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Unless He’s Shaq, Never Draft An NBA Center #1

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Once and for all, hopefully this whole draft debacle with Greg Oden ends the NBA’s recent obsession with big men. There will always be tall men playing in the league, but looking for the next Dirk Nowitzki is a lost cause.

Despite all of the warning signs against drafting Greg Oden, the Portland Trail Blazers went ahead on June 28, 2007 and picked him anyway. Why? Apparently, his being a center proved too valuable too pass up.

I don’t know a single person who doesn’t salivate whenever the seven-foot “Blonde Bomber” (Dirk Nowitzki) swishes a three-pointer, but you’ve got realize that he’s as rare as they come. Taking away basketball god Tim Duncan out of the equation since he’s a mixture of center and power forward goodness, the last dominant center of the last fifteen years is Shaquille O’Neal.

NBA executives have gotten spoiled after Shaq was drafted in 2002 and subsequently dominated the paint. Shaq is that rare breed that has reinvented what a center should be: an overpowering dunk machine. Looking at the last few drafts, the only player that has found success as a true center is Yao Ming with his career points and rebounds per game averages of 18.5 and 8.9. I’m not even looking at Phoenix Suns star Amare Stoudemire since he mixes positions à la Duncan, and we’ll sweep the Detroit Darko experiment under the rug.

The reality is the game has sped up, and point guards and playmakers like Steve Nash and Jason Kidd have much more impacts on their teams than a tall guy constantly shifting in and out of the paint. Look at what LeBron James has done for the Cleveland Cavaliers or Dwyane Wade for the Miami Heat (especially when Shaq retires) or Carmelo Anthony for the Denver Nuggets. What has 2005 first overall pick Andrew Bogut done for the Milwaukee Bucks? How long has it taken the Los Angeles Clippers to recover from drafting Michael Olowokandi?

In winning six titles for the Chicago Bulls, Michael Jordan should have proved that a dominant center wasn’t needed so much as an adequate one. Could any other team win a title with the likes of Will Perdue, Luc Longley, or Bill Wennington as their starting centers? Having Scottie Pippen by your side doesn’t hurt either, and I bet Shaq liked having Kobe Bryant by side all those years with the Lakers. But the fact remains Jordan was the Bulls and made everyone around him so much better.

Everything would be a moot point, however, if Kevin Durant disappoints for the Seattle Supersonics with either poor play or — god-forbid — an injury. The only person who would find solace in the combination of Oden’s injury and Durant’s uncertain rookie season is Danny Ainge. Whoever saw the telecast of the recent draft could see the moment that Ainge’s heart stopped when NBA commissioner David Stern read the Boston Celtics for the fifth overall pick. If the Celtics do find success sans Oden or Durant it would in spite of losing its statistically dominant top two picks to long odds and very bad luck.

If anything, that bad hand forced Ainge to make tough decisions to get the 2007-2008 season to mean something other than lots of drinking. With all of those past draft and trade mistakes, Ainge had a mandate for change, like New York Mets GM Omar Minaya had the season after he idiotically traded away Scott Kazmir for walk-specialist Victor Zambrano and traded FOR Kris Benson in 2004. When New Yorkers made their feelings shown, Minaya swiftly signed Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran in 2005, and in 2006 got Carlos Delgado and reached game seven of the National League Championship Series.

Ainge made powerful trades too. His golden star was getting the best player available in Kevin Garnett to strengthen his already solid Paul Pierce-Ray Allen (whom he signed earlier that year) duo. KG is tall, but a center he is not because of his mobility and versatility. Having a starting line-up of three all-stars can sure make you smile, but will he smile with his team in the playoffs?

Another moot point would be if Oden successfully recovers from the dreaded microfracture surgery. Stoudemire did it. Hell, John Stockton did it at age 35. Many others were able to recover from it, although poor Penny Hardaway was never the same after having it on both knees.

Two things work in Oden’s favor when he finally plays an NBA game. One, he’s still only 19 with his youth being able to heal everything short of missing limbs. Two, he hasn’t played an NBA game so expectations would have to be scaled back dramatically and every analyst would call him a success if he gets more than a 10.0 PPG/5 RPG average that first year after the surgery.

While Sam Bowie comparisons might be premature, it helps my argument as to why you never draft a center over a playmaker. Also I’m choosing to ignore the fact that the Houston Rockets drafted Hakeem Olajuwon ahead of Bowie and Jordan because the team needed a center that year and “The Dream” was universally lauded as the best center of the draft. Plus, he led the team to back-to-back titles in 1994 and 1995. Either way, all eyes will be on Oden for the 2008-2009 season, and hopefully (for the team’s sake) not another Oden moment will be repeated. Although from a non-Blazer fan viewpoint, it’s a little comical to see the karma. With only a 5.3% chance at landing the first overall pick, Portland snatched it from both the Memphis Grizzles (25%) and the Celtics (19.9%) and has so far landed a dud. Ouch.

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About Tan The Man

I am a proud dork and loser.
  • http://nbaunplugged.com nate dogg

    Yep, what’s more important is to get a really good big man, not just a center. If your main scorer on your team is a big man, you will likely shoot a higher percentage because they will be taking their shots closer in.

    If you don’t have a very good big man, you have to have two-three perennial All-Stars to have a chance. Look at New Jersey, their small trio of Kidd/Jefferson/Carter hasn’t done much at all. If they get Kristic back this year and he puts up 18-20 points and 10 rebounds, and can be counted on as a go-to scorer, then the Nets suddenly are the favorites. But it will be Kristic that will put the Nets over the top.

  • http://www.roblogpolitics.blogspot.com RJ

    Shaq was drafted in 2002? (Sorry for the lame typo-bash…)

    It’s true that a Shaq or a Hakeem or a Dirk (or a Duncan or a Stoudemire) is a great rarity, while more mobile playmakers like Wade and Jordan and LeBron and Kobe (and even Carmelo) are more plentiful, and therefore are a safer bet.

    But it has to be pointed out that the payoff a team receives by landing a truly excellent “big man” is unparalleled.

    A team with a younger version of Shaq becomes an instant contender. The supporting cast can be comprised of mainly scrubs, but with a truly talented center they are going to win a lot of games and probably make the playoffs.

    The same cannot be said about teams who add a superstar guard or small forward. For example, the addition of Carmelo Anthony certainly made the Denver Nuggets a better team, but they haven’t become a credible contender, and haven’t even made it out of the First Round of the playoffs since he’s been there. Kobe Bryant’s Lakers missed the playoffs the first year after Shaq left, while Shaq’s new team, the Miami Heat, led the Eastern Conference in regular season wins.

    All I’m saying is, the risks are clearly higher when drafting a potential “superstar” center, but the potential rewards are higher as well.

  • http://hoopsboston.com E. H. Munro

    The Celtics didn’t sign Ray Allen (you may be thinking of Allan Ray), they traded the fifth pick and garbage to the Supersonics for him. As I’ve written elsewhere, losing the lottery was the best thing that ever happened to the Celtics, not because of Oden (as I’d said it previously), but because it forced them to abandon their disastrous youth movement and trade for vet stars. The NBA is a veterans’ league, and now Boston has three vet all-stars. Both Seattle and Portland are going to suck like Britney Spears after 12 shots of tequila next year due to rosters larded with players barely old enough to drink legally. Thankfully Boston’s off that treadmill.

  • Stevie B

    Alonzo Mourning was a decent Center drafted after Shaq, but I agree that no center has reached his level of dominance in the last decade or so.