell?”
Powell is listed at 6-10 and 240 pounds, but looks maybe two-thirds the size of Nikola Jokic who is listed at 6-11, 284, and has a reputation for shooting, passing, and creating shots for the Nuggets from anywhere on the court. But Powell’s scrappy and covers Jokic, even far from the hoop, as if there’s a pop quiz on what kind of gum Jokic chews.
Powell worked hard and did his job, or so it seems.
But these days guarding 6-11 men means stopping some of the most wonderful passes in the history of the game. And sometimes Jokic’s basketball genius is disguised as ennui. On this play, he looks so bored the commentators fall for it—making a crack about too much standing around.
But looking bored is how he gets his Nuggets a bucket.
Jokic sees Aaron Gordon setting a back screen for Will Barton—his two former dunk contestant teammates. Jokic knows Dorian Finney-Smith and Maxi Kleber have their hands full to defend the action—any little mistake, and Barton will be at the rim and Jokic will have another assist. The Mavericks are on it though: When Finney-Smith gets caught on Gordon’s screen, Kleber smoothly picks up Barton.
But the cost of the switch is: Who’s guarding Aaron Gordon?
Jokic knows the answer. It takes Gordon a beat to notice he has an open path to the rim. That’s when Jokic keeps the gambit alive by looking almost sleepy. Nothing to see here! Just as the Nuggets announcer says “lots of standing around,” Gordon breaks for the rim.
All that’s left is the prime help defender, Luka Doncic. He’s assigned to guard Austin Rivers [ED: earlier, my bad, said Jalen Brunson, which makes no sense], who has just left the paint for the far corner, but also has the job of breaking up any backdoor pass Jokic might throw into the lane. But Luka also knows Jokic can make the difficult pass all the way to Rivers in the corner. Luka stays a step closer to Rivers than a lot of defenders might. Jokic reads it perfectly, hits Gordon with a pass early—a quarter-second later and Luka might have broken up the play.
In the NBA of 20 years ago, Powell would have been a yard off Jokic and could have prevented that pass himself. But nowadays, it’s smart for Powell to climb into Jokic’s lap, just as it’s always better to pressure the quarterback in football. It’s dangerous to let him survey the scene without any stress. All of which is in Powell’s body language as Gordon dunks. What the hell?
Today’s centers pass far more than centers of the past. Watch one of Jokic’s many passing highlight reels and you will see a steady diet of playmaking from behind the free-throw line and the 3-point line. Now watch Kareem’s, nearly every assist is a long outlet pass or passing out of a double-team from the block. Today it’s simply a different game, with far more spread out offenses, more weaponized scorers, and lots more reads for big men to make. Jokic is the world's best ever at it, but he isn’t alone.
Twenty years ago, Hall of Famer Vlade Divac played in Rick Adelman’s gorgeous open-post offense. TV commentators commented on his passing constantly, as if he were a wizard. That year, he averaged 3.5 assists per 36 minutes. Today, twenty NBA centers do that.
That makes the center job higher-skilled on both ends. All that land that has to be guarded now, all those weapons accounted for, and centers are at the, well, center of it all. Which takes us back to Andre Drummond on that Green slam.
Drummond got beat because if Curry did get the ball, Drummond would look smart to quickly show on Curry, hands high, before recovering to Green once Korkmaz got back to Curry. You can see him leaning left, cheating to where he suspects Curry will end up.
Another thing that the 76ers probably talked about: a teammate could have raced over to check Green after the handoff. In that case, Drummond would have needed to locate, and race to, one of the other men left open. That momentarily open man could have cut to the rim or he could stay ready to shoot the 3. Drummond would have a ton of ground to cover no matter what.
A half-second is too slow to make any of these decisions. Curry must never be left alone, which takes teamwork. But no one else can be left open when every Warrior is a 3-point threat.
Centers have become race car drivers making split-second decisions that, when they err, create disaster. Disaster can also happen when they choose wisely.
