Basketball Strategy: Solving Problems at Center


Solving the Problems at Center



By Glenn Guzzo


            You’re trying to draft a contender from the newly released 2004-05 Strat-O-Matic basketball set.  Although you know your center is important, you’re willing to set modest goals in order to land superstars elsewhere. You’d be satisfied with a center who offers this:


n      30 minutes a game

n      12 points a game (at 12 points per 30 minutes for every position, you’d have a 96-point team)

n      A block rating of at least 1-11, and foul numbers in single digits (is it asking too much to have more block chances than foul chances?)

n      Rebounding of at least Offense-2, Defense-3

n      Preferably a 2-4 or blank Inside X-column, since the average center defense is 2-5, 11. He doesn’t even have to be able to steal the ball.

n      If he can achieve these mediocre milestones, your man doesn’t have to be able to hit an outside shot or a free throw. He can even have Replays in his offensive columns.


You’re a dreamer. Of the 86 players whose primary position is center, there is no such player.


Plan B: You’ll settle for 2-5,11 defense and drop your rebounding demands to a wimpy Offense-1, Defense-2.


Draft him early: Shaquille O’Neal is the only guy.


What in the name of Wilt Chamberlain is going on here? The knock on Wilt was that he couldn’t win championships despite playing in a nine-team NBA where only Bill Russell, Nate Thurmond and offensive-minded Walt Bellamy presented much physical resistance to the Big Dipper. Most of Chamberlain’s games were against the likes of such starting centers as Phil Jordan (Knicks), Ray Felix and LeRoy Ellis (Lakers), too-short Wayne Embry and too-skinny Connie Dierking (Royals), Walter Dukes and Joe Strawder (Pistons), Clyde Lovelette and Zelmo Beaty (Hawks) and Red Kerr (Nationals, Bulls).


But the NBA finally grew up with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wes Unseld, Moses Malone, Bill Walton, Dave Cowens, Dan Issel, Bob McAdoo and more, then transitioned to a generation of floor-running, shot-blocking, scoring and defending centers (Hakeem Olajuwon, Pat Ewing, David Robinson, Alonzo Mourning, Shaquille O’Neal plus a credible second tier that included Bill Laimbeer, Brad Dougherty and others).


 In today’s 30-team NBA, however, the only guy left who can score, rebound and defend consistently is O’Neal, to judge by Strat-O-Matic’s latest ratings. And this is not O’Neal in his prime. He’s down to 34 minutes, 22.9 points, 1-14 blocks and Offense-2/Defense-2 rebounding. Those numbers, a blank X-column and a semi-vulnerable 6 foul chances make him the best center on the floor, every night and dominant most nights.


Amare Stoudamire? The scoring is there, for sure. His 26-point-per-game average is tops among centers. The 2-4 X column is nice. But you get 1-9 shot-blocking and disappointing Offense-1/Defense-1 rebounding.


Yao Ming? He’s OK or better in all areas. But it’s a statement about this crew that you get excited about a lot of OK factors. A 31-minute guy who averaged 18 points and has a 2-4 X-column with 1-13 blocks comes with 10 foul chances and Offense-1/Defense-2 rebounding.


Ben Wallace can’t score. Brad Miller can’t rebound or block shots. Zydrunas Ilgauskas is a Defense-0 rebounder and an average defender. The state of the card set is such that Chris Bosh, a guy who would be a force at power forward, is in the top 20-25 percent of all centers despite 1-7 blocks, 0/1 rebounding and average defense.


Let’s review our original wish list.


n      Only 11 of these 86 centers averaged 30 minutes or more. One, extra-player Jamaal Magloire, played only 23 games. Only five – Bosh, Miller, Stoudamire, Kurt Thomas and Wallace, averaged at least 36.

n      Only 10 centers averaged at least 12 points per game. Drop the demand to 10 points and only 17 teams have such a player.

n      Shot blockers: 28 are at least 1-11, but that’s less than one-third of the players who are the biggest men on their teams and who often don’t offer offense. Ask just a bit more – 1-13 blocks for guys who averaged at least 18 minutes a game, and we cut the total in half, to 14 centers. Five of them are hackers, with at least 14 foul chances.

n      Rebounding is the biggest scandal. Nearly two-thirds of all primary centers have a 0-rating for either Offense or Defense, or both. A full 47 – more than half – are Defense-0 rebounders. Eighteen are 0/0. These are not just the 7-foot lunks filling out the end of the bench who were drafted because “you can’t coach size.” Of the 30 NBA teams, 17 start a center with at least one 0-rebounding rating. For nine teams, all their centers have at least one 0.


