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Traditional centers not as dead as you think they are

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A lot of talk these days says traditional big men are dinosaurs who can’t keep up in today’s NBA. Let’s check the facts.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Denver Nuggets Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

It feels a lot like the argument between DeAndre Ayton and Luka Doncic as the #1 overall pick comes down to generational differences.

It seems the Gen X and Baby Boomer media and scouts prefer the “monster” profile of DeAndre Ayton as the next David Robinson, while Millennials appear to prefer the prospect of oversized point guard ball handler Luka Doncic.

Dave, don’t be such a gen-ist Plenty of young people prefer Ayton and plenty of old people prefer Doncic!

Maybe you’re right. Maybe it’s not generational. Just feels like that to me.

As a very young boomer, or old Xer depending on how I feel each day, I think DeAndre Ayton is a once-in-a-decade type talent you can’t possibly pass up on Draft day. My X/Boom counterparts are (mostly) nodding in agreement, including Paul and Justin (Fanning the Flames), and radio personalities Ron Wolfley, John Gambodoro and Dave Burns to name a few.

Yet many of my younger cohorts in this business, including the vocal Evan Sidery, Brendon Kleen, Kellan Olson, and Cole Zwicker — all barely old enough to walk the casino floors between NBA Summer League games — are steadfast Doncic lovers.

Young whipperspapper: “Okay, that’s enough being un-PC, Dave. The game has passed the old traditional center by. They just can’t keep up on the perimeter switches. Old-style big men are UNPLAYABLE anymore.

“Didn’t you see Rudy Gobert basically get played off the floor by Houston? Don’t you know that the the four Conference finalists don’t have a single dominant center between them?

“The game today is all about passing, shooting, perimeter play, switches, pick-and-rolls, pick-and-pops, pin-downs, and the playmaking 6’8” Doncic is tailor-made for this future.”

Let’s do some fact-checking.

Only 57% of the NBA teams (17 of 30) have a 6’10” or taller player who primarily plays the center position (for example, not including Anthony Davis and LaMarcus Aldridge, who play power forward) who averages 8+ rebounds per game. Of those 17 centers, 9 of them made the playoffs this season (or would have, but DeMarcus Cousins blew out an achilles).

Of the 8 who played in these playoffs, 5 were in the West (would have been 6 but for Cousins) out of the 8 West playoff teams. Did they get minimized? 3 of those 5 saw increased minutes in the postseason: Rudy Gobert (from 32.4 to 34.8), Clint Capela (27.5 to 31) and Steven Adams (32.7 to 33.3). Only Karl-Anthony Towns (from 35.4 to 34) and Jusuf Nurkic (from 26 to 23) saw a reduction in playing time.

Half of the 14 lottery teams have an 8+ rebounding primary center who is 6’10” or taller (Dwight Howard/Charlotte, Nikola Jokic/Denver, Andre Drummond/Detroit, DeAndre Jordan/Clippers, Marc Gasol/Memphis, Nikola Vucevic/Orlando, Tyson Chandler/Phoenix).

Of those who missed the playoffs, you can argue that Jokic, Drummond and Gasol would be one of the main reasons their team ascended to the playoffs next season.

Let’s go to those Conference Finalists now.

Of the four finalists across both conferences, two employ a primary center. The Rockets have 6’10” Capela while the Celtics have 6’10” Al Horford. Both are traditional big men playing big minutes. Plus, Boston has Aaron Baynes playing many of the non-Horford minutes, giving them a pair of traditional big man in the middle against a Cleveland team that doesn’t really have that kind of size. And Brad Stevens in widely considered one of the best coaches in the league. In Houston, you’ll see Nene getting a lot of time when Capela rests.

Cleveland has 6’8” Tristan Thompson — traditional in every way but height — who has re-found his rotation spot as a rebounder and garbage finisher as the playoffs have moved on, especially in this Boston series.

That makes three of the four conference finalists with a traditional big man playing a big role for their team.

Even Golden State — epitome of the new wave of basketball — is getting contributions from young 6’9” Kevon Looney, who really is more a center than anything at this stage of his career in terms of skills. And their original ascendence to the throne featured Andrew Bogut manning the middle of their D and catching lobs on the other end.

All this is to say that, while the NBA is changing, there is a long and growing list of traditional* big men outside of Golden State who will be making their legacy in the playoffs for years to come.

*I mean traditional as big men who occupy the middle of the floor on both ends, and not built to switch onto perimeter players every play, so that includes Jokic in my opinion despite him not being seen as ‘traditional’ because of his passing abilities on offense.

And these big men will be around a long, long time.

In the West, you’ve got NuggetsNikola Jokic (22 years old), Wolves’ Karl-Anthony Towns (22), Blazers’ Jusuf Nurkic (23), Rockets’ Clint Capela (23), Thunder’s Steven Adams (24), Jazz’s Rudy Gobert (25), PelicansDeMarcus Cousins (27), Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan (29) and GrizzliesMarc Gasol (33) who will ALL be in the playoff mix for the next half decade. And that doesn’t even include the SpursLaMarcus Aldridge, putting it at a full 10 playoff-caliber teams with big men in the middle fighting for the 7 remaining playoff spots behind Golden State.

It doesn’t even stop there. Among long-term lottery West teams, you’ve still got to contend with the Lakers (Brook Lopez, Ivica Zubac) and Sacramento (Willie-Cauley Stein, Kosta Koufos), and even Dallas if they take one of the draft’s big men in Mohamed Bamba, DeAndre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr or Wendell Carter Jr.

That’s 11 or 12 (depending on Dallas) of the 12 non-Golden-State Western Conference teams all employing a big man with whom the Suns have to contend. Only Golden State and maybe the Rockets can pass and pick that big man off the floor if he can’t stay with shooters and drivers on the switch.

The Golden State model cannot be matched by just finding a bunch of 6’8” switchy guys. You have to realize the Warriors have FOUR All-Stars in their lineup, including two league MVPs, in their friggin prime. PLUS, they can bring in Finals MVP and former All-Star Andre Iguodala off the bench.

The Rockets tried to match the Warriors with ‘only’ two All-Stars, including one league MVP candidate, only to be exposed by the vaunted Warriors. It’s not Clint Capela’s fault the Rockets can’t match the Warriors. It’s the Warriors’ fault the Rockets can’t match the Warriors. They’re just too damn good.

You might say the future of the NBA is to have a switchy 6’7” - 6’10” lineup that includes a super-quick center and an oversized point guard, but that’s entirely too simple.

You need the right players who can excel at both ends of the floor. It helps to have your defense anchored by Dray, Klay and Iggy around your two in-their-prime league MVPs.

While the Suns can try to emulate the Warriors by drafting Luka Doncic to form a potential lineup of Booker-Jackson-Doncic-Chriss-Bender, it would be folly to assume such a lineup would win a lot of games JUST because of their switchy dimensions. Booker, Doncic and Chriss are all iffy defenders, and no amount of development from Jackson and Bender can cover for that.

Meanwhile, the Suns would still be undersized against every team, including the Warriors.

I don’t know who the Suns will draft.

I just know that Ayton’s size and skill are just as necessary in today’s NBA as they were 10-20 years ago.

Let’s try not to be gen-ists. And just hope the Suns draft the best PLAYER between the two.