The Center Will Hold
At some time between revolutionizing his position and casually accumulating scoring nights the likes of which would be almost any other player’s career highlight, Steph Curry re-inverted the basketball court. As singular as he is a shooter, playmaker and scorer, his exploits have influenced the way teams play, even beyond his own Golden State Warriors.
A hallmark of the Warriors dynasty – and, accordingly, a window into NBA team assembly prior to and during Golden State’s run – has been a lack of a dominant center in the traditional sense. Because the Warriors typically shoot more threes than any other type of shot and tend to eschew the midrange and rim, and because they have a nontraditional big man, Draymond Green, act as center in their most important lineups, the notion of a center in the Shaq or Hakeem mold never made sense for the Warriors; many other teams tried to follow the blueprint, to mixed results at best.
If Curry was the endpoint of the NBA’s first three-point revolution, he was also indirectly the catalyst for revitalizing the center position. Even as we are inundated with reminders that the NBA’s position classifications are antiquated and, in cases where contract bonuses are tied to honors and awards, harmful, they nevertheless remain useful as a contextual foundation for what a player could be on offense, a foundation, even if that doesn’t pan out: Luka and Giannis are point guards in the bodies of forwards; Russell Westbrook is essentially a tiny center; Karl-Anthony Towns is a massive, volume-scoring shooting guard.
Through this lens, no single player in today’s NBA represents the return of the center specifically better than two-time defending MVP Nikola Jokic, whose pursuit of a threepeat this season has already taken shape. As his Denver Nuggets press for top playoff seeding in the Western Conference, Jokic, nominally a center, is among the league leaders in assists, something only Wilt Chamberlain has previously done as a center.
As perhaps the single most revolutionary player in basketball history, Chamberlain naturally tends to come up quite a bit when players achieve statistical anomalies. As centers broaden their skill sets, Wilt is the often the only player at the position to have previously achieved some mind-throttling feat, pugilist plumbers and firemen opponents notwithstanding. Along with Bill Russell, he ushered in the league’s first era of center dominance: between 1958 and 1983, players listed primarily as centers won 24 out of a possible 26 MVP trophies.
Larry Bird won his first MVP in 1984, the same year the Chicago Bulls drafted Michael Jordan. Along with Magic Johnson, those three would trade MVPs for the following nine years, signaling a slight shift away from the men in the middle. Following a brief run of center dominance in the mid- to late-nineties, a center did not win the MVP between Shaq’s overwhelming season in 2000 and Jokic’s first in 2021.
Jordan’s brand of midrange excellence gave us a host of shooters, some of whom took the additional steps backward to gain an extra point on a jumper. Because the NBA broadly viewed the three-point shot as a novelty best left to specialists (such as, for instance, Dell Curry) until fairly recently, the midrange was the way to go for smaller players, with good reason: hulking centers deter players away from the rim, and with coaches poo-pooing the idea of threes at the time, the midrange was more or less the only option.
Tellingly, Shaq was also the last center to lead the league in scoring until last year, when Joel Embiid averaged 30.6 points per game for the Philadelphia 76ers. The MVP is typically a very offense-forward award, so league-leading scorers are often in the MVP discussion by default, almost irrespective of how their teams perform. In between center scoring champions lay a cadre of prolific 2 through 4 scoring title champions like Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony, as well as offense-unto-themselves scorers like Westbrook, Steph Curry, LeBron James, James Harden and Kevin Durant.
As Jordan’s dominance in the eighties and nineties begat the following generation of tweener midrange scorers like McGrady and Iverson, the league at large began to construct offenses differently. Rules around hand checking and defense, of course, changed, pulling the league away from brute force. Simultaneously, picking up the flag that Reggie Miller had previously planted, gunners like Ray Allen and Jamal Crawford expanded the notion of what a well-rounded shoot from distance-first player could look like. The Seven Seconds or Less Phoenix Suns of Mike D’Antoni and Steve Nash gave us a two-time MVP who never averaged more than twenty points per game. The most successful team of the era, the San Antonio Spurs, began utilizing Tim Duncan, previously a nominal power forward, at center.
The shift continued into the next decade: the post-Decision Miami Heat deployed Chris Bosh in the middle with increasing potency. As shot profiles began retreating to the rim and three-point line, playmaking followed suit, and centers like Marc Gasol could scale their assist numbers to match increasing usage rates, which no longer strictly meant more scoring.
