NBA

Should Centers Still Be a Top Priority on Draft Day?

Do Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor deserve the top two spots in the 2015 NBA Draft?

Tommy Beer profile picture
Updated 12 months ago on
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Since the NBA’s inception way back in the 1950s, there has been a draft-day bias among NBA general managers: All things considered equal, GMs have often favored taller players.

The rationale is reasonable. There are far fewer seven-footers among us, thus the supply-and-demand factor is taken into the consideration. Just as importantly, for most of the league’s history, talented centers have often been an important centerpiece for championship teams, and dynasties. Having a top-tier center was all but essential for sustained success. The league’s most important and most celebrated players were often big men who dominated the paint. This was especially true during the NBA’s formative years.

Consider this: From 1957 through 1980, 22 of the 23 players named MVP were centers. Yes, only once over the course of a 23-year period did a non-center (Oscar Roberson in 1964) take home MVP honors.

And in the 1990s, big men were again front and center. For instance, in 1993-94 (following Michael Jordan’s first retirement) four centers finished in the top five in MVP voting (Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal and Patrick Ewing).

However, today’s NBA is far different than the game we grew up on. Traditionally dominant back-to-the-basket centers are all but extinct. Guards and wings dominate the league in 2015.

A center hasn’t taken home MVP honors since the early 2000s. In fact, over the last 10 years, only once has a center even cracked the top three in MVP voting.

Rule changes, both big and small (introduction and heavy reliance on the three-point shot, allowance of zone defenses, elimination of hand checking that allows guards to more easily penetrate into the paint, etc.) have resulted in limiting the impact of post players. Consequently, the relative importance of guards and wings has sky-rocketed.

Further evidence that the game has changed: This season, two slashing guards (Russ Westbrook and James Harden) led the NBA in free-throw attempts. Moreover, in each of the last three seasons, no center has finished in the top-2 in FT attempts. In years past, this was historically the domain of back-to-the-basket big men. Lastly, no center has finished in the top-8 in total points scored in a season since Shaq in 2000-01.

Obviously, many of the other metrics that measure successful performance (PER, Wins Shares, VORP, etc.) are led primarily by non-centers as well.

Accordingly, great teams no longer need to be anchored by a dominant center. The Miami HEAT, for instance, went to four straight Finals despite starting the likes of Joel Anthony and Udonis Haslem in the pivot.

Yet, we still hear clichés such as, “You can’t teach height,” and, “Smart teams never pass up the opportunity to draft a franchise center…”

At this stage of the game, shouldn’t teams be just as worried about passing up a franchise point guard, or any cornerstone player – regardless of position?

Does current day draft strategy lean too heavily on an antiquated methodology?

This brings us to this fast approaching 2015 NBA draft.

Based on most mocks, the two players at the top of boards are Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns and Duke’s Jahlil Okafor. The stated justification is often that centers of this quality don’t come along often. While that is undoubtedly true, is it still vital to have a dominant big man in order to win in today’s NBA?

This draft happens to also feature three top-tier combo guards. D’Angelo Russell, Justise Winslow and Emmanuel Mudiay are all phenomenal prospects who are projected to star at the next level. They possess that freakish combination of athleticism, shooting ability and ball-handling skills that have propelled many of the league’s current top players towards NBA stardom.

Many analysts seem to have these five prospects ranked extremely closely; however, the centers seem to always get the edge due to the dearth and scarcity of quality big men.

However, history is littered with “can’t-miss” big men who missed. Portland selecting Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan is probably the most famous example. The Blazers opting for Greg Oden instead of Kevin Durant is also an infamous pick. Other No. 1 picks that flopped include Michael Olowokandi, Andrea Bargnani and Kwame Brown.

When we re-examine this draft five or 10 years from now, will it be shocking to see that Towns and/or Okafor were ranked nearly unanimously ahead of Russell, Winslow and Mudiay?

Obviously, the needs of each team factor heavily into who they draft. And it could be the case that teams view Towns and Okafor so far superior to other potential picks, that the position they play is merely a small factor in the consideration.

Nonetheless, it will be fascinating to see how the stacked 2015 NBA draft plays out. And it’ll be just as interesting to look back on this same draft five-to-10 years down the road.

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Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.

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