Starting centers merit more minutes
That’s what NBA centers should be saying. In fact, they should be screaming it from the rooftops. But for whatever reasons, they can’t or won’t. That’s why I’ve formed the mentoring and advocacy organization Short People Helping Tall People. Our first goal is to gain for our vertically gifted friends a fair shake on the basketball court, and that means playing time (PT) comparable to that of shorter players.
The quality starters at guard and forward average 35 to 42 minutes. At center, the range is 25 to 36. A key factor slowing the development of young centers is the dark cloud of foul trouble, which hovers over every pivot man not named Ben Wallace. It puts them on the bench for long stretches, and it makes for other stretches of timid, cautious play, for they know that one false step or reach could produce a whistle that puts them right back on the pine.
Tyson Chandler is a talented young center and terrific rebounder. Now in his fifth season, he has yet to average 30 minutes. He’s presently at 24.5, and he gets called for a foul every 7 minutes; for his career, it’s a foul every 8 minutes. Eddy Curry averages 26.1 minutes. For his career, he commits a foul every 7.8 minutes, and that’s without playing defense!
As of Jan. 16, here are the centers who average more than 30 minutes: Brad Miller 37.0, Ben Wallace 36.5, PJ Brown 34.6, Yao Ming 34.0, Marcus Camby 33.6, Zaza Pachulia 31.9, Chris Kaman 31.7, Jamaal Magloire 31.3, Samuel Dalembert 30.4.
Of those, probably only Miller, Wallace, Brown and Camby are playing as many minutes as their coach would like them to play.
Here are some of the starting centers averaging under 30 minutes: Nenad Krstic 29.1, Mark Blount 29.3, Shaq 28.3, Kurt Thomas 27.3, Chris Mihm 26.9, Curry 26.1, Tony Battie 25.5, Joel Przybilla 25.4, Brendan Haywood 25.1, Lorenzen Wright 24.7, Chandler 24.5, Erick Dampier 24.5, Michael Olowokandi 24.0, Jarron Collins 23.3, Adonal Foyle 23.1, Radoslav Nesterovic 21.9, Jeff Foster 21.1.
Several of those, we readily concede, are so-so players who would hurt their team if they averaged 36 minutes. But more than a few from that mixed bag should be in the 33-39 minutes range.
Yao, who has spent most of his adult life in foul trouble, has managed to average a career-high 34 minutes this season. It should be a career low. A good young center like Yao should average at least 40. In the 2005 playoffs he averaged a paltry 31 – and a foul every 7 minutes. He and his first-round foe, Erick Dampier (who averaged but 24 minutes in his 13 playoff games, and a foul every 5.7 minutes), seemed to have two fouls apiece halfway through warmups.
If you look at the solid starters at the other positions, you’ll see foul-per-minute rates far lower than for centers. You’ll find dozens of players who get whistled once every 12, 16 or even 20 minutes. Not only do these guys get to average, say, 38 minutes; for the most part those are 38 “free-and-easy” minutes. Little of their court time is spent walking on egg shells, where the next false step could produce a whistle that sends them to the bench.
Let’s be clear: It’s a good thing that guards and forwards, in general, get loads of free-and-easy PT. Our goal is not to saddle them with foul trouble, but to sensibly alter certain rules so that it’s just as easy for quality centers – we’re not talking about stiffs, brutes and backups – to average 38 free-and-easy minutes.
Several factors contribute to the modern center’s piney plight:
- On defense, he must guard his own man, usually close to the basket where contact is a constant and the ref has just cause to blow the whistle at most any moment.
- He is playing in the Stern Era, where flopping is considered a legitimate tactic rather than cheating, and where “dislodging” is illegal on paper but rarely enforced when the defender plays it straight by trying to retain his balance. Much of low-post play has little to do with basketball skills. Instead, it’s a mix of sumo-style banging and pro-wrestling theatrics, which makes it a guessing game for both refs and players. It also leads to extra whistles when refs try to clean up a mess that the league itself needs to address.
- He is his team’s last line of defense for cutters and drivers. Depending on his coach, he may be under orders to deliberately foul the instant he senses he can’t prevent a certain deuce with a non-fouling play. The “No layups” and “Make him earn it at the line” philosophies, aside from being bad for the game, disproportionately impact centers.
- The ban on perimeter hand-checking (a well-intentioned over-reaction to excessive holding, shoving and otherwise throttling of the very players fans pay to see), now in its second season, has increased the number of drives and the speed at which penetrators reach the basket area, which has led to more fouls for big men. The top nine players in free-throw attempts are all guards and small forwards; several are heading for career highs in this category.