Defending that dribble hand-off action is so hard. I had a former NBA head coach tell me it’s the hardest thing to deal with in the NBA, then he asked me to spend time with him on the court a week before training camp started to walk through all the options. This was more than a decade ago and since then it has only gotten worse. Now primary ball handlers are so incredible at reading the coverage and scoring that pick and rolls are every bit as tricky to decipher. A lot of teams just switch them all which at least makes the decision-making simpler.
Switching still leaves room for crisis, however. Kristaps Porzingis (now a Wizard) switches out to Chris Paul while center Deandre Ayton quickly rolls to the rim. Paul, who loves lob passes, shows he’s going to throw the ball high. Porzingis sees and raises his hands up—only to have the Point God deliver a perfect low bounce pass for an easy basket. Porzingis probably should have kept his hands low, but then he would have been vulnerable to a lob. You can see how hard this is.
Drop coverage has appeal. It allows big men to stay closer to the rim. Sounds great! What seven-footer wants to chase around a smaller and quicker guy? Here the Pelicans' Jaxson Hayes, one of the world's most athletic seven footers, drops off JaVale McGee who appears to be setting a screen. Hayes has picked a spot where he can prevent a Paul straight-line drive and take away the pass to McGee. But there’s a reason a lot of teams don’t do this:
Stay too close to McGee, and Paul has an easy shot near the rim.
Overcommit to Paul away and McGee will catch a lob.
And there’s one other way to lose: Paul makes an incredibly precise pass through everything. In 2022, the Point God is one of many players who can thread a pass even when Hayes is in almost the perfect place.
The theme here is a whisper of a mistake can lead to a horrid outcome. In hindsight, Hayes may have been a step too close to Paul, with his hips square to the ball. Had he been a bit more connected to the dunk threat, he might have coaxed Paul closer the rim, where Hayes can use his length and athleticism to cover a ton of ground in a blink and actually get a piece of a Paul shot.
Six inches here or there, hands too low or high, weight on the wrong leg, eyes focused just off where they need to be—and it’s a car crash for the defense.
Of course every other player often has similar quick decisions to make. But no one blames the guards and wings when a seven-footer dunks.
Here’s a clever scheme that Cavs coach J.B. Bickerstaff likes, where he uses center Jarrett Allen to pin down Darius Garland’s man. Why run it this close to the rim? Because now the time for defenders to make choices is halved. Garland curls around Allen. Grizzlies center Steven Adams has just a moment to decide whether to stay home on Allen or contest Garland. He made a perfectly smart choice and it couldn’t have gone worse.
We see this often: The defensive big commits too heavily to the driver. It’s easy to understand—the driver is Ja Morant! Jarrett Allen picks an angle to slow Morant down while also taking away the lob or pocket pass inside. He does a great job.
But like many ball handlers today, Morant has an unreal burst of speed. And since the days of Steve Nash, those guards have perfected the same-foot-and-hand finish. All the different possibilities make timing very tricky for shot blockers. On this drive it would be the right-foot right-hand quick finish.
But Evan Mobley is waiting on that right side, so Morant explodes left and forces Allen to rotate his hips while adjusting to contest on that other side. Allen does a remarkable job, but Morant scores anyway.
Allen could have stayed way back to begin with, but that would only allow Morant an easy floater. It used to be considered a win for big men to get guards to shoot floaters, but more than ever, they go in. Now big men have to step up to contest them.
Besides, as we saw in the Green/Curry action, if the defensive big man stays back, the guard can earn a shot after the screen. In this case, it wouldn’t be Morant—it would be Desmond Bane, who would have quickly played the get game and gotten a 3 because Allen would be too far off Adams to help, like Drummond did for Korkmaz.
Confused a little? Now you’re thinking like a modern NBA big man. I often cite Hubie Brown’s pearl of wisdom, “you set screens for one reason, to make defenders think.” That’s the strategy: Overwhelm the defenders with quick decisions coming nonstop. Ten years ago the Kings led the NBA in pace, 95.56. Today, the Mavericks play at the slowest pace in the league, clocking in at 95.54, that same team in Sacramento would basically be statistically tied for dead last.