Apparently, you can’t teach these guys rebounding, either. The influx of Eastern European big men, who have passing skills and outside shots, explains some Offense-0 rebounding. But with their height, and their positioning on offense making it easier for them to get back, these guys ought to be able to take care of the defensive boards. Laimbeer didn’t get offensive rebounds, either, but he was always valuable as a guy who could hit the outside shot, play defense and be a dominant defensive rebounder. Only 19 of these 86 primary centers are Defense-2 or better. Only Ming came to the NBA directly from outside the U.S.


And how is it that a guy 6-10 or bigger, with no offensive game, but the timing and defensive-mindedness to block shots, is unable to get defensive rebounds? We’re talking about you, Theo Ratliff (1-18 blocks, 0/0 rebounding). And you, Jerome James (1-16 blocks, 0/0 rebounding). And you, Adonal Foyle (1-18 blocks, 2/0 rebounding).


n      In the X-columns, 44 of 86 primary centers are 2-5, 11. Only 24 are better. The true stoppers with the blank columns are O’Neal, Wallace and Marcus Camby. But you pay a big price for defense: Among all with above-average defense, all have Replays in their offensive columns except Ming, O’Neal, Stoudamire and part-timer Mourning. In fact, only 17 centers (20 percent) have no Replays on their cards.



So if you can’t get O’Neal, Ming or Stoudamire, who you gonna call when your draft pick comes around?


            If you can get enough offense elsewhere, Wallace. His minutes (36), rebounding (3/4) and defense (blank X-column 1-13 blocks, no foul chances) are tops.


            Camby is great in his own end, too, with a blank X column, 1-19 blocks, only 4 foul chances and 0/9 rebounding. Some minutes (31), but only 66 games. His offensive card is even worse than Wallace’s. Camby’s points will come from fast breaks and dazzlers.


That’s five. Now, let’s see.


Ilgauskas and Chicago’s Eddy Curry are all offense. New York’s Kurt Thomas, playing out of position at 6-9, would be a better power forward. But he’s a credible center in this set, with minutes (36), defensive rebounding (4) and some defense (2-4 X column), though no offensive rebounding or shot-blocking. He needs scoring teammates, though he averaged 11.5 points.


            Miller (minutes, offense, defense) and Bosh (minutes, offense, 1 foul chance) are better options at power forward. Then, look for these guys to be valuable role players in Center by Committee:


n      Mourning. If his 37 games played is not a factor in your draft, he’s got a great card for 19 minutes, with offense, 1-20 blocks and 2-4 X column and 1/3 rebounding.

n      Philadelphia’s Marcus Jackson (24 minutes) can score. He draws fouls and makes his free throws. He rebounds offensively. He doesn’t foul much. But you need to match him up against a center who isn’t an offensive threat and with a teammate who can be the inside block man.

n      Portland’s Joel Przybilla (24 minutes) takes care of the defensive end (2-4 X column), 1-17 blocks, 2/3 rebounding.

n      Milwaukee’s Dan Gadzuric (22 minutes) has intriguing 9/4 rebounding, 1-12 blocks and 53.6 percent shooting. He doesn’t shoot enough, but doesn’t miss often.

n      New OrleansChris Anderson (21 minutes) can score a bit, has 1-14 blocks and 2/2 rebounding.

n      PhoenixSteven Hunter (14 minutes) has some offense and 1-19 blocks.

n      Indiana’s Jeff Foster (26 minutes) can rebound (4/3) and defend (2-4). A couple of 25-minute players, Orlando’s Kelvin Cato (0/3 and 2-4 with 1-11 blocks) and Philly’s Samuel Dalembert (2/2, 2-4 and 1-13 blocks) have similar attributes.

n      Washington’s Brendan Haywood probably has more future value, but he has an Inside offensive game and offensive rebounding (3) to go with a 2-4 X column. The rookie mistakes come from Defense-0 rebounding and foul trouble.

n      Utah’s Mehmet Okur (28 minutes) is a fine offensive player and has 1/1 rebounding. But he’s weak defensively at center and better at power forward. Similarly, Memphis’ 6-foot-9 Stromile Swift (21 minutes) has offense and shot blocking (1-14) but is a much better power forward.