- He may play for one of the many coaches obsessed with preventing penetration and who require their big men to, whenever possible, turn dribble-drives and cuts to the basket into block/charge collisions. This makes for an extremely ugly game, as fans of the Bulls, Rockets, Grizzlies, Pacers, Knicks, etc., know. Block/charge demolition derbies generally mean foul trouble for bigs.
- He must battle for rebounds and rebounding position under both baskets, further increasing the likelihood of fouls.
- He’s frequently called on to set picks, which leads to an occasional foul (and usually a good call) even though it’s the center who gets run into. (Such whistles are even more frequent this season, as the NBA has made illegal screens one of its “points of emphasis.”) Sometimes he’ll get whistled because of a teammate’s poor decision, such as dribbling his man into the pick before the center has time to set his feet.
- He may be carrying extra weight, and is therefore not as quick and agile as he could be and thus is more foul prone, because the coach wants him to be a “banger” who can resist the dislodging moves of Shaq, Jermaine O’Neal, Eddy Curry and others.
In short, the modern center’s constant struggle to avoid foul trouble has little to do with him and a whole lot to do with his job requirements and the perverted nature of today’s game. But with four common sense changes we can dramatically increase PT for centers and improve the aesthetic appeal of the NBA game.
1) Make non-brutal illegal screens a loss-of-possession violation, like traveling. Only dirty picks – sticking out an elbow, forearm or bony knee – will be a foul. Probably 90 percent of illegal screens fall into the non-dirty category.
2) Quit treating intentional fouls as if they were non-intentional. Current penalties for the latter are fine; for the former, they are so weak that they function as rewards. Most intentional fouls – grabs by beaten or outmanned defenders to abort fast breaks or halfcourt drives; hugs and muggings to prevent layups and dunks – are based on the premise that the opposing team is less likely to score two points if they have to restart their offense by inbounding the ball or step to the line for a pair of free throws than if the fast break, drive or power move had continued. Only a league run by morons provides an incentive to deliberately foul. If we make the penalty an actual penalty – two points for the fouled player, and his team retains possession of the ball – refs will never have to invoke the rule because no one would be so stupid as to intentionally foul. We’ll have fewer stoppages of play, more fast breaks, less roughhousing, and fewer fouls, particularly by centers.
3) Give each team one “foul coupon.” This can be cashed in at the scorer’s table at any time of the game to remove a foul from a player’s total. The foul still counts as a team foul, but instead of Shaq, Yao or even some little dude having to sit after his sixth, the coach can keep him in the game until he draws a seventh whistle. The coupon is a “use it or lose it” proposition; you can’t horde them so Shaq can commit 43 fouls in the season finale.
4) Make it a loss-of-possession violation (not a foul) for a low-post player to back, buttwhack or low-shoulder his way into the lane. He can still enter the lane by spinning around his defender, swooping around him for a running hook, or facing up and going by the defender by pump-faking him off his feet or beating him with a quick first step. But his days of bullying his way into the lane or all the way to the hoop are over. In return, the defender can no longer lean on the posting player, which is just as well, because in the new NBA, with the accent on quickness and agility, an off-balance defender won’t stand a chance.
With these changes, we’ll not only reduce the threat of foul trouble, we’ll remake center into a full-time basketball position, where quickness, creativity and skill, rather than brute strength or a gift for flopping, are paramount.
Skinny skyscrapers such as Kevin Garnett and Chris Bosh could play center full-time without getting worn down, which would enable the league to rid itself of 40 or so big dudes who have no right to call themselves “professional athletes.” (Here at Short People Helping Tall People, we “tell it like it is” even when the truth hurts some of those we’re trying to help.) Also, a coach would be less hesitant to match his best against the other team’s best. That is, we’d get 40 minutes of Shaq vs. Camby or Amare Stoudemire vs. Tim Duncan, rather than mismatches concocted to avoid the catastrophe of having your best big man limited to 25 foul-plagued minutes.
NBA fans of yesteryear are mighty glad they got to see Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell square off for 48 minutes in dozens of important games, rather than see Wilt guarded by a committee of sacrificial lambs (drawn from the likes of Tommy Heinsohn, Wayne Embry, Don Nelson, John Thompson, Bailey Howell and Willie Naulls) so that Russell could avoid foul trouble. It’s great for fans and great for the game when the greats go toe-to-toe – and both men know in advance that, as long as they play clean, chances are good they’ll put in 40 or more free-and-easy minutes.
Quality centers must understand that they are all in the same boat and must work together. They must demand a system of rules that makes it as easy for them to average 36-42 minutes as it is for their shorter teammates.
Dennis Hans’s essays on basketball – including the styles, rhythms and fundamentals of free-throw shooting – have appeared online at the Sporting News and Slate. His writings on other topics have appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post and Miami Herald, among other outlets.
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