You can make the decisions easy by switching every screen. It’s popular. But also leads to big men running around on the perimeter contesting 3-point shooters and smaller, quicker scorers.
You might think big men would have no problem crowding a dribbler to force a drive, knowing a shot blocker is lurking near the rim. Problem is, they are the shot blocker!
Which leads to another NBA innovation: two shot blockers. The Cavaliers start Allen and Mobley, the Celtics start Al Horford and Robert Williams III. It works. Until injuries took games from Allen and now Williams, those teams played elite defense. Even with Williams on the court, it’s no picnic. Here’s Horford on Kyrie Irving. Play too tightly and risk getting blown by, risking an and-one at the rim or an easy kickout when someone over helps. Or, in this case, fouling when trying to contest a little too well.
But on the other end, you’re thinking, bigs get to post up little guys, right? Yes, but those mismatches are obvious, and invite early help. Bigs don’t often play one-on-one over smaller defenders. There aren’t often plays where bigs get revenge. (All you have to do is be a tall guy trying to stay in front of a lightning quick guard and it’s the opposite of the Michael Jordan crying meme.
Once, NBA big men could just study how opponents finished around the rim. Now they must know how they score from everywhere. And then they have to get to those spots early, ready to move again. What used to be a wrestling match from one end then to the other is now a racing, hurdling, sliding, and jumping contest, like a wild track where you don’t know when and where the race starts. Given how spread out the court is now due to so many shooters, and ball handlers' ability to explode and brake abruptly, it’s remarkable these giant men make it through games without getting hurt. In football, we recently saw 300-pound lineman defy physics by racing 40 yards in one direction at near Olympic speeds. Incredible. Now try to picture them trying to stay in front of Ja Morant in open space. Not happening.
Somehow in 2022 teams also value big men less than ever, precisely when it’s so apparent that having a dominant one gives teams the best advantage possible to win often. We don’t know who the league MVP will be but we do know he stands at least seven-feet tall.
My thinking about big men really started by thinking about the rookie of the year race. Cunningham is having an excellent season for the lowly Pistons, scoring and showing he has All-Star potential, but he has it easy, because unlike Barnes and Mobley, he doesn’t have to play the toughest position in the league!
Barnes, in particular, has to do all the hardest things on defense. He starts at center, guards Morant and Jokic, and plays both point guard and center throughout the game. The tax that has to have on his body, and his mind, won’t be light come postseason, but because of it he’ll be in contention for defensive player of the year (DPOY) or MVP one day. Mobley’s also forced to fight bigger men when he’s so light, and has DPOY potential, and if he gets his offense going he can be Tim Duncanesque.
But for me, the value of centers is high and getting higher. We used to see it as a less-skilled position. Now we still need huge players to protect the rim, and on good teams, every position is a highly skilled position now. Your team needs a super-talented big or two. Good luck finding one.
Elite big men are still coveted, as we saw in Deandre Ayton going number one overall a few drafts ago. This year's best big in the draft, Chet Holmgren (7-1) from Gonzaga, could go as the top guy in June and probably won’t slip beyond the fourth pick. Both 6-10 Paolo Banchero and 6-10 Jabari Smith rank as top prospects. Neither is seen as a full-time defensive center like Holmgren, each will spend some time playing defense against seven-footers and both can serve as hubs of an offense too. Whoever can anchor a defense best will go a long way towards pushing their team to a top ranking. Seven of the ten-best defensive teams start a top-ranked defensive big man..
None of this is evidence that the other positions are easy to play. It’s the best league in the world, by far. Nothing is remotely easy. It’s just that no single position carries with it the expectations centers have. Everyone else is expected to do their jobs, big men need to solve whatever problems might arise on defense, and these days there are a lot of them.
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