Colour Commentary: The demise of the traditional NBA centre

The NBA has morphed into a purely shooting league, ultimately isolating the traditional big man

I was watching an NBA preseason game between the New Orleans Pelicans and the Orlando Magic, and something happened that seems to be a recurring trend in the NBA. Pelicans centre Jonas Valančiūnas received two quick-triggered technical fouls, ultimately leading to his ejection midway through the third quarter. These weak calls weren’t warranted because when I say weak, I mean that they were extremely soft calls towards a seasoned centre in the league. 

Yeah, Valančiūnas can hit the occasional three-pointer, but he’s a traditional meat and potatoes style player who is highly effective in the paint. Though slightly more grizzled than most current centres, he knows his role. He gets rebounds both offensively and defensively, plays defence, initiates in the pick and roll, but with the way modern basketball is played and officiated in the NBA, Valančiūnas is hindered to a certain point.

It’s a shame that traditional centres like Valančiūnas are dwindling. Long gone are the days of Wilt Chamberlain or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. We will never again witness a team’s playing style tailored for dominant big men like Shaquille O’Neal or Tim Duncan. Not only were these guys the biggest physical players you could lob the ball to, they would secure the win for their respective teams come crunch time.

Basketball is more spread out than ever before, resulting in more long-distance shot attempts from the three-point line. If you add the way referees have begun to call more fouls on centres while favouring shooters, traditional centres nowadays have less control in the paint. They’re now drowned out, becoming backup vocalists instead of lead singers.

Over the last few years, the number of three-point attempts has more than doubled from 14.7 in 2002-03 to 34.6 in 2020-21. Teams like the Houston Rockets have adopted a “small ball” style that doesn’t require a traditional centre. This style prioritizes speed and agility over size and encourages players to shoot from outside.

Refereeing has also become stricter on big men, preventing them from using their size in certain situations. Philadelphia 76ers centre Joel Embiid is arguably the only dominant traditional centre left and his team usually receives more personal foul calls in a game than most NBA teams.

You’re probably thinking “Well, Nikola Jokić is dominant, how about him?” Though Jokić is as dominant as a centre gets, he isn’t a traditional centre. He can pass on a dime, space the floor, and is a consistent shooter from deep. Many young centres are now trying to adapt to this model but I shed a tear when I see older players try to change and end up throwing bricks from deep.

The way Embiid soaks up rebounds and scores underneath the basket at will, and with such authority, proves there’s still a chance for big men in today’s NBA. But the centre position will never return to its former glory.

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