Stretch Fives: What REALLY happened to centers in the NBA

Stretch Fives: What REALLY happened to centers in the NBA

Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher said; change is the only constant in life.

Over the years, the game of basketball in the NBA has evolved drastically. Gone are the days when big men who dominated the low post were glorified on the court. In the current times of the league, the new fast-paced style of the game plus the introduction of new rules has flushed out the traditional obsession of big men.

In the past decade between 2010 to 2019, teams have focused towards drafting guards and forwards instead of number fives. Only two centers were drafted first overall – Karl Anthony Towns in 2015 and DeAndre Ayton in 2018.

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Towns is the definition of a stretch five for the league.

However, if we were to look between 2000 to 2009, there were six first picks that were centers. Kwame Brown, Yao Ming, Dwight Howard, Greg Oden, Andrea Bargani and Andrew Bogut.

The shift in team’s primary focus has been significantly altered, perhaps due to  data analysis made famous by the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors’ modern small-ball line up.

Big centers in the 90’s used to be effective and productive only inside the paint. As a result, they had a limited role in the team’s tactics and the build-up of each play. Despite these limitations, the NBA in the 90’s still idealized the large and strong physique of players.

There was nothing more valuable than being a 7’0” 250 lbs guy who was an immovable force under the rim. Shaquille O’Neal is the ultimate prime example of an MVP caliber player in that era.

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How do you stop a freight train? Answer: You don’t.

Seen in the changes in season statistics, this season (2018-2019) ranks the highest field goal (89 compared to 82.1 in ‘99-‘00) and three-point attempts (31.8 to 13.7) per game throughout NBA history. NBA teams have clearly put a priority on shooting a lot of threes, better spacing is the key to opening up the whole floor and to have space, teams need to go small.

Out of the 30 teams in the NBA, only Nikola Jokic, Andre Drummond, and Karl Anthony Towns are their team’s primary offensive option.

That’s only a meager 10%, players such as Kristapz Porzingis, Kevin Love, and Anthony Davis who are predominantly power forwards are not included in this.

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Anthony Davis’ resume place him as a forward/center. Davis nurtured one of the best mid range jumpers in the league.

On that note, the big men who are in high demand now, usually has to possess guard-like skills with the physique of a center.

Versatile, adaptable and fast, these giants have pushed the limits of what their physique can do. Revolutionizing the effects of what a big man can do on the court, the new generation can simply do everything on the floor, from scoring behind the perimeter and grabbing rebounds to setting perfect screens, assists and move the ball quickly. The new emphasis on these other vital aspects of basketball came to light.

Even traditional centers are starting to adapt their game with three pointers – Aron Baynes, Meyers Leonard, Brook Lopez all average four to five attempts a game.

“Not long ago we were worried about the court being too small for these players (big men), and there was talk about widening the lane and some people were even talking about widening the whole court,” Celtics legend Larry Bird said. “But the three-point shot has changed everything.”

A case example of a current day stretch five is Jokic. The franchise center of the Denver Nuggets has been tremendous so far with his 7-foot height, footwork, and technique. Jack of all trades, his skills have enabled him to be dominant both inside the paint and from beyond the arc.

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The nimble Serbian holds a passing masterclass every night with his vision on the court.

Jokic averaged a double-double of 20 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists last season, and shot 31% from beyond the arc, 51% field goal and 83.6% free-throw figure. No big in the 90’s were capable of this stat line. Yet now, it seems like a criteria for a starting five.

Karl Anthony Towns is taking more than nine attempts from three each game, and he is hitting more than 41%, something a center in the 90’s would not even dare dream of.

Statistics of the traditional big men (O’Neal, Chamberlain, Olajuwon) show only an average of two to four assists and poor shooting beyond the arc, whilst the modern-era have broken out of the cycle of under-performing in these areas.

However, it is not to say that the only effective change in a modern-era big center is his ability to shoot a three ball.

Big men today are increasingly used in the passing game, their skill sets are being put to good use, but it’s more than just in the half court.

They can run the floor, they won’t get left behind in transition and they get easy points on the fast-break. They play elite defense and are fantastic in the pick and roll game. Perhaps most importantly, they swallow rebounds like it’s nobody’s business.

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Capela is one of the best pick and roll players in the league.

We see this exemplified by Rockets’ Center Clint Capela who shoots 64.5 FG%. Capela is an elite shot blocker who excels in plays like the pick and roll. He’s a great rebounder of 12 boards average, who gets all his points from put backs or as the “roller.” He has no post game, and he doesn’t need one. This all the more shows the evolution of a big man adapting to a more versatile game change.

Nowadays we more often see big men set up 10–15 ft away from the basket and use a combination of their jump shot, dribble drive, and post moves to score baskets, rather than depending purely on their physique. Big players can now create their own shot instead of relying on a point guard for passes.

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Embiid is both a prolific scorer and passer.

Although we still see big men in the traditional post up, for example, when Embiid uses a series of nice footwork to get to the basket, we don’t see the deliberate banging of bodies using 5 seconds to get closer to the basket. We see big men carve out space before they get the ball and if they’re near the basket they use finesse to whip around their defender and get quick baskets.

“The game changes about every 10 to 15 years,” Bird said.

Adding the rule changes, which promotes reduced physicality to refrain players from getting injuries, completely wrecked the idea of playing low post. Body and hand checking are no longer allowed and fouls are given even with the slightest touch.

“The game is becoming very homogeneous,” Jeff Van Gundy adds. “There’s less differences in style of play. You’re going to continue to see less and less low-post play.”

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Here you can see an extinct specimen.

For the NBA to have commercial value, fans want to watch high paced game with high scoring sides. The rules has been drastically altered that way to promote more shooting, allowing the smaller players to draw more fouls and reduce the physicality in the league so the players get injured less.

The likes of Hakeem Olajuwon, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and Wilt Chamberlain who were the biggest NBA legends dominant down low, are no longer what the franchises are hyping over anymore. They have intrinsically been reduced to a dying breed.

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