On Big Men :: Colin McGowan

June 27th, 2011 by Colin McGowan

Nearly every team that has competed for a championship in the last decade has controlled the paint. Tyson Chandler anchored the 2010-11 Mavericks’ defense. Orlando, who reached the Eastern Conference Finals in 2009-10 and the NBA Finals in 2008-09, have Dwight Howard. In the early part of the decade, the Lakers had Shaq; now they have Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, and Lamar Odom. Until the Jeff Green Trade, Kendrick Perkins and Kevin Garnett were the backbone of the Celtics’ vaunted defense. There’s a reason Hubie Brown inflates like a canary’s chest when he talks about “the painted area.”

Here’s a list of the starting centers for both NBA Finals teams over the past decade:

Tyson Chandler (Mavericks) and Joel Anthony (Heat) in 2011

Andrew Bynum (Lakers) and Kendrick Perkins (Celtics) in 2010

Andrew Bynum (Lakers) and Dwight Howard (Magic) in 2009

Pau Gasol (Lakers) and Kendrick Perkins (Celtics) in 2008

Fabricio Oberto (Spurs) and Zydrunas Ilgauskas (Cavaliers) in 2007

Shaquille O’Neal (Heat) and Erick Dampier (Mavericks) in 2006

Nazr Mohammed (Spurs) and Ben Wallace (Pistons) in 2005

Ben Wallace (Pistons) and Shaquille O’Neal (Lakers) in 2004

David Robinson (Spurs) and Jason Collins (Nets) in 2003

Shaquille O’Neal (Lakers) and Jason Collins (Nets) in 2002

The list is misleading in a couple places. Tim Duncan played a lot of minutes at center for those Spurs teams, and Andrew Bynum only played about 20 MPG for the Lakers in 2009, but the list largely represents who each team’s interior presence was during their championship run. With a few exceptions, the guys listed above are efficient players on the offensive end. Players like Shaq or Gasol are incredibly efficient due to their tremendous post-up games, but most of these players (Chandler and Perkins in particular) are efficient because they bust their butts on the offensive glass, convert put-backs, and flush the ball when a teammate hits them with a good pass. On the defensive end, nearly all of the above players are difference-makers due to their shot-blocking ability (Howard, Bynum), ability to guard the other team’s best post player one-on-one (Perkins, Anthony, even Collins), and/or relentless activity levels (Chandler, Oberto, Wallace). And nearly everyone on this list is a good to great rebounder on both ends of the floor, with my highest compliments to Pau Gasol and Tyson Chandler, who are masters at tipping offensive rebounds to teammates.

You’ll also notice, if you swap Tim Duncan in for the two Spurs centers in 2005 and 2007 (neither of whom played more than 23 MPG during the playoffs), the team with the better center has won eight of the last ten championships. Not all of those center matchups are a clash of titans (David Robinson vs. Jason Collins is a deceptively irrelevant because Robinson reeked of embalming fluid by the 2003 Finals), but most of them were crucial in their own way, even when they weren’t the key matchup in the series. LeBron’s struggles aside, if Joel Anthony plays Tyson Chandler to a standstill, Miami hoists the Larry O’Brien Trophy, and the world is spared a million blustery proclamations about how Dallas won a championship “the right way.”

This pseudo-analysis (I’m conceding that stat nerds might want to hit me right now) reveals a couple of problems with Tristan Thompson. He does a lot of things that the centers above do (block shots, get offensive rebounds, work hard on both ends of the floor), but he’s 6’9”. This might prove Thompson’s fatal flaw. Were he a few inches taller, his game wouldn’t need nearly as much work. A Tristan Thompson standing 6’11” would need to learn how to box out better on defense, shoot free throws at a capable clip, and maybe hit the weight room. If he developed a post-up or face-up game or a 16-footer, he would be considered one of the best four or five centers in the league.

But 6’9” Thompson needs that 16-footer just to be an effective offensive player, and, by extension, not considered a bust. Because centers don’t score prodigiously. During the 2010-11 NBA season, only two centers averaged more than 16 points per game: Dwight Howard and Brook Lopez. By contrast, 16 power forwards scored at least 16 points per game. Centers defend and pick up garbage buckets, but power forwards need to have a more polished offensive game. This makes sense because if a team possesses a starting PF/C tandem that averages, say, 21 points per game, it places a tremendous burden on the rest of the team’s starters—players who are more likely to rely on jumpers and whose games are less efficient by definition. Thompson needs to develop offensively because it’s difficult to envision a Cavalier starting lineup that features three Kevin Martin-like perimeter scorers. Upon that jumper (and face-up game? Has he mentioned a face-up game? He should develop a face-up game!) rests his having any semblance of an offensive game, and, by extension, the Cavs being worth a damn.

So, the Cavs drafted a super-athletic 6’9” guy with a center’s game. Which would be intriguing at #8 or understandable if they did not have the option of drafting a 7-footer with a center’s game. It has been written by others (cheers, Kevin), but I find it baffling that the Cavaliers, when confronted with the choice of selecting either: A.) the 7-footer who could become Euro Joakim Noah or B.) the athletic power forward with no offensive game who could become Tyrus Thomas if Tyrus Thomas was, like, good, they chose the power forward. One paradigm is definitely a cog in a championship squad; the other paradigm is… well, since Tyrus Thomas is sort of horrible, we have no idea.

Which is why Chris Grant will be serenaded with Pritchardian praise if the young Canadian-turned-Texan-turned-Clevelander pans out. If Thompson is posting some sublime, bizarre stat-lines in five years, Grant will have carved his name into Conventional Wisdom’s wrinkly backside. I’m all for it in theory. The Who Needs Positions? Revolution, for example, is alluring to me as someone who would like to see the Laws of What Works in Basketball bend and warp beneath the scorching heat of talent and athleticism. So, Actually Good Tyrus Thomas is fascinating to me. But I’m a coward at heart; in the interim I’ll be perplexedly pacing around my kitchen, mumbling something about how much I love Tyson Chandler.