In 2012, the NBA eliminated the center position from its All-Star ballots and allowed fans worldwide to vote for three “frontcourt” players instead. It was a decision intended to fit a game growing faster and smaller by the season.
Three years later, there’s not a center starting for the East or West teams in Sunday’s game in Toronto.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the position’s extinction, in a league where players not that long ago weren’t really centers but only played them on TV:
Suddenly, the big man is back.
“First of all,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said, “you could vote for three centers if you wanted to now.”
Whether it’s Andre Drummond in Detroit, DeAndre Jordan in Los Angeles, DeMarcus Cousins in Sacramento, Marc Gasol in Memphis, Rudy Gobert in Utah, Joakim Noah in Chicago, Dwight Howard in Houston, Nikola Vucevic in Orlando, Steven Adams and Enes Kanter in Oklahoma City, the Lopez brothers (Brook and Robin) on separate teams in New York or rookie Karl-Anthony Towns here in Minnesota, there are legitimately sized centers everywhere.
But they’re not your father’s center anymore.
“Centers used to be the big bodies, play 5 feet from the basket, clog the lanes,” Timberwolves interim coach Sam Mitchell said. “Those days are gone. These guys now are skilled. They’re shooting threes. They’re handling the ball. They’re running pick-and-roll. It’s a different kind of big man. Man, the game is just changing so much.”
The new breed
Now 54 games into his rookie season and getting better by the day, Towns is the big man for the next generation. He’s a 7-footer with guard skills and a three-point shooter’s touch who’s aimed toward revolutionizing the game at his position or positions, depending whether you consider him a center or a power forward.
He can score over either shoulder around the basket, rebound, block shots and score to the three-point line and beyond.
Utah coach Quin Snyder shrugs when asked about the big man’s return — he has one of the league’s best young ones — and says the game goes this way, then it goes that way.
“I think it’s cyclical, to be honest with you,” Snyder said. “I don’t have another explanation for it.”
But there’s no question big men have adapted to a changing game in which the 48-4 Golden State Warriors dominate with their three-point shooting circus and small-ball lineups driven by statistical analytics and the simple mathematical truth that three is worth more than two.
“Big guys, they’re skilled,” Wolves point guard Ricky Rubio said. “Now they’re shooting more outside, even going out to the three-point line. It’s the progress of the game, I guess.”
Don’t box them in
Wolves star Kevin Garnett was among the first big men who insisted on being listed at 6-11 even though he stood 2 inches taller because he considered himself much more talented than a typical 7-footer.
Two decades later, big men handle the ball out on the floor and shoot the three.
“It’s going to be pretty soon where every player on the floor is going to be able to shoot the three,” Toronto coach Dwane Casey said. “I think it’s getting to that. We played Portland the other night and [7-foot-1] Meyers Leonard was out stretched on the floor. Everybody was looking in at the paint and there was nobody in the paint. Everybody was stretched out to the three-point line, and it’s getting to that.”
The NBA acknowledged as much this season when it freshened up the All-Star skills challenge contest Saturday night by adding Towns and fellow big men Cousins, Anthony Davis and Draymond Green to the usual list of guards.
“I got guard skills,” Towns said, “so I should be fine.”
Towns developed those guard skills under the tutelage of his father, Karl Sr., a former college star and longtime prep coach.
“He taught me guard skills big time when I was growing up, all the fundamentals,” Towns said. “I have to thank Papa Towns for that.”
Basketball Hall of Famer and TNT analyst Charles Barkley often says he would never want his big men to “fall in love” with the three-point shot. He wants his big men to do what he did, make a living rebounding and scoring the ball around the basket.
Mitchell agrees with Barkley, at least to the point where Mitchell says he doesn’t want Towns shooting all the time from three-point range.
“People ask, ‘How much are you going to let KAT do?’ ” Mitchell said. “My thing is, as much as he shows me he can do. If he can dribble, I’m going to let him dribble. If he can shoot the three, I’m going to let him shoot the three. If he can post up … I’m going to let KAT do whatever his talent allows him to do. Let’s see what he can do, and let’s enhance it and build around it.
“The fact he can step out and shoot one or two a game is great. It keeps his guy honest. It adds another dimension, another weapon. It keeps space and flow and timing. But Karl can do too many things to say I want him to stand out there and shoot 10 threes a game.”
NBA coaches voted Drummond, Cousins and Davis in as reserves to Sunday’s All-Star Game and Commissioner Adam Silver named Pau Gasol as an injury replacement. No centers will start the game, but be sure they will be represented, on Sunday and years to come.
“The center position hasn’t been eliminated,” Stotts said, addressing the NBA’s 2012 All-Star ballot change. “It has been opened.”