By Joel Huerto
Shaquille O'Neal playfully boasts that he is the last true dominant center in the NBA. He would even gloss himself with nicknames such as MDE (Most Dominant Ever) or Wilt Chamberneezy, an ode to the late great Wilt Chamberlain. But is Shaq right? Is he the last of the prolific big men who commanded double teams on a nightly basis, averaging 25 points per game and walking the path paved by all-time greats like Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing and David Robinson?
Last season, only three centers were in the top 20 in the league in scoring: Dwight Howard, Andrea Bargnani and Brook Lopez. And Bargnani is more of a forward than a classic back-to-the-basket big man who does most of his work in the paint. Howard had the highest scoring average among true NBA centers in 2010-11, but his 22.9 average fell short of the very high bar set by the Hall-of-Famers who came before him.
In the last 10 years, only two centers have been ranked in the top 10 in scoring. One of them, Tim Duncan, prefers to play power forward. Who was the last center to lead the NBA in scoring? It's the man with more nicknames than Apollo Creed ... Shaquille O'Neal. Shaq's 29.7 scoring average in the 1999-2000 season earned The Big Diesel his second NBA scoring title. It was also the same season Shaq won the trifecta: Regular-season MVP, All-Star Game MVP and NBA Finals MVP.
So what has happened to the dominant big men?
"The game has evolved," TNT analyst and former Indiana Pacer Reggie Miller recently said on NBA TV. "The notion that you had to have a dominant center to win championships is not the case anymore."
Miller added, "Personally to me, the change really started in 1992 with the Dream Team and in '96 with Dream Team 2 because if you look at the European big men they are not as dominant as a Shaq or a David Robinson or a Hakeem Olajuwon. They are more pick-and-pop players. Now that they're in the NBA, that's where the game has started to evolve."
The center position, once thought of as the marquee position in basketball, has become an afterthought. If you scour current NBA rosters and find each team's starting center, some of the names won't strike fear in anyone: Marcin Gortat, Kwame Brown, Jason Collins, Roy Hibbert, Anderson Varejao, Samuel Dalembert and Darko Milicic. Last season's NBA finalist, the Miami Heat, reached the championship series with Joel Anthony as its starting center.
Successful NBA teams such as the Dallas Mavericks, Heat, Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics and New York Knicks have built their post-up strategies using hybrid big men such as Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Bosh, Pau Gasol, Kevin Garnett and Amare Stoudemire. They all could play center and play with their back to the basket, but all five would rather face the basket and shoot jumpers.
Former Atlanta Hawks player and current NBA TV analyst Steve Smith believes the zone defense has eliminated the value of a classic low-post player, and added that coaches at the youth level don’t teach post moves to young players.
"No one is teaching the big guys the fundamentals," Smith said, "and we don't glorify a guy rebounding, playing defense and playing down in the post. I think it's a lost art."
Shaq said while he was growing up he had guys like Ewing and Olajuwon to emulate, centers who played the position like it was supposed to be played. But these days, high school big men never develop an inside game because they don't have a template to follow.
Will we ever see another Shaquille O'Neal? "With all due respect to Dwight Howard, we will never see [another Shaq] a guy who dominated from block to block," Miller said. "It's all about highlights now. It's not about dominating. It's about looking good."
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