Playing the 5: A lost art through the years
For years, we as basketball fans have seen numerous of big men filter in and out of the league as enforcers and post dominators. We too, have also seen a plethora of teams transition away from the textbook use of the big man on both sides of the floor.
With all sports comes change, and with all change comes transition, but some transitions can diminish a games long standing history of how the game is played. Specifically speaking, the five position, which has transitioned so much throughout the years that it has become the fullback position of the National Basketball Association.
Take it back to the 80’s, 90’s and mid 2000’s when it was imperative to have a dominant big man in the post offensively and defensively. You remember, the NBA that had some physicality and had been classified as a contact sport. Remember guys like Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon, Moses Malone, Kareem Abdul-Jabar, Patrick Ewing, Shaq, Alonzo Mourning, and Ben Wallace? Yea, all those guys made their presence known in the paint on both sides of the floor and anyone who attempted to step foot into that colored boxed area was going to be paying rent and then some. Talk about franchise greats, not only were these guys rim protectors, but all excluding Ewing have at least one championship ring and they were fundamental guys to build a championship team around.
In today’s NBA, it’s all about a lone superstar or big three, and if a team is financially blessed, they're able to form what many like to call, a “super team.” I believe the most iconic thing about the 80’s, 90’s and early 2000’s NBA, was that everybody had a solid team with a fundamental big man. Sure the level of talent a center had varied, but nonetheless played as a fundamental center. There was no leverage of powers, it solely came down to who’s big man was going to outdo the other.
What happened? Well, the Miami Heat changed the leagues competitive scale back in 2010 and the Golden State Warriors reinvented the wheel through the draft from years 2009 – ’12.
From a league standpoint, the league just simply got softer as it started to slowly evolve, and I’m not blaming the league, heck I’m not even blaming the coaches, but I will say a large majority has to do with players now, leaving after one year, struggling to develop their game physically, mentally and fundamentally, using their versatility as a necessity versus a skillset.
Think about it, when Miami snagged LeBron from Cleveland, it was the beginning of dominant small ball. Fast forward to 2012 and the Warriors took notice and perfected what had already been established and it became a movement. Superb offense, guys well matched on defense, and a fast paced game with plenty of fast breaks and no think twice shooting. Was this necessarily a bad transition? No, it just wasn’t the most position friendly but proved to be effective and you can look at these two franchises’ records from 2009 – ’12 alone, because wins translate into playoff appearances and playoff appearances turn into runs for an NBA championship, something that both teams know about.
Everything stated above is just peanuts in the grand scheme of things, and still scratching my head as to why today’s teams can’t find a way to win and contend without having to cut out the big man and his roles.
Feel free to argue me here, but basketball is supposed to be played from the inside out, from the hoop and then moving out. Guys like DeMarcus Cousins, Karl Anthony – Towns and Al Horford- who I consider to all be hybrid centers, will break their neck getting out to the perimeter to pull a three, but won’t break a sweat defending the rim in the paint. Guys like Andre Drummond and DeAndre Jordan are good for a double – double each and every night, but they have to work for theirs, meaning through put-back points and not by matriculation of the basketball.
While serving as big bodies in the paint, they still don’t classify as “guys who own the paint.” Last but not least, there are your players like Jonas Valanciunas, Steven Adams and Tristan Thompson who do a good amount of dirty work, but don’t get as many touches as the other four guys on the floor but really don’t raise eyebrows in the points per game category anyways.
Tim Duncan was truly the last of a dying breed because I can’t tell you the last time I seen two fundamental centers go at it in the post playing with their backs to the basket, posting up and throwing a point guard down because they weren’t allowing easy layups.
If a team has three solid shooters and a big man with a jumper, to me, that’s cute. If a team has two shooters with a big man who’s playing back to the basket and controlling the paint on offense and defense, I’m taking the fundamental trio each and every time. The “big men” superstar centers today just don’t want to get down and dirty in the paint and are really straying away from the unrecognized duties of the position which are setting screens, posting up, and creating the open shot as opposed to taking it. I’ll be the first to say that the center position is not the flashiest and coolest of positions, but I firmly believe that it is or should be the centerpiece for a team’s success.
Someone once said, “to avoid getting caught by the wave, join it.” So my theory is that the fundamental traditional center will soon be an obsolete position within the next five years, and if that “big man” doesn’t have a solid three ball, or mid-range jumper, he won’t have a career in today’s ever - changing NBA.