I have read a few reasons why the center position no longer exists in the NBA, how the truely dominant big man, like Wilt Chamberlain, Shaq, Kareem, Bill Russell, Hakeem, that men that routinely put in 30 points a game, they don’t exist anymore.  That the modern center is like Kevin Garnett, as comfortable putting up a long jumper as playing with his back to the basket in the paint.   And the reasons I have heard are things like people aren’t made like Wilt anymore, or nobody is taught post play drills, they learn how to dribble instead, all kinds of things.

I think everyone needs to go back and watch the playoff game between the 1967 sixers and the Boston Celtics.  First of all Wilt is not that good of a player.  He has one less post move than Dwight Howard (who only has two).  There are only two players (from both teams) that could dribble equally well from either hand.  Jump shot technique was non-existent.  Footwork, post up play, all of that, it was yet to be developed in the NBA when Hakeen would turn it into a fine art.

So it is definitely not skills.  Now it was true that Wilt Chamberlain towered over his peers, a goliath, not only stronger than anyone else, but more athletic too, while both teams featured lumbering 6 foot 9 players, Wilt at 7 foot 1 was more agile more accurate, able to accept the ball and pass out, able to leap.

Yet, if you watch the games, Wilt did not use all of his skills to dominate Bill Russell.  Wilt would attract double and triple teams and then eagerly pass the pass out for a short range jumper for his team mates.  This of course is not how he played for years, previously he had dominated and would never pass the ball, but this was the year he became a willing passer and defender, and also the only year he was able to gain a championship with the sixers.  So if Wilt was so dominant, why didn’t he just accept the ball in the post and enforce his will?

Why is it that Howard, today’s best center is only scoring 21 points per game?

Why is it that the guards are now the scoring champions of the NBA?

And why is it that we have had the decline and fall of the classic NBA Center?

The key lies in that 1967 series.  It’s not in the play of the centers it is the guard play.  Now back in the 60’s the are a few differences in the rules, first of all, you got to shoot 3 baskets to try to make 2 if you were in a shooting foul, and if it was a non shooting foul you usually only got 1 shot.  There is no protected circle around the basket.  But the biggest difference is just how the game used to be called.

A basketball game where all the action happens right at the rim is great for highlight reels, but for a game it is boring.  You need to make more of the action happen away from the basket, so you get to see more variety in the game.  Today that is done by forcing the players to spread the floor thanks to the 3 point line.  But back in the day, it was up to the officials, and if you watch those old games you’ll see how it was done.

Watch how John Havlicek barrels into Wilt Chamberlain, Wilt is backing up the entire time, and Havlicek throws his body into him and throws up a shot.  I immediately think, “Wow Havlicek is going to get Wilt out of the game by putting fouls on him.”  But then something odd happens.  The referee like some kind of dancing circus clown — I have no idea why classic referees were so gayly flamboyant, they just are — swirls around and declares a charging foul on Havlicek.

Again and again, you can see how guards would dribble penetrate, and then be swatted down like a fly, and if a foul was given it was on the penetrater, not the blocker.   This is an entirely different game than the one we play today.  Centers and forwards could also be called for charging much more easily and defenders were able to do everything short of throwing their opponent to the ground.

The purpose of all of this was to give defenders a chance to keep the ball back from the hoop, to bring the game back so that jump shooting was a skill instead of it just being dunks at the rim.    So it was a balance of sorts, where both the center and the guards were given a beating when they got into the paint.  The difference being of course that a center with his longer reach and mass is much more able to tolerate contact especially if no fouls are called, and score anyway.

This is the era that Wilt played in.  My how the game as changed since then.

Players learned how to dribble with both hands.  Footwork was discovered.  Plays were invented!  And the players became faster and faster and stronger and stronger.

And each year more fouls were called.  It’s hard to see sometimes year to year, but go back and look at those rivalry games between Wilt and Bill.  Today’s game is centered on an idea that if a guard penetrates gets to rim . . . if the defending Center so much as moves a finger, a foul is called.

But another strange thing has not happened at the same time.  Fouls are still allowed against the center!  Watch Dwight Howard play, or pull up some of Shaq’s last days with the lakers.  Defenders are allowed to beat on these players just as if it were still the 60’s.  No wonder Howard is so often frustrated.  He sees the guards get a foul if you so much as breath on them, and if he gets beat on, nothing is called.

In my mind there is no question our centers are fantastically skilled, Bynum, Jefferson Dwight, Stoudemire, their play is worlds above Wilt’s play.  But just like Wilt, if they want to score, they have to be willing to pass out of a double team because the opposing players are at liberty to use their bodies, they are allowed a fantastic amount of contact.

So the only way to go to the foul line and obtain the points from contact is to face the basket and dribble it in.  This is why we have seen the decline of the old fashioned NBA center with his back to the basket.

It has nothing to do with skill sets.  Our modern players have incredible skills, athleticism.  Don’t read a book about it don’t trust someone who says the 1967 sixers were the best team of all time, go back and watch the old film.

Today if a modern big wants to score, his best bet is to learn how to dribble it in to the paint, to learn how to face the basket, that is how you rack up fouls against the other team.

Until the NBA changes the rules and brings back hand checking, or gives the bigs the same benefit of a doubt on a foul call, this is how the game will be played with guards dominating.

I understand there has to be a balance.  That you don’t want games where all that happens is the players run around for a while, then the ball goes to Wilt or Shaq and he throws up a shot, and 50% of the time it goes in.  That’s boring you need to create a situation where you have part of the game on the perimeter and part of the game in the paint.

But it has gone too far.  Reward the young centers for knowing their footwork.  Either bring back old style hand checking and limit the guard’s ability to penetrate or give the bigs the same advantage on offense, start calling the touch fouls for bigs too.

But until a change happens in the way that the NBA fouls are called we are never gonna have a return to the classic center in the NBA.

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