As centers honed their skill sets, everyone else was already inching away from the rim. Steph Curry entered the league in 2009 and won his first of two straight MVPs in 2015, his first season playing under Steve Kerr, an alumnus of the Jordan Bulls, the Pop Spurs and the SSoL Suns. Also, fittingly, the career leader in three-point percentage, Kerr took the scraps of Mark Jackson’s tenure and built a championship system around the lithe point guard, who returned the favor in kind.
All of this was happening as NBA teams unanimously increased their three-point shot attempts as a portion of total shots. That isn’t to say NBA players as a group got better at shooting, however: strikingly, players across the league hit 36% of its threes on average for the first time by 1995, the first of three seasons in which the three-point line was uniformly 22 feet from the rim, currently the distance from the corners (the NBA’s most sought-after jump shot).
Even when the league returned to its former distance in 1997, three-point percentages fell in the short term but recovered over time, suggesting the entire NBA had wasted the first decade and a half of the three-point line by largely ignoring it. When the advanced analytics community collectively sent a memo to every league coach and general manager letting them know three points count for more than two, which is definitely how that happened, the league took notice.
Every successive next-greatest NBA player in the post-Jordan era was someone who didn’t neatly fit into a positional box: LeBron James is a point guard with the body of a traditional power forward; Kevin Durant is a lanky seven-footer who frequently flirts with a 50/40/90 slash line; Anthony Davis is a modern big, not quite a center-center, who grew up playing point guard; Giannis Antetokounmpo was once a Greek street merchant with rubbery limbs and more enthusiasm than skill; Joel Embiid is an ex-volleyball and soccer player who only picked up basketball at 15; Luka Doncic is an unholy cocktail with notes of James Harden, Manu Ginobili and Magic Johnson.
When the legions of retired players-turned-media figures set about lamenting the state of basketball today on national TV, it is more or less a proxy for asserting their erstwhile dominance. Shaq loves clowning centers who don’t play as he did, seemingly ignoring that the league is much different than it was 20-30 years ago. Taking that a bit further, he may very well have been as dominant in live play as he was in his prime, but his unwillingness to adapt with regard to shooting jumpers or, infamously, free throws would hamstring his effectiveness, and he would be a DeAndre Jordan-esque liability in crunch time.
Centers still mattered, still matter – basketball being a game predicated largely on how large a person is, at least at the start – but team demands have changed. Every player has to be able do more; a plodding center could no longer park in the paint and score 30 simply by being bigger than everybody else.
Point guards fire down the lane with no intention whatsoever of going to the rim, instead seeking passes to unlock corner threes. Adjustments don’t even have to look that drastic: when 6’8″ power forward-who-looks-the-part Julius Randle slides down a position to play center in smaller, switch-heavy Knicks lineups, it is another manifestation of how dynamic the value of the center can be.
Jokic, then, is an extension of that: a pass-first center with such a knack for seeing plays before they develop that he transcends “best big man passer of all-time” conversations entirely, dropping the qualifier. His no-look connections free up teammates like Jamal Murray and Aaron Gordon. His vision confounds defenses, yet his gravity demands their constant attention. That his actual, physical gravity is a stark contrast to that of, say, Curry allows for many different answers to the same question: how do we stop this guy?
What we’re experiencing now is something between a course correction for scoring having fed outward and a trail blazing for the tallest players in the tallest major professional sport. Jokic and Embiid are progenitors of yet another new style of player, the big who operates out of the nail as a primary ball handler. That they have finished 1-2 in MVP voting each of the past two years speaks to their extremely efficient well-roundedness, carrying the center position through its next evolution.
As for Jokic himself: the MVP case will continue to be, in quintessentially Jokic fashion, secondary, a laugh-inducing afterthought to his primary pursuit of a championship. For perhaps the first time in the Jokic era, the Nuggets truly have a championship-calibre rotation. Denver is a title favorite in the eyes of many, assuming health and all the rest.
At this stage of the season, the case against him is one of voter fatigue and the legacies of the prior threepeat winners, Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Bird, rather than one of his not being worthy. If you’re actively searching for reasons not to give a player the MVP, you already know who the MVP is.
If the endpoint of positionless basketball is homogeneity to the tune of 6’9″ guys who can all shoot, rebound, initiate offense and switch on defense, you wouldn’t know it by looking at Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets, or Embiid’s Sixers, or Green with the Warriors. Their respective points of differentiation create opportunities other teams physically cannot. The more they adapt, the more creative their opportunities become.
The league will stubbornly hold onto position classifications until the last possible moment, but with the lines already blurred, a reckoning may be forthcoming. Maybe the terms “center” and “point guard” and all the rest become meaningless entirely. Until then, though, expect the tides to continue turning: big men, forwards and guards, observing one another, figuring out how to beat them at their own game, inventing new tricks along